Consider these two images from recent news events: 20,000 monks marching past Burmese Nobel Laureate Aung Sun Suu Kyi's home to protest the democracy leader's 11-year house arrest and the country's military junta. Condoleeza Rice announcing plans for a peace conference at some unnamed future time.
Both these women wield a form of power. Who they are, how they use it, how they see the world and whom they're allied with make all the difference in our reaction to them.
At a conference last month called "Women, Power and Peace," at Omega Institute for Holistic Studies in Rhinebeck, New York, Nobel Laureate Jody Williams stated emphatically, "Shared anatomy is not shared values. . . . I'm sorry but Condoleeza Rice is a man in a woman's suit." Williams, one of three U.S. women to win the Nobel Peace Prize, was honored in 1997 for her work against anti-personnel mines.
The word "power" became a lightening rod at the event. In a spirited dialogue between Williams and media professional Pat Mitchell (a WMC board member), Williams said she had problems with the word. "I didn't do what I did for power. I don't think of it in terms of power. When I started as an activist, I did it because I thought it was the right thing to do," she said, adding, "Maybe I just want to 'zoom under the radar.'" Pat Mitchell then noted many accomplishments resulting from Williams' "power" and prestige as a Nobel Laureate, arguing that "part of the reason that women aren't in the group where decisions are being made today is that we will still move away from power."
The need to define a new paradigm of power, especially in order to create peace, is critical for progressive women. "The only point of having power, it seems to me, is to empower others," said Eve Ensler, of the anti-violence organization V-Day, which sponsored the event along with the Nobel Women's Initiative and the Women's Institute at Omega. "Unfortunately," she continued, "we have now come to identify women and power not as the radicalization of the mechanism and definition of power, but instead women climbing to the top of the current patriarchy and bureaucratic hierarchy at any cost."
In a recent interview, Jane Fonda, who spoke at the conference, told me, "Women view power differently. It's not power over-it's power with. It's about empowering others. Now, again-there are some women who view power the way men do. But generally speaking, women do it differently. It's not hierarchical, it's circular." Fonda (also a WMC board member) added that women needed to "get over the feeling that the two words don't go together-women and power. The fact is, if we don't put the two together, and don't understand how power changes complexion in the hands of women, then we're not going to make it."
Hillary Clinton loomed as a somewhat divisive specter over the event. On its second day, Omega co-founder Elizabeth Lesser informed the audience that members of the Clinton campaign were in the audience, and asked Nobel Laureate Betty Williams-1976 winner as co-founder of the Northern Ireland Peace Movement-how these women might bring some of these messages back to their candidate in a way she could hear. Williams responded, "I'd love to see a woman in office in the United States of America. However, the term woman comes first. Not one of the boys. I think Hillary has to remove herself from being one of the boys. That's the message you're going to have to give her. To me, to stand for what's right-it doesn't matter if she loses the election or not." (It's worth noting that a few days after the conference, Clinton finally released her comprehensive health care plan, exactly the kind of caring policies and bold position these speakers had been looking for.)
We were also reminded at the conference about the individual power we all have as women to shape the world, in our homes, our workplace, our communities. All of the conference speakers-a number of whom came from conflict zones such as the Congo, Bosnia, Haiti and Afghanistan-testified that they had begun as ordinary women and citizens who had witnessed injustice and turned their anger and outrage into tangible change in their communities. Pat Mitchell stressed, "There's nothing that feels better than tapping into the power that each of us has to make a difference. If you ever feel it, and you see a life changed or someone's situation improve or your community better, that's a power you want to feel again." Jody Williams advised, "Imagine if everybody of good will gave one hour a month to some issue they really cared about. The world would begin to be really transformed."
What one came away with, whether you wanted to call it "power" or not, was the fact that women have an urgent role to play in addressing the critical problems facing our world. Betty Williams spelled out our responsibility. "Women will transform the world," she said. "The world will not change without us doing it." Marianne Schnall is a writer and interviewer, founder of Feminist.com, and co-founder of EcoMall.com.