Most Americans of a certain age grew up hearing the adage: “Behind every great man is a great woman,” or some variation thereof.
The meaning is clear, though its origin less so. Whether the expression evolved from the women’s movement or was uttered by a wise man is less important than its truth. Today, as women excel in education and assume positions of power, we might flip the expression — but not too hastily. For even now, it is hard not to notice that the Senate solution to the government shutdown is credited primarily to men, behind whom were a handful of women who got the ball rolling.
As Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell announced the bipartisan deal, the women hit the talk shows to discuss their collaborative efforts. They included Republicans Susan Collins of Maine, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Democrats Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.
It is natural, of course, that the Senate leaders should plug the victory. Thus Reid and McConnell grabbed the headlines. But the sidebar is really the lead story, as Arizona Sen. John McCain noted: “Leadership, I must fully admit, was provided primarily by women in the Senate.”
Before the applause subsides and the status quo grabs the wheel again, we might give this episode greater, sustained attention. We are, after all, trudging toward a repeat early in 2014. The government is funded at current levels only until Jan. 15 and the debt ceiling, which was temporarily suspended, will require fresh attention by Feb. 7.
That women were able to come together and hammer out a workable solution, if only temporarily, is little surprise to women (or to men who pay attention) and speaks to women’s unique abilities to communicate and collaborate without the requisite territorial marksmanship that often interferes with men’s better intentions.
Sounds stereotypical? Welcome to Nature.
We needn’t revisit the cave dwellings of primitive man — or the Garden of Eden, if one finds greater comfort there — to remind ourselves that male and female are physically equipped quite differently but also are endowed with unique skills consistent with their survival tasks. Our cultural evolution may have accelerated in recent history, but our hard-wiring — those little lizard brains buried deep in the subconscious human-mammalian mind — is still busy fighting saber-tooths and nursing the young.
As much as ever, we need both packages even as we move toward less- defined roles. And as much as we try to dismiss these differences — and even fight madly to pretend they are irrelevant to present-day environs and templates — nature has a way of prevailing.
This doesn’t mean we must capitulate. Women needn’t be tethered to birthing chairs nor men expected to always bear the burden of mathematics, but compromise might make some sense. To wit: Women serve very well in the chambers of power created by men, and men benefit from their influence. Those skills women developed while managing their mud huts, gathering nuts and berries while cuddling and nursing babies — the birth of multitasking and collaboration — have modern applications beyond the powder room, where women have been known to gravitate in groups for purposes of sharing secrets that far exceed men’s reasoning powers.
Relax. This is fun.
Once upon a time, we’ll tell our sons and daughters someday, when women first entered the congresses and corporations of men, they dressed and acted like men to blend in. They feared that their ways would be considered “girlie” and not suitable to The Man’s World. In their attempts to excel, many became tougher than men and didn’t value their own best talents.
Then one day, the government shut down and the men were erecting a giant fire hydrant on the Mall and the women said, “Whattha’! This is ridiculous!” So the women sat down at a table they called “The Campfire,” poured many chalices of fabulous wine, munched nuts and created a plan to save the country.
And now you know the origin of Camp Fire Girls.
Thus are parables written. Henceforth, may many more women invade the congresses and white houses of their states and nation to practice and teach the arts of compromise. And let it be said hereafter that behind every great woman is probably a bunch of other great women.
KATHLEEN PARKER is a syndicated columnist of The Washington Post, a regular guest on television shows like The Chris Mathews Show and The O’Reilly Factor, and is a member of the Buckley School’s faculty. She was the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for distinguished commentary.