Sherry Cohen has written a book that should be inspiring to women and men alike. Her major point is that tenderness and concern for relationships--traits historically associated with women--need not be drawbacks in business or professional life. Rather, Cohen says, tenderness is in corporate leadership, in entrepreneurial ventures, in the professions, in home life, in relationships.
She tells marvelous and touching stories about the nurturing qualities of women in business: Ruth Hendler (Barbie and Ken dolls), Polly Bergen (ups and downs in cosmetics and jewelry), Mary Cunningham (The Nurturing Network), and a host of others. In all of these anecdotes, Cohen emphasizes the power of tenderness. Here are women, in all sorts of enterprises, attributing their success to the very qualities they had been told to forsake if they wanted to make it in the rough world of business.
Many anecdotes are deeply touching, and a few are funny in a bitter way. Among the former, the story of Martha Bridges stands out. Abandoned by her husband at 53, Martha feared becoming a “basket case”:
One day, Martha remembers, she stood helplessly near the sink in her own kitchen filled with tears and fears, surrounded by her daughters and her own 87-year-old mother.
The old woman planted her hands on her frail hips and confronted Martha.
“I am of pioneer stock,” said the 87-year-old, “and so are you. You will pull yourself together. These girls and I will not let you fall, or fail. We are connected.”
This story illustrates a strength and weakness in “Tender Power.” The stories are moving and inspiring, but they tend to overplay the rosy side. Not all women have strong old mothers to offer support. Some have lost their mothers, some grieve over sick or mentally incapacitated mothers, and some suffer lives with mothers who were never supportive. It can be very hard to draw on tender power if you are the one who has to forge all the connections, give all the tenderness, maintain all the relations. Further, tenderness sometimes fails and sometimes invites exploitation.
One of the bitter-funny stories could also be a downer, but Cohen uses it to emphasize how much wiser women are today than they were a few years ago about their female friendships:
That was the era that Lily Tomlin remembers when she tells of the man who approached a woman having cocktails with three women friends. “Hey, baby,” he said, “what are you doing here alone?”
Cohen is right to celebrate the strength of female relationships, but she says too little about the lack of recognition granted to these relationships by either men or women. She admits that there is a recent troubling trend among business women to neglect one-on-one work friendships, and she deplores the common advice to women to adopt male modes of friendship, but she fails to analyze the situation of most professional women--that most of our colleagues are male. The scene that Tomlin described is not totally a thing of the past. Women gathered together are still often seen as “alone"--that is, as peripheral to what is really going on.
No academic could say the things Cohen says in “Tender Power.” First, even though hundreds of male writers have attributed tender and nurturing qualities to women (good women, that is), any academic who claims such traits for women is immediately challenged as unfairly excluding men from the community of careers. Worse, we are accused of maintaining a stereotype to make ourselves look morally superior to men.
Second, some feminists raise a similar yet opposite objection. The stereotype was used to keep women in subordinate positions and states of passive resignation. If we now glorify traits historically associated with women, we run the risk of endorsing the exploitation of women.
Never mind. Cohen’s message is cogent. It will ring true to many women and to some men as well. It is high time for all of us to reconsider what really matters in life and how we can help each other to achieve it. Tenderness may not guarantee success, but serious attention to it can induce a redefinition of success. That’s important and may lead a lot of readers to do just that.