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book review
  • Title: Power Shift: The Longest Revolution
  • Author: Sally Armstrong
  • Genre: CBC Massey Lectures
  • Publisher: House of Anansi
  • Pages: 304

Sally Armstrong’s CBC Massey Lecture about the unfinished revolution for women’s rights begins with a flyover history lesson. After noting archeological research suggesting women had equal status in primitive societies, she covers the rise of patriarchy in agrarian communities 10,000 years ago, and women’s place in ancient Greece and China, the Middle Ages, the Enlightenment and the Industrial Age. An overview of 20th-century feminist movements segues into a list of more recent touchstones that will be familiar to anyone who’s been halfway paying attention: #MeToo, #TimesUp, the pay-wage gap, intersectionality, fourth-wave feminism and so on. Later sections delve into sexuality, including slavery and rape; the suppressive role of religion; and women in politics and the workplace.

Power Shift is ambitious in scope, frequently leaping between countries, eras and cultures. Armstrong’s goal, clearly and laudably, is not to leave anyone out, although all that leaping occasionally makes for a jerky narrative. Armstrong certainly brings impressive credentials to her task, having brought attention to the plight of women and girls in conflict zones around the world as a journalist and human-rights activist. Indeed, Power Shift feels most passionate and alive when she taps into those experiences.

Her basic thesis, that the inclusion of women in society “is key to our collective thriving,” isn’t a difficult sell here in Canada. And I was happy to be part of the choir to which she aims to preach. But I was disappointed with what felt like a steady stream of hazy generalizations and inaccuracies. In a discussion about women hiding their sex in order to penetrate historically male-dominated realms, for example, Armstrong suggests J. K. Rowling was following in the footsteps of writers like George Eliot and the Brontës when she published her adult crime novel pseudonymously as Robert Galbraith. That’s misleading: Rowling’s self-professed aim was to free herself up creatively by adopting a persona as far from her own as possible after the Potter books made her a superstar. “If sales were what mattered to me most,” she said, “I would have written under my own name from the start, and with the greatest fanfare."

In a section on women in the workplace, Armstrong makes the surprising, unsubstantiated claim that “most workers” in Canada are part of a pension plan; yet a quick internet search yields something quite different: only 40% of the Canadian workforce is part of a pension plan, the number dropping to 13% when only non-unionized private-sector workers are considered.

The book’s section on religion, and the suppressive role it can play in women’s lives, mentions widespread abuse in the Catholic church, but fails to note that the vast majority of that abuse has been against males. Later, a well-intended acknowledgement of the historical plight of Indigenous women takes on an awkward cast when Armstrong refers to Canada’s “Indigenous population” as if it were a single, homogenous entity: “...this was a mostly matrilineal society, with wealth and power passed down through the mother.” (Though it’s true that, among hundreds of individual nations, many were matrilineal.)

Power Shift is also oddly uncritical of social media and the internet. Armstrong mostly touts the latter’s positive side as a “speed dial for getting the information out,” thus glossing over the dark role the web has played in women’s lives, as with revenge porn (which just brought down a U.S. congresswoman) or misogynist incidents like Gamergate. The lack of criticism is particularly odd given that Armstrong cites the misogynist death threats she received by mail and telephone earlier in her career.

More problematically, Armstrong proposes—while acknowledging there’s no scientific proof of it—that there would be “less conflict,” and that politics would be “less adversarial” if more women held office. That’s flattering, but it also relies on the same gender stereotypes Armstrong elsewhere argues we need to eradicate in order for women to get ahead. (It doesn’t help her case that two of the most prominent Western women to attain high levels of power, Margaret Thatcher and Hillary Clinton, have pretty hawkish reputations.)

Power Shift frequently puts a price on women’s exclusion with big statistics like: “improved gender equality at work would increase the GDP of the U.S. by 5 percent." True as that may be, the massive numbers can feel abstract, or even incongruous, as when Armstrong declares of intimate partner violence that “It simply must stop. Its consequences cost billions of dollars. Its scars are everlasting.” Is its financial cost (of what exactly?) really the first thing we want to say about IPV?

It may seem like I’m honing in on the letter, not the spirit of what Armstrong is saying; I’m sure the majority of her book is accurate. But if you’re going to declare, as Power Shift does on its cover, that “the facts are indisputable,” then those facts ought to be accurate, and meaningful.

– Emily Donaldson is the editor of Canadian Notes & Queries and Best Canadian Essays 2019

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