Sally Armstrong, Canadian human rights activist, journalist, and author of five books, has dedicated her career to shedding light on the experience of women and girls in zones of conflict. In her 2019 CBC Massey Lectures, Power Shift: The Longest Revolutionshe traces the roots and evolution of gender inequality worldwide before five audiences across Canada.
The lectures, which aired on CBC Radio One’s Ideas in early November and remain available in podcast form, are also compiled and expanded in a book published by House of Anansi Press. The Massey lectures have a global audience, too: the recorded program airs in the United States on NPR, as well as in Australia, New Zealand, and potentially in the UK this year.
The CBC appoints a Massey Lecturer every year in the fall and provides them with a topic that they believe to be at the forefront of Canadians’ minds, typically focused on politics and economics. For the 2019 lecture series, the CBC tasked Armstrong with investigating the origins of the oppression of women and how to put an end to thousands of years of inequality.
“I was very excited when they decided they wanted me to do it on women,” Armstrong said. “That means that women are really in the zeitgeist for the CBC.”
Armstrong’s appointment gave her just a few months to research and write a first draft of the book before it went into edits. At the start of the project, she was wary of the difficulty of collecting original data for a new project; her previous book Ascent of Women(published in the U.S. as Uprising),born out of her revelation that in the face of inequality women were choosing to change the world for themselves, was still a commercial success and she was unsure what direction to take next.
“The appointment is a huge honour, but it’s also the hardest juggle ever to write a book in seven months with original research,” Armstrong said.
While brainstorming, Armstrong considered the fact that the majority of the original data about human evolution has been collected by men and about men. The exclusion of women from scientific research has widespread consequences on our culture and on the daily lives of women. In Power Shift, Armstrong hoped to highlight new female voices that are helping to diversify academic research.
“Today women are anthropologists and archeologists, and along with male researchers, they are eager to re-open the files,” she said. “And that’s when I came along. These women absolutely jumped on board and they put me in touch with other women anthropologists and archeologists from around the world. And I got sparkling new data from them.”
Armstrong’s engagement with female scholars highlights the central claim of her lecture series: a world with equal opportunity for women is of benefit to all. With Power Shift, Armstrong paints this world as one that is just within our grasp.
“My view and my conclusion in the book is that women have never had a better opportunity than they have today and we are very close to the finish line of equality, only because we can’t afford to persist in inequality,” Armstrong said. “We’re missing ideas and we’re losing the point without equality.”
“Women are really in the zeitgeist for the Canadian Broadcasting Company.”
According to the acclaimed journalist, the last step toward achieving gender equality is collaboration between men and women. Throughout her career of sharing women’s stories, Armstrong has come into contact with a number of groups that are furthering gender equality by encouraging men and women to work together. Groups like the Afghan non-profit organization Young Women for Change, which welcomes both male and female advocates give Armstrong hope that global gender parity is attainable.
“These are disadvantaged kids who have had to fight their way into elementary schooling, never mind into university and then to be able to establish policy,” she said. “We need to learn from them. That’s my challenge to men here: come and walk beside your women and find a way to finish this.”
Armstrong’s Power Shift is filled with riveting anecdotes that tease out the story of the longest revolution—that of women trying to regain equal representation and agency in society.
“I think storytelling is one of the best avenues to learning,” Armstrong said. “The Massey lectures have to be dense; they’re packed with data, but I think that you have to shape that data to be able to tell a story that people will remember.”
The personal narratives that Armstrong has collected in her project demonstrate a willingness on the part of women to fight back against gender-based discrimination. She hopes that stories like that of the Bosnian war victim and assault survivor, Eva Penavic and Malala Yousafzai will inspire her audience to act on their experiences of inequality.
“The earth has shifted and there are a lot of voices now saying, ‘what you are doing is not okay with me,’” she said. “This is the emergence of a new personal will that is more effective than the political and public wills that we have always relied on. That personal will drives change today.”
Marie Labrosse a Master’s student in English Literature at McGill University contributed to this story.