Five questions with… women’s rights advocate Sally Armstrong

As part of a new interview series, we chat with this year’s Massey lecturer, journalist Sally Armstrong, as she prepares for her series of cross-Canada talks and the publication of the accompanying book, Power Shift.

By: /
September 6, 2019

As a foreign correspondent, Sally Armstrong has been covering the struggle for women’s rights around the world for three decades. But researching and writing her Massey lectures and accompanying book, Power Shift: The Longest Revolution, over the past year was an entirely new challenge.

Sally Armstrong
Sally Armstrong. Photo: Peter Bregg

“It was the hardest assignment I’ve ever, ever had,” she said by phone recently from her cottage in New Brunswick. “But I’m delighted with the result.”

Armstrong spoke to OpenCanada while taking a breather before diving into the grand finale of the assignment: delivering five lectures across the country, starting in Whitehorse on September 25 and ending in Toronto on October 11. The book itself will be published on September 17, before her tour kicks off.

In what is increasingly being known as the #MeToo era, with various advances and regressions of women’s rights in different parts of the world, Armstrong was tasked with tracing the oppression of women back to its origins, to better understand why and how women have been treated as unequal for so long. Armstrong has already written four books on women and has covered their plight in Bosnia, Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq, among many other places, for which she has earned multiple awards, including Officer of the Order of Canada. For an established expert on the topic, the process could have been a review of her past work. Instead, she admits, she learned quite a lot, for example about the exclusion of women in social studies and the myths that resulted from that exclusion, and what makes current efforts toward women’s rights unique.

We asked Armstrong, who contributed to our 2018 series on feminist foreign policy, to share her insights with us here, in the first of a new interview series on our site.

1. In the process of researching and writing these lectures, was anything new revealed to you about today’s struggle for gender equality?

Indeed there was. I wrote a book recently called Ascent of Women, and I thought I’d covered pretty much [all] of what was going on with women nearing the finish line and the equality stakes. So when I tackled this work, what I found was, with the first wave of the women’s movement — the suffragettes — they moved the dial. The second wave, in the ’60s, which was when I became very active — we moved the dial again. And the third wave, which I would call more of an American wave, when Anita Hill appeared before the Congressional committee [in 1991] and was basically trashed by the men on that committee, I think that was a wake up call for American women. But none of [those waves] got lift off, [even though] they made big differences, they altered laws, they altered habits. But the fourth wave — the one we’re experiencing now, which includes intersectionality — this is the one that’s got lift off. This is the empowerment of traditionally marginalized groups. This time, the women’s movement is Indigenous people, people of colour, LGBTQ, ethnic, religious, cultural minorities, physically and developmentally disabled people, different social classes — it goes on and on and on. These fourth-wave feminists argue that society will be more equitable if policies and practices incorporate the perspectives of all of these people.

Now this clarion call for inclusion is being heard around the world. This time abusive, powerful men have been put on notice. I would think also the symbiotic relationship between social media and individualism is what is driving this bus for change. And I think this is the one that is going to take women forward.

2. There's been an increasing amount of attention on the global efforts for gender equality, but what might still be missing, underreported or under-examined, in your view?

The most exciting part of this book and lecture series was finding out that the data we have built our assumptions on about women is flawed. And it’s incredibly flawed. The theory about ‘man-hunter’ [the belief that men are the natural hunters] is bogus. What happened was, and this excited me tremendously, the anthropologists and the archeologists who did all the early studies were men and they did them on men. It wasn't as though they were trying to put women down; they simply didn’t consider the women. But we know that to be true in many things all the way up to today — I mean, medical research didn't include women until recently, and even lots of medical research today doesn't include women. The crash test dummy is a man, for heaven's sakes, so his pelvis is in a different place to your pelvis and he sits farther back in the seat than you do.

I think one of my favourite examples — I had sent this chapter in and I had to call it back [to add this] — the all-women space walk. It was to be historic; it was women on the ground and women in cyberspace and two women astronauts. One hour before they were to go out on their space walk, they discovered they only had one space outfit that would fit a woman. I thought, ‘My god, we’re this far along and we’re still missing the point.’

To go back to the point about research, now new archeologists, both men and now women, are reexamining data and they are looking at it from a gender lens. And I felt enormously fortunate that I got to hear from them. I interviewed anthropologists and archeologists all around the world about this data and this is what informed my work. Now we know ‘man-hunter’ is bogus. Now we know there’s no evidence to say a woman was not hunting right beside him. Now we know women’s history is a flawed account. And you know, up until 10,000 years ago, women had equal status. During the agriculture era, when food became plentiful for the first time, people realized what they really needed was more labourers. A woman was the only one who could produce more labourers, so women were appropriated by men to produce the next generation. Men started privatizing the land, and that was the birth of patriarchy — when the subordination of women began. And what they didn't do, religion did.

But the other thing I found is that, from that time, there have been women fighting against [such treatment]. We thought women were illiterate and kept to the side. I have terrific data — I found a woman who was a nun in the year 900 and was considered illiterate. In fact, she was a scribe, and, not only that, she was the best of scribes. You ask yourself, why is it throughout history, the best books, the best volumes, have been discovered in women’s monasteries? I think we just assumed the scribes, being men, stored them there, but now we know the women wrote them. That really excited me. It’s taken 10,000 years and a million voices to right those wrongs, but now they are being righted.

3. Can you give us a taste of your lectures? What’s the range of where you’ll take us, geographically, historically, etc.?

They [CBC producers] wanted me basically to go back to the Paleolithic and Pleistocene and Stone Age eras and find out, when were women oppressed in the first place? How was that sustained over all those millennia and where are women today and how do they get to tomorrow? And that’s what I did.

"It’s taken 10,000 years and a million voices to right those wrongs, but now they are being righted."

The first chapter is called In the Beginning(s), plural, because women have had so many beginnings. Every time we think we’re up to bat and we’re going to hit a home run, we end up waiting for our turn to go up to bat again. The second chapter is called The Mating Game and it’s about the incredible issues around sex and women — sex for pleasure, for love, for procreation, for health, for punishment, for victory, for genocide, for marketing, for sales. It's a big topic.

The third chapter is called A Holy Paradox, and it concentrates on how culture and religion have been used to oppress women. And the fourth chapter is called When the Patriarchy Meets the Matriarchy and it’s about politics. I was very lucky to speak to people who were very knowledgeable about the effect of patriarchy on women and I hadn’t seen it put quite that way before, but it’s very troubling. I chase stories down not only in the United States — Mr. Trump does not do well in my book — but also in Brazil and in the Philippines and Hungary and Poland and Italy.

And the last chapter is called Shifting Power and [covers] how the power is shifting and the cost of that. I mean, there’s so much wasted money in keeping the gender inequality train going.

4. Of the many stories you’ve encountered over your years of work, which have stayed with you? Do they help you to be inspired, to sustain the fire and to keep going with this coverage?

I have been doing this for a very long time — for 30 years. When I go out into a zone of conflict, once women start to tell me their story, I develop a bond with that story or that woman or both, and they stay with me, whether it's in Afghanistan or Iraq or Senegal or all the many, many, many places I’ve reported on. Those women and their daughters, they play behind my eyelids. I’ve used several of their stories in these Massey lectures. [With these stories] I can show how women, for such a long time, have been trying to alter the status quo, and what happens in the village or the town or even the country when the status quo doesn't change.

I’ll tell you one. It was 1992, in the fall, and it was when they were gang-raping women in the Balkans. I was in Sarajevo doing a story on the effect of war on children and the day before I was to leave, I heard rumours about rape camps. This was before Darfur, before Rwanda…I heard that they were rounding up the wives, the daughters, the sisters of the so-called enemy and putting them in camps and gang-raping them. As a journalist, the first casualty of war is the truth, and I thought, people are just saying this, it can't possibly be true. But by the end of the day, I knew it was true. But I knew it would take me three months to get this story to press, so I brought everything I could — stories, names, anecdotes, mobile phone numbers — and I gave it to a very big news agency [for it to use for further investigation]. I went back to my office and waited for the headline. Nothing.

Seven weeks later, I saw a four-line blurb in Newsweek magazine that said they were gang-raping women in the Balkans. I phoned the guy who I gave it to and I said, ‘What happened?’ He said, ‘Aw, you know, I was busy, I was on deadline, I forgot.’ I said, ‘For God’s sake, 20,000 women were gang raped! Some of them eight years old, some of them 80 years old. And you forgot?’ And he said, ‘Oh Sally you are always going on and on about the women.’ And so help me, I thought, 'If no one is going to do these stories, I’m going to do these stories.’ ... I went back and I did the story and I concentrated on one woman, her name was Eva Penavic. The story is absolutely horrific, it's in the book, too. She plays on the back of my eyelids, of course.

I feel really lucky because I meet these people, you know what women are like — we talk about all the issues, but then soon enough, the notebook closes and the conversation turns to your kitchen and your kids. I feel really privileged that I know those women and that they shared their terrible stories with me.

5. What would you like to see happen when it comes to gender equality in the next year or five years? Any cases, policies or areas of focus you'll be watching?

The first obvious one is equal pay. In a country like Canada, never mind Afghanistan or Egypt or even the United States, how is it possible that we don’t pay women the same wage for doing the same job that men do? To me, that is beyond the pale. Many countries are doing something about this — in Iceland you get fined if you don't pay people equally. How on earth can any company say, ‘We’re going ahead, we’re having equality on the board, we're coming down on guys who are sexually harassing in the office,’ but you're not paying the same amount? Well, shame on you.

[The second is] violence against women (I hate to say it’s number two, because it's also number one). In Canada alone, violence against women costs $7.4 billion a year. Can you imagine? And around the world it’s $3 trillion. When are we going to stop this? I don't believe that violence against women is blind obedience to violence and oppression. I believe it is fear of change, and I think we have to talk more about this, because it's costing too much money and it ruins people's lives.

The last thing is the easiest one of all — it’s attitude. You would think that older men, old, white men would be the problem, and they soon enough will retire or go away to the country. But young men are still coming up with these misogynist and unequal pieces of policy — that is so shocking to me.

So there's the wage gap, the violence and the attitude. I think it’s time men have to call this dance. It's the men who have to say, how dare you speak that way. It was the girls of Afghanistan [that said this]. I went to do a story on Young Women for Change [in Kabul] and I was pretty surprised when I got into their office and it was half men and boys. They said, as though they were 45-year-old PhD students, ‘Oh, we’ll never get to the finish line unless we walk together.’ And not six months later, during the Tahrir Square disaster [in Egypt], I went to the Nazra centre for feminist studies and what do you know? Same thing, half men. I said, ‘Why do you have men involved in this centre for feminist studies?’ They said, ‘Because we have to walk together.’

And it’s a hundred percent true. I end my Massey lecture with a story about that, because that is the route to the finish line. We have to walk together. There’s too many men around here that think giving equality to women means they are going to lose something themselves. That’s just nonsense. Every study ever done has shown people are healthier, the economy is better and life expectancy is longer [in an equal world]. Everything’s better.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.