Contributed by MOTHERS volunteer and guest blogger Rosanne Weston
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a 71-year-old mother and grandmother, is the President of Liberia and the first female head of state elected in Africa. She pledged to “bring motherly sensitivity and emotion to the presidency” and declared in the August 23rd edition of the NY Times Magazine that, if women ran the world, “it would be a better, safer, more productive world,” as women would bring “a sensitivity to humankind” which “comes from being a mother.”
I love that statement, but I also wonder if it is true. After all, Indira Gandhi of India declared war on Pakistan, allegedly to solve a refugee problem, and started India’s nuclear program in response to a threat from The People’s Republic of China. Gold Meir of Israel is reported to have ordered the assassinations of those responsible for killing the Israeli Olympic athletes in 1972. And Margaret Thatcher of England allegedly delighted in her nicknames – The Iron Lady and Attila the Hen – given, presumably, for her decidedly non-nurturing stances on social services and international relations. Women in power have shown themselves capable of doing what they felt necessary to secure the vision they wanted for their respective countries. And Gandhi, Meir and Thatcher all had children.
Also, some of the most sensitive and supportive people I know are women who are not mothers. And even some men.
So, why does President Sirleaf’s statement still feel viscerally true?
We have learned quite a bit about the differences in brain functioning between men and women. As I understand it, women use a broader but shallower swath of the brain when problem solving and performing tasks. Perhaps that’s why we can multitask – handle duties at work, make a mental list of items to be picked up at the store on the way home and keep track of where the kids should be, all at the same time.
Men, I’ve read, use a narrower but deeper portion of the brain when performing similar functions. They have an ability to focus intently on the issue at hand but might forget that they were supposed to call in from work and check on whether everyone has returned home from school by 3:30.
So maybe we women are hardwired to embrace more possibilities at any given moment, allowing us to pay attention to the customer in front of the counter or the law brief on the desk but also to worry about whether everyone in the family is okay. We can tune out less of that inner chatter. And, if women do draw from both sides of the brain more than men do, perhaps we are more prone to bring the thoughts and emotions together.
President Sirleaf felt it necessary to point out that she would bring “emotion” to her work as head of state. But how would that help a poverty-ridden and war-torn country, one with a history of honor killing and a high incidence of rape?
Perhaps what she is pointing to is women’s willingness, or inborn tendency, to be open to vulnerability. Maybe our brains make it impossible for us to avoid it. And once we take in the possibility of loss and pain and grief, really take it in, then perhaps we become more sensitive to what causes pain and increases the risk of loss. When the possibility of suffering becomes more than just an idea, maybe it does become more difficult to cut off the food stamp programs, to choose military action rather than diplomacy as a first response to an international crisis or to turn a blind eye to the abuses perpetrated on the most powerless as well as to the roots of those abuses.
Also, women have not been burdened with role models that stared unsquinting into the sun and made a virtue of hard, square-jawed stoicism, images that taught countless boys to tamp down that natural sensitivity. Yes, women’s models were often presented as weak sisters, all brimming eyes and quivering lips, waiting to be rescued. But life taught another lesson – that the softness of feeling can inform the rigors of thought, perhaps bringing about a more balanced approach to any situation – be it at home, at work or on the world stage.
We have seen this deep feeling unleashed in men. Vice President Biden’s voice cracked when he talked about waiting to see if his surviving kids would recover after the car accident that killed his first wife and daughter. For forty years Senator Edward Kennedy, a child of great privilege, roared out his belief that we will not have matured as a country until everyone in the United States had access to quality healthcare. Both of these men were so seared by tragedy that they could not avoid the sense of vulnerability, for themselves and others.
But maybe it is the intimate and ongoing acts of caring for children – our own, our nieces and nephews, our neighbors – that makes it impossible to turn away from the suffering of others. Women have been caring for children for a long, long time. Perhaps that accounts for how our brains work and for the easier access we have to both the mental and emotional parts of ourselves. And if leaders with a sharp intelligence coupled with a more supple feeling can make the world more like what President Sirleaf would have it, a “safer, better” place, then we certainly need more women in positions of leadership. And more men in positions of caregiving and nurturing children.