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.

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  • MNb

    “Rand is ironically closer ….”

    My first thought. Of course there isn’t any evidence from psychology that confirms her explanation.

  • Improbable Joe

    Well… that explains a lot doesn’t it?

  • CJ

    Interesting. While the connection to the Atlas Shrugged writings I think are still tenuous – “washington ability” meant bargaining and favors rather than having the talent and brains to run a railroad. All the main characters in the book would talk routinely about not understanding Washington. Its not that she didn’t think she was good enough for the Presidency, she thought she was too good for it.

    However, as a progressive / atheist who (still) enjoys Atlas Shrugged I’m continually frustrated by her essays and non fiction writing.

  • Nonnie

    To me, this seems more like a case of her common tendency to apply her own thoughts, feelings, and preferences to others. Atlas Shrugged demonstrates this all the time (witness how everyone “good” enjoys all the same books, movies, and music). I mean “admiration is an emotion that can be experienced only by a person of strong character and independent value-judgments”?? What a bizarre assertion. It sounds like a retroactive justification of an embarrassing one-way crush or something.

  • kagerato

    That sentence struck me too. You can be weak and as dumb as a box of rocks and still experience admiration. It’s just an emotion.

  • Jerrad Wohlleber

    It’s all part of Rand’s delusion that her every thought, preference, and habit represented some objective and universal truth. But then, who wouldn’t think so when they were surrounded by dozens of worshipful acolytes who wouldn’t pick out a brand of toilet paper without getting her “objective” view on which was best?

    It’s actually a good thing too. If she hadn’t surrounded herself with toadies and yes men who were all terrified of contradicting her in any way, Atlas Shrugged may have turned out to be a much more readable book. It’s not like anybody she hung out with was going to criticize it in any way. Not unless they were ready to be excommunicated. Considering the power it’s had as the turgid doorstop it is, I hate to think how many more people would have been bamboozled by the book if they’d been able to make it more than five pages in.

    The proof of this is The Fountainhead. It’s a far better book and far less painful to read, and it was written before Rand was living with her own maniacally devoted cult.

  • J-D

    Obviously there is no evidence to support Rand’s claims about the ‘essence of femininity’, and that’s the most important fault in her argument, but independently of that there’s another one which interests me.

    She says that ‘to look up … does not mean … anything implying inferiority’, but she’s not being fully honest about that; she must be partly aware that her argument depends on the unstated assumption that ‘looking up’ does imply some kind of inferiority, and denies it only because she’s not fully comfortable with openly acknowledging that she’s assuming a kind of essential inferiority of the feminine. It becomes clear that the argument depends on such an assumption, though, when it is recognised that part of the argument is that acting (only) as a superior is incompatible with femininity.

    First she says: ‘the essence of femininity is … the desire to look up to man’.
    Then she says: ‘ “To look up” … means an intense kind of admiration’.
    Combining those, she’s saying that the essence of femininity is the desire to experience an intense kind of admiration. But in that case, what’s the justification for saying this?

    ‘To act as the superior, the leader, virtually the ruler of all the men she deals with, … she could not be … a woman; … she would become the most unfeminine … figure …’

    Is acting as a superior, a leader, even a ruler incompatible with experiencing an intense admiration? If it isn’t, then Rand’s argument would fall apart (if it hadn’t already). Does being even the President of the United States (or, for that matter, even the supreme ruler of the most absolutist monarchy that ever existed) make it impossible to experience intense admiration? I doubt it. I suspect that if you asked Presidents of the United States to name people they had an intense admiration for, you’d find they wouldn’t have much trouble giving honest affirmative answers.

    Technically, Rand’s argument could be restated in a form which commits the logical fallacy of ‘equivocation’, like this:

    ‘Looking up to somebody is essential to femininity;
    ‘Looking up to somebody is incompatible with the Presidency;
    ‘Therefore, holding the Presidency is incompatible with the essence of femininity.

    The fallacy, the equivocation is that ‘looking up to somebody’ is being defined differently in the two premises: in the first premise it’s supposed to be ‘intense admiration’ that does not mean any kind of inferiority, while in the second premise it obviously means a kind of hierarchical subordination that necessarily does mean a kind of inferiority.

  • smrnda

    This is about the most anti-woman thing I’ve read all day. Um, I do not exist to look up to, admire or idolize men. I mean, she drags in the term “hero worship.” Read a good biography of any person you admire, and there’s a good chance you’ll learn the lesson that you shouldn’t worship any hero. Meeting a few Nobel Prize winners and Fields Medalists made me realize that, up close, even some of the best and brightest people can be pretty bland and unremarkable.

    She really seems to just be spouting the same crappy gender essentialism that social conservatives always spit up when they feel they need to pretend that their subjective discomfort with women in positions of authority is somehow an objective value judgment.

    Her second paragraph is mostly word salad “depersonalization” and “selflessness,” though I think Rand is right about 2 problems women face but wrong about their cause. Women get depersonalized by being seen as existing primarily for men – either for the pleasure of men, or (Rand’s preference) hero-worship of select alpha males. Women can end up with a diminished sense of self because their identities are tied, not to their own abilities and accomplishments, but to men in some way.

    The more I think of it, I think Rand’s just writing some very bad masturbation fantasies. She clearly gets off on the Big Bad Industrialist as her preferred type, and her entire books are more or less just Big Bad Industrialist porn. Her first paragraph is her way of making her passive, likely purely instinctual sexual enjoyment of these men as some kind of deep metaphysical truth.

    On matriarchs, wasn’t Rand herself kind of a King Shit when it came to her salon group?

  • kagerato

    Even literal martyrs like MLK and Gandhi had significant character flaws. There’s no such thing as gods on Earth.

  • 8DX

    She would be accurate. Except she’s accurately describing how the misogynist patriarchy-lovers view women in leadership. Not, it must be obvious, how these women view themselves.

  • Michael

    I’m going to remember such quotes when some libertarian holds up Rand as a feminist example.

  • smrnda

    She was also a homophobe. She really didn’t care about or think about kids at all, except when they became an excuse to bash homosexuals since they don’t reproduce, which is strange as I don’t recall Rand herself having kids.

    I think the best explanation for this is psychological. Rand’s fantasy man is some sort of alpha male Übermensch. She has to believe that THESE MEN ALONE hold up the world, and that nobody else could ever possibly do what they are doing. If women got into positions of authority, it would make her fantasy males less attractive. It would make her fantasy males less attractive if we realized that they weren’t really the only people that keep society running.

    She’s really no different than a woman who say, thinks firefighters or UPS drivers are hot, except that those sexual preferences for idealized male types don’t translate into bad political platforms.

  • smrnda

    I am a tech entrepreneur, and bargaining, getting favors, buying beers for the right people and such are a part of my life, and no company would survive without it. “Politics” in the sense of using personal connections and influence to get things done isn’t confined strictly to the government.

  • Adam Lee

    She says that ‘to look up … does not mean … anything implying inferiority’, but she’s not being fully honest about that; she must be partly aware that her argument depends on the unstated assumption that ‘looking up’ does imply some kind of inferiority…

    Well said. After all, if Rand’s kind of “admiration” didn’t assume inferiority on the part of the person doing the admiring, then it should be no problem for a woman to be President! That only ought to be an issue if she views women as naturally suited for subordination.

  • Michael

    Yes, I do recall her disgust at homosexuality (though to her credit she opposed homosexual sex being outlawed). I never got the impression she wanted or knew what to do about children.

    Your psychoanalysis is sound, and it bears mentioning that before inventing her own weird philosophy she followed Nietzsche (or at least felt she did-he seems ripe for being misinterpreted). So the Ubermensch idea, or her take on it anyway, is key.

  • Robin Lionheart

    “Dagny knew nothing about the field of “Washington ability” or what such an ability implied.”

    Oh, Dagny, how wealthy industrialists get favors from the legislature isn’t that hard to understand! In short, they bribe them.

    In the US, campaign finance is a system of legalized bribery. Donors give substantial amounts of money to legislators’ political campaigns, with the expectation that recipients, once elected, will vote their way on issues they care about. Some of their techniques can be complicated, passing money through PACs to circumvent limits on donation size and to hide donors’ names from public record and such, but the intent is simple: they give legislators money to buy their votes. (And not just votes: through organizations like ALEC, corporations actually write laws for legislators to introduce and pass.)