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
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
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
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
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
* Conditions of peace and stability do not serve princessas.
* Tears are a freedom of speech issue, and breasts are a source of
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
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
17. Discuss the idea of peace coming "in the thick of things, not as an
18. Compose a joint communiqué from the field and send it to the
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