The 2019 CBC Massey Lectures| Power Shift: The Longest Revolution
Acclaimed journalist Sally Armstrong argues gender inequality comes at too high a cost for all of us
Originally published on November 11, 2019.
In her 2019 CBC Massey Lectures, Power Shift: The Longest Revolution, journalist and human rights activist Sally Armstrong argues that the future of humanity depends on strengthening the status of women and girls.
As a journalist, she's reported from some of the most dangerous and broken places in the world. But her focus has always been on the plight of women and girls, and the stories that they have to tell.
"I decided to devote my journalism career to issues around women after an incident in Sarajevo," Armstrong says.
Throughout her lectures, she asserts that improving the status of women is crucial to our collective surviving — and thriving. The facts, Armstrong says, are beyond dispute: when women get an education, all of society benefits; when they get better healthcare, everyone lives longer.
By looking at the past, Armstrong examines the many roles women have played in society — and what we learn is that gender inequality comes at too high a cost to us all.
The only way forward is for women to become truly equal with men.
Lecture 1 in Whitehorse: In The Beginning(s)
"The story of women is absolutely the longest revolution in history," Sally Armstrong says in her first of five CBC Massey Lectures.
"So many times the finish line blurred, and so many times hopes soared. But from Toronto to Timbuktu, half the world's population was still being left behind — equality was alluding the women."
But now Armstrong says there's been a power shift, one she's been observing closely. Her conclusion? "There has never been a better time to be a woman."
"Despite the blowback from misguided politicians and leftover chauvinists and those hyper-masculine misogynists, women are closer to gaining equality than ever before. And the journey ahead is bound to be epic."
Sally Armstrong's journey to tell the story of women and the injustices they've faced was sparked when she was a young girl by an unlikely source: a kipper.
On Saturday mornings, she remembers her Scottish father eating the small oily herring, split in half, for breakfast. It was special. But when her youngest brother was old enough to sit in a high chair, Armstrong witnessed her father sharing his fish with him — but not with her or her sisters.
"It was a father sharing his Scottish tradition with his beloved son, probably as his own father did with him," Armstrong tells the Whitehorse audience. How and why her father did that is just one stop on the journey of telling the story of women in the world.
Growing up in the 1960s, it was evident that being female meant a lack of power. And the gender imbalance continued as Armstrong became a journalist — even after the so-called "women's movement" was gaining steam.
Armstrong examines how this hierarchy began, from the dawn of time and what we know of it, she takes us on a lightning tour through history, as women inexorably lost power and status to men — right up to today.
Lecture 2 in Vancouver: The Mating Game
In Sally Armstrong's second lecture, she explores sex: the history of sex for procreation, for pleasure and for business.
We live in a time when monogamy is the norm, but evolutionary biology suggests that in early times, things were more freewheeling.
Throughout history, we've seen more controlling of women, control which diminishes their role in society and corresponds to their having less power and agency. The domination of women's bodies by men has also led to the honorific tales of abuse that are all too familiar in the daily news.
During the 1990s war in Bosnia, an estimated 20-40,000 females ranging from age eight to 80 were brutally gang-raped. Eva Penavic was one of them, and like many of the victims, she was detained in a rape camp.
"I will never, in my life, forget the night she told me her story," Armstrong says to the audience.
"The grandchildren had been put to bed. The rest of the family sat in stark silence. The only noise were the bombs going off in the near distance. It seemed as though everyone in the room was holding their breath."
Armstrong says Penavic began sharing her intense story in a quiet voice, clutching her hands and "ironing the invisible creases in her apron as she spoke." But as she got further into her story, Penavic would stand up, punch her fist in the air, shout accusations and then sit down again to whisper the hideous facts of what she went through.
Twenty five years later, there is still no justice for Penavic — although her grandchildren won't give up fighting for their grandmother. No one has ever been arrested, no one ever charged, and both victim and oppressors are still living side-by-side.
"The crime committed against Eva was part of a plan, a cruel adjunct to this insidious campaign known as ethnic cleansing," Armstrong says.
"The consequences of those crimes are not only the loss of several generations of women, but sometimes the annihilation of a race or a culture."
Lecture 3 in Fredericton: A Holy Paradox
Sally Armstrong heads to Fredericton to deliver her third Massey Lecture, focusing on the status of women in religious affairs throughout history.
In earlier epochs, women seemed to have had high status and were deeply respected. In later societies, all that changed — women were pushed to the margins in the world's major religions.
Leading the worship of God became a man's job. In cultural norms, too, the power of women was curtailed: honour killings, child marriage, genital mutilation -- all invoked as extensions of male-dominated belief systems, and all a long way from where primitive religions started out.
"On a scale of 1-10, I think it's fair to say that religion and custom concerning women and girls score a solid 11 for toxic mix," says Sally Armstrong.
But the good news is that throughout history, there have been women who fought against the constraints of religion and who have upset societal expectations.
In our own time, women throughout the Muslim world are fighting for their rights, and with in the Catholic Church there are demands for greater equity for women.
The historical record shows that there were indeed times when women walked side by side with men within their shared faith traditions. Sally Armstrong argues that what existed before can exist again.
Lecture 4 in Montreal: When the Patriarchy Meets the Matriarchy
The waves of populism across the world harken back to an imagined golden age, when everyone knew their "proper" role in society, when woman's place was in the kitchen — so it's no coincidence that women's rights and status are under intense threat.
The populists are taking aim at many of the gains of women at the same time that women are seizing new opportunities for a new kind of social mobility.
Women have been trying to move the dial on equal rights for thousands of years.
The prehistoric handprints on cave walls were often made by female hands — women and girls were often the artists. And right up through the #metoo movement, the impetus has been the same: women presenting, and representing, themselves.
There's a recent movement to have 30% of women on corporate boards, an initiative which has had spotty success. But 2019 CBC Massey Lecturer Sally Armstrong says movements like these are the only way to look forward.
"Some say this improved status quo for women cannot last, that all it will take is a natural disaster like an earthquake, a tsunami, a famine — or even an economic depression — for the gains made by women to come undone," says Armstrong in her Massey Lectures, Power Shift: The Longest Revolution.
"I disagree. I believe the emancipation movement is beyond that. In fact, the disruption itself — the social disruption that calls out the old boys' club, the economic disruption that seems more women running for office than ever before — is reordering the way we live our lives. And that's the formula that created this power shift," asserts Armstrong.
Lecture 5 in Toronto: Shifting Power
There's a long road ahead to true equality but signs are looking good, according to CBC Massey Lecturer, Sally Armstrong.
In the final lecture, she looks to the future — one where women's skills are depended upon and their abilities are recognized.
"This is our time. This is our hour," Armstrong said.
Many challenges need to be addressed, even with sexual harassment getting in the way, and there's going to be pushback from those who fear change.
But this shift in power as we move forward relies on men and women walking together, says Armstrong.
Women all over the world are demanding a better, more equitable place beside men — and they need men to stand by their side.
That's the final message of Power Shift: The Longest Revolution.
The lectures are named in honour of Vincent Massey, the first Canadian-born Governor General of Canada. Since their creation by the CBC in 1961, the Massey Lectures have established their place as a Canadian institution and become an annual highlight of our cultural life. The five talks provide a forum on radio where contemporary thinkers can explore important issues of our time.
Former speakers include Martin Luther King Jr., Margaret Atwood and Stephen Lewis. Presently, the lecturers are all Canadian, and the series is recorded on a cross-Canada tour. The book of the Massey Lectures is published by House of Anansi Press.