As a Bengali, I was aware that the second Presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump fell on this year’s Maha Ashtami of Durga Puja. As a feminist Indian-American, who has lived almost twice as many years in the United States as my early life in India, I noticed the resonance of this coincidence with a pair of paradoxes that have intrigued me since 1980.
These are the paradoxes. The United States, which has a fabulous history of feminism and women’s movements, with flaws and conflicts, but fabulous nonetheless, has continued to be uncomfortable with female authority and leadership over the thirty-six years I have lived here. India which, despite its own tradition of astoundingly strong and varied women’s movements, has remained widely attached to patriarchy – with daily manifestations that range from the relatively benign passes given to sons and men to the horrors of frequent and casual violence against girls and women – has seemed to me more comfortable with female authority and leadership than mainstream U.S. culture.
Starting twenty-six years ago, with occasional updating, my German spouse has said he has yet to meet a “submissive” Indian (especially Bengali!) woman. Indira Gandhi dominated most of my youth in India, but I have also seen and heard numerous other female leaders in India – politicians, businesswomen, educators, and especially fiery civil society women on the left. Today, when I am in India, I am struck by the easy ambition of educated young women, even in the midst of frequent social and professional sexism. In the United States, by contrast, I notice that, in a context where more women are graduating from college than men, highly accomplished and evidently ambitious women censor themselves and almost palpably reduce themselves; or if one does not, she is disliked in a special, generalized way, as much by other women as by men. She is not simply “an” obnoxious woman or “a" flawed leader, she is the expression of the flaws of female authority, which, the mainstream response seems to suggest, easily overflows the banks of natural female goodness. The Hillary Rodham of 1970s American feminism had to become Hillary Rodham Clinton to claim, and inevitably self-constrain, herself even while seeking greater authority.
Over the years, with input from anthropology, literature, frequent arguments, and my personal experience, I’ve come to believe that the difference in comfort with female authority and leadership comes down mainly to three things: first, female leaders in very hierarchical (caste/class) societies benefit from belonging to a traditionally privileged category; secondly, where education is accessible only to a very small proportion of the population, educated women gain inordinate status and authority simply from education; and finally the symbolic imaging of women, usually religious, hugely constrains, or amplifies, how women’s power can be imagined. Here I am focusing on the last.
As a Bengali, I grew up with Kali and Durga – manifestations of Shakti, power itself. The image of a woman, as woman, fully a woman, fighting for right was something I saw everyday in my mother’s puja room and celebrated every year at Durga Puja. Bengal, perhaps, has power associated with goddess more than any other part of India, but the idea of female Shakti is commonplace in Hinduism throughout the subcontinent, in some places further amplified by animist honoring of female power to generate and protect, in many places influencing the non-Hindu religions of fellow Indians. In the majority Christian U.S., on the other hand, there is no powerful female figure in Protestant iconography and the powerful Catholic figure of the Virgin Mary is above all modest and obedient, attributes that correlate well with the Protestant ideal of a good woman. Growing up in India, the Virgin Mary had been one more powerful female figure among many, not only because I learned about her powerful influence with her son from the nuns who taught me, but these nuns themselves, far from the male centers of Catholic power, both symbolic and real, and surrounded by a hospitable but uninterested majority of non-Christians, were erudite and independent. In the way one absorbs assumptions without really thinking about them, I assumed that their erudition and independence was because they were powerful women of Christianity. Only after coming to the US did I grow to sense and learn that, in this majority Christian country, women are not associated with power. At their best, they are good.
So this Maha Ashtami, as I waited to watch the debate, both outraged and wickedly amused by Trump’s “locker-room” hot mic, and as I rooted for the candidate who might be the first female President of the United States, I wondered again at these paradoxes, and the competition between powerful and good. In the end, the best leaders are both powerful and good. They, whether women or men, are usually not perfect with either attribute, but we who follow, or are governed, are doing well if they get most of it right.