CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — As a teen, Poland's former Prime Minister Hanna Suchocka never imagined a public life. She was shy. She sat in her room reading books and dreaming. Maybe an art career. Maybe play in a cabaret. "I was silent and full of fear, fear of audiences. Everything was against being a leader," she says frankly.
Tansu Ciller's experience was completely different. From girlhood, the first female Turkish leader in 1,000 years had a "burning desire" for high office. At age 14 she told her parents she would one day be finance minister - a post she attained on her way to being prime minister from 1993 to 1996.
These stories and others were part of an unusual inauguration this week of a new body of female world leaders - designed to inspire and support a growing tide of women desiring to follow in the footsteps of Ms. Suchocka or Ms. Ciller. The 19-member council, based at Harvard University here, sports names like Kim Campbell, former prime minister of Canada; Mary McAleese, current president of Ireland; and Corazon Aquino, former president of the Philippines.
In an era of Britain's Margaret Thatcher and India's Indira Ghandi, it is easy to forget such a council was impossible 30 years ago. But the 1990s are a ripening time for women leaders.
The change is brought by a budding "female ethos" in society and a rise of women in roles of authority, including a host of executives in fields such as entertainment and information, say experts. Of the 34 women heads of state in the 20th century, 27 were elected in the past eight years - startling, considering that female political leaders were nearly nonexistent dating to early recorded history.
The council emerged out of 15 interviews with female heads of state abroad by Laura Liswood, a Fortune 500 consultant and author originally based in Seattle. Ms. Liswood found similar patterns in the women's experiences from Iceland to Bangladesh. Women leaders of all cultures complained of overscrutiny of their personal lives by the press and politicians.
She also found the women operate with a style that emphasizes what have been described as female values: consensus, concern for diversity, and an avoidance of authoritarian styles. But she found little related research on such matters.
"The council is an idea appropriate for the times," states Liswood, who now oversees the Council of Women World Leaders, permanently housed at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. "Because women have been historically out of power, when they get in power they become more symbolic than were it a man elected. We need to look more closely at this."
Visions for the future
Members were edging Wednesday toward also forming themselves into a kind of high-level advisory council. They would issue statements and shape agendas in areas such as human rights, war and peace, education, the social impact of technology, and health.
"We naturally have visions for the future," Vigdis Finnbogadottir, president of Iceland for 16 years and council head, told the Monitor. "We aren't just a women's group narrowly defined. But we will look at issues of particular interest to women."
The council will meet yearly and will join other like-minded groups, such as the Interaction Council headed by former German President Helmut Schmidt. It also aspires to be a network for women leaders, who can't rely on "old boy networks."
A Harvard critic familiar with the project thinks it is merely harmless - another coalition of world leaders that will issue statements no one reads. Partly for this reason, also, figures such as Margaret Thatcher have so far not joined up, telling Ms. Finnbogadottir in a letter that she is "too busy" to join at present.
One great surprise in the assessment of women leaders is discovering that they combine traits of great strength and empathy, rather than operating solely out of a traditional "compromise" approach.
In Suchocka's case, she was an unknown when, because of circumstances, she was appointed to the Polish parliament in 1981. But in 1982 when, in a tiny minority and at a time of martial law, she refused to vote against the dissident Solidarity trade union, she became a household name in Poland. "It was then I was born a politician," she says, "though it also looked like the end of my short career."
Ciller of Turkey ruefully reports that, while she is now a lonely oppositionist in a Muslim-oriented government, the applause that first greeted her when taking office might be attributed to views that she could be used or manipulated.
"Pretty soon they found out I was also stubborn and a fighter. They thought I would give up, I would run. When I didn't, they got angry," she told a Harvard gathering. "I'm not sure there's much love alive in politics today. But ... if you don't love your people, you don't belong in office."
Women in general still have more need for confidence and accomplishment as leaders, but their progress of late has been "rapid," says Liswood.
Liswood also finds that women's styles are impractical in some settings, and that some women need to focus more singlemindedly at times. When men set out to build a bridge, they build it, she points out. Women want to know about the relationships among the engineers and about how their families are doing.
Elements of strong leaders
On Wednesday, most council members present agreed they fit with the four most common elements found in strong leaders, as defined by Harvard scholar John Gardner. These were extensive travel, a strong moral and spiritual life, a willingness to challenge authority, and a felicity at telling stories.
Historically, women leaders are a new phenomenon - as a type of their own rather than as a reflection of male styles. Much of the impulse dates to 19th-century reform movements in the US and Britain. Some observers of the day found that relations between the sexes in "the new world" were forming in surprising ways. "The mother has more authority here," Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in "Democracy in America."
Anecdotally, says Ken Auletta of The New Yorker, women's strengths - instinct, collegiality, nonhierarchical approaches - may be better suited for the fast-moving forms that industries such as information and film are taking. New generations are emerging of men and women weaned on better communication between the sexes. Women in particular are adept at thinking through story lines; they also pay more attention to details of character, Mr. Auletta points out. He quotes a network executive who says she has no trouble talking with men under 35, but finds older men who are more competitive less easy to deal with.
Critics argue that such characterizations, while holding some important truths, may result in new forms of exclusion and stereotyping against those who don't fit the right age or gender category.