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The British author J.K. Rowling, who wrote the Harry Potter books, fired the imaginations of millions of children all over the world, changed their reading habits, creating an entire industry out of the books, and along the way, earned a large fortune (Forbes magazines recently estimated she is worth around $1 billion). It is not hard to see her as one of the most influential women in the world today.

Angela Merkel, the first woman to serve as Germany's chancellor (the feminine form of the German word for chancellor starting to be used following the formation last November of the government headed by Merkel), is a familiar face even outside her state. A leading Polish newspaper referred to Merkel as "Mrs. Europe." She was able to achieve an agreement on the European Union's budget and also represented Europe well before the United States: She made the U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, herself a prominent woman in an internationally powerful position, acknowledge recently that the U.S. erred in its cruel treatment of Iraqi detainees.

Nevertheless, for the most part, influence in general - and women's influence in particular - is a complicated, elusive matter that is not at all a given.

Sometimes influence is equated with power and wealthy women or those with powerful positions are included among the list of influential women, as in the list published in the Lady Globes newspaper last Rosh Hashanah, which included: Dr. Dorit Dor, the vice president for product development at Check Point; Smadar Barber Tzadik, the deputy director general of the First International Bank of Israel; Hagit Adler, the deputy director general of marketing at Tnuva and Ronit Raphael, the owner of a chain of cosmetic clinics.

According to this view, a woman who obtains a managerial position is considered influential, even if only because there are still only a few women in managerial positions, and they are such a novelty. Forbes magazine also cited women who are in academia and research, including Dr. Bracha Zisser, the founder and director of the bone marrow bank; and Prof. Anat Biletzki, who was the head of Tel Aviv University's philosophy department and the chairman of B'Tselem, the human rights organization.

When another financial magazine, Fortune, recently presented a list of the most powerful women in the world, it almost exclusively mentioned managers in large corporations - that is, the power of these women to be influential is perceived in terms of control in large business organizations. In first place, was Anne Lauvergeon, a Frenchwoman who is the chairman of the Areva group, the world's largest nuclear technology company.

Lauvergeon is a director at Vodaphone, the world's fourth largest telecom company. Fortune's list also included Ofra Strauss-Lahat, the Israeli chair of Strauss-Elite (which moved from 45th place last year to 42nd place this year). The question one should perhaps ask about the influence of these powerful women, in the gender and personal context is the following: Would the systems they head look different if a man or another woman was in their place?

In other words, do they have an influence that goes beyond their managerial authority? Did they change the managerial position in such way that renews the way of thinking and working relations in their company? Or did these women merely break through the glass ceiling to gain a position of power that was already molded and shaped by and for them by the system (which in any case was essentially shaped by men)?

No hitches or changes

An important change in the company is attributed to Dr. Dorit Dor, the vice president of the Internet security software giant, Check Point. She increased the output of the production line fourfold. In other words, Dor's influence seems to be purely business related. And how do we consider the influence of public relations consultant, G. Yafit? Does the fact that with her unusual methods she helps companies advertise their products and convinces buyers to purchase them rightly grant her the status of "an influential woman"?

In the political realm, Globes chose Minister Tzipi Livni as woman of the year, and behind her on the list were former education minister Limor Livnat and Ronit Tirosh, the former director general of the Education Ministry and now a candidate on the Kadima list running for the Knesset. The latter two clearly were influential - they spearheaded the plan to privatize the education system, which is a controversial issue in the current election campaign. Some might consider this a negative influence, but it is still influence.

There are some who include in the list of influential women in the world well-known figures - wealthy film stars such as Reese Witherspoon, Julia Roberts, Nicole Kidman and Cameron Diaz, who earn millions of dollars for a single movie. However, it seems that unlike another well-known and rich woman, the singer Madonna, who is constantly reinventing her sexual, spiritual and fashion messages, the influence of Hollywood actresses is of the kind that perpetuates the existing order of things - the model of beauty and the conservative stories Hollywood tells. Therefore it may be said that this is not influence at all.

But there are also very wealthy and famous women who are influential in the deeper and interesting sense of the concept - that is, they changed the world order, shaped new ways of thinking and new life styles, thanks to charisma, status, money and publicity.

Gloria Steinem, a feminist leader and one of the most influential women of the 20th century in the U.S. (her name, for some reason, does not reverberate in Israel), recently explained in Time magazine why Oprah Winfrey was included in the list of the world's most influential people: if you are among the 30 million Americans who watch "Oprah" every week - without mentioning the millions who watch her in 100 other countries around the world - then you have been privileged to see a woman with street smarts who brings into our lives an unprecedented variety of people and information.

Winfrey, 51, who was born into an impoverished family and whose wealth is now estimated to be $1 billion, creates, according to Steinem, an accurate and rare form of democracy. She makes viewers feel it is possible to change and to be extricated from difficult situations. And incidentally, she is instilling the masses with the habit of reading literature. That is not an insignificant thing.

In the same clearly influential medium, there are other influential women, such as Christiane Amanpour of CNN or Ilana Dayan of Israel's Channel 2. They are women who are able to focus attention on social and political issues that interest them and in that way they influence public discourse.

Waiting for Hillary

In a world where an absolute majority of the positions of power are still clearly shaped and filled by men, it is hard to thing of women as influential as the likes of Bill Gates or the guys who brought the Google search engine to the world, or the documentary film maker Michael Moore, or U.S. President George W. Bush. It is possible that Senator Hillary Clinton might change the situation in the next U.S. presidential elections.

One way or another it seems it is possible to divide most of the world's influential women into three categories: the ruler, the rebel and the critic. Among the rulers, one can include Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark; the president of Latvia, Vaira Vike-Freiburga; the first woman to become president of Chile, Michelle Bachelet, and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who was sworn in as president of Liberia in January.

The British monarch, Queen Elizabeth, is also influential in her kingdom - she still contributes to the shaping of the national image there in all matters relating to the nobility, manners and family rules and rituals. And apropos the queen, mention can also be made of wealthy women philanthropists whose money influences large groups of weaker classes (Bill Gates' wife, Melinda Gates, was recently mentioned as an influential woman; Shari Arison is considered a major donor), but they contribute and at the same time also perpetuate the inequality and therefore their influence is limited.

In the category of influential rebels - that is, the women who are influential thanks to their flouting of conventions - one can include in addition to Madonna, in the popular lifestyle category, Italian designer Miuccia Prada, who told New Yorker magazine journalist Michael Specter that she wants to control the world and the name Prada to be huge, and that she also wants to create what she wants to wear. Prada is considered an exceptional example of a successful avant-gardist, a rebel who is able to create trends and imitators and new ideas about beauty and comfort and the essence.

Stirring the imagination

Among the critics - women who offered a unique voice, raised new issues for public discourse and sometimes motivated the masses to act - one can include writers such as the Canadian Naomi Klein, the author of "No Logo," and Arundhati Roy, the Indian author of "The God of Small Things" and "The Cost of Living." Both write syndicated articles that are published in a number of leading newspapers around the world.

Any time there is an analysis of globalization or the war in Iraq, Klein's critical voice is heard. Every time there is talk of multiculturalism or the exploitative relationship between America and the East, Roy reacts as if she were the official spokeswoman of the subcontinent. Ahead of George W. Bush's most recent visit to her country, Roy wrote a stinging article that appeared under the heading "Baby Bush Go Home" and was printed among others in the British paper, The Guardian and the U.S. paper, The Nation.

"It's not in our power to stop Bush's visit, it is in our power to protest it and we will," she wrote. The American essayist Barbara Ehrenreich, the author of "Nickled and Dimed," influences writers around the world. In the wake of her work, journalists went out to write about the situation of minimum wage workers in their own countries. The journalist Shelly Yachimovich, here in Israel, was very influential by bringing economic and social critiques to the centrist stream in the electronic media. It will be interesting to see her influence when she serves in the next Knesset and moves into a position of power.

In the cultural realm there are spheres of influence, such as book reviews, that were considerably weakened in the post-modernist multi-channel era. It is hard to think of critics whose word can make or break something today, who shape not only the book market but also the way in which we talk about writing and think about the world portrayed in books.

It is even harder to think of women critics whose voices reverberate. After the death of Batya Gur and alongside the book critic Ariana Melamed, in Israel one can cite Yael Dar, the children's books critic for the Haaretz book supplement, as an authoritative person who truly influences the buying and reading habits of parents and their children.

When thinking of the great influential female artists and critics of the 20th century - Virginia Woolf, Melanie Klein, Simone de Beauvoir, Hannah Arendt, Betty Friedan, women who made us think of the world in new, refreshing, exciting, intense, shocking and liberating terms - it seems for a moment that there is no comparable to them living among us today. But that is an approach that errs by being nostalgic for the sake of nostalgia.

Julia Kristeva, in the realm of psychology, Naomi Klein in world economics, Naomi Wolf the feminist, for issues of motherhood and gender, Toni Morrison in writing and the issue of racism - to name a few prominent women - are contemporary women who still fire the imagination. And it is no coincidence that the American feminist, Judith Butler fills halls when she comes to lecture at universities all over the world, including in Tel Aviv.

The way Butler analyzes the very concept of gender - not only is a woman not born a woman, as de Beauvoir put it, but also there isn't a single woman who was molded as a woman - this idea has a liberating influence and it shakes the foundations of the concepts "Woman's Day" and "an influential woman."