On independent thinking and honouring women’s career priorities in the 21st century

Anne-Marie Slaughter is the President and CEO of New America and the Bert G. Kerstetter ’66 University Professor Emerita of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University. From 2009-2011 she served as the director of Policy Planning for the U.S. Department of State, the first woman to hold that position. Prior to her government service, Dr. Slaughter was the Dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs from 2002–2009 and the J. Sinclair Armstrong Professor of International, Foreign, and Comparative Law at Harvard Law School from 1994-2002. She has written or edited seven books, including Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family and A New World Order. In 2012, she published “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” in The Atlantic, which became the most read article in the history of the magazine and helped spark a renewed national debate on the continued obstacles to genuine full male-female equality.


I am addicted to the Outlander series.

Novelist Diana Gabaldon has constructed a romantic epic set in 18th century Scotland, France, and America, ranging from the battle of Culloden to the American Revolution. The seven novels are based on the improbable premise of time travel: World War II army nurse Claire Beauchamp Randall takes a holiday to Scotland with her husband and falls through the standing stones on the hill at Craigh na Dun to land in Scotland 1743, where she promptly falls in love with a handsome and reckless red-haired young laird, Jamie Fraser.

The interested reader can plunge into over 5000 pages detailing their exploits, or else watch an excellent mini-series on Starz. But Claire Beauchamp, or Claire Fraser as she becomes, is the epitome of a dangerous woman. Exploring the ways in which she was dangerous in the 18th century – a quality that nearly got her burned for witchcraft – helps illuminate the ways women are still dangerous today.

Claire is dangerous because she is willful.

Much of the action in the novels springs from the collision of 20th century and 18th century expectations about how women should behave. Claire and Jamie marry quickly to avoid her capture by the dastardly British; once she is married to a Scot she becomes Scottish. She is also expected to obey her husband without question, a rule she immediately breaks and rejects.

In 21st century terms, girls are still expected to be “good.” The definition of good has changed: from housewifery to academic success. In the United States at least, women are now outpacing men in college, heading for a 60-40 split in college graduates in favor of women. Those numbers then determine ratios in professional schools, which are also tipping toward women. The explanation from leading economists Claudia Golden, Lawrence Katz, and Iliana Kuzmienko is that girls began overtaking boys the minute the playing field was leveled; they develop more quickly and have fewer behavioral problems. Women are also far more interested in entering traditional male jobs that require a college degree, such as law, medicine, or engineering, than men seek to enter teaching or nursing, the traditional province of college-educated women.

All well and good. But the stars of the American economy are no longer doctors, lawyers, or even bankers. They are technological whiz kids, many of whom dropped out of college to join the new California gold rush. Indeed, entrepreneur Peter Thiel now offers fellowships to young people who agree to drop out of college and pursue their entrepreneurial ventures. Only a quarter of the 2015 class of Thiel Fellows were women. And the women entrepreneurs who do make it to Silicon Valley report a chronic shortage of venture capital. Boys who break the rules are bold and innovative; girls who break the rules face a very different social and economic reaction.

Claire is dangerous because she is learned.

As a former army nurse, Claire has far more advanced medical knowledge than anyone in the 18th century. Later in the novels, when she returns to the 20th century for a spell, she pursues a medical degree and actually becomes a doctor, which means she knows that much more when she returns to 18th century America. Her ability to heal people promptly arouses suspicion, particularly when she runs up against Church teachings. Teachings unknown to the Church must be the devil’s work; she is tried and found guilty of witchcraft and is about to be burned at the stake when Jamie rescues her.

Beyond the conventions of romantic novels is a lesson that endures. Knowing more than authority figure is dangerous; men are still most likely to be in authority; women who are more knowledgeable and/or solve problems better than their male superiors are often threatening. More broadly, thinking differently can be dangerous because it threatens to upset the established order. In finance, for instance, women in top jobs remain scarce.

Financial expert and neuroscientist John Coates examined all the data he could find on men and women’s trading patterns and identified a difference in the way that men and women trade.[i] He finds that they are equally willing to take risks, but they take them in different ways. Men like to take them quickly, thrilling to the rapid-fire pace of the trading floor (think modern-day battlefield), whereas women prefer to take more time to analyze a security and then make the trade. Coates makes it clear that successful financial traders should be judged by “their call on the market and their understanding of risk once they put on a trade; and there is no reason to believe men are better at this than women. Importantly, the financial world desperately needs more long-term, strategic thinking, and the data indicate that women excel at this.”[ii] Yet taking on more women, in top positions or indeed on boards, would require genuine changes in the way firms do business, which is frightening to many.

Claire is dangerous because she cares too much about collateral damage.

When Claire has a run-in with a priest, it is over whether a child has been poisoned and can be treated or is possessed by the devil and must be exorcised. From the priest’s point of view, the exorcism is necessary even if it kills the child; Claire, and ultimately the child’s grandmother, put the child’s life first. Fast forward to the 21st century and contemplate the large number of women in international development versus the numbers of men in international security.

Development focuses on the realities of people’s lives – jobs, health, education, and opportunity. International security focuses on the amassing of power and the advancement of state interests. Both are necessary, but they often conflict. Women who advocate putting the people first are often dismissed as humanitarian idealists or attacked as liberal interventionists. In either case, they threaten the established order of priorities.

Women who succeed by conforming to existing structures of power often face discrimination. They have carved an important and necessary path, but often at the cost of outmanning the men. Willful women who think for themselves and reject socialisation into traditional male ways of reasoning and doing, who insist on the equality of their own ideas, innovations, and priorities, remain quite dangerous.

Claire and Jamie forged a genuinely equal marriage. But the society around them had, and has, a long way to go.


[i]. John Coates, The Hour Between Dog and Wolf: Risk-Taking, Gut Feelings and the Biology of Boom and Bust (New York: Penguin Press, 2012).

[ii]. Ibid., p. 273-274.