Feminist power

Author: Shotgun Seamstress

[Complete version of this piece on the Shotgun Seamstress blog]

Everyone’s different, so not everyone’s going to agree about whether feminism is still relevant or necessary. I mean, if you’re a middle class, college educated white lady with a sensitive white guy boyfriend and you feel liberated cuz you have a hyphenated last name, maybe you feel like the coast is clear and that women are no longer oppressed and we don’t need feminism anymore. I have to explain why I think that the idea that feminism is irrelevant is bullshit.

Even though I’m black and gay, I don’t really identify as oppressed because I live in the U.S. and I can live where I want and travel around and I have a roof over my head and I’ve had a lucky life with relatively minor things to complain about. But I don’t feel like we still need feminism because I specifically believe that all women are oppressed relative to me. I believe that feminism is still relevant because it speaks to the necessity to generally redefine power in our society and globally.

When we were starting the Portland chapter of Anarchist People of Color in 2003, I remember sitting in the small group that comprised us, talking about how we wanted to define ourselves. I remember talking about how even though I considered myself an anarchist, in my heart, I identified with feminism the most and I wanted that to somehow be reflected in our organization. My fellow organizer expressed that there were aspects of feminism that she just couldn’t relate to. I told her I felt the same way about anarchism, picturing Rick Mackin and his ilk, in all their manarchist glory. We decided to compromise and define ourselves as an anarcho-feminist group, and since then I’ve been able to see more and more clearly how these two concepts work together and help us think of new ways to redistribute and rethink power dynamics.

For me, being a feminist means learning not to put the idea of expertise on a pedestal. Somehow along the way, I realized that prioritizing technical knowledge over experiential knowledge is patriarchal. What does it mean to “know how” to do something? Why isn’t the action of doing something evidence that you know how to do it? Why do people, especially women, convince themselves that they don’t know how to do things they already do? Why is it perceived that there is only one correct way to do something and that you probably need to take lessons or read a manual in order to learn it?

Knowledge really is power. Convincing yourself or allowing yourself to be convinced that you don’t or can’t know things is dis-empowering. I recently checked out this book  The Power of Feminist Theory: Domination, Resistance, Solidarity by Amy Allen. Allen breaks down three ways of defining power: as a resource, as domination and as empowerment. Feminists who think of power as a resource are basically the ones who think of Hillary Clinton as their saviour. They see power as a resource that has been unequally distributed and they think everything will be fine once women have as much access to power as men. They want more female CEOs and politicians. They don’t see anything wrong with the power structure as long as women have an equal place in it.

Feminists who see power as domination define all women as oppressed compared to all men. They wish to end male domination and see power as something defined only by patriarchal violence and the subjugation of women. This conception of power is very black & white and relies on a strict dichotomy, and it doesn’t do a very good job accounting for how race, class and numerous other factors change the experience of power for men and women. Plus, not everyone’s either a man or a woman, right?

Then there’s the idea of power as empowerment. Empowerment is just a new way to define power—not as domination, but as “the ability to transform oneself, others, and the world,” writes Allen. It means that if you have confidence, skills or knowledge, you don’t lord it over other people or use it to bolster your own ego, you share it. It’s about seeing power as a nurturing force in the world. Allen writes that the main influence for this idea of empowerment is motherhood (in it’s most ideal incarnation)—fostering growth, not submission through domination. This type of power benefits everyone, not just women, and it can be applied to a variety of relationships, not just ones between women and men. It also works really well with anti-authoritarian and non-hierarchical ways of organizing ourselves. Power to the people, not over the people, right? This is an old idea that has yet to gain the popularity it deserves.

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