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.


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