The women's art of war, indeed!
The New Straits Times - 01/05/2000
by Anusha Anantha

The Princessa makes an attractive promise author Harriet Rubin fails to keep. In her nom de guerre as the Machiavella, Rubin claims that she will teach women the art of war and show us the way to become artists of our anger and desire. I need this as much as I need to breathe, so, yes, I read the book despite the warning bells that clanged as early as page 2.

The book was conceived in what appears to be disgruntled ennui at 2am in the Palace Bar in San Francisco. Three women without men in their lives asking questions like, "Why am I his dog on a leash when I can do everything else on my own?" The Princessa makes wonderful idealistic claims and is like the effervescent, pseudo-intellectual conversation you have over cappuccino and cake but just don't bother to write down.

The book did appeal to my vanity, however, like coffee and conversation with an attractive person in a public setting. Rubin describes the female reader as the Princessa of a troubled, embattled domain and herself as the Machiavella. In that romanticised context, I read the thoughts of this highly literate woman on empowerment and came to this unflattering conclusion: the book would be prescription only if your headache is mild and you have no intention to make serious contributions to the world.

The author purports to write a treatise on skill and strategy for modern women but turns us flatly back where we began. This is not to say it isn't interesting, but it is disappointing when you go from a foreword that comprises a long letter from the Machiavella to the Book of Strategy, the Book of Tactics, the Book of Subtle Weapons and finally land on the carpet with Strategy for Wild Peace. (I am not making that up.)

The book is organised that way. Harriet Rubin does attempt to codify the habits of successful historical figures. There are anecdotes and commentaries on Joan of Arc, Mahatma Gandhi, Sun Tzu, Gertrude Bell, advisor to Arab kings, Hillary Clinton and, well, lots of things you simply would not have known if you hadn't picked up this volume. For example, tears and breasts are subtle weapons. You just must know when to use them. The Mahatma was successful because he fought like a woman. Joan of Arc wore white, a strategic colour. Rubin believes this is as noteworthy as Eleanor Roosevelt's unadorned face.

Rubin is friends with many princessas and no wonder. Just about anyone can fit into her generous description of one. Eleanor Roosevelt is a princessa because she wore her face the way a soldier wears his scars. Another woman qualifies for this sorority because she cried in front of her boss.

The contents and claims of the Books of Strategy and Tactics are no less absurd. These chapters are put together under one heading or the other but they appear more to be popular psychology than serious discussion of the psyche of a Machiavelli. It is obvious that Rubin has no idea how women wage war and why.

The book is a superficial treatment of women and power at worst, and a showcase of assorted trivia and thoughts on a variety of topics at best. I can't imagine why I read it through except that the book has the appeal of a gossip magazine.

Women and men who make contributions to society do so because they see themselves as part of a larger social and historical whole. In times of crisis, most of us respond instinctively with individual acts of survival. A precious handful respond to a higher calling. Rubin reckons otherwise. Rosa Parks was tired that day and simply happened to sit down, sparking the civil rights movement. That was an individual act of survival. Joan of Arc responded to a higher calling. Neither women planned the course of their lives nor set out to be princessas. It happened as a unique solution to a problem.

Rubin, however, has combed through much literature to lay out her strategies and tactics. Whether these go beyond amorphous claims is really an area where your guess is as good as mine. All I know is that Rubin taught me to call my silence a use of creative tension and my refusal or inability to comply with a demand, besting.

There is also the creative use of jewellery, cosmetics and femininity, which is a good laugh. In retrospect, yes, if I were a whole lot less honest, that's what I'd call it - strategy.

Anushka Anastasia Solomon was known as Anusha Anantha before coming to Jesus Christ.