On the bulletin board outside my office, I have a cartoon which was drawn by Ben Wicks. It shows one bad tempered looking man sitting behind a desk, and another, somewhat harried and worried-looking man standing in front of him holding a piece of paper. The one with the paper looks down at it as if reading it and says "It's from the feminists; they have the bomb." When I first saw this cartoon it delighted me. I laughed as a momentary fantasy flashed through my mind, a fantasy of what it would be like to have the power to hold the world to ransom and get, in one minute, what the various waves of hard-working, rational, fairminded, humanistic feminists have been fighting for a very long time. It was weirdly funny to imagine this kind of transformation in the world, all because of feminists having in their hands the awesome power to destroy.

The more I look at that cartoon, however, the sadder it makes me. Women, so far, have been burdened, in a man's world, largely because we have the power to create, to bring new human life into the world, and between that kind of creation, and the growing and preparation of most of the food that gets eaten by human beings all over the world, the care for the sick and the aged, and all the myriad human tasks that keep the world going, we have not achieved anything like the full human equality, recognition and power which justice demands. Women grow most of the food that gets eaten by people in the world; women do more than 70% of the world's' work, yet women own about 1% of its property. The cartoon now makes me wonder--does it suggest that only if feminists have the ultimate weapons of destruction will the social system change to give women full equality? I hope and think not.

The cartoon also raises many questions about the power women have, the kind of power we would like to have, and how we wish to use it. Short of holding the world to ransom, what can we do to bring the world into line with the feminist vision of humanity, a vision in which women and men are equal in social, political and economic rights and powers--a vision in which people are free to choose what they wish to do and how they want to live on the basis of their individual uniqueness, and not on the basis of their gender.

I have been meditating recently about this whole question of women and power, and I believe it is helpful to distinguish between power and authority. My Oxford dictionary tells me that power comes from the Latin for "being able"-- able to act, able to do things. Power is vigour, energy, the ability to act. This kind of power women seem to possess in abundance, especially when we perceive a crisis which threatens what we believe in and care about. We are, as a group, more likely to use our vigour, energy and ability to act, to work on behalf of other people. Somehow many women still feel unease and even guilt in using our energy to make the world a better place for women. Yet we are more than half the human race, and using our powers to advance the situation of women in the world cannot but improve the world as a whole.

Power as the ability to act is not entirely problematic for women. But most of us have problems with the idea of power as control over people. We want the power to do things for ourselves, and with each other. We are, rightfully I believe, wary of the kind of power that does things to people, sometimes against their will. And here we confront the idea of authority. Authority is a particular kind of power--it is the right to enforce obedience--to make people do things, sometimes against their will. The law is one such authority. Authority is delegated power -- a power given to someone within a system. Thus in a large company your boss has authority over you, and that authority is ultimately derived from the top of the hierarchy which has authority over him or her. When we speak casually about women not having power, what we often mean is that we do not have authority. Very few of us are in positions of authority in this society-- positions in which what we say goes As individuals few of us have delegated power, power coming from the top down. Nonetheless, as a group we have significant power, especially when we work, together to insist that our numbers and our concerns get recognized

The most important aspect of power is the power we give ourselves and each other, the energy and ability which we generate for ourselves and each other. The is lateral power rather than hierarchical power. Feminists know from our own personal experience that it is through action to make women's lives better that we strengthen our spirits and empower ourselves and others to live our full humanity. I'd like to describe first the recent history of the women's movement in Canada--the history of the last 15 years or so--because I believe that knowing our own history gives us greater power to act. And I will end with a few suggestions about what we might want to do in the next two years .

In the late 1960s, what women in Canada did when a significant number of them decided that the status of women in Canada needed improvement, and needed to be looked at systematically rather than in bits and pieces, was call for a Royal Commission. That's the Canadian way.

Back Contents Next