Intimate Power

This is a short essay published in Prairie Fire Magazine (Vol. 37, No. 1), Spring 2016.

Back in 1915 when Premier Sir Rodmond Roblin asserted that he would deny even “propertied” white women the vote because “Woman suffrage … will break up the home,” he evoked his mother. The premier’s mother was “queen of the home,” he said. Not like the hyenas in petticoats who would make married life and by extension life itself so much more difficult for men. Sir Roblin suffered the fate of being right. Women’s political action did change marriage. It changed men. Men and women change each other. We do.

It’s inspiring to search “enfranchisement in Manitoba” on the internet to find well-written histories of droll, steady-minded women in velvet hats who ridiculed those particular men who clung so pompously to the exclusivity of power they were just about to lose. It’s fascinating to read the strange history of female emancipation as it dovetailed with property and militarism, with race and class, and as it joined forces with the temperance movement.

In January 1916 some of the women living in Manitoba were permitted to cast a ballot in a provincial election. “Propertied women” who were not “alien born” gained permission from the men to vote provincially in 1916, and federally in 1918, in large part because the women supported the war. That is: they “served.”

In establishing women’s suffrage, the vote did not extend to “servant girls” and it didn’t extend to women who were “alien born.”

It didn’t extend to Aboriginal women and men until 1960.

Enfranchisement in the early twentieth century was tied to race, money, and international war.

So where are we at? After the Liberal Party’s victory in last year’s fall election, Justin Trudeau created the first-ever Cabinet with an equal number of women and men (and with many members who are not of the “old stock” British Empire).

Prime Minister Trudeau demonstrates a marked tendency to believe in the performative power of language. A good example of a performative utterance is baptism, when an infant is named and initiated in one swift gesture. Another example is the marriage vow wherein “I do” means you are. There are many performative utterances in history: take for example the declaration of war, or in many respects “free trade” agreements.

Trudeau’s rationale for appointing women to 50% of his cabinet came in the form of magic words: “Because it’s 2015.” The simplicity, the youthful frustration in his expression, vivified the faith that time cures all. As if we live in an age of enlightenment, when gender, like race, is no longer an excuse for repression, no longer a mask for the denial of human rights. As if full social equality in all its changefulness might become true because we say it is so.

Women, in peace and war, have a gender-specific susceptibility to the performative utterance. Have you ever been called a “bitch” or worse? It sticks. Have you ever been called “beautiful”? Then you are. The intimate nature of gendered attacks makes them powerful.

Power is most effective when it’s intimate. And it is always intimate. Any woman who has experienced a man’s hands around her throat knows this well. The effects of power in the hands of more distant forces – for example, the recent connections between the federal government under Stephen Harper and the oil industry – are evidently intimate in the current high costs of providing food for our families since the collapse of the commodities markets. It’s funny that a national economy based on commodities belongs to the nineteenth century, to Sir Rodmond Roblin’s century (he lost power in August 1916). We have all, male and female, experienced power that negates or wounds crucial aspects of ourselves.

I remember a t-shirt slogan when I was young and when power, I’m sorry to admit, meant freedom. The t-shirt slogan accompanied a young woman with obvious super-powers and a fabulous bra: Use Your Power for Good!” 

Power withholds or gives according to the prerogatives of the powerful. Do we want to wield power at home or at work? It interferes badly with communication, which at its best freely circulates and enriches.

From a student, I recently learned a new word: sigils. A magic symbol of power. Magic, fantasy, supernatural powers are all the rage these days. Even dinosaurs have power, according to my grandsons, despite the Triceratops having been dead even longer than Sir Rodmond Roblin.

If I could cast a spell on a world that would make women and men thrive together, I would wish away power. I dread and loathe that fantastically kitsch doily Frozen for this reason. Power is lonely. But freedom? Freedom would be like swimming, only better. Freedom would even be better than flying because it’s something a human can do. We could do freedom. We could be.