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Engaging with Power

About the author
Isabel Hilton is the editor of, and was editor of openDemocracy from March 2005-July 2007. She is a journalist, broadcaster, writer and commentator.

The night the SAS stormed the Iranian embassy in London, May 5th 1980 - a very wet bank holiday as it happened - I was entertaining the writer Marilyn French, who died last weekend, to a very expensive dinner in the Savoy. The choice of location was hers and the bill, fortunately, was picked up by my then employer, for whom I was to interview her.

It did not go particularly well. I was a big fan. Like many women of my generation, I had devoured The Women’s Room, French’s first novel. It read like a souped up fictional account of the insights that Betty Friedan had published in The Feminine Mystique a few years earlier. I was keen to meet the author.

The author seemed out of sorts. It was lashing down with rain outside and the Savoy dining room was nearly empty, its portentous atmosphere and the all-male cast of underemployed waiters contrasting oddly with the conversation. The worst moment, late in the meal, came when I suggested, against the spirit of the text, that there might be some men with whom it could be possible to have a less than completely exploited relationship. She lit a cigarette, one of many, shot me a glance of undisguised contempt and said, “You’re full of shit!” A waiter wordlessly poured the coffee.

I drove back through the empty streets. At home, my own representative of the untouchable gender had spent the evening watching the end of the more than two-week siege play out on television. French’s taunt was ringing in my ears. Feminism was not a comfortable place to be.

Things have moved on in the nearly two decades that have passed, and French’s uncompromising view mellowed slightly in her later years, though she never lost her rage. Perhaps later generations of feminists found it hard to empathise with the fury that gave birth to the widespread separatism of the seventies, the conviction that women must forge an entirely new path, apart from male institutions. My own problem with it, apart from the personal issues, was that power resides in those institutions. Ignore them and you live in a self-created ghetto. Only by engaging can we change them.

Two years ago, the Nobel women peace laureates convened a meeting Galway, in Ireland to begin a wide-ranging exploration of how women can effect change in the institutions and processes of power. The women came from around the world, most of them veterans of both institutional and active conflict. In a few days, a second meeting will begin in Antigua, in Guatemala, to continue the effort. It’s a long way from that rainy night when an all-male team overpowered an all-male group of hostage-takers but still the impacts of conflict and of institutional oppression constrain and oppress the lives of women. The difference now is that millions of women around the world are finding new ways to resist and to transform not only their own attitudes but those of the societies around them.


This is part of openDemocracy's coverage of the Nobel Women Redefining Democracy Conference 2009.

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