Power: Envisioning an Alternate Paradigm
Maureen Walker, Ph.D., is a senior faculty member at the Jean Baker
Miller Training Institute. This article is based on a presentation given by Dr. Walker at the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute’s 2002 Spring Institute. The complete text of the presentation is available as JBMTI/ Stone Center Working Paper No. 94. For more information, call the WCW Publications Office at 781-283-2510 or visit Our Publications online.
Watching leaders around the world struggle to determine how power should be used to prevent terrorism has caused many of us to question our own assumptions about power. History books would have us believe that power is strictly a function of military strength, economic predominance, or political influence. Nevertheless, many of us recognize that there are alternative ways to conceptualize power. For example, there is probably not a more straightforward and elegant definition of power than that proposed by Jean Baker Miller: “Power is the capacity to produce change.” In this definition, power is a fundamental energy of everyday living.
Unfortunately, as Judith Jordan points out in her paper “Courage in Connection,” in our radically individualistic culture power is most often associated with hyper-competitiveness, conquest, and might. Power mutates into “ power-over,” and is then viewed as the entitlement of the “winners”—those individuals who have attained the social ranking and the material accoutrements that signify value. In this system, power is a commodity to be owned, increased, and used over and against those who threaten its reproduction. People who accrue more of the commodity are deemed more valuable. In such a paradigm, power functions to cement into place inequality between dominants and subordinates.
From its founding concepts to its more recent formulations, Relational-Cultural Theory has grappled with issues of power. I use the word “grapple” because it connotes collective struggle, political risk, and interpersonal discomfort. Jean Baker Miller laid the foundation for this struggle in her book Toward a New Psychology of Women, in which she states:“ In most instances of difference, there is also a factor of inequality—inequality of many kinds of resources, but fundamentally of status and power . . . relationships in which there is no assumption that the goal of the relationship is to end the inequality.”
Miller elaborates on this by pointing out that, because the dominant group is the model for “normal” relationships, it then becomes “ normal” to treat those with less power destructively, to obscure the truth of that destructiveness, and to oppose any movement toward equality. Although it is fashionable to talk about “teamwork” or “more horizontal organizations,” in most contemporary social structures, including but not limited to modern workplaces, stratification of power not only looks normal, it begins to feel necessary. Thus, the everyday mystifications that support distorted power arrangements achieve operational credibility. The dominant group‘s power arrangements co-opt the talents of even the most well intentioned among us in order to maintain and reproduce its own interests. It does so by quieting the voices of opposition—the voices that would question the foundational values upon which hierarchical power rests.
Envisioning a more inclusive model of power begins with acts of revelation: bringing to light the stories and experiences of those people who are typically characterized as vulnerable and marginalized, people who are seen as the “losers” in a power-over paradigm. What these stories often reveal are everyday strategies of attunement, empathy, and reciprocity that not only enable survival, but also enlarge capacity for navigating the complex illusions and machinations of powerover social arrangements. We can be enlightened by listening to the stories and experiences of people who act in resistance to status-quo notions of power.
Mamie Bradley’s story illustrates an alternative model of power, a model in which a woman empowers herself and her community. Mrs. Bradley was a black mother whose son Emmet Till was murdered in 1955 while vacationing in Mississippi because he allegedly whistled at a 21-year-old white woman. The woman’s husband and his friends shot 15-year-old Emmet in the head, tied a 70-pound block around his neck, and threw him into the Tallahatchie River. When his body was returned to his mother, she opened the coffin and wept publicly on the platform of a Chicago train station. Instead of hiding the ugliness, pain, and horror of what happened, she chose another course. She allowed journalists to take photographs of his mutilated body. She delayed the funeral for days so that thousands of people could visit the funeral home and see what had been done to her boy.
Mrs. Bradley committed a powerful act of resistance in a culture that would shame her into hiding and silence. Many were moved to action as a result of seeing the photographs of Emmet's mutilated corpse and hearing his mother talk. Mamie Bradley decided to go back to school. In her own words: “My burning thing, the thing that has come out of Emmet‘s death is to learn until your head swells.” She made a clear distinction between resistance and hatred. She went on, “I did not spend one minute hating my son’s killers; I did not wish them dead; I did not wish them in jail. If I had to, I could take their children and raise them as my own.” In the face of unspeakable violation and heartbreak, she refused to be shamed into silence and isolation. She refused to bear the shame of a shameless culture. She enveloped herself in community, and in so doing gathered the courage to expand her community to include larger and larger circles—even to encompass her son’s acquitted killers. Mrs. Bradley’s actions moved people forward through mutual empowerment rather than power-over, and some say her courageous action was one of the sparks that led to the Montgomery bus boycott and the civil rights movement that followed.
Under conditions of extreme domination and the threat of death, people throughout the ages have found ways to embrace an alternative model of power. Consider, for example, the Mothers of the Disappeared in Latin America. These are the women who met in dark churches, refusing to submit to the isolation imposed by a violent, oppressive, militaristic regime. These are the women who marched silently in public plazas wearing the names of their disappeared children embroidered on their shawls. Their strategies exemplify one version of alternative practice Kathleen Fischer calls “defecting in place.” Defecting in place is both a strategy and a metaphor signifying a departure from the old ways of thinking and relating, while being present in a whole new way. It involves occupying a space within the parameters of the old structure and filling it with alternative community. Like the Mothers of the Disappeared, women who defect in place stay connected to their feeling-thoughts and thereby increase the possibilities for connection with others. They come together to experience and refine an alternative power, one that is much closer to love, which some would say is the most fundamental source of power to produce change.
Fischer, K. (1999). Transforming Fire: Women Using Anger Creatively. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press.
Jordan, J. V. (2002). Courage in Connection: Working with Vulnerability.
Paper presented at the Harvard Learning from Women Conference co-sponsored by Harvard Medical School/Cambridge Hospital and the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute, Boston, MA.
Miller, J. B. (1986). Toward a New Psychology of Women (2nd ed.). Boston: Beacon Press.
Miller, J. B. (1991). Women and Power. In J. Jordan, A. Kaplan, J. Miller, I. Stiver, and J. Surrey (eds.), Women’s Growth in Connection. NY: Guilford Press.