The Value of The Outsider

On the center shelf, over the filing cabinets, sits the dictionary, the thesaurus, the copy of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, the complete works of Shakespeare and the Bible: in other words, the essential equipment of the workaday writer. But at one end is a paperback, pale ocher with age. It's the copy of "Sisterhood Is Powerful" I bought right after I graduated from high school.

White cover, red female power symbol, an artifact. Much of it is rad arcana, although there's a dispiritingly contemporary quality to parts of the chapters on birth control, the Roman Catholic Church and the politics of housework. And some of it is a total galvanizing hoot--the guerrilla theater at the bridal fair, the nude-in at Grinnell to protest the politics of Playboy. Who would have thought, when feminists famously disrupted the Miss America Pageant in 1968, that it was the pageant that would eventually collapse beneath the weight of irrelevancy, relegated to a cable channel, while many of the goals of the women's movement would become cultural norms?

It's a chronicle of a time and a place but mainly of a feeling, the feeling of being devalued and dismissed outsiders in a social and political system that was broken. Thirty-five years after publication, some of the outsiders have gotten inside--inside the corporations, the churches, the publications, the statehouse, the Congress. But many of the institutions are still broken, and if they are ever to be fixed women have to keep that outsider perspective even as they sit in the big chairs, make the big deals, hold the big jobs.

By its very nature women's leadership was about redefinition, while men's leadership has been about maintaining the status quo. That's how it works when one group has all the power and wants to keep it, and another has none and wants some righteous parity. Take that dichotomy down the road most traveled, however, and what you eventually wind up with is a new status quo, jealously protected by a new power structure that includes female leaders working with the psychological equivalent of ties and wingtips.

That would be a tragic missed opportunity. The insiders have simply made a hash of things, and everybody knows it. From corporate malfeasance to a political system deeply disconnected from everyday realities, the powers that be have ceased to derive their authority from the good will of the people.

It's difficult to see that from inside the endless loop of accepted custom. Insiders come with deeply ingrained assumptions and the inevitable sense of business as usual. Outsiders often bring clarity of vision, as well as a sense of discovery and innovation. Women are not the only ones capable of this. But the difficulties they've encountered while seeking representation and respect may provide the steel and strength needed to embrace change. You're less wedded to the shape of the table if you haven't been permitted to sit at it.

There's always been the notion that if women ran the world it would be a kinder, softer, more peaceful place, plowshares instead of swords. Those fantasies haven't turned out to be entirely true. Ten of the 14 women in the Senate at the time voted in favor of the Iraq war resolution, and suicide bombing has become an equal-opportunity endeavor. The debate about whether there's a distinctly female style of leadership rages on. In her book "Closing the Leadership Gap," Marie Wilson, founder of the White House Project, quotes a female member of the clergy on the subject. "For over 200 years," said the Rev. Patricia Kitchen, "the United States has been steered by male leadership who tend to lead from a self-centered, self-preservation perspective." By contrast, "Women around the world are inclined to lead, their families and nations, from an other-centered perspective." There was that moment the other night on "Commander in Chief," the new TV drama, when the president was shown the mug shots of murdered DEA agents. "Does anyone know their names?" she said, moving in five little words from the political to the personal.

"You cannot escape it," Robin Morgan concluded about the women's movement in her introduction to "Sisterhood Is Powerful," bravado and rage mixed with hope. It was a potent cocktail, and so here we are, in a new era, with old problems. More than ever people yearn for someone worth following, someone interested in more than self-aggrandizement. Our world is filled with prominent women now, women who manage law firms and give out grants and run museums and oversee the Ivy League. Yet virtually all of them came of age, and came to power, with the institutional pushback that grows out of prejudice.

There's a fire in the belly that creates a willingness to step off that treadmill of custom. They are a new breed: the Inside Outsiders. Powerful, accomplished, yet among their male peers still in some essential way apart. Often you will hear them say, "I never expected to wind up here." Maybe that's a good thing. Maybe that's the secret to leadership, the path not of entitlement or entrenchment but the liberation of the unexpected.