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Reader's Companion to
The Princessa: Machiavelli for Women by Harriet Rubin

Doubleday Currency hardcover, ISBN: 0-385-47537-3, $22.00 US/ $28.00 CAN

Reader's Companion: ISBN: 0-385-48806-8. Copyright © 1997 by Doubleday/Currency, a division of the Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc., 1540 Broadway, New York, NY 10036


1. About the Book
2. About the Author
3. A Different Kind of Book Demands a Different Kind of Discussion
4. Questions for Discussion
5. Supplemental Reading (and Some Inspired Listening)

About the Book

In 1513, Niccolo Machiavelli wrote The Prince as a primer for young men of that starkly brutal era. At the core of every true prince, Machiavelli claimed, lay the wherewithal and the willingness to exercise power, preferably with ruthless cunning. A prince's life was enriched by conscience-free conflict. To the winner went all the spoils.

While also concerned with power, in its broadest sense, Harriet Rubin's The Princessa points the way to very different strategies to gain and maintain power. It begins with the premise that women, as a group, have historically been excluded from positions of power. In many cases, those individuals who have gained access are allowed in as tokens. Or they break through barriers using warlike tactics. Or they squirm in using a combination of compromise, cooperation, and negotiation. And they seem always to give so much more than they get. Well, not anymore!

The Princessa also works from the assumption that a woman's kind of power is very distinct from a man's. A woman's power is subtler, more nuanced. Instead of using conflict to annihilate, the princessa uses conflict to reshape alliances. Instead of competition, there is provocation. To a princessa, love is a kind of power and power is a kind of love.

Let there be no doubt--this book is not for the fainthearted. It is a book about conflict. A book about power--how to embrace it, use it, and gain what you want from it. No more compromise and negotiation. As Machiavella warns, "For a woman to triumph, she cannot play by the rules of the game. They are not her rules, designed to enhance her strengths. She has to change the game."

Machiavella shows how to ensure victory by adhering to one's principles, not to arbitrary rules or laws. She is unapologetic about the princessa's need to engage in conflict on her own terms.

Machiavella cuts a clear path, lighting the way with stories of princessas throughout history--Joan of Arc, the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, Scheherazade, Dian Fossey. The Princessa gives specifics--strategy, the why, and tactics, the how--so that women can shape their lives according to their own designs. It cautions women to do more than merely "win." Instead, they must "best," and impart, as Machiavella adds, "a sense of Olympic-style triumph: an achievement that leaves losers not defeated so much as breathless, awestruck."

About the Author

It's foolish to try to imagine the future when you can just create it.

From the start, Harriet Rubin has clearly lived according to the credo quoted immediately above. She was educated at Rutgers University and Columbia University's School of the Arts, where she held a fellowship in poetry. She has written for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and a number of women's magazines. In 1989 she founded Currency, a Doubleday imprint devoted to bringing new disciplines and perspectives to business leadership.

When asked if she considered herself a princessa, Rubin responded, "On good days I'm two thirds of the way there. And yet I often find myself falling back on the same old command and control mentality of Machiavelli just to score a win. But, of course, a quick and desperate win isn't a big win or a lasting win. It takes a lot of practice to become a princessa in the Machiavella school. And [yet] that's the only power that's effective."

A Different Kind of Book Demands a Different Kind of Discussion

Most successful book groups are not exactly peaceful places, for it often takes conflict to dislodge truth. But for this book, we suggest you ratchet it up still another notch.

Debate. Embrace the conflict. Do not compromise. Do not negotiate. Instead, persuade. Take action. Form alliances. Best. After all, you hold the template for victory, The Princessa, in hand.

Machiavella states specifically that you should not waste her strategies and tactics on small matters such as "winning back a straying lover" or "craving acknowledgment from a self-centered boss." She probably would add, "or persuading your book group that your opinion is the one that counts." But we think she would agree that the practice drills below (think of them as "maneuvers") will help you get in shape for the larger skirmishes you fight.

Drill One: Debate to Win

Dissect this book a new way. Anoint one group member (or a three-person panel if you have a large group) the debate judge and divide others into two teams. Construct simple rules regarding time and procedures. (Remember, as princessas, you should break these rules as you see fit.) Now, implement Machiavella's advice.

The winning side gets all. And it should aim high, insisting that: its point of view prevails; it gets to choose the next book the group reads; the losers prepare the food and drink at the next meeting; a troublesome member who talks too much without saying a thing will be silenced.

Remember, as a princessa, you must "ask for everything because nothing less is worth having."

Consider these "propositions" for your debate:

* Machiavelli saw war as the route to power. Machiavella does too. But the similarity ends there. Machiavelli's strategies diminish men. Machiavella's strategies elevate women.

* Gloria Steinem would love The Princessa.

* Machiavella's princessas often die tragic deaths (e.g., Joan of Arc, Billie Holiday, Diane Fossey). The risks of becoming a princessa overshadow the rewards.

* Conditions of peace and stability do not serve princessas.

* Tears are a freedom of speech issue, and breasts are a source of hidden power.

Drill Two: Dare to Tell the Truth

Tell stories. Share information. Machiavella tells us that "Listeners caught up in your story won't turn you away. It becomes their problem too. 'You win a war,' Golda [Meir] said, 'by making it everyone's, not yours alone.'"

Who in your group is princessa enough to share her story of betrayal, of struggle, of desire? Use your book group--they can become your allies. They can help you win. Tell them of your affray with a truculent client, a disloyal lover, or a wayward sibling. Which of Machiavella's strategies and tactics will work best for you in your situation? Reveal the symptoms of your fear of power or, conversely, the signs of your desire for influence that, perhaps, you have been resisting. The knowledge and experience of the group can help you get what you want, but you must dare to tell the truth.

Drill Three: Playful Preparation

Role playing is very effective for fully understanding the mind-set of an adversary. Divide your group into "princes" and "princessas" and engage in the following competitive exercises:

1. Compete for the opportunity to be Doubleday's advertising agency by presenting an advertising/promotion campaign for The Princessa. One member should play the role of Doubleday's marketing director. What are the different approaches for wooing, presenting to, winning over the marketing head? How will the creative approaches differ?

2. Each group represents a competing publisher. Establish one member to play the role of literary agent. Bid for the rights to Harriet Rubin's next book about the role of love in the workplace. Remember that your bid needs to make economic sense and that the creativity of your publishing plan for the book can be a determining factor. How will you open your bidding? How do you woo the author and agent? How do you compete with the other publisher?

3. Imagine that each group works for the same music company, working at similar jobs in the promotion department. Compete for the much coveted job as head of the department.

Questions for Discussion

Of course, you may also choose to engage in more traditional book group discourse. The questions below can help light the spark that propels your group into spirited discussion.

1. Are princessas born extraordinary? Or do they become that way because of physical and psychological separation from their families?

2. In her discussion of strategy, Machiavella says that "every act contains an enemy's entire strategy." Examine highly publicized battles in light of such insight--perhaps Hillary Rodham Clinton's battle for national healthcare, Marcia Clark's battle to prove O.J. Simpson's guilt, or Anita Hill's battle to keep Justice Clarence Thomas off the Supreme Court. How does Machiavella's insight speak to these cases?

3. What can men and women do to make their young daughters princessas-in-training? Why does "prince" have positive connotations while "princess" has negative senses?

4. Do you agree with Machiavella that women have helped erect the glass ceiling that keeps them down, mistaking survival for success?

5. Machiavella speaks of "public love." Discuss its connection to power.

6. Discuss the difference between removing bad things from life and adding good things to it.

7. Think of the things you want. Are they, as Machiavella says, "the things you need"?

8. How does Machiavella's concept of "power anorexia" apply to your life or that of any women you know?

9. Discuss the ways in which sureness of judgment is a weakness.

10. Where's the difference between accepting the victim's role and using openness and vulnerability as a strength? Is there a danger of lapsing into a victim role when employing these tactics?

11. Machiavella advocated knowing and using your subtle weapons to turn the war in your favor. On the physical side these include clothes, hair, makeup, and tears. How have you used these in the past? Did it work? How might you use them now?

12. Have you ever cried in the office? Purposefully? Why? What was the result? Would you do it again?

13. Discuss the ways in which the author uses princessa strategies, tactics, and subtle weapons to draw you in. Did you end up agreeing with her about issues on which you disagreed in the beginning?

14. Machiavella states that men crave disempowerment and are afraid of women. Do you see this in your relationship with a boss, partner, or husband?

15. Under what conditions will princessas dominate princes? When will the opposite hold true?

16. How does Machiavella make her case against the idea or wisdom of women sabotaging women? Have you ever been on the giving or receiving end of sabotage?

17. Discuss the idea of peace coming "in the thick of things, not as an aftermath."

18. Compose a joint communiqué from the field and send it to the author.

Address it as follows: Ms. Harriet Rubin, c/o Doubleday/Currency, 1540 Broadway, New York, NY 10036

Supplemental Reading (and some inspired listening*)

Arendt, Hannah and Karl Jaspers. Correspondence

Atwood, Margaret. The Robber Bride and The Handmaid's Tale and Alias Grace

Austen, Jane. Mansfield Park

Bishop, Elizabeth. The Complete Poems, 1927-1979

Cather, Willa. The Song of the Lark

Colette. Earthly Paradise

Dinesen, Isak. Out of Africa

Eliot, George. Daniel Deronda

Forster, E. M. Howards End

Franklin, Aretha. I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You )*

Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique

James, Henry. The Portrait of a Lady

Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince

McCarthy, Mary. The Group

Morrison, Toni. Beloved

Pagels, Elaine. Adam and Eve and the Serpent

Paglia, Camille. Sexual Personae

Shakespeare, William. Macbeth and King Lear

Smith, Patti. Horses *

Wolf, Naomi. Fire with Fire