Review: Harriet Rubin Gives Us A Machiavelli For Women With ‘The Princessa’

PRINCESSA: She who takes first place.

There are books that have occupied a large space in the literary scene, in business, and in life, that have been written by men and mostly speak to men. I recently read The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli and although I could dissect the book, understand what it’s about and the message it communicates, I didn’t feel that it was written with women as its audience. There are so many books like that and it shows how we still have to create space for ourselves if we want to teach and learn from each other.

In my search for books that are as powerful and as influential, I found this gem. Women have been excluded as an audience for literary texts that give advice on power, wealth, war and conflict, as though women are not meant to participate in them or in the conversation. The Princessa brings to attention how women have not had a language for the fight, be it personal, social or work-related and Harriet Rubin gives us a manual on how to face these battles. After reading this book I understood why she says women cannot rely on The Prince because it doesn’t speak to women.

What is so interesting about the book is that it brings to light how fighting men’s war and fighting by their rules don’t get women anywhere. She points out that playing by the rules of the game when the rules were not designed to enhance her strengths, will not bring us to victory.  

The Princessa is divided into three easy-to-read (I read it in one night) sections: the book of Strategy, of Tactics and of Subtle Weapons. Rubin shows us how women often fear conflict and also fear triumph because of the guilt of winning. She then gives advice on how to deal with these fears, how to fight strategically and how to win wars on our own terms.

Rubin also makes a good point when she talks about combining both the terror and the wonder of being female. She advises that women should learn to combine opposites and not use one while ashamed of the other. I absolutely agree with this because of how women are usually made to feel small or weak for things that are naturally built in us. In The Princessa we learn how to use these frowned upon qualities to our advantage when dealing with our enemies.

“Enlarge the space in which you can be strong.”

– Harriet Rubin, The Princessa

Unlike The Prince where ruthlessness and deception are mostly encouraged, The Princessa doesn’t cripple the enemy, she doesn’t fear the enemy’s strength but rather uses it, and she needs proximity to her enemy because an enemy today could be her ally tomorrow.

The last part talks about knowing your weapons and how the right weapons can turn the war in your favour. I found this so important because sometimes we don’t understand where to begin when faced with battles and conflict, and how to overcome those challenges. It could be with a lover, a friend, a boss or a business partner. With the right weapons and knowing how to use them, thriving follows.

There are a number of princessas that she mentions in the book such as Ayn Rand, Joan of Arc, Billie Holiday and Anna Akhmatova.

As a woman, I can tell you that after reading The Prince I was glad to find The Princessa. I could understand the language better. Unlike having to dissect The Prince and take from its male audience directed advice and re-piecing it together to create meaning for a woman, it spoke straight to me and I believe it’s a good manual for other women. It’s definitely for women and certainly offers good tactics and strategies that can be applied to the daily battles that we face.

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Autodidact & Bibliophile

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