2019 Massey Lecturer Sally Armstrong tackles female oppression at WritersFest

Journalist, author, and activist on new book, Powershift: The Longest Revolution 

Sally Armstrong will give a book talk at the Delta on Dec. 4. 
Peter Bregg

Kingston WritersFest’s last event of 2019 tackles women’s oppression throughout the past 10 millennia.

On Dec. 4, journalist, author, and human rights activist Sally Armstrong will be presenting her book, Power Shift: The Longest Revolution in the Grandview Ballroom at Delta Hotel. The event will start at 7:30 p.m. and tickets are $25 at the door.

For 25 years now, Armstrong’s journalistic work has taken her all over the world—primarily to conflict zones, including Afghanistan, Somalia, and Rwanda—to look into pervasive issues facing women and girls.

Her experience investigating these issues earned her the appointment of Massey Lecturer for 2019. Her assignment for the year was to give five speeches and write a book about why women were oppressed in the first place, how it began, and how it has been sustained for so long.

While this might seem like an overwhelming topic, Armstrong eloquently boils it down to a shift in society’s structures 10,000 years ago.

“There was absolute equality before 10,000 years,” Armstrong said in an interview with The Journal. “There was equality, but with the birth of the patriarchy 10,000 years ago, the oppression of women began, and what patriarchy didn’t do, religion did.”

Armstrong’s research has led her to speak with archeologists, anthropologists, sociologists, and businesspeople in a variety of fields. She has seen the living conditions and challenges facing women and girls across the globe. If anyone is qualified to tackle this question, it’s Armstrong.

Her book takes readers through the four waves of the women’s movement, from the late 1800s to today. She relays the obstacles that women have faced throughout the years and what historical events led to their demands for change. 

The book starts with the first wave, when suffragettes won women the right to vote.

“It happened at different times in different countries, and it was a hard fight and quite militant,” Armstrong said. “The second wave of the women’s movement was in the 60s, and that’s when women gather[ed] in consciousness-raising groups and they decided that the injustice had to be tackled.”

The third wave happened largely in America, triggered by the famed trial in which law professor Anita Hill accused Clarence Thomas of sexually harassing her.

“The judiciary had a trial and they put it on television and they excoriated Anita Hill, they absolutely destroyed her, they 100 per cent did not believe her.”

This event prompted women everywhere to start asking themselves and one another why they weren’t sufficiently protected from sexual harassment by law. They sought to be believed when they came forward to share their stories.   

Armstrong credits this third wave with raising awareness, but says it didn’t get us to the finish line. The fourth wave, however, has brought women “closer to equality than ever before.” 

“With the advent of social media, that brought in intersectionality, and everything changed,” she said. “Intersectionality means all the women are included: Indigenous women, and women of colour, and LGBTQ+ [women], and poor women, disabled women, all the women. That is what is moving the dial today.”

With the inclusion of women from all walks of life, women are affecting change using something Armstrong calls “personal will." 

She says that change is affected through political, public, and personal will.

“Political will and public will are the two items that have driven change for probably the last 200 years.”

Political will is the power that brings laws into effect, whereas public will is what pushes politicians to support certain issues. What’s happening today, Armstrong says, is an uprising of personal will.

“I am seeing particularly young women using personal will to make change,” she said, referencing the activism work of Malala Yousafzai and Greta Thunberg.

“They’re saying that ‘What you’re doing is not okay with me.’ So if you legislate that change, it’s one thing, but when it comes from the people, in my opinion, it tends to be more sustainable and more powerful.”

Armstrong’s observations of women around the world fighting to improve their conditions is inspiring.

The stories she tells in her book show how women have been systematically ignored and under-represented for thousands of years. However, encouragingly, it’s women who are the ones doing the work today to repair the damage that has been done.  

Women can’t do it alone, though, says Armstrong.

“We won’t get to the finish line until the men and boys decide to walk beside the women and girls. […] We need to take those last steps.”


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