Kopytoff opens his essay with a puzzle: Where is the American equivalent of Indira Gandhi, or Margaret Thatcher, or Benazir Bhutto? Given America's "long-standing egalitarian ideology and progressivist tradition," he asks, why "does the election of a woman president remain elusive" for the United States? To explore the ramifications of this question, Kopytoff looks to the differences in constraint built into cultural definitions of women's identities in different societies.
His analysis starts with a refinement of the terms used to describe social identity. He draws a distinction between what he refers to as existential identity, defined as a state of being, and role-based social identity, based on roles individuals perform or occupations they engage in. As Kopytoff develops the argument, the critical element determining the relative ease of entry into positions of power by women resides in the nature of their existential identity as defined by their society. In this view, if a broad spectrum of traits and behaviors is thought to be intrinsic to women's existential identity in a particular society, it will prove to be more constraining than a correspondingly narrower band of immanent features in another.
He describes the Suk u, of southwestern Zaire, as a group whose existential identity for women has fewer non-negotiable features and therefore allows for greater freedom. He contrasts the situation of the African "free women" with that of career women in the United States, making the point that our heavily loaded expectations of "what women are in their being" burdens and handicaps American women in their move out from the domestic world -- and certainly limits their access to positions of power. In his words, "The sheer weight of the American woman's immanent roleload...[makes] the taking on of other identities and roles a daunting prospect."