Exploring power with rather than power over
In the same year as Ely & Meyerson’s amazing article regarding the malleability of masculinity, Euro-American columnist Nicholas D. Kristof and Asian-American lecturer and business executive Sheryl WuDunn — both also married, journalists, and Pulitzer Prize winners — publish Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. In a sweeping, journalistic writing style which leaps from story to story and continent to continent, the authors relate how, against staggering odds, women across the world struggle fiercely for autonomy, equality, and freedom — then call upon their readers to take action by sending money to fund schools and microfinance loans, in order to assist these brave women. The interviews are often heart-wrenching, and the authors are passionate in their mission to bring attention to what is likely the most pervasive and on-going human rights violation in the world: the historical and continued violence and oppression endured by women in the developing world.
Curiously, while the authors do indeed celebrate an international array of women and girls for their individual struggles against misogynistic cultural rituals such as female genital mutilation, sex trafficking, and gender-based violence and poverty, there seems to be no real call within the book for profound organizational and social change through the work of men as well as women. If anything the authors appear to have very little conception of patriarchal cultures where women’s social roles are so rigidly circumscribed that women and girls are left with few viable alternatives, either socially or economically. In these situations women can often become forced by cultural circumstance to assist in atrocities against other women.
We see an example in Miré’s elderly midwife and circumciser, in fact — but where Soraya Miré recognizes and respects the midwife’s efforts on the part of women despite being caught in a hopeless situation, Kristof and WuDunn’s highly critical analysis of women in similar situations feels disturbingly to me as if they are blaming the victims. This horrific situation is further complicated by the book’s lack of effective social critique of the imperialistic behaviors on the part of Western countries which lead to still-continued damage and colonization of the developing world. Such a limited portrayal of world events creates a disturbing — and emphatically false! — impression for the reader: that the authors believe these women’s rights issues are troubling only for people of color within the non-Western nations.
To be fair, much as in Gilmore’s Misogyny there is empirical significance in the collecting together of so many and varied instances of abuse towards women — despite their almost numbingly depressing abundance — and, in the case of Half the Sky, there is further value and hope in seeing the multiple creative, energetic ways in which women are reclaiming their agency. However, while education and economic independence (which the authors passionately urge their readers to assist financially in creating) is an excellent first step towards creating agency for women, it leaves unaddressed the myriad cultural issues which have reduced women to their current cultural and economic poverty. An axiological social change is required as well — one in which women become valued and respected once more. Unfortunately the authors do not touch on this worldwide predicament whatsoever; I was left wondering if the goal of resolving this issue had even occurred to them.
Fortunately, a veritable how-to of accomplishing such goals is the focus of the next selection: a book released the next year in 2011 by American ecofeminist, Neopagan, and social activist Starhawk, titled The Empowerment Manual: A Guide for Collaborative Groups. The author’s marvelously warm-hearted book straightforwardly helps ensure a smoothly functioning horizontal organization of shared power and leadership from below, which is most effective in harnessing the passionate ideals, knowledge and skills, and energy of individuals gathered to promote a shared vision.
Starhawk has clearly sat through far too many difficult meetings, for which I am grateful — since it means her readers do not have to. She presents her book as a means of recognizing the ancient power of decentralized collaboration: “perhaps the oldest way that human beings have come together to pursue common goals” (Starhawk, 2). I am still learning about collaborative groups, but I feel they are both startlingly underrated and incredibly important in this patriarchally consumerist and hierarchically racist and sexist world. Starhawk puts it best: “When we set out to change the world, when we organize to bring about greater freedom, justice, peace and equality, we most often create such groups. Collaborative groups embody some of our most cherished values: equality, freedom, and the value of each individual” (Starhawk, 2). With an introduction such as this, I had to include this book in this subsection.
Wise and witty, an articulate thinker and an engaging writer, Starhawk gently lays out calm and easily accessible ways and means — never hard and fast rules — of thriving through post-hierarchical consensus practices and horizontal organization. Her often-entertaining explanatory examples concerning Rootbound, a fictional ecovillage, are rounded out with straightforward, thought-provoking exercises designed to promote cohesive collaborative decision-making. Further, despite the pervadingly gloomy mainstream consensus regarding the modern unworkability of horizontal organizations, the author’s chapter on “difficult people” is to me a marvel of serene compassion in defusing deliberate obstreperousness through effective group dynamics and ensuring everyone is heard.
Intriguingly, while Starhawk herself passionately believes in the spirituality of activism, she writes this book so that it will assist and appeal to the less spiritually minded as well. A personally uncomfortable and powerfully relevant example was her framing of most collaborative group conflicts not as “Good vs. Evil” but rather “Good vs. Good” (Starhawk, 162), where ardent devotion to an ideal may cause two or more well-meaning individuals to miscommunicate and frame their disagreement as a moral test — which the disagreeing other has automatically failed.