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What Does Power Look Like?

Tue, Jan 22, 2008

Audio, Press

International Museum of Women “Women, Politics and Power” Exhibit / By Masum Momaya

Audio B&WListen to the Interview (MP3)

Curator Masum Momaya introduces “Appearance”

What exactly is power? How do you know you’ve got it? Is power selfish, or can you use it for others? Is this what is meant by leadership? Is there a secret language of clothes that conveys power? We take a look at Power, Leadership and Appearance, asking, “What does power look like?”

© Copyright 2007 Brian Fairrington - OK, when you get to the line that says 40% of men polled would not vote for a woman for president...Say it more manly this time.

© Copyright 2007 Brian Fairrington - OK, when you get to the line that says 40% of men polled would not vote for a woman for president...Say it more manly this time.


Power equals muscle, right? Powerful people command authority. They run countries, start wars and control the money, all the while amassing recognition But what about exercising power with a handshake rather than a fist, with brains and beauty rather than bombs and bullets? And with collective strength rather than individual hubris?

The experiences of women and other marginalized groups show us that power can be found as much in collaboration as control. Everyday, ordinary women assert power in their homes, relationships, families and communities. And they so while wearing suits, skirts, saris and sarongs – yes, sensible or sexy shoes, too.

A New Set of Power Tools

Power can be gained peacefully. Power is conversation and negotiation. Power begins with a spark of audacity, with a single courageous act, with a dream.

This kind of power creates change, but slowly. Political Scientist Jane Mansbridge defines it this way:

It is in everyday life ­ the realm of the ordinary, the common, the familiar, and the near that we find the hundreds of thousands of uncoordinated acts that make a social movement. … Change takes place gradually in a steady stream. Often the forces behind a change build up, with no change taking place, like the increasing pressure of tectonic plates before an earthquake, until some small shift releases the energy.

Powerful Stories

It is sometimes assumed that power doesn’t suit women or that a woman cannot exercise power without “acting like a man” But this is changing. For example, “Iron Lady,” once an exclusively derogatory term, has evolved to connote a kind of tough yet compassionate style of leadership, exercised in contemporary times by the likes of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in Liberia and Michele Bachelet in Chile.

A photographic review of women wearing their Power Suits throughout history shows that there is no universal image of the powerful female. Women fashion themselves in ways as varied and numerous as they are. And, while image is important, it is not everything. Women leaders are redefining what power looks like.

Explore all the stories in this theme.

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About Mahnaz Afkhami

A lifetime advocate for the rights of women, Mahnaz Afkhami works with activists across the world, especially in Muslim majority societies, to help women become leaders. She is Founder and President of Women’s Learning Partnership for Rights, Development, and Peace (WLP), Executive Director of Foundation for Iranian Studies...more

Quotables – Empowerment

"To play their role properly, women everywhere must become far more involved in the affairs of their respective societies. Women must become empowered." - Leading to Choices: A Leadership Training Handbook for Women

"Rights and empowerment are interconnected: unless a substantial number of women in a community come to believe that they have rights and demand to exercise them, right remains an abstraction." - Faith and Freedom

"Women's empowerment is a process, a holistic approach that involves raising consciousness, building skills and reforming unjust laws that limit women's education, their employment, their participation in decision making, and above all, their opportunities for economic independence." - Freedom Leads To Empowerment

"[Modern information technology] has the potential to empower women in ways unprecedented in the social and cultural evolution of human history" - Making IT Our Own: Introduction