Women’s Power & Self-Authority

“I know myself linked by chains of fires,
to every woman who has kept a hearth.
In the resinous smoke
I smell hut, castle, cave,
mansion and hovel,
See in the shifting flame
my mother and grandmothers
out over the world.”
–Elsa Gidlo

I used the quote above as my winter solstice Facebook posting last year. It reminds me of a quote from Margaret Atwood used in the book Sacred Circles, “Sons branch out, but one woman leads to another.” One of the powerful gifts of feminist spirituality is the sense of intergenerational connectedness to all women of all time. We begin to sense the buried matrilineal links across time and culture. Links that have often been culturally, socially, and religiously broken on purpose as a way to separate and disempower women and to bury women’s wisdom. I believe a potent source of female power lies in the female body and that body wisdom has been suppressed and denied over the course of many years as a means of oppression and control. One of the root issues of patriarchy is who “owns” women’s bodies—is it men, is it the government, is the medical system, or is it the woman herself? (you know my pick).

Body wisdom and sources of power

Considering power, sources of power, and body wisdom, I appreciated reading Barbara Starrett’s essay The Metaphors of Power in the book The Politics of Women’s Spirituality. While she used abortion as her example, I have modified and paraphrased her thoughts to make the idea about birth instead. Starrett originally states, “We can create power centers both within and outside ourselves…Power is where power is perceived. Power resides in the mind. We can give or withhold power through our beliefs, our felt thoughts.” Medical professionals can make decisions about a woman’s body and birth choices effectively only as long as women believe that the professionals have the right to do this. When women reclaim the power to decide for themselves about birth, the doctors proclaim in a vacuum. Their power depends on the transference of our power, through our belief that this is right…Power is where power is perceived. This also means that in any given in-the-world situation, we can intentionally set up our own power centers. If we believe that power resides in those centers, it will. We will act successfully on this belief. Women’s organizations, unions, birth coalitions, etc., will never work unless we regard them, “as the legitimate centers of power…We must grant our own power to ourselves” (p. 191).

Lucky to have such a great group of friends to gather in the park to take part in the Our Bodies, Our Votes campaign.

While this comes a little too close for comfort to me with the idea that “we create our own reality” (which I cannot fully embrace due to the logical extension into blaming the victim that it creates), I connect deeply with the idea that we must treat women’s organizations and work as legitimate power sources. I think of books/movements like Our Bodies, Ourselves, for example. To me, this is a definitive women’s health resource—by women, for women and separated from the medical establishment that often dehumanizes women. If we continue to believe our “alternative” structures are just that, “alternative,” then the dominant model is still the norm and still accepted, even by us, as “normal.”

Starrett continues her essay by sharing that “It is necessary for some women to risk total reclamation, to risk the direct and intentional use of power, in bold, even outrageous ways. It takes only a minority of women to alter present reality, to create new reality, because our efforts are more completely focused, more total.” (p. 193) This is the risk that the creators of Our Bodies, Ourselves took. It is the risk birth activists and women’s health activists continue to take.

Peggy O’Mara tackles a similar topic in her essay, “Holy Mother,” in her collection of essays The Way Back Home, observing:

We live in a society…that romanticizes and trivializes the feminine…we live in an economy that regards women as cheap labor. In the marketplace, women work for less than men. At home, we do the large majority of the work. I believe that we enslave ourselves.

Is it any wonder, then, that we have not successfully resolved the childcare debate? Child care and national family policy are process issues, and thus sexist issues. Women themselves engage in sexism when they debate the either/or dichotomy of work or home. Too often, we do not realize the devaluation involved in playing by the crumbling rules of a male-dominated society rather than making up our own. The matriarchal process-based model comes from a religious belief system in which the Divine is immanent, within life, within us, ascribing sacredness to the ordinary processes of daily life. Rather than choosing between opposites, let us evolve a culture that values both the product and the process, a culture that synthesizes both the patriarchy and the matriarchy.

…we must put all of our loves–work and family, mothering and career, self and others—on the bargaining table at once, and not assume that because we are women, we must acquiesce to the cultural ideal. To run our personal lives in enslavement to an economic reality that does not serve our needs makes society crazy.

In a brief except from author Libba Bray, she states that for years she “…heard feminist Gloria Steinem described as ‘shrill’ and ‘hostile’ and many other dismissive, denigrating terms. But after reading about her struggles as a human being and as a leader of feminism’s second wave…I got a truer picture…I learned that it’s far too easy for women to be shamed into staying quiet about their lives–their dreams, needs, desires, anger, aspirations—and that the old adage, ‘Well-behaved women seldom make history’ is all too true.”

Consult your health care provider?

In my own life, I am frustrated by the ubiquitous phrase, “Consult your health care provider.” No thanks. I prefer consulting myself, my books, google, my own research, and my friends. Last time I checked, my doctor did not own my body nor did she have divine revelation as to what I need in my life. I am a breastfeeding counselor providing phone and email support to women who have breastfeeding questions. Women frequently receive very poor breastfeeding “advice” from their doctors—to the extent that I honestly think they’d receive better information by polling random strangers at Wal-Mart with their questions (and, yes, I will actually tell women this). One caller once used the phrase, “but, I don’t want to disobey my doctor” and I found this extraordinarily telling as well as depressing. I recognize that doctors have special training and can be life-saving, however, what does that say about mothering in our culture that a woman would not act on behalf of her own baby and herself because of fear of being disobedient to a professional that she has hired? She is a consumer of a service, not the subject of a ruler!

This brings me to a thought by Dr. Michelle Harrison, author of the book A Woman in Residence: “I used to have fantasies…about women in a state of revolution. I saw them getting up out of their beds and refusing the knife, refusing to be tied down, refusing to submit…Women’s health care will not improve until women reject the present system and begin instead to develop less destructive means of creating and maintaining a state of wellness.” Indeed! And, in an essay by Sally Gearhart’s about womanpower, she notes: “…there’s no forcing any other woman into a full trot or a gallop; she will move at her own pace, but at her own pace we can be sure she will move. At this point I always remind myself that the patriarchal use of crash programs is antithetical to organic movement; in a crash program the theory goes that if you can get nine women pregnant you can have a baby in one month; it takes women, I suppose, to understand that it doesn’t work that way.” (p. 202-203)

Reclaiming power

So, how do women reclaim power? I think story holds a key to power reclamation in this context. As I’ve referenced before, Carol Christ describes it thusly, “When one woman puts her experiences into words, another woman who has kept silent, afraid of what others will think, can find validation. And when the second woman says aloud, ‘yes, that was my experience too,’ the first woman loses some of her fear.” As I touch on above, for me it is to see myself and my body as a source of wisdom and to refuse to participate in structures that do not honor my power and personal agency. It involves more often turning to my peers, to other women, for advice and comfort and support, rather than to experts.

Returning to Gearhart, she states: “If I can move out of the patriarchy for my re-sourcement, then I do indeed march to a different drummer; but I have to march with the consciousness in my very bones of the cost in blood and pain and death that is somewhere being paid for my personal growth.” (p. 203)

I’ve written before that I am a systems thinker. Women’s choices about their bodies and about birth are not made in personal isolation, but in a complexly interwoven network of social, political, medical, religious, and cultural systems. As Gearhart notes, “There may be no ‘enemy’ except a system. How do we deal with ‘the enemy’? As seldom as possible but when necessary by opening the way for [their] transformation into not-the-enemy. What weapons do we use? Our healing, our self-protection, our health, our fantasies, our collective care…” (p. 203).

And, in closing I like this reminder:

“Study after study has taught us that there is no tool for development more effective than the empowerment of women. No other policy is as likely to raise economic productivity, or to reduce infant and maternal mortality. No other policy is as sure to improve nutrition and promote health—including the prevention of HIV/AIDS. No other policy is as powerful in increasing the chances of education for the next generation. But whatever the very real benefits of investing in women, the most important fact remains: Women themselves have the right to live in dignity, in freedom from want and from fear.” —Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan

And, then I saw this great quote on Facebook just this morning:

This is the whole point—women’s rights aren’t about “taking” rights from anyone else OR about demanding “special treatment,” they are important for a HUMANE WORLD for all people. I think it is hilariously awful that “women’s rights” are considered a political issue and that there is a section about “women’s rights” in the “opposing viewpoints” database for my social policy class. As long as women’s rights are considered a political issue or as something about which an opposing viewpoint can be held, rather than as self-evident, we are in continued, desperate need of revolution.


(note: portions of this post are excerpted from one of my essays for a class I took about Goddess Traditions)

3 thoughts on “Women’s Power & Self-Authority

  1. Pingback: Taking it to the Body, Part 4: Women’s Bodies and Self-Authority | Talk Birth

  2. Pingback: Tuesday Tidbits: Birth Imprinting | Talk Birth

  3. Pingback: Tuesday Tidbits: Human Rights and Birth | Talk Birth

Share Your Thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s