Atlas Shrugged: Washington Ability

Atlas Shrugged, p.55

I said earlier that I give Rand credit for treating women as the intellectual equals of men, but there’s one whopping big exception to that. Strangely enough, it’s not really touched on in Atlas – you’d think that a book as long as this would give the author plenty of opportunity to expound on all aspects of her philosophy – but a passage from this section is a good jumping-off point.

[James Taggart] was thirty-four when he became President of the railroad… They talked about his gift of “making railroads popular,” his “good press,” his “Washington ability.” He seemed unusually skillful at obtaining favors from the Legislature.

Dagny knew nothing about the field of “Washington ability” or what such an ability implied. But it seemed to be necessary, so she dismissed it with the thought that there were many kinds of work which were offensive, yet necessary, such as cleaning sewers; somebody had to do it, and Jim seemed to like it.

She had never aspired to the presidency; the Operating Department was her only concern. [p.55]

It’s not explained why Dagny doesn’t aspire to the presidency of the railroad, but there may be a hint in a 1968 essay by Rand, “An Answer to Readers (About a Woman President)”, that appeared in her newsletter The Objectivist, on the topic of women aspiring to political leadership. The whole text isn’t available online, but excerpts are, particularly this longish one from Google Books. According to Rand:

I do not think that a rational woman can want to be president. Observe that I did not say she would be unable to do the job; I said that she could not want it. It is not a matter of her ability, but of her values.

…The issue is primarily psychological. It involves a woman’s fundamental view of life, of herself and of her basic values. For a woman qua woman, the essence of femininity is hero-worship – the desire to look up to man. “To look up” does not mean dependence, obedience or anything implying inferiority. It means an intense kind of admiration; and admiration is an emotion that can be experienced only by a person of strong character and independent value-judgments. [emphasis added]

Rand’s argument is that women have a nature which compels them to look up to and admire men. But since being the president by definition means having no superior to look up to, women couldn’t handle it; the psychological pressure of being on top would destroy their poor, feeble lady-brains.

To act as the superior, the leader, virtually the ruler of all the men she deals with, would be an excruciating psychological torture. It would require a total depersonalization, an utter selflessness, and an incommunicable loneliness; she would have to suppress (or repress) every personal aspect of her own character and attitude; she could not be herself, i.e., a woman; she would have to function only as a mind, not as a person, i.e., as a thinker devoid of personal values – a dangerously artificial dichotomy which no one could sustain for long. By the nature of her duties and daily activities, she would become the most unfeminine, sexless, metaphysically inappropriate, and rationally revolting figure of all: a matriarch.

Metaphysically inappropriate.

Rand says that this only applies to women seeking the presidency of the United States, not to any other political office or corporate job. But it’s hard not to hear echoes of it in Dagny’s refusal to seek the presidency of Taggart Transcontinental. After all, wouldn’t being the president of a company, just like being the president of a country, make you the superior of virtually everyone you deal with on a day-to-day basis?

This has implications for other political offices as well. What would happen if a woman was vice-president and then the president died? Would she have to accept the job that would inevitably turn her into a monstrous, sexless unperson, or would she be better off resigning and and letting the mantle pass to someone else? In fact, wouldn’t this imply that a woman should avoid not just the presidency, but any political job in the line of succession – or, really, any job where she has no male superior to cast doe-eyed glances of admiration towards?

In her offensively archaic view of gender psychology, Rand is ironically closer to the Christian fundamentalists she despised. They, too, think women leaders are unnatural and revolting, just as she did. It’s the first big hint that, despite her claimed devotion to reason, her attitudes are driven by unconscious prejudices far more than she’d ever have admitted.

Header image credit: Kevin McCoy, released under CC BY-SA 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Image of Angela Merkel by Armin Linnartz; released under CC BY-SA 3.0 DE license; via Wikimedia Commons

Other posts in this series:

Atlas Shrugged: Too Much of a Good Thing
Atlas Shrugged: Big Soy
A Christian vs. an Atheist: On God and Government, Part 15
Atlas Shrugged: Job Creators
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.