I think we need a renewed excavation of power, among feminists and other movements.
Power has gotten a bad rap because for many women it is associated with men, with abuse, with violence. Anger has similarly gotten a bad rap. It seems the only time power and anger can be made safe for women (or anybody, but only women are paying attention) is through therapy. If a therapist, or your collective, affirms that you are in the right, that you are defending yourself, that your power has been taken away by an abuser who is definitively in the wrong – and of course that abuser is characterized as someone who is in love with power, who likes being powerful, who isn’t ashamed of their power – well, then go ahead. Do what you have to do, you have the stamp of approval.
But watch out – somebody else may be paying attention who didn’t go through that program with you. They might call you a Karen (see Glosswitch’s post) or crazy, they might lock you up or get you killed depending on who you are and who they are and your relative power and privilege on a social scale.
So what do we do if we genuinely don’t want to abuse anyone at the micro and macro levels, we want to be conscious of both internalized oppression and implicit bias (against ourselves or others) and the ways we inadvertently oppress others? How can we do this internal and external work to upend and destroy the hierarchies that construct power at the collective level, while understanding power simply and neutrally as the force we wield through our will and action and communication, apart from hierarchies and not in itself good or evil?
When I was learning Aikido, my male teacher – someone who I sensed did not think well of himself and who was a combat veteran and probably an abuse survivor – responded nervously and misogynistically to my delight at completing a technique successfully at an early stage of my training. I had done a wrist lock on a very nice large and gentle man, done it fast and just as I was shown, and it made him wince and brought him to his knees. Being able to subdue someone twice my size, doing a martial arts technique successfully, was not a power trip. But my teacher responded, ‘You like the power, huh’ as an implicit criticism. My technique never really recovered.
Three years or so later, my teacher eyed me quizzically with another implicit criticism, after I had taken a fall when another (male) student had actually failed to perform the technique successfully. I was somewhat intimidated by this student’s advanced standing and felt unsure of myself in calling attention to his failed execution, though we were all supposed to be each others’ teachers.
I can’t make a direct link between the two incidents, but both reflect a misogynistic environment that denied women the free use of our own power – in the one case our physical power and in the other, our authority as knowers of the art we practiced in common. (I use the plural but for most of my time there I was the only woman present on a regular basis.)
I liked the dojo and enjoyed casual friendships with some of the men I practiced with, hanging out after class. It was small, in my neighborhood, and I practiced nearly every day for much of that time.
It ended after an act of sexual abuse by a senior male student in the act of doing a technique, when we were attending a seminar given by the teacher of our teacher, at another dojo. My teacher gave me no support when I told him about this, and only years after I left and encountered him in the street he told me that I was right to consider it a problem of the dojo and he had eventually spoken to that student about his behavior. Too little, way too late.
I don’t think that women should have to create our own female-only spaces in order to experience our power safely and freely. I treasure female-only space and especially lesbian space. There is a richness to our connections, seeing each other, toughening up in our mutual abrasiveness and basking in our mutual tenderness, that nourishes me to my roots.
But if I am obligated to seek out that space for safety, I am not free and I am not strong. And it’s not only physical safety, safety from violence and aggression that we should be and are concerned about, it’s safety *to* be our full, big selves. We can and should share our knowledge and strategies for exercising our power out there against male aggression and its collective, corporate and institutional organized forms. But we have to understand that power is not something that needs sanitizing or processing through a feminist collective, or therapy, in order to be safe for women, in order to be satisfying, in order to be good.
The good or evil of power is our choices about how to use it. We have to own our power in order to make these choices – not power as privilege, which becomes an obligation to political correctness, but power as power, inherent in all human beings or any life. Power as the force behind one’s will, and will (as readers of this blog may know) is the human right to universal legal capacity.
We don’t need to point to some kind of intersectional identity – anything but the status of being female, which is once again being shoved into the mud, made animalistic, shameful, and irrelevant to human rights and non-discrimination discourse – in order to understand ourselves as having and using, wielding and exercising power. It does not have to be butch or femme, does not have to be Jewish or Black or Brown or Indigenous, though we need to know, analyze, feel and move with the ways these intersectional oppressions take power from us and complexity the barriers we face in exercising it (and the strategies we use in affirming and claiming power for ourselves).
We do not have to see power as all or nothing either, or shared as if it were a pie. My power is not the same as yours, I don’t have to divide mine for you to have some. ‘God(dess) bless the child that’s got her own.’