Red Tent Women's Project

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Thoughts on women, power, and leadership, after the Omega Institute's annual Women and Power conference

Note: this write-up was originally supposed to be brief. So much for that. Once I got started, I couldn't stop. :) I'm interested in hearing your thoughts!


Last weekend I attended the annual Women and Power conference at the Omega Institute. What a weekend! Almost 700 women were there, excited and ready to learn, grow, and explore issues of power.

The focus this year was on leadership. What makes a good leader? What does leadership mean? Why are women being called to lead right now? Is there a specifically female style of leadership? Who makes the rules of leadership? These are just a few of the questions being asked this weekend, and as you can see, they’re meaty!

I’m not going to paraphrase all of the incredible speakers--I won’t do them justice, and most of the talks are going to be streamed on Omega’s website in the next month or two for you to hear for yourself. (I’ll let you know when.)

Instead, I’m going to explore some of the topics that resonated with me. I’d love to hear your comments, and to be engaged on this issue, which I think is of vital importance.

Elizabeth Lesser—awesome, awesome!—gave the opening keynote speech. First of all, let me go into ecstasies about Elizabeth Lesser. She’s one of the founders of the Omega Institute, and has been incredibly transparent about her journey as a powerful woman and a leader. (Read her books, Broken Open and The Seeker’s Guide. They’re incredible.)

Of her many fantastic points she made, two stood out to me:

1. For thousands of years, most of the leadership rules and techniques can be traced back to two works: Sun Tzu’s Art of War and Macchiavelli’s The Prince. Seriously. Read some leadership books and you’ll see a consistent metaphor of leading as war, of making change as war, and of leading people as…war. (Full disclosure: I haven’t read either of them, but I will soon.) So leadership—what we have been acculturated to think of as leadership, at least—is a warrior and adversarial model. And of course, male. You need to fear me in order to follow me. I need to constantly assert my power over you in order maintain my power and continue to have leaders. This model has led to…wait, you can guess…war, oppression, intolerance, and violence.

2. You all know the saying “power corrupts.” Elizabeth Lesser made the very accurate point that it’s not that power corrupts; rather it’s the fear of loss of power that corrupts. And I think that’s true. But that tends to be true only if you subscribe to a leadership model where if someone else has power, then that means you don’t. I’ve never been a zero-sum thinker—that if you have wealth, then I necessarily don’t; if you have power, then I don’t. So when I think of power and leadership, I look at them as something to be shared.

Here’s the thing about that, though. What do you do when you live in a culture that exists on a paradigm you don’t subscribe to? Do you wait for everyone to wake up and think, oh, okay, that’s how I’m going to look at power? I don’t think so. First of all, I’m waaaay too impatient! Second of all, if I wait for that, I might be waiting for several lifetimes. So as another speaker put it—the fantastic Leymah Gbowee, from the film “Pray the Devil Back to Hell”, about Liberia—we (women) can’t wait for someone (men) to give us power. We have to take it. We have to feel justified in taking it for ourselves, and secure in the knowledge that because we will do positive things with our power, it is actually our responsibility to exercise it.

Do I think all women leaders are good by default, and that all male leaders are bad? No. Some female leaders make me cringe, and some male leaders inspire me. But this discussion goes beyond male vs. female. To me, it’s about style. Terms like masculine and feminine as general categories irritate me. First of all, I think they’re frustratingly reductive--why must everything come down to gender? And what about people who don’t identify as being a particular gender...are they shut out of the leadership discussion all together? So I think it’s important is to unpack those terms to get to what they really mean, because masculine and feminine can be just as reductive as male and female.

Reframing masculine and feminine leadership

So, unpacking. I’d like to reframe “masculine leadership” as “typical leadership”. This is the kind of leadership that’s been around since Sun Tzu and Macchiavelli, is super militaristic, and largely dominated by men. It tends to be based on forcing one’s view onto others, on denigrating those who disagree, on ordering people around, on acting from rage, insecurity and fear. Dialectical thinking. Zero-sum thinking. No room for more than one way, because that makes the overall power-holder weak.

I’ll call feminine leadership “Modern Leadership.” This kind of leadership is based on leading from a place of abundance rather than scarcity; leading non-hierarchically; that acting with force actually undermines the goals; that there’s room for many opinions at the table, which strengthens, rather than weakens; that discussion isn’t the root of all evil; that showing vulnerability, honesty, and admitting mistakes makes the leader weak, and that empowering people doesn’t make the empowerer powerless.

I realize this is kind of dialectical, which is a bit of a bummer (i.e. typical leadership bad, modern leadership good). Because while I do think that typical leadership has led us into untold wars, oppression, and strife, it’s put our climate in crisis, and it’s perpetuated sexism, racism, and many other isms, I don’t think it’s pure evil. Typical leadership also created democracy, has led to the greatest expansion of wealth in human history…I’m sure there’s more, but I can’t think of it right now. My point is, I don’t want to fall into the same good/bad habit that typical leadership consistently falls into. Instead, I want to look at Modern Leadership as building on old-style leadership, learning from it, rather than judging it.

It’s kind of what I think about Second Wave feminism. It was absolutely flawed for not including the needs of women of color, poor women, and lesbians, and it has unfortunately created divisions in the women’s movement. At the same time, it did incredible things for women. In the early 1960s, women couldn’t get credit without a man’s signature (generally hubby or daddy). If a flight attendant got married, she was immediately fired. If a teacher got pregnant (and was married), she was fired. And forget about reproductive health and pay equity. The list goes on. There’s a lot of work to be done, of course, but we’ve come quite a ways in a short period of time. Third Wave Feminism ideally builds on the accomplishments of Second Wave feminism while including the needs, skills, and experiences of women of color, poor women, and the LGBTQI movement.

(For more about how far women have come in a breathtakingly short time, read When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present, by New York Times columnist Gail Collins.)

So that’s how I look at Modern Leadership: as building on the accomplishments of Typical Leadership without making the same (horrific) mistakes. (BTW this wasn’t really talked about at Omega. It occurred to me as I was doing the write-up about the conference.)

Two more things I want to raise:


When I started the Red Tent Women’s Project, I didn’t know the first thing about leadership. Well, that’s not true. I knew about typical leadership, which meant that I didn’t feel like I could show vulnerability, I had to know exactly what I wanted and I had to get it—even as we were trying to create a non-hierarchical organization! Trying to be inclusive while not really having a model for this kind of leadership was challenging, to say the least, and not entirely successful.

One of the things that was so inspiring about this conference was the transparency of the speakers. Each spoke about their experiences with humility and honesty, and showed me that I don’t have to portray perfection to be a good leader. They made mistakes, learned from them, and continued on their journeys I’m not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, and by having that idea that I needed to be perfect in order to do task A, B, or C, I only hamgstrung myself…and the Red Tent too. So it’s beyond refreshing to know that there’s another way, and that that way might be just as powerful and successful—maybe more so—as Typical Leadership.


Elizabeth Buffet, who runs the NoVo Foundation, quoted Gloria Steinem, who said we’ll never solve the feminization of power until we solve the masculinization of wealth. Given the limitations of our culture and how sooo much of power is equated with wealth, it’s going to be hard to see real change until we see a lot of really rich women. Some stats about women and money.

Women are 50% of the workforce, and 40% are the primary breadwinners in the home. Women control 80% of consumer purchases—this is $7 trillion in spending. (You read that right!). And 1/3 of private businesses are owned by women.

So what’s the deal? Where’s our wealth and our power? Well, in the US, we’ve still got women earning 77 cents on the dollar (by the way, this is white women on the white male dollar; African-American women earn 64 cents to every dollar earned by white men, and for Hispanic women it’s 52 cents per dollar), and women account for 40% of managers. And most of the lower paying industries are dominated by women: teaching, social work (hello, that’s me!), caretaking, etc. Of course women are lawyers and doctors and in finance, but women have collectively been in those fields for shorter periods of time and haven’t built the wealth or power bases men have had a chance to build over centuries. Yet. (That’s one of the reasons I’ve gone into financial services. I want to be Georgette Soros and start a think tank/foundation that works to empower women and change the dialogue about other progressive issues.)

Women need to learn about money—how to accumulate it and most importantly, how to leverage it to create the world we want. If we took a fraction of that $7 trillion in consumer purchases and turned it to transforming the dialogue about women’s roles, getting women in office, and being as precise and deliberate as other concerted efforts to gain power have been (see the recent New Yorker article on the Koch brothers), the world would literally be transformed. There are many piecemeal efforts to do this. Piecemeal is not enough; it’s just not an efficient use of resources. So let’s get smart and directed.

You might have heard of the “Powell Manifesto.” In 1971, Lewis F. Powell, then a corporate lawyer and member of the boards of 11 corporations, wrote a memo to the Director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The memorandum was sent two months before Powell's nomination by President Nixon to the U.S. Supreme Court (and he was subsequently confirmed). Powell geniusly wrote a how-to manual about how to transform the national landscape to make it more hospitable to business. And it’s worked! So why reinvent the wheel? Let’s use it—I mean, build on it—for our own devices. Read it. It’s diabolically clever, and is why the Tea Party is in ascendancy. I’m going to try to adapt it for progressive purposes, so stay tuned.

But I’ve gotten a tad off topic. I just love this kind of stuff. So fascinating. I did my master’s thesis on it. :)

I look forward to hearing your thoughts about leadership and the questions I raised at the beginning of this post.

Some questions to I’d love to have a dialogue about:

What do you think about “typical” vs. “modern” leadership? Does that resonate with you?

What makes a good leader?

What does leadership mean to you?

Who makes the rules of leadership?


Omega Institute’s 2010 Women and Power conference:

New Yorker article on the Koch brothers:

The Powell manifesto:

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Comment by Eryka Peskin on October 11, 2010 at 3:44pm
Well said, Kathleen! " all begins with owning your power and owning your power means owning yourself. Your body, your soul, your sexuality, your spirit."

What all of that really means, to me, is having the self-esteem and confidence that one has something ESSENTIAL to offer. And really, we all do. Every single one of us. I think the hurdle is realizing it, and taking the (often frightening) leap to make that offering to the world, in whatever form it might take for someone.
Comment by kathleen thomas on October 7, 2010 at 11:35pm
Leadership - it all begins with owning your power and owning your power means owning yourself. Your body, your soul, your sexuality, your spirit. We've been WAAAY off topic for so long when it comes to valuing ourselves.

I LOVE the idea that "modern leadership" is our responsibility as women because it creates this type of value, this inclusive, interested, thoughtful, sometimes vulnerable perspective. THIS is why women are being called to lead right now. It's the same reason they were called in 1870 by Julia Ward Howe as mothers to stand against the senseless brutality of war - now we celebrate this calling primarily as a Hallmark event called "Mother's Day."

Anyway, thanks for this brilliant insight on power structure and the need for change. Beautifully reflected.

Kathleen Thomas
"put childbirth back on its sacred pedestal and women into an empowered relationship with their bodies."
- Sheila Kamara Hay

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