Hormones and Public Office

I am old enough to remember the very real doubts that Americans had about whether a woman could hold a high-level public office. Some thought that a woman would be hobbled by a lack of credibility with international leaders – Ted Koppel famously asked Geraldine Ferraro if the Soviets “might be tempted to try to take advantage of you simply because you are a woman?” But more often, the threat of an emotionally volatile female leader subject to, as Marc Rudov accused Hillary Clinton in 2008, “PMS and mood swings.”  In the 1960s and 1970s, even as Indira Gandhi and Golda Meir led their nations through treacherous times, there was a not-so-subtle subtext: hormone swings might prevent most women from having the fortitude and stability needed in government leadership. But now I wonder: are estrogen and progesterone the hormone to worry about?

Testosterone: The Power Hormone

In the years since I first heard those arguments, two trends have been apparent.  The first involves the science of PMS – which now suggests that only 2-10% of women experience the emotional and physical symptoms sufficient to interfere with some aspect of everyday life. The second is the unfolding of the impact of testosterone.

From the many affairs of JFK through Bill Clinton, Anthony Weiner, and Eliot Spitzer to yesterday’s news of David Petraeus, U.S. politics is littered with vibrant careers cut short by an excess of testosterone. The sexual abuse scandals within my own Catholic Church and at Penn State amply demonstrate that this phenomenon is not isolated to politics. Science describes an elaborate dance in which power boosts testosterone and, in turn, testosterone produces smarts and leadership – but also arrogance and aggression.  In short: power boosts the hormone that boosts power.

Not Anti-Male but Pro-Science

There are some who look at these instances of sexual straying – and also at the history of aggressive wars and international belligerence – and say that the world is not safe with testosterone in power.  At worst, there is an unrealistic utopian portrayal of a female-led world system which neglects to account for the behavioral patterns of estrogen and progesterone.  At best, though, is a recognition that the human spirit resides in a physical body. Leadership — for either gender — requires awareness of the particular frailties and strengths to which they are disposed. Modern science validates many of the spiritual foibles named in ancient spiritual practices. Unlike them, it has not yet offered practical steps to moderate testosterone’s excesses.

Perhaps it’s time to recognize that testosterone is 10 times the threat to stable and balanced governance of any difficulty posed by PMS.

About Sister Edith

Benedictine sister of St. Scholastica Monastery, Duluth, Minnesota
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