Having read an interview with Arianna Huffington by Lucy Broadbent in the Sunday Telegraph Stella magazine of last weekend, I was more than intrigued to find out whether the bestselling writer, political campaigner and editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post has changed views over the years.
Ranked by Forbes as one of the world’s most powerful women, she revolutionised news in 2005 with the first online newspaper – The Huffington Post – later selling it for $315 million while remaining editor-in-chief.
For my first book, Women, published in 1987, I interviewed her in Washington DC on issues facing women during that epoch. I found her professionally warm, convivial and a woman destined to great achievements.
Here is what she said to me on various topics – while I leave it to my readers to decide whether success and circumstances in her private life have in fact changed her zeal vis-à-vis men in general and women in particular.
The Early Influences
My mother is the ultimate earth mother. She was not just a mother to myself and my sister, but to everybody who touched her life. She is alive and is still very much an influence. She always made me feel, not so much by what she said, but often just by her attitudes, that there was nothing that was so impossible, that whatever I set my eye on I could do, so she never limited my vision. Even though I was brought up in Greece and most of my friends were getting married at eighteen, and it was still rare for a woman to have a career – all that has changed dramatically in the last twenty years, but I was born in 1950 – as far as she was concerned it was always taken for granted that my sister and I would go to university and that we would have our careers. As to which university, for some reason I decided to go to Cambridge in England, and everybody was saying, oh she’ll never get in, it’s hard for an English girl, but my mother was absolutely certain that I would. It was that kind of unconditional confidence that she had in me, as well as the unconditional loving which went hand in hand. Very often mothers who feel their children can do anything withdraw their love if they don’t, but she wasn’t like that at all. When I failed my driving test, or when I failed whatever it was at different moments of my life, her love was always there and unconditional, and hand in hand with that was that amazing sense of the sky was the limit and there was nothing I could not achieve if I really wanted it. My mother and father separated when I was ten, so it was very much a matriarchal household – just my mother, my sister and I, although my father was very close to us and still is.
Advantages and Disadvantages
I wouldn’t say that women generally lack the confidence of men. I think that in certain areas, because there aren’t so many role models, there aren’t as many women who have succeeded. It takes a more pioneering woman to set forth and do it, like a woman politician, or a woman scientist, but I don’t think that generically women have less confidence than men. In fact, you think of it, childbirth requires a lot of courage and confidence, and a lot of the primal, primitive roles that women, by virtue of who they are and by virtue of their sex, are thrown into, require a lot of courage, strength and confidence. I think it’s just a question of where they chose to channel it. It is often true that daughters are brought up in that restrictive environment, then it takes somebody more exceptional to overcome this obstacle. But you see it happening all the time.
Thank God, I don’t fear ageing, I always mention my age to everybody. It’s always been on the covers of my books, because when my first book was published I was twenty-one, so my publisher thought they should put it on the cover. I think the reason I don’t fear ageing is because I love seeing transformations in me as I grow older. There is no part of my life that I would like to go back to, which doesn’t mean I didn’t love them, but I see how much wiser I am now, and I know that, in ten years, I will think I was very foolish the way I am now. So I love the process of wisdom and ripening that comes with age. I suppose it must be a lot harder for women who are making their living through their looks, but that has never been the case with me fortunately. Those will probably have a harder time ageing, although those of them who have developed their own identity will surely be able to cope. I have met women who are older who are so attractive to men it is devastating, who are so sensual and all-enveloping and also who have that wonderful relaxation that comes with ageing. They don’t have to prove anything, and there is nothing more attractive, even sexually attractive, than a human being that doesn’t have to prove a thing. They have that sense of themselves – what the French call being well in your skin. That feeling is so attractive, and you can’t fake it, it’s as though you smell it in another human being, like an animal you can smell it. With age comes serenity, and also that feeling you can say and do anything and you don’t have to behave according to certain prescribed rules. I wrote an article for Town and Country called ‘The Eternal Feminine’, about what I find attractive in women, and I mention some of the older women I have met, like Rebecca West, who have that quality. It is not a function of looks, it is a function of personality, and that, if anything, gets bigger with age.
I never feel inhibited. In fact, that was the reason I wrote my first book, The Female Woman. When I was at Cambridge, the women’s liberation movement was at its height and I organised my farewell debate at the Cambridge Union on that subject. My theme was that women could have all the equal opportunities and equal pay they wanted and deserved, but didn’t have to deny or negate the fact that they were women; that that was really an incredible gift and it could go hand in hand with whatever other career opportunities, pay, equality we wanted. That was so natural for me, because that was how I was brought up. Even though I was surrounded by women’s inequality in our own household, I was brought up with a feeling that women could do absolutely anything and there was nothing men could do that women couldn’t.
There are disadvantages, but I am very concerned about the tendency to present women as victims. I always feel that this is not a very fruitful way to look at a problem. If we look at ourselves as being able to overcome any disadvantages – socially, by changing legislation, by changing conventions and rules, but also by overcoming them as individuals – we are if anything much more likely to see more women in positions of responsibility; rather than by taking the alternative approach, which is that women are still victimised by society, still victimised by the conventions into which they are brought up. This I find an ultimately very destructive way to look at the world. A lot of women sometimes talk in terms of being victimised by their men, their husbands or fathers, and I always feel, as I felt when I was writing the biography of Maria Callas, because she had that tendency too, that victims never change anything. If you look at yourself as a victim, the chances are you will remain in that position, because, by virtue of the way you look at yourself, you have taken away your power to act and change your condition. There are many facts that can be brought forward to show that women are still discriminated against. All I’m saying is that’s not the way to approach the problem. What we want to see is women achieving results in every area of life, with equal advantage on an equal basis. That’s what everybody agrees on, so to go on harping on women being discriminated against, women being victimised, and downtrodden, isn’t the way to go about it. It would do much more productive to go about it with the realisation that women can do anything and it is up to us the change what conditions don’t work, rather than to feel we are oppressed and thrown into extremely difficult situations.
Men’s sexuality has an urgency to it which women’s sexuality doesn’t have as much. The essential woman has her sensuality – and I prefer that word to sexuality – as a constant presence in her life, and I think the men who are really sensual are sensual throughout their lives, not just when they are in bed and having sex. That, for me, is what our culture is gradually beginning to realise after the whole permissiveness and sexual revolution, when sex was reduced to statistics and multiple orgasms and the sex act itself. We are now realising that the great sexual experiences are those that are deeply sensual. For me the real question is whether sensuality informs our whole life or just the X number of hours you are in bed with somebody.
A woman receives a man, and therefore she is left with part of him. The man can go on and it’s over, he’s released himself and he’s off to another thing, and the woman can’t really do that. She’s the one who pays the price. That’s why, in my experience, a woman needs to feel the man is still there in some way. Sex within a relationship is so different from casual sex because, in a relationship, a woman can surrender, and I don’t believe sex means anything without surrendering. If you don’t trust enough to surrender. It’s so mechanical.
I’ve never had an abortion, and obviously I wouldn’t have an abortion now, but looking back on my life I would always have been extremely reluctant. It is not an ideological thing. I would never say that women should not have abortions. I don’t believe in that. It is an individual choice. But I do think women should know the price they are paying. It is absurd that there are so many abortions with contraception being as available as it is, and women knowing as much as they do about the risks of getting pregnant. I think we have so many abortions partly because we have not really stressed the psychological price a woman pays when she has an abortion.
I have a lot of very close men friends who are not lovers, who have never been lovers, and every man who has been involved in my life, every man with whom I have had an important relationship, is still a great friend, and I also have a lot of great women friends. So, in my case, I would say that the only thing all my close friends have in common is not their sex but their ability to be intimate and communicate in a deeper way and let the barriers and the masks down. Otherwise it’s just a waste of time for me. I’ve had long relationships with me which were very profound and very important, but something happens when you commit yourself to that one person for life, when you take those vows. It is mystical, it is not anything rational. For me, marriage is beyond anything else I’ve experienced.
I always knew that I would get married. I always had this longing to find my mate, a kind of underlying longing in my life, and to have that longing fulfilled has brought me an incredible peace and serenity. It’s a very deep feeling of having arrived somewhere that I didn’t know I was really going. I think it is a deep longing in everybody, and I had a very deep longing in me, to find my mate, that human being with whom I wanted to share everything, and sharing everything with somebody is something extraordinary. I feel that a marriage, when it works, is something truly cosmic, not just two people coming together. It’s something which goes beyond anything which I have experienced. There is such a foundation of strength from which to approach the world, and such a self-contained nurturing. It’s not a question of being together all the time, because Michael works very hard and comes back very late, and I work particularly hard all day when I have a deadline looming. It’s just knowing the other person is there. I just love being at a party with him, and even when we are at opposite ends of the room, there is this kind of cord that connects us, and the intuitive ways of knowing each other and knowing what the other person is thinking, of keeping discovering each other. I really think it’s the greatest adventure anybody can embark on, and I feel like a child about it. There is something very sacred.
I feel that a lot of marital breakdown has to do with our expectation and the way, culturally, we’ve been brought up. We have a wonderful friend in Houston who is the Dean of Christchurch Cathedral there, who has written a book called Becoming Married, and he talks about the fact that marriage is not a process that ends when you get married in church, when you make those vows, but a process of becoming married. It goes on and on, it isn’t a process of living happily ever after, which is where the mythology of marriage is so confusing and misleading. I really think we need a new mythology, a new archetype around which to build our expectations of marriage and that, for me, would be what our friend calls becoming married. The day we take our vows is the day we commit ourselves to this adventure, and every day brings us closer to becoming married, but it’s not achieved the day we get married. That way, all the downturns the conflicts, the sandpapering that goes on in a relationship are included in our expectations. People are all looking for something, and we think we are going to find it through another human being, and for me the ultimate thing we’re looking for is our relationship with God. I feel that when that third partner is there in the relationship, that’s what gives you the strength that is able to withstand whatever problems and difficulties will inevitably result in any relationship. If I look back at my life, I have grown more through the painful experiences than the joyful ones. It’s awful to say, and I wish it was different, but that’s how it is. I know that Michael have found that, through adversity, the things we found most difficulty understanding about each other were the moments of growth in our intimacy. What I’m saying is that, if we are looking to find that ultimate communication, ultimate union through another human being without the existence of God, the divine spirit, whatever you call it, we’re going to keep looking. We’ll get divorced in the hope that the next person is going to bring it to us. I feel that every human being ultimately has what I will call in a book I want to write one day the fourth basic instinct: the instinct towards wholeness, completeness, communion with the Divine. I feel that it is a very deep instinct in each human being, whether we know it or not, that drives us to art, religion altruism. So to fulfil that instinct, and that is the misconception. The mate can be a partner in that adventure.
There are certain men, and I’m lucky my husband is one, who can take you for a cappuccino in the local coffee shop and make it an adventure, who can make the commonplace and the everyday seem quite magical. That is a real gift, because there are men who can take you on safari and make it as boring as going to the grocer’s.
I’m kind of reluctant to talk about women in general, because I’ve met so many different women who have demonstrated every conceivable characteristic. Even talking about myself, I see certain ways in which I am different from most men. I was thirty-five when I married, but now I’m married I feel my relationship with my husband is the most important thing in my life. It’s become the pivot around which my life revolves, and I wouldn’t have thought would be the case at all when I was single and very much a career woman and very much in my work. It doesn’t mean that my work isn’t terribly important to me now, but ultimately my marriage and my relationship with my husband comes first. Now, that’s not anything to do with ideology or how it should be, or anything that comes from a mental decision, it is simply the way my heart tells me I want my life to be, it’s just a heart decision. I feel I’m now acting more from my heart and less from my mind. Now, there are people who will say that this is a woman’s characteristic. I don’t know. I see a lot of men who act from their heart, and a lot of women who act from their mind. I used to act almost entirely from my mind – I was as cerebral a creature as you would hope to find. So what’s happening is that a lot of women and a lot of men in their own lifetimes evolve the masculine and feminine part in themselves, and that fascinates me. That’s why I hesitate to talk about women doing this and men doing that. I feel we are moving towards an era where men will develop more and more the feminine in them, the intuitive, the supportive and nurturing part, and women will develop more the assertive part of them, keeping it at the same time hand in hand with the nurturing of the family, whereas ten or twenty years ago they felt they had to reject the nurturing and the family in order to achieve the more assertive part of their personality.
Simply by virtue of the way men and women are built, there is a difference that is fundamental. If you take the sexual act, women are somehow made to be more receptive. That doesn’t mean that they cannot also be assertive and everything, but there is a fundamental assertiveness in the male make-up. All this can become pathological, and you get the assertiveness becoming aggressiveness and the receptivity becoming a kind of masochistic surrendering, but there is no question that there are fundamental differences. Now, these differences do not in my opinion affect anything a woman can or cannot do, but they do affect our basic psychological make-up and we cannot ignore that. In the same way, when you look at statistics and say there are only so many women in this area and only so many in that area, you forget how many women still choose primarily to be mothers and wives, and that many women who enter the workforce do it not because of any grand reasons of achieving equality with men, but because they need the money.
Being vulnerable, surrendering to life, is so important, and I feel that, as a woman, it is easier to do that. It takes a more exceptional man who can allow himself to be vulnerable and allow himself to surrender to the process of life and still be able to make a difference, and make things happen, and contribute and be assertive. That combination comes easier to a woman than to a man, and therefore we are very blessed. We don’t have to be exceptional to achieve the magical combination.