What does feminine power look like?

Women and power is a current hot topic. It was much discussed at the Women’s Forum for the Economy and Society, for instance, where I too spoke about this very theme last week. It has also been recently debated at the Harvard Business SchoolFEMNET and  BBC’s 100 Women campaign.
I welcome the increased emphasis on this topic because it is power, or rather the lack of it, which is a root cause of women’s inequality.

By power, I mean first and foremost the capacity to change society. We live in a male-centric world where men have access to more space in the public sphere, more rankings, more money, better education, more favours, more perks, more sex, more healthcare even.

To challenge the status quo so that future generations of girls can access these things in equal measure, the biggest challenge women face is how to identify with the idea of being powerful. Because the more women identify with powerfulness, the more women will seek leadership positions. And the more women in leadership positions, the more rights women will have. Regardless of how much women shout about injustice, male leaders are not willing to truly tackle issues that affect half of the world’s population such as violence against women, which actress Thandie Newton has accurately called a form of “species suicide”. We need to stop gullibly believing that male leaders will thoroughly address women’s issues, they won’t.

So how do women gain more power? Well, for one, it seems to me that we have to ask a very obvious but hardly addressed question, namely – what does feminine power look like?

After all it is easy to imagine a woman being powerful in a masculine way, but how is a woman powerful in a feminine way?
When I started to ask myself questions such as, “How does a powerful woman act?” “How does she carry herself?” “How does she express herself?” “How does she interact with other people?” “How does she lead?” the first words that came to mind were words like “strongly”, “boldly”, “firmly”, terms that are traditionally associated with masculinity; femininity is specified as “soft”, “gentle”, “modest”. In other words, while masculinity is synonymous with the definition of power in the dictionary, femininity is not associated with power at all.

I realised, in despair, that I had to redefine power or I would inevitably give mine away.

And when I started to redefine power, a project that is never ending by the way, I learnt that feminine power is not necessarily about softness, gentleness or modesty. But it is not automatically as cut-throat and alpha as masculine power is either.
I’d say, objectively speaking (ha ha – as if) that feminine power is the following: persuasive, tactful, communicative, detail-oriented, calm, responsive, adaptable, resilient, graceful…

And you know what is interesting? We live in a world today where all those terms I just mentioned are becoming the most desirable traits in our leaders. We no longer value as much the kind of Machiavellian, muscular and narcissistic leadership that’s stuck around since the Middle Ages. Even male leadership has changed, from the most powerful man in the world, President Obama, whose calm stature is possibly his most appreciated leadership attribute, to the Iranian president who has recently positively surprised the world with his tactful approach to leadership. Not to mention women leaders such as Joyce Banda, Hillary Clinton and Doreen Lawrence, who don’t shy away from their femininity as challenging as it may be not to do so.

This is not to say that powerful women can’t possess masculine traits or vice versa. Both men and women can be powerful in feminine and masculine ways. But we need to keep challenging the essential traits associated with leadership. Women can be powerful leaders without behaving in typically masculine ways.

Or can they?

What do you think? How would you define feminine power?

This blog was adapted from a presentation at the Women’s Forum for the Economy and Society in Deauville, France, on October 17th, 2013.


5 Pingbacks/Trackbacks

    • http://www.msafropolitan.com MsAfropolitan

      Thanks Jennifer! Your book looks great

  • http://www.doreenakiyomoah.co.uk Doreen

    I liked this post. I thought it was venturing in the territory of gender essentialism when you said that powerful, bold, and strong were “masculine” traits. But I read on, we are in total agreement. Men and women can both possess traits like gentleness, calmness, power, strength, and compassion. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to extricate those from the way people see us in society. President Obama, for example, I think has to be extremely calm, because if he so much as squints, he’ll be seen as an “angry black man.” A white woman who shows power and gets angry publicly may be called a “bitch,” but I think they have so much more forgiveness in the public eye than black women do in American society. Of course, even things like that depend 100% on where you live. The stereotype of black women being masculine and angry in America makes no sense whatsoever in Africa. Race and geography have so much of an impact on how you can express your power.

    • http://www.msafropolitan.com MsAfropolitan

      Oh, yes, I definitely meant that the dictionary defines masculine using those terms! And furthermore I think those terms need exploration in themselves. What is strong? Bold? etc.

      Great point regarding the context of power. I think in this day of social media and “world shrinkage” race needs to be increasingly looked at intersecting with geography. Is the “angry black woman” stereotype indeed relevant in Africa? Is it more relevant perhaps? So many connections in need of exploring..

      Thanks for the engaging comment!

  • Ashanti Dallas

    Women are mothers, lovers not fighters, I think feminine power looks like an absence of war an actual use of the term peace in the world of politics. What does feminine power look like? Something we’ve never seen before, heard of or even breathed before. It is something Dreamchasers take hold of and run with never looking back or even slowing down to chase behind it. Feminine power, something we can only hope for and believe in, because one day it will come to happen. What does feminine power look like? Is it sugar and spice and everything nice, you tell me your ideas combine them with mine. We’ll have the definition in no time.

  • Pingback: Africa in 50 years: what African women want for the future of their continent – The Guardian | Everyday News Update()

  • Pingback: Africa in 50 years: what African women want for the future of their continent – The Guardian | News Station Online()

  • Pingback: Africa in 50 years: what African women want for the future of their continent – The Guardian | News Update()

  • Pingback: Africa in 50 years: what African women want for the future of their continent – The Guardian | GreatNewsUpdate()

  • Pingback: Seven things that women want in Africa’s future | thestudioArena()