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BOOK REVIEW / NONFICTION

A Strict Philosophy to Help Women Get Ahead in the Game

THE PRINCESSA Machiavelli for Women by Harriet Rubin. Currency / Doubleday $22, 190 pages

March 21, 1997|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

My 10-month-old daughter has her toothless jaw set. She is determined to walk as well, if not faster, than her 5-year-old brother. If we come home at the end of the day and do not immediately and attentively greet her, she howls. When a conversation about her veers off into other areas she will grab the face of the person holding her in both hands, look into their eyes and bring it back around. She has already abandoned the awed conviction that her big brother is a god in order to develop an effective strategy for taking all of his toys away from him. She learned to say "dada" early on to make the biggest person in the house a powerless puddle. Like Harriet Rubin's "Princessa," she does not seem to believe that life requires her "to choose between love and power."

"I will teach you war," Rubin promises in the beginning of her treatise on the use of power for women, modeled on but vastly different from Machiavelli's "The Prince," written in the 16th century to help rulers and leaders gain and hold onto power at any cost. "Princessa" was written primarily for today's businesswomen. "Machiavelli's prince had to strike a rigid pose: distant, cunning, destructive," writes Rubin. "He had to be one thing to all people. A princessa has of necessity a different agenda; she needs to disrupt the status quo . . . she must be the lover and the fighter."

Don't play by rules that aren't your own, she counsels. "For a woman to triumph, she cannot play by the rules of the game. They are not her rules . . . she has to change the game . . . ignore the simple notions of management and leadership for the strategy of heroism defined by a big agenda, not a step-by-step plan."

Your power, she argues, comes from the ability to be outrageous, not outraged, frustrated and suffocated in an unfamiliar, male-dominated context. "Women may love peace and seek stability. But these conditions seldom serve them. . . . Princessas understand that opportunities are created in chaos."

Rubin has published "Princessa" under her own imprint at Doubleday, Currency, which publishes books on business, so we know that she is not shy about grabbing opportunities. I think it's fair to say that her book may be as helpful to men as it is to women who find their ideas used by other people, who are capable of "negotiating multimillion-dollar deals," but not their own raises.

It is, I think, a useful book for nurturers who would like to get something back, primarily in a work environment. These people are notoriously shy about making demands, embarrassed of their own desires.

Drop it, says Rubin. Women suffer from something she calls "power anorexia," the ultimate self-denial. Princessas "feel entitled to their wishes, and they use the potency of them." Desire rules the world. Women waste too much energy on revenge, on righting wrongs, she writes. "Energy is much better spent fighting for something tangible for yourself, like the freedom to do important work." Women need to learn to fight strategically, not to win, but to "best," to manipulate the tensions in every situation. "Men crave disempowerment," she writes. "They actually want to risk giving up some of their control. They are not willing to do this with another man, but they are with a woman."

So often, self-help books like "Princessa" seem to be asking you to become someone other than who you are. At best, reading them can be like buying a new hat in a style completely different from your own. You try it on. Maybe you get compliments, but it itches.

Perhaps Rubin's best advice is again, not gender specific: "Don't count," she writes, "on your lover's promise to always be with you. Don't expect your job to be there tomorrow. . . ." "Your master," she quotes the stoic philosopher Epictetus, "is he who controls that on which you have set your heart or wish to avoid."

This is either abject cynicism worthy of Machiavelli, or Zen Buddhism. I can't decide.

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