Women, power and responsibility

Who has changed more lives - the lady who reads the news from an autocue, or Germaine Greer?

That mysterious publication Forbes Magazine has, for the first time, published a list of the 100 most powerful women in the world, and very fascinating reading it makes too. Not for its insights into the world of powerful women, because in many respects it is a ludicrous and rather embarrassing compilation, but as a demonstration of a particular way of looking at the world.

I called the magazine a mysterious publication, because, for the life of me, I can't really see what the magazine is doing, or what it provides for its readers. It's a strange kind of anthology of pieces about the very rich, corporate existence, and fairly unreadable think pieces, but something about it suggests to me that it isn't really read by opinion formers or genuinely powerful people. It looks much more like corporate pornography, giving middle-management dreamers fodder for their fantasies, and this sort of exercise, basically meaningless, hardly seems useful or instructive.

On the other hand, it certainly tells you what they are thinking out there, and it is, in its own way, weirdly intriguing. It starts, plausibly enough, with Condoleezza Rice, but after that things start to get a bit strange. For a start, out of the 100 women, 56 are American, and a few more are foreign nationals who only get on the list, it is fair to say, because they work for American corporations. Two thirds of the total is from the English-speaking world - 66, or 67 if you count India.

Six are queens, which seems to let down the side somewhat - I have nothing against Queen Silvia of Sweden, but a woman who made a good marriage and acts with general, admirable propriety is not really in the same category as the Prime Minister of New Zealand.

Good marriages generally are helpful to women wanting to achieve power, if you believe this list. Laura Bush rates very highly, as does Dick Cheney's wife and our own Cherie Blair. Of course, they have, we presume, some power and considerable influence, but trying to work out what it really consists of can only be a matter of gossip. For what it's worth, my view is that it seems fairly obvious that Laura Bush's power resides entirely in her position, which she hardly seems to exercise in any conspicuous way; it is, surely, a fairly intangible sort of power. Cherie Blair, on the other hand, is clearly someone who would have achieved distinction on her own merits, and can add to her family status clear and demonstrable power in her own career.

Marriage, from Forbes's point of view, seems to supply women with a degree of automatic power for which there is no male equivalent. No one can doubt that, over Mrs Thatcher's administration, Denis Thatcher exerted considerable influence over her views, very closely comparable, one imagines, to Cherie Blair's influence over her husband. Both possessed of very decided views, they did not direct government policy in any way, and certainly both Mrs Thatcher and Mr Blair occasionally listened and then ignored what their spouses had to say. In this situation, Cherie Blair clearly gets onto a list of this sort; no one would ever have considered including Denis Thatcher, even in his prime, on a list of the 100 most powerful men in the world.

The most peculiar feature of the list, however, is its confusion of the powerful with the merely conspicuous. The list deliberately omits most people in the entertainment business, with the slightly odd exception of J K Rowling, although you might have thought that, in the real world, Madonna had as much power and influence as, say, the Queen of the Netherlands.

There are four American newsreaders on the list, at which point you start to wonder both about the notion of women's power, and about the parochiality of the magazine's curiosity. Barbara Walters ranks very highly; the others are Diane Sawyer, who is co-anchor on ABC's Good Morning America, Katie Couric, the co-anchor of the Today show, and Greta van Susteren, the anchor of Fox News. Is it not rather peculiar that, in a list purporting to show the most powerful women in the world, four are basically unknown outside America? I mean, I've vaguely heard of two of them, but wouldn't recognise any of them from a photograph. Moreover, it seems slightly odd that reading the news on television, conducting some well-briefed interviews and having, no doubt, splendid hair, counts as "power" for a woman in a way that it wouldn't for a man. Frankly, it is grotesque that some of those people are recognised as "powerful", when busy and hugely important women polemicists don't seem to count. Who, really, has changed more lives - the lady who reads the words "Good morning, America" from an autocue, or Germaine Greer?

That is not to say that a determined woman cannot exercise power through television, or that those who appear on television are necessarily tools of the corporate will. For instance, one wouldn't argue with Oprah Winfrey's appearance on the list. She is clearly someone who has taken advantage of her success, and the fact of her fame, to wield power and influence over society as a whole. Many of her enterprises are clearly designed to improve the state of society; not just to stir up controversy, but actually to improve lives. Most notably, her book club, in which some very serious works of literature are promoted and discussed, has unabashedly emphasised the importance of education and self improvement. It is a bold enterprise. Recently, she persuaded millions of viewers to make the effort to read Anna Karenina. If that isn't real power, a truly responsible use of personal celebrity to better people's lives, I don't know what is.

There is a specific cause for worry in this list, and a general one. The specific one is that, despite a fairly honourable effort, Forbes and the world it represents still seem to see women's achievements in a lower light. Merely being conspicuous translates into power in the case of women, much more than in the case of men. And there is the question of the good marriage, which a list like this accepts uncritically. There is a nice story about the Duke of Edinburgh, rudely asking a Brazilian admiral, when both were in full-dress uniform, where the hell he got all those medals from. The admiral is supposed to have replied: "At any rate, not for marrying my wife." In the case of women, in the Forbes world, that would not be a joke; there are medals to be won for marrying the right husband.

And it is, evidently, easier to attain power by having the right passport. The prominence of American women on this list tells you something about the dominance of America in the world, but a good deal more about American self confidence about that dominance. The rest of the world, apparently, is a sort of curious addendum to America, attaining significance only when it impinges on the American consciousness.

In this parochial analysis, a lady called Susan Arnold, who rejoices in being vice-chair of global beauty care at Procter & Gamble, is the 16th most powerful woman in the world; about the same as the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, and very much more important than any woman in Russia, which doesn't supply a single entry. Of course, this sort of thing is risible. But in the last resort, a culture which so talks up its own products, even if they are vice-chair of global beauty care, and shows so little respect for, or curiosity in, the rest of the world is heading for serious trouble.