Feminism and Power

The Guardian today ran an interesting selection of comments on ‘What if Women Ruled the World’? It is a fascinating question, though I suspect that such a violent reshaping of our reality would be accompanied not just by differences in approach and attitude, but vast psychological and systemic changes. The world, in effect, would be unrecognisable, our conscious modernity entirely smashed in favour of something new. There is value, of course, in the feminist critique of modernity. In many ways our world is delivering poor outcomes in terms of rights, inequality, and politics; feminist interrogation can highlight failings and help to address those areas, though the extreme object of the question in the Guardian piece doesn’t have a real grounding or reference point. Such would be the radical transformation in our world if women ruled, if men in power were a minority, if men, generally, were subjugated, that’s it’s difficult to find a logical point of comparison. This short post is a brief response to some of those comments from the Guardian piece.

Bridget Christie says that we wouldn’t have such severe inequality. Really? Inequality is a very human condition. The extremes that we experience today may be temporary, and recede in time. It may be that women making decisions would blunt the edges of capitalism, but in truth capitalism isn’t a very feminist orthodoxy to begin with.  Marina Abramović wants women to be warriors – does that mean that she would like women to be men? I think the point of women ruling would be that they did not rule like men, that they did not fire first and ask questions later. Rachel Holmes gets it, saying you can’t tackle feminism without tackling capitalism.

Louise Doughty says she doesn’t ‘…subscribe to the idea that women are innately caring and collegiate and men thrusting and ambitious.’ Referring back to Holmes’ comment about capitalism being at issue, it does appear that this human system within which we pose our question has distinctly masculine characteristics. The extent to which Adam Smith influenced Marx is well documented, and Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ was undoubtedly that of a man. This is historical materialism, a firm sense that reality is as we perceive it, in all its immediate glory: history is about power, power is about economics, and economics is the stuff of Man: The Provider.

June Eric-Udorie expresses what might be termed a post-ferminist position – that ‘[w]e need to do away with romanticising matriarchal power and dominance – and instead question the ways we can change the problematic and dangerous power structures that operate within society today.’ For power structures read capitalist orthodoxy, or neoliberalism, even power-vacuums. It’s certainly a more realistic and immediately actionable position than naive ‘girl power’.

For all the dismissal of essentialism, I do think there is something to the ecological sensitivities of women, or at least to the lack of ecological awareness of men. This is not just represented in the exhausting weakness to deal with environmental challenges until they become immediate economic ones, but in a more general ambition to dominate the physical world, to refuse to accept human weakness, and to see human actualisation in the denial of its mortal nature: the ultimate journey of our species is towards death, after all. Maria Balshaw refers to some research showing how women make more ‘holistic’ decisions. Kate Hudson sees the strength of women in campaigning, in the peace movement; it’s something anti-war, and by extension anti-power, which is a revolutionary idea. Miriam Cooke in War’s Other Voices talked about how women writers during the Lebanese Civil War wrote about family, love and loss, while the men wrote about strategy, war and defeat. It was not merely that the women had a different role in the war, it was that they had an entirely different experience of war.

Penelope Lively celebrates the ambition, enthusiasm and aspirations of young women, notably different from the 1950s. While there are role models in Merkel and May, however, as Louise Doughty had put it earlier in the piece, in order to achieve their positions they had to out-men the men. Jane Goodall makes the same point. We return once more to this underlying concept that it is the non-feminist system that is the issue. If women ruled this world, little would change (as Marjane Satrapi accepts). But if women designed this world, perhaps it would be different.

Athene Donald in one of the most insightful and brief contributions suggests that the dynamics change when men realise that there’s no one at home to sort out all the problems. I will admit it’s not a perspective I have encountered or considered, but it is certainly provocative. Borgen and other Scandinavian dramas often include issues to do with childcare and complex and busy family lives in a socially progressive way, which is noticeably different from UK or US equivalents. At the very least, the management of non-linear lives, at multiple speeds, and within competing hierarchies introduce a level of complexity that would challenge each thread in performance terms.

The Guardian piece is connected to a ‘sci-fi arts show’ being performed this weekend in Manchester, similarly titled What If Women Ruled The World? I’d go and see it if I were close by, it’s provocative. I wonder if the range of views in this Guardian piece would be different if the contributors had been men?

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