Women and Power

Power is a loaded word in our culture.  It brings to mind money and influence.  It can also make us think of dominance—what Gloria Feldt, in her book No Excuses, calls “power-over.”  This kind of power is celebrated in our culture, and it is usually embodied by a man—a rich, white, handsome man between the ages of 25 and 75.  Because we live in a patriarchy (a society with laws and customs that give males more power and privileges than females), many of us are comfortable with male power and uncomfortable with female power.

When discussing power, it is helpful to keep in mind that it comes in two forms:  external (power in the world) and internal (the power that belongs to each person, rooted in a sense of self).  External power can include power over others (e.g., the power that a CEO or judge holds), but it can also simply be the power to bring our gifts into the world—what Ms. Feldt terms “power-to.”

To manifest external power (e.g., to land a dream job or negotiate a contract) we need a strong sense of our internal power, or faith in our gifts and abilities.  Unfortunately, a patriarchy does damage to women’s sense of internal power, eating away at it with disempowering messages.  In addition, when women gain and use external power, they are often treated unfairly (judged as “bitchy” or “aggressive” rather than “assertive” and “powerful”).

To overcome our cultural discomfort with powerful women, we need to understand how this discomfort is culturally constructed, how internalized messages have consequences in the external world, and how we can change our thinking to change our world.

In this workshop, we’ll consider:

  • The connection between disempowering messages in our media and the low number of American women in powerful positions.
  • How sexism is internalized, and how it affects our perception of powerful women.
  • The “double bind” in which women must present themselves as “nice” even as they are making and enforcing tough decisions (discussed in Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In).
  • How women can work to overcome internalized obstacles to embracing both internal and external power (as described in Gloria Feldt’s No Excuses).
  • How institutionalized racism, classism, and homophobia push the concerns of many women to the sidelines of discussion and policy, which marginalizes them.
  • The isolation an individual woman may feel as she navigates sexism in the workplace (often in combination with other forms of discrimination), and the factors she must weigh in dealing with it.
  • The potential for change that arises when women come together to share their stories and stand against bias.
  • Resources for further reading and reflection.