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Proceedings of the Conference ~ Cape Breton in Transition: Economic Diversification and Prospects for Tourism

edited by William A. O'Shea ,
Carol Corbin and Eric Krause
(October 20-21, 1998)


The Power of Women in Community Development

Notes from the Roundtable Discussion

Adriani Papadopoulou

Today I am going to talk about some general issues in women's lives, and particularly about the role power plays in making women's lives better.

There are two ways that we can think of power. One, power can be conceived as the ability to impose one's will over other people. In this case we think of power in terms of control. Second, power can be conceived as the ability to be. In this case we think of power in terms of "being able" to be and to do what we want even though other people may resist us.

Women know from experience what it means to be controlled. Throughout our history women have been held in a subordinate position. They have been thought of and they have been treated as inferior (physically, emotionally and intellectually). They have been excluded from key sectors of social life, such as participating in institutions which make decisions that affect them and their community as a whole. In the work place too they have been marginalized in sectors, particularly service sectors, which are the least paid, the least secure sectors of the economy, and the ones which offer the lowest prospects for advancement. Last, women have been almost totally held responsible for domestic labour. Domestic labour is the least recognized of all aspects of modern production.

It is because of the subordinate position in which women have been traditionally placed that women feel ambivalent about power as control, and also, feel confused about the power they actually possess.

Here is where the second notion of power applies. Women have to find a way to actualize their being in the world; they have to let the world know who they are, what they are able to do, and the kind of world they want to live in.

In other words, women have to realize themselves in life. But how can women do this? In two ways: by becoming aware of their own history and by actively participating in their community. In fact, becoming aware of one's life circumstances and taking action to change one's social environment go hand-in-hand.

What are the circumstances in which women find themselves immersed?

In terms of production today women fall in one of the following categories:

a) women may be exclusively involved in domestic labour;

b) women may work part-time to supplement the household income;

c) women may work full-time.

In all these cases, though, the common denominator that binds women together is that we are all responsible for domestic labour, and that our contribution to production is unrecognized and undervalued.

Furthermore, even when women are fully employed their position still remains precarious. Not only do they have to carry out the double shift duties, but also they are still conceived to ultimately belong to the realm of the home, the private realm.

The division between the private realm, the home, and the public realm, the office, is an essential feature of our mode of production. We cannot eliminate it unless we change the whole structure of production. This means that, even when women make inroads into the labour market they are still treated as a reserve kind of worker, who, when times are tough and they are not needed, they can always stay home. In fact, even in the most advanced industrialized countries, such as Germany, when an economic crisis occurs like the one that exists today, women are affected first. They are the first on the list of "disposable workers".

So what are women to do? They have to work on themselves and their community.

Working on themselves means that women have to believe that the work they actually do is essential to the overall production. Also, the skills and talents women display in their work are essential, desirable, and highly esteemed by the value system of our society. Why do I say this knowing how women are actually treated?

Consider, for example, what women do when they do domestic labour.1 In all aspects of domestic labour, such as housework, mothering, reproducing human labour (i.e. making sure that the worker is able to go to work the next day), and making ends meet, women display the qualities and skills that are considered to be necessary for the Chairman of the Board of a corporation.

In housework, in cleaning, dusting, etc., women get rid of dirt, they get rid of disorder and thus create order. To do this women must have organizational skills. We must know what fits and does not fit, what should be eliminated and what is essential. In cooking we display creativity, innovation, as well as beauty and good taste. In shopping we show good judgement; we know how to balance sheets (out of necessity of course), thus we must be good financiers! We are what our male counterpart would call fiscally responsible. Furthermore in mothering women show that we are able to take risks, to deal with pain, and most of all, to be responsible for another human being who is totally dependent on us. In taking care of all the members of the household women show that they can manage conflicting demands, needs and desires with sensitivity and a sense of priorities: women must distinguish which needs must be immediately satisfied, whose satisfaction will be delayed and what demands can never be fulfilled. Are not these the kinds of practices in which the manager of a factory, or a corporation, will be involved. Besides all these qualities I just mentioned, women have centuries of practice in communication and tension management skills.

These are the skills and qualities that define women as wholesome, competent and effective beings. And these are the skills which we must apply in our community.

Before we begin congratulating ourselves about how good we are, we should be alerted to the fact that because these skills are widely held by women, in general, they are discounted as being skills and remain invisible. The knowledge women share often turns against them, because to a particular employer what this means is that he has a large pool of workers with similar skills to choose from. So it is up to individual women to combine these general skills and qualities with the particular training they receive through education in order to establish for themselves an area of expertise.

The next step will be to apply their knowledge to the community. When women engage in their community they are involved in generalizing their own personal situation to the larger question of the position of women in general.

How? By making decisions about projects that their community needs. These projects may be health care facilities, infrastructure projects, child care facilities, educational institutions, etc. When women work to get access to community projects they alter not only their own social life, but as a result, they also alter the structure of domestic labour and the structure of their relationship within and outside the family.

Today, women have a better chance of succeeding in making a mark in their world than in the past. Not only because of the advances that have been made because of the struggles our mothers fought, but also because of the changes that occur in the world today. These are changes in technology, and as a result, in the structure of labour.

Automation and computer technology have made the service sector, which women primarily occupy, the only growing sector of the economy. Organizing and communicating data, temporary work, and the provision of all sorts of services from restaurants to home health care, are the areas where jobs are created. The tourist industry, which is the subject of this conference, is now the world's biggest employer. One out of 15 workers around the world is today employed by the tourist industry. These workers transport, feed, house, amuse and, in general, take care of the tourists. Doesn't this work sound familiar to women? I would assume so.

Women must be aware of the fact that in all these areas where jobs are created the workers do not earn a lot of money, and they do not have any long-term job security. That is why we have to treat these areas of development with attention if we do not want them to become the new ghettos where women are disposed of.

So, on the other hand, we have to treat these areas of development as an opportunity where women can become independent, and where they can create a basis for a more secure future for themselves. (To provide tourist services, for example, does not require a lot of capital, therefore it can be seen as an avenue where women can enter and open their own businesses). On the other hand, though, women must treat these areas with suspicion in terms of the kind of long-term impact they are going to have for themselves and the community. Thus, women must pursue the projects that will help them and their community in the long run and generate further development.

Women must know that what we have been doing traditionally is in demand today. But we must resist being used like we were in the past, as hired hands, and instead create situations where people can make real choices.

Whatever women decide to do, however we decide to utilize our skills, the fact remains that no radical change will occur in our lives unless we actively participate in our community development. We have to take part in the workshops, in the networks, and in the groups that make decisions, if we want to have a say in what happens to our community.

The best way to do this is by participating in groups or associations which promote women's interests (such as affirmative action, equal pay for equal value, health care services, etc.), and which lobby for making women's needs a priority for all levels of government. As individuals, taking a stand alone is hard, and the results of individual action are limited. But acting as a group, women have a better chance in succeeding having their voice heard.

Not to do so, however good our thoughts and intentions, they will remain irrelevant. Inaction from the part of women as far as community affairs go, means that we will have to live with the decisions others make for us, and thus remain in the subordinate position we had always been in the past.

1. For an analysis of domestic labour we can look at M. Luxton's More Than A Labour Of Love.

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Published by the Louisbourg Heritage Society
ISBN 1-896218--07-5
© Louisbourg Institute
Extracted from the Proceedings of the Cape Breton
in Transition Conference, October 20-21, 1995