Closely examining our matrifocal past and present offers a solid basis from which to theorize a possible healthier future — one not damagingly based in androcentrism. Such a future will not come about on its own, of course; if women are to regain their rightful positions as cultural creators and leaders then they will have to actively step forward and make it happen — and, just as importantly, they will have to convince men to join them in this worthy endeavor. To withstand the current heavily patriarchal cultural pressure will require remarkable strength, endurance, and wisdom, as is depicted in Audre Lorde’s visionary “Poetry is Not A Luxury.”
Originally published in 1977, this short but extremely powerful prose piece is a heartfelt cry for women to “cherish our feelings, and to respect those hidden sources of our power from where true knowledge and, therefore, lasting action comes” (Lorde, 37). Particularly inspiring — and intensely applicable to every woman who has chosen to listen to her inner self — is Lorde’s superb description of poetry as “a revelatory distillation of experience” (Lorde, 37) through which “we form those ideas by which we pursue our magic and make it realized” (Lorde, 36). As Lorde notes, feelings are not wasteful luxuries — any more than is a desire for a life free of poverty, of want and fear and hunger. They are instead that whisper heard in dreams: “I feel, therefore I can be free” (Lorde, 38) that is a woman’s place of power — leading to inspiration, action, and change. It is in that beautifully evocative poetry of distilled experience-made-action that I wish to powerfully ground and locate my dissertation.
Some of the questions which truly need answering in our society: why have we convinced ourselves that violence is normal — and that we must meet it with ever-escalating levels of yet more violence? Why not instead choose to believe in — and act toward — a life based in “respect and love and sharing and cooperation and harmony” (Manitonquat, 87)? These very questions are addressed in Liberian peace activist, social worker, women’s rights advocate, and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Leymah Gbowee’s painful and brutally honest memoir, released in 2013: Mighty be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed A Nation at War. Only 17 years old and with a bright future ahead of her at the war’s onset, Gbowee relates the intertwined spiral of loss and destruction suffered simultaneously by her country and she herself, as the revolution overcomes Liberia and a ruthless and corrupt dictator sets himself into power.
Gbowee’s story clearly reflects the terrible and gender-specific impact for women of being trapped in an environment of war-time conflict and repression — a story tragically echoed by women living in other ravaged countries as well: loss of education and later (potential) career opportunities, forced displacement, hunger and helpless anger, violence and rape, loss of family and fear for one’s very life. Searching for safety and succor from the constant fear, Gbowee finds momentary refuge with a married man. Unfortunately he gives her not just four children — whom she does refer to as her greatest joy — but also an abusive relationship, and she descends into alcoholism and its accompanying crippling insecurity, self-doubt, and struggle against failure.
Even when overwhelmed by the morass of her life, however, Gbowee clings to her faith; though the journey is slow and sometimes erratic, this proves to be her lifeline back to self-respect and dignity. Through her church Gbowee begins the Trauma Healing and Reconciliation Program, learning critical techniques for both speaking out and giving women a voice. Rather than assisting only through religious or ethnic lines, the author organizes a new group — the Liberian Mass Action for Peace — which addresses the entire sisterhood of women devastated by war. These women, both Christian and Muslim, understand that they may lack the physical power of weaponry, but when they act and speak together they have a deeply spiritual emotional power.
Recognizing that it is women who most suffer during war, Gbowee’s women strongly believe the healing and peace process begins with them communicating and hearing their experiences and their desires for the destruction and violence to finally stop. Together they channel the energy of pain and bitterness into productive, determined action, speaking powerfully against the war.
Dressed in white and carrying signs as they march peacefully, these mothers, sisters, and daughters sing and pray daily in public events so they will be seen by the country’s current governmental heads. Indeed, during fruitless peace talks where the (all male) members and leaders seemed to be slacking off for several days, the women take the radical step of barricading the men into the conference room, insisting on progress towards peace and reconciliation before they will relent. Even when the war is finally over, however, the women know their work is not yet done since, as the author herself poignantly notes:
The psychic damage was almost unimaginable. A whole generation of young men had no idea who they were without a gun in their hands. Several generations of women were widowed, had been raped, seen their daughters and mothers raped, and their children kill and be killed. … To a person, we were traumatized. We had survived the war, but now we had to remember how to live. Peace isn’t a moment — it’s a very long process. (Gbowee, 168)
Gbowee does not sugarcoat the sacrifices she has made in her struggle to stop the war, build peace, and empower women to do so; she is quite honest in noting the struggle continues and will take a very long time:
Peace-building to me isn’t ending a fight by standing between two opposing forces. It’s healing those victimized by war, making them strong again, and bringing them back to the people they once were. It’s helping victimizers rediscover their humanity so they can once again become productive members of their communities. Peace-building is teaching people that resolving conflict can be done without picking up a gun. It’s repairing societies in which the guns have been used, and not only making them whole, but better. (Gbowee, 82)
Gbowee and all the women who worked and struggled and bled and wept with her recognize the war may be over for now, but if this fragile reconciliation is to last then women still need to participate fully in the difficult efforts to build peace — both through the grueling post-conflict reconstruction, and in the political process of creating a truly inclusive democracy. Her painfully honest words are an inspiring refusal to the normalization of violence, and a challenge for us to continue the struggle towards a life based in harmonious respect, compassionate cooperation, and caring love. Having so much more, how dare we do any less?