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  • The Princessa
  • Written by Harriet Rubin
  • Format: Trade Paperback | ISBN: 9780440508328
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The Princessa

Machiavelli for Women

Written by Harriet RubinAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Harriet Rubin

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A legacy of leadership for women only.

For centuries men have used the lessons of Machiavelli's The Prince to gain and hold power. Today's women, struggling to succeed in a man's world, must learn a crucial lesson of their own: men and women are not equal--and that is a woman's greatest strength. From the wars of intimacy to battles of public life, whether confronting bosses, competitors, or lovers, the greatest power belongs to the woman who dares to use the subtle weapons that are hers alone.

This provocative work urges women to claim what they want and deserve, offering a bold new battle plan that celebrates a woman's unique gifts: passion and intuition, sensitivity and cunning. It draws from history's legendary female divas and poets, saints and sinners, artists and activists--who, armed with a desire for justice and a spirit of outrageousness, achieved their impossible dreams. Their lasting legacy is codified in The Princessa: act like a woman, fight like a woman, and life will be yours to command.


A prince is a man among men, a canny fighter, a steely sovereign who takes what he wants out of life.  The term has been one of honor, but the feminine corollary--princess--has been a term of derision, until now.

Katherine Anne Porter said it best: "What a man did only for God, a woman did always for a man."  But now a princessa may do for herself.  I offer you this parable: Two sisters embarked on a journey.  After a long day, they finally arrived at their hotel room.  The room was adequate but not comfortable.  The younger sister was satisfied, but the older insisted they move immediately. "Each night in my life is as important as any other night," she explained to her weary sister.

A princessa, like Machiavelli's prince, is a woman among women, a canny fighter, a steely sovereign.  Take what you want out of life, and remember: Each night is as important as every other night; each day is yours for the taking.

Letter from the Machiavella I Have Become to the Reader, the Princessa of a Troubled, Embattled Domain

I have written this book for you, princessa.  Like Machiavelli's prince, you may be sitting alone somewhere safe, wanting to take control of your life, your loves, your problems--the way the young Florentine prince was desperate to take control of a kingdom run amok.  At that moment, Machiavelli appeared on the Medici palace scene to tell the prince stories and lessons of how the great Caesars and Spaniards and Popes triumphed over similar woes by fighting.

This book is about war, not the bloody kind, not the kind provoked by Caesar's hatreds or Sun Tzu's deceits or Napoleon's egomania.  It's about the wars of intimacy, where the enemy is close enough to hurt you, betray you, oppose you, whether it be a spouse, boss, client, parent, child.  It is about war as the route to power. By war, I mean conflict.  By conflict, I mean a particular kind of relationship with others, with yourself, and with the world.  Conflict is contact.  It requires power; it builds power.

In every encounter, one person always has more command over the situation than the other--and may contest you for the things you want.  If you lose, you lose your struggle to have a better, fairer, nobler, and sweeter life.  Most of us have had no way to express the fight that we keep locked up inside--all those unreached desires--except through tears of frustration or grief, anger, depression, silence, and submission--all of which can mean instant and irrecoverable losses.

I have found a way for a woman to become the artist of her anger and her desire.

The need for these skills dawned on me one night when I was sitting in the Palace Bar in San Francisco.  It was 2 a.m. The piano player had long since fled.  But my friends Nora and Judith and I weren't going anywhere, even though Nora was on deadline and Judith was trying not to think about where her lover would end up that night--with her or with someone else.  I'd promised to call D. when I got back to my hotel, but the sound of his voice was a cold shower I didn't want to feel, the voice of a man who had walked out on me the times I needed him most.  What was wrong with us, three women who trotted success around on a leash like a prizewinning dog?  Why were we scared of facing our own lives?  Why were we warriors nothing, really, but wimps?

Here we were, three formidable women, all capable of negotiating multimillion-dollar deals, but not our own raises.  Control freaks though we are, we consistently get involved in relationships where we relinquish control and end up playing the game our lovers' way.  Strong though we are, we ask for so little, and then are surprised when we get it.  Days when I walk to work in Times Square, I see sign after sign promoting LIVE GIRLS ON STAGE!  I may hate what the signs represent but can still appreciate the irony: live girls deserve to be stars; on the street, I pass droves of deadened women, their eyes blank, their expressions passive, their egos reduced by their own negative expectations.

Until now, women have had no language for the fight.  We have not been able to express our desire for power.  I knew that I wanted power, but I didn't know how to acquire it.  When I became a book editor, I found myself working with CEOs to help them craft the books that assured them of an intellectual legacy. I taught myself how to be their publisher, the businesswoman they trusted to do well by their deals and their words.  When I became their intellectual confidante, I came closer and closer to the center of what made them tick.

One highly reclusive CEO invited me into his inner chamber and asked me to analyze its passageways and corners as if I were analyzing his mind.  From their boardrooms to their emotions, I got to study a variety of business leaders and management gurus, trend setters and strategists up close.  I became the repository of their confessions, their ambitions, their fears, and so much else.  They told me how they made their fortunes.  They showed me how to take command of underlings and lieges.  Everything I learned from them taught me how to rise in the corporation.  How to thrive in a relationship. How to take what I wanted from the world.

Unless we learn to take for ourselves, we are doomed to be princessas-in-hiding forever, not governing a palace but trapped in the Palace Bar, protected by our failure.

You are going to read here about women who have won the rule of their domain. You will learn about strategies to win the wars of intimacy.  I will not let you turn away from this quest.  The cost of that would be your life, your happiness.  "If I'd known how to fight," a friend's mother once said, "I would have lived a better life."

"Learn not to be careful," the photographer Diane Arbus insisted with her students.  Careful is safe, peaceful, and on the sidelines of the action.

That night I decided to step into Machiavelli's shoes, to apply all that I had learned finally to my own benefit.

I will teach you war.
Harriet Rubin

About Harriet Rubin

Harriet Rubin - The Princessa
Harriet Rubin has worked in publishing for twenty years. In 1989 she founded Currency, where she has published the works of leading executives, economists, management gurus, and CEOs. She has written for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Publishers Weekly, and women's magazines. She lives in New York City.


"Rubin's insights are brilliant in their simplicity and effectiveness...a book sure to be underlined, dog-eared, and re-read for inspiration and aid."
--USA Today

"A beautiful book, full of wisdom."
--Atlanta Business Chronicle
About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions

About the Guide

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."

Discussion Guides

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 communique from the field and send it to the author.

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