Women & Power


Before we jump right into it, allow me to touch on a theory of power developed my Michael Foucault and hierarchical power as determined by society, but analyzed by Kate Bornstein.  The French postmodernist, Foucault, believed that power existed everywhere, given that it is being employed actively.  He elaborated in “The Subject of Power” that “power exists only when it is put into action (…) power is not a renunciation of freedom” (Foucault).  Power, by Foucault’s definition, lives everywhere but is only made apparent through action.  This lies in contrast to Bornstein’s Power Pyramid, a hierarchical representation of power based of societal standards.  In her analysis, Bornstein outlines that the top of the pyramid is representative of an “oppressive force”.  In that, she believes the pyramid can be interpreted in several ways, “feminists call it a MAN. Jews have called it GENTILE. African-American activists call it WHITE. Bisexuals, lesbians, and gays call it STRAIGHT. Transgendered folks are beginning to call it GENDERED” (Bornstein).  The inherent difference lies in that Foucault believes power is dispersed through the masses whereas Bornstein has gathered that there exists a hierarchy.  Now let’s move on to the main course.

If we are to accept Foucault’s theory of power in that it exists everywhere, we are to refute the idea that power lives only at the top of the pyramid.  My understanding of the relationship between the two is that those who reside in a higher stratum may be more practiced at exercising the power they may have.  That is not to say that the masses are not realizing that there is strength in numbers.  You may or may not be familiar with the Combahee River Collective Statement, a document that addresses a number of oppressions both within the black community as well as the larger feminist movement.  In the Combahee River Collective Statement, it reads “hundreds of women have been active at different times during the three-year existence of our group”(Fraizer).  While they may not have maximized the efficiency of their work, they are beginning to branch out and realize the potential they have as a group.  By working on a number of projects together, they are giving their power a stronger voice, “Issues and projects that collective members have actually worked on are sterilization abuse, abortion rights, battered women, rape, and health care. We have also done many workshops and educationals on Black feminism on college campuses, at women’s conferences, and most recently for high school women” (Fraizer).  This goes to show that power can be exercised from anywhere, so long as people take the time to organize their motives and proceed with a strategy.  Initiative is everything, see Newton’s Second Law of Motion.

Newton is good for analogies, but let’s take a few more steps back.  In the Republic book V, Plato’s thesis outlines that both men and women should be given the same opportunities.  That he refers to women occasionally as the weaker of the two sexes is something that can be argued at a later time, but his fundamental message, that both groups should be given equal opportunities, is progressive for its time.  “Then if men and women as a sex appear to be qualified for different skills and occupations (…) we shall assign these to each accordingly; but if the only difference apparent between them is that the female bears and the male begets, we shall not admit that this is a difference relevant for our purpose” (Plato) Plato clarifies that childbearing should not have a large impact on what a person can or cannot do.  In this we see that power is, again, in the hands of the people.  It can be exercised at the will of the people.  Foucault’s theory revolves around this concept of people being the vehicle for shifts in power.  In suggesting that women and men should be treated equally and bringing it to the attention of those around him, Plato was doing just that.  Frankly, Plato was ahead of his time by hundreds of years.

Fast-forward to 2017 and while it is true that we have made some progress, we aren’t looking at full-fledged equality.  In better news, more “high profile” figures are participating in the push for equality.  We can argue that this is representative of Bornstein’s Power Pyramid, but I see it as a hybrid of both concepts.  While it is clear that feminist activists such as Emma Watson, Beyonce, and Meryl Streep lie somewhere near the top of the pyramid, it is also worth mentioning that they are taking advantage of their status and helping things move forward in a rather Foucault-ian fashion.  Larger things can contribute to an increased momentum and if they continue to support the movement for feminism, we could be looking at a more progressive future.


Foucault, Michel, and James D. Faubion. Power. New York: New Press, 2000. Print.

Fraizer, Demita, Beverly Smith, and Barbara Smith. The Combahee River Collective statement: Black Feminist organizing in the seventies and eighties. Albany, NY: Kitchen Table, 1986. Print.

Plato, and Francis Macdonald Cornford. The Republic of Plato. London: Oxford U Press, 1945. Print.


Power & Political Women

Have you ever heard of Victoria Woodhull?  If you have, move forward three spaces!  If not, go back to the start.  Victoria Woodhull was the first woman to ever run for president of the United States.  She ran in the late 1800s, before the 19th Amendment was put into place (Felsenthal).  That is to say that Woodhull couldn’t even vote for herself.  If that wasn’t enough, consider her platform: “The heart and soul of her platform was a society free a government that makes laws which interfere with the rights of any individual, man or woman, black or white, ‘to pursue happiness as they may choose” (Felsenthal).

Cultural ideas that surround femininity have traditionally circulated around an almost submissive figure.  To compare this image to that of Victoria Woodhull is to see stark contrast.  Woodhull was able to create a name for herself in the world of finance, an industry that is largely male even today.  Her determination and hard work led to the launch of what would soon become a left-wing political paper.  In addition to all this, she ran for president of the United States.  Despite all her work, Victoria Woodhull’s name is relatively lost to history.  She led both an incredibly progressive and productive life and yet, her name is not one that we will read in history books.  Highlighted even in the provided article were her divorce and “indelicate” behavior.  I question the scrutiny Woodhull received only because I wonder if she would have even seen the spotlight if she were male.

Let’s take a look at a recent example.  Hilary Clinton just ran for president of the United States of America for the second time.  Her adversary and current President, Donald Trump fits very well into the higher tier of Bornstein’s Power Pyramid.  Hilary was often criticized for her voice, her attire, and her general demeanor.  Trump, on the other hand, got significant amount of backlash for failure to submit his tax returns and his attitude towards minorities.  Notice the difference?  While Hilary, a seasoned politician and intellectual, was getting flack for her pantsuits, Trump was facing questions about his thoughts on domestic policy.  Let’s do a quick compare and contrast on some of the things that came up during this past election.


That’s pretty clean.  Now let’s take a look at what people were actually talking about: Entertainment News was kind enough to release a list of the most talked about events during the campaign season.  The 16 items feature popular Saturday Night Live skits, the time Donald Trump called Hilary Clinton a “nasty woman”, and Katy Perry’s most recent Halloween costume.  There are a few problems here, but the biggest issue is that, of all things, this is what was getting publicity.  Pay no attention to Hilary’s political acumen or the fact that she is making a conscious effort to be more progressive.  Orlando Bloom dressed up as Bill Clinton for Halloween, that’s obviously what matters.

In the United States, 51% of the population is female to womens march charlotte_07.jpegwhich the argument can be made that if the power of the land truly resides in the hands of the people, women are more powerful today than they have been in the past.  Just recently, history was made with the global Women’s March.  This is a direct example of Foucault’s theory of power in action.  Women from around the world participated in protesting the lack of equality that they
were being faced with in light of this past presidential election.

Now this can be applied to Woodhull’s actions.  Her work to create positive change for women and establish herself as a capable individual was a huge step for women everywhere, yet we hear nothing of it.  Why? Perhaps it is that Victoria Woodhull may have placed a question in society’s mind, but it was not enough to challenge the norm to the extent that her actions would be a topic of discussion for the masses within several years of her passing.

Felsenthal, Carol, Karl Sharro, Garrett M. Graff, and Maria Konnikova. “The Strange Tale of the First Woman to Run for President.” POLITICO Magazine. N.p., 9 Apr. 2015. Web. 12 Feb. 2017.

Vulpo, Mike. “16 Pop Culture Moments From Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump’s Presidential Election We’ll Never Forget.” E! Online. E! News, 08 Nov. 2016. Web. 12 Feb. 2017.