Review of Power Shift: The Longest Revolution by Sally Armstrong
Power Shift: The Longest Revolution
by Sally Armstrong
Power Shift: The Longest Revolution exemplifies why the CBC Massey Lectures is such a compelling format. Sally Armstrong delivers, in 5 chapters of roughly equal length, a concise overview of the inequities faced by women around the world. She provides historical perspective, discusses the overt and covert biases present throughout our society, and includes examples of how we can change things for the better. She does her best to be inclusive and intersectional, not to make this all about white women feminism—although I do wish she had gone further, more on that later.
Trigger warnings in this book for violence against women, particularly with regards to reporting on war crimes, and rape; discussions of sexist behaviours, laws, and regulations; religious discussion.
The book has an epigraph from Ursula K. Le Guin, which is always a great start! Although Chapter 1, “In the Beginning(s)”, includes lots of historical examples of how we have (mis)treated women, and even though it mentions various waves of feminism, don’t expect Power Shift to be a primer in women’s studies or feminism. Rather, as any good journalist seeks to do, Armstrong grounds her writing in context before moving into the second chapter, which examines how attitudes towards sex have often resulted in additional misogyny. That being said, the surveyesque tone of the book reminded me, favourably, of Misogyny: The World’s Oldest Prejudice. I suspect for people less familiar with feminist discourse than me, this book is going to include some great, eye-opening remarks.
Indeed, it’s worth remembering the audience for the Massey Lectures: ostensibly the general public, via CBC radio, albeit the type of public likely to listen to CBC radio. So, probably people who have some education and slightly liberal leanings in their politics, although they may or may not be very political in their lives. So it makes a lot of sense, some of Armstrong’s choices in this book, particularly one I don’t like.
Armstrong carefully includes examples that feature women from cultures all around the world. In so doing, she avoids falling into the trap of other journalists of focusing almost exclusively on women’s issues and progress within developed or Western countries. At the same time, Armstrong doesn’t exoticize other countries and make them seem so much worse or better than the U.S. and Canada. All of this is to the good.
Nevertheless, Armstrong’s intersectionality has a glaring gap when it comes to her treatment of capitalism. A great deal of her arguments regarding the need for everyone to fight for women’s equality are predicated on an economic basis: a rising tide lifts all boats, more educated and empowered women will contribute more to the economy, more women in power will be better for everyone, etc. We’ve seen this kind of argument before—most infamously, I suppose, from Sheryl Sandberg in Lean In. At its most naïve, this argument assumes that “just add women” is usually a sufficient measure for social change. I should point out that this is not precisely Armstrong’s approach—she does recognize that just adding women isn’t the only change that’s necessary, and she attempts to justify the emphasis on increasing women’s representation by talking about how women approach problems differently. That’s all great. At the end of the day, however, Power Shift isn’t quite radical enough for me, in that it is not anti-capitalist enough. If we are to achieve equality for all genders, we can’t just settle for better parental leave (although I agree we need it). We need to question the very pressures in our society that require parents to sacrifice so much of their time and energy on their jobs rather than their family.
Alas, as I mentioned above, Armstrong’s approach makes sense for the CBC Massey Lecture audience. Doubtless the committee who select these lecturers are careful to pick someone who is challenging without being, you know, too radical. That wouldn’t do at all! And it’s a good reminder to everyone that change will not come from behemoth institutions like the CBC, no matter how much good it does as a public broadcaster. It is just too cautious, too small-c-conservative, in its approach to media.
Cranky radical leftist thoughts aside, I really did like Power Shift in terms of its organization and information. Throughout the book, Armstrong hammers home the point that our view of history has been biased by the assumptions of researchers. Up until recently, for example, almost every archaeologist and anthropologist has been male—so it isn’t surprising that they made assumptions about what they found based on a very masculine perspective of the world. As more female researchers become involved in projects, we begin to see a shift in the theories developed and tested—it is no coincidence we’re discovering more female remains now.
On the subject of science, however, I am disappointed to report that later in the book Armstrong cites Louann Brizendine and The Female Brain as she makes the case that there are vast biological differences between male and female brains. I honestly wasn’t expecting a huge amount devoted to trans, non-binary, and genderqueer or gender–non-conforming people in this book, and I didn’t get any (except for a single mention of the word trans, in a very neutral context). Nevertheless, the reliance on conclusions as questionable and gender-essentialist as Brizendine’s leaves a bad taste in my mouth. (If you are curious about this, or want to learn more about why Brizendine and similar researchers are inappropriately cited in this way, I recommend you read Delusions of Gender by Coredlia Fine for an awesome debunking of neurosexism.)
As you might be able to tell from my review, my reaction to Power Shift is mixed. Armstrong’s writing style is excellent, and most of her commentary is moving and thoughtful. For these reasons, I recommend it, particularly to people who want to learn about sexism and gender issues but maybe are a little scared off from the more radical stuff I might throw your way. Armstrong is going to take your arm and guide you gently through this. Finally, I am very sympathetic to the theme that runs through these 5 lectures: women have always been here, always been raising their voices, and if we can all of us raise our voices together to help women, we will be better for it.