The topic of the power of women came up recently in a discussion during my writing group meeting. A character in a fictional piece I’m writing feels powerful when she is walking through the marketplace of a North African city and is showered with adoration from the men she passes. One of the (male) members of the writing group was perplexed as to how attention from strange men made her feel powerful – rather than objectified – and asked me if it was because she thought the men “would do things for her." It was my turn to be perplexed by this viewpoint. A few days later, however, I noticed my male colleague’s perspective reiterated in Beyonce's supposedly female-affirming song "Run the World (Girls)”. She sings about how a woman’s power of persuasion can get men to "do anything” for her and thus women can run the world through men. This got me thinking: so women’s power is only indirect? Men are the only ones with actual power so women’s only power lies in using her (sexual) powers of influence to get men to use their societal power on her behalf?
It’s no surprise that there seems to be a bit of confusion about this concept of female power. In our society, girls and women are not encouraged to embrace or nurture a sense of their own individual power. It’s considered contrary to the ideal image of womanliness, and counterproductive to our ultimate destiny in a supportive role. Women are taught to mold themselves into and submit to what is perceived to be a proper image for them. The specifics of what this looks like may vary from place to place depending on culture, and in the modern age, women are given more and more freedom to develop their personal talents than ever before. But what has not changed is: women are not encouraged to develop a sense of personal power that is inviolable by any other human being. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Women are taught that their personal power should be subverted to that of almost everyone else, in varying degrees. We are expected to give up our sense of self-determination when in conflict with the needs of our family or the (perceived) obligations of motherhood. From strangers to friends to our family members, we are expected to be accommodating without regard to our own sense of personal integrity.
Women have proven themselves – whether by nature or by necessity – to be much more adaptable than men – psychologically, emotionally and intellectually. But women's reward for being more adaptable has been to be forced to do ALL the adapting. They've had to (more often than not) give up their careers to raise the children and they've had to have more children than they want because they were told they didn't have the moral right to decide (since they are merely a vessel and the man's sperm is the primary decisive element). Almost as a punishment, they've had to fulfill career and motherhood and homemaking responsibilities … because they can – and are judged harshly if they “fail”. Whereas for men, taking on any of these "women's" tasks would threaten their sense of self and therefore, they are usually unwilling to do so. Fortunately for them, social and cultural privilege affords them the luxury of self-determination. Whatever men decide to do, they are lauded for it (whether it be the CEO of a corporation or a stay-at-home dad.) Society does not afford women that same unconditional deference.
Women’s adaptability is one of their great strengths. But ironically, this and many of women’s other strengths that complement those of men (their role in reproduction, nurturing, emotional intelligence, sensuality, compassion) have resulted in a loss of power for women. Instead of being acknowledged and properly valued, honored and respected as priceless to society, these qualities of women have instead been exploited by society to undermine women’s personal power. In addition to being denied the dignity of being honored for just being women, they are further degraded by having their strengths co-opted by society without proper compensation (and then accused of being weak). This results in depletion of the very resources society uses women for, which impoverishes society at the same time as it impoverishes women. The best way to undercut someone's strengths is to take away her power. And this double-edged sword has, for most of history, been the reality for womankind.
So it’s no wonder that we as a society are not quite clear on what women’s power actually is (other than using her sexual influence to exploit men right back) since we've never really given them an unobstructed opportunity to show us. Unlike the case for boys, exploring their innate personal power has never been a 100% condoned experiment for girls in any society throughout history; they are expected to be obedient, not decisive. But despite greater investment put in exploring for new oil wells than in the deep wells of rich resources within the female spirit and mind, there is no denying their existence. I feel it within myself every day. And despite the incessant efforts of society to keep women in their secondary role, it has not been successful. Because alive in my mind is the truth represented by the main character of my story: she was empowered not by a perception that she held the reins of the men, and could control them for her benefit by using her feminine wiles, but she knew that unbeknownst to themselves, the men recognized her power as standing all on its own.