In the new book Power Shift: The Longest Revolution, journalist Sally Armstrong conveys a synopsis of recent progress in the realm of gender dynamics that goes like this: old power was hoarded, new power is channelled. She’s referring, of course, to the unstoppable momentum of the #MeToo movement and the way it is dismantling archaic systems by harnessing the will and support of the collective. #MeToo “put abusive men on notice” and in turn caused a seismic shift in the way we look at, talk about, and deal with sexual assault and harassment. From Armstrong’s viewpoint, that evolution has been a long time coming.
With Power Shift – which comprises the 2019 CBC Massey Lectures – Armstrong offers a concise yet comprehensive history of what came before those trending Twitter hashtags: from cave drawings in ancient Mesopotamia to the fight for the vote and reproductive rights to the unspeakable gendered violence in Afghanistan, female genital mutilation, and civil war in the Balkans. This is a far-reaching account of the plight of women and girls throughout history and across continents, often told via the moving personal stories of survivors who have endured sexism’s many atrocities.
“The study of women is often based not on what we see but on who sees it and when,” Armstrong writes. The author is more than qualified to present us with her thoughtful and clear-eyed observations of the issues facing women on a global scale: she’s an accomplished writer and activist who has been meeting with and talking to women in war zones for over 30 years. With her thorough research and undeniable gift for personal storytelling, Armstrong dispels faulty beliefs and damaging myths, lays bare horrific injustices, and illuminates a variety of economic, political, and cultural truths. This is all in service of the argument that the equal status of women and girls is not only morally right but necessary for the progress of humankind. She also skilfully demonstrates the practical consequences of inequity – for example, the worldwide cost of violence against women is $1.5 trillion annually.
So much ground is covered in Power Shift that the book occasionally appears to offer superfluous evidence; a few historical moments and high-profile media stories are given passing consideration, as though the author has merely skimmed the surface of their importance. It is difficult, however, to hold this against such an ambitious and thoroughly convincing undertaking, one that brings together a vast array of knowledge to assert its vital point.
While it is true that there has never been a better time to be a woman, Power Shift shows that when it comes to achieving gender equity, we still have a long way to go, and lots of work to do to get there. Thankfully, despite these hard truths, Armstrong leaves her reader with a genuine sense of hope that lasting change has already begun. “(E)mbedded right beside those patriarchal thoughts, have been women’s ideas of how to right the wrongs,” she asserts. “Forcing a truth telling, finding ways to share their stories.”