Leslee Goodman
14 min readJun 10, 2019

Power and Sex | An interview with Scilla Elworthy

Dr. Scilla Elworthy

Dr. Scilla Elworthy literally wrote the book Power and Sex back in 1996. The book grew out of her work with the Oxford Research Group, which she founded in 1982 to better understand the thinking of the world’s nuclear weapons decision-makers — who were — and remain — overwhelmingly male (older, white and male). She found that these men, who wield life-and-death power over humanity, operate from a worldview based on competition and an understanding of power as domination — either overt or implied. Yet, Elworthy also wanted to explore whether another type of power — inspired by compassion and collaboration, rather than domination — might be possible. She not only found that it was, but that it had been prevalent throughout the world for approximately 15,000 years. She also found evidence of its resurgence today.

After serving as the executive director of The Oxford Research Group for30 years, Elworthy founded Peace Direct to fund, promote, and learn from inspirational peacebuilders in conflict areas around the world. She then was asked to advise Peter Gabriel, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Sir Richard Branson in setting up The Elders, an independent group of eminent global leaders, convened by Nelson Mandela, working for peace and human rights.

For her efforts, she is a three-time nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize and in 2003 was awarded the Niwano Peace Prize, which is given annually to a living individual or organization that is making a significant contribution to world peace through promoting interreligious cooperation. She is also a co-founder of Rising Women Rising World (2013), and FemmeQ (2016), as well as the author, co-author, or editor of many books, primarily on peace and international relations. Her book Pioneering the Possible: Awakened Leadership for a World That Works (North Atlantic Books, 2014) received critical acclaim from luminaries like Desmond Tutu, Jean Houston, and many others. Her most recent book is The Business Plan for Peace: Building a World Without War (2017). Her TED talk on nonviolence has been viewed by over 1,200,000 people.

Born in Scotland, she now lives near Oxford, from whence she was kind enough to speak with me via Zoom. — Leslee Goodman

The MOON: This issue of The MOON is about sex and power. How does gender influence the type of power we see prevalent in the world today? And how would you characterize that power?

Elworthy: Most of what we think we know about power has been written by men, based on values we think of as masculine. Even today, the male norm and the human norm are thought to be identical. As a result, what the concept of power means to most people is force, strength, influence, domination, authority, rule — and ultimately, military force. I call this type of power domination power.

Obviously, this is a method of control. The problem is that this is thought to be the only method of control; the only one that is “natural,” or “effective.” A whole set of preconceptions underlie this way of thinking, including the belief that humans are inherently aggressive, or violent, and that they operate as separate individuals, without any dependence upon, or need to be responsible to, the collective.

One aspect of domination power, by way of example, is the ability to prevent people from becoming aware of what is happening to them until it is too late for the decision to be reversed. I found that this happened over and over again in the realm of weapons development and decisions to go to war. For example, in December 2002 I was part of a group of women leaders called by Margaret Papandreou, the former first lady of Greece, to travel to the Middle East in an attempt to prevent the war in Iraq. We met with Iraqi cabinet ministers, Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, Foreign Minister Nagi Sabri, and Oil Minister Amer Mohammed Rashid, as well as with doctors, teachers, and scientists. We produced a plan that outlined in 10 points how war with Iraq could be avoided. The report was placed in Blair’s hands, who reportedly said, “It’s too late.” Two months later we discovered that irreversible machinery for the US/UK invasion of Iraq had been set in motion the previous October and that Blair had given Bush his unconditional support a year previously.

On a more positive note, however, demonstrations of another kind of power are beginning to emerge. For example, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern immediately donned a headscarf out of compassion and respect for the victims of the Christchurch terror attack on Muslims. She also announced that the media would give no publicity to the perpetrator of the attack and within days announced changes to the nation’s gun laws. Angela Merkel, the chancellor of Germany, is another leader who embodies another kind of power. I find her extraordinary in the way she makes decisions, maintaining contact with her humanity and even allowing herself to be vulnerable at times. There is a nurturing quality to her leadership, such as her decision to accept one million refugees into Germany, despite opposition from others in her country. In another example, the Swedish Foreign Minister revoked her country’s weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, despite the fury of the business community, because of their deplorable human rights record.

The MOON: The world used to know this kind of power. Will you describe some of the evidence for that assertion?

Elworthy: For the greater part of human history — from about 22,000 BC to about 4,000 or 3,000 BC — cultures all over the world revered women and worshipped goddesses and the Earth, which was associated with Her. Men didn’t realize that they had any role in procreation until about 15,000 BC, so the female body was considered divine and endowed with almost supernatural powers. Only through it was new life created.

These cultures were predominantly peaceful and celebrated the arts. Anthropologists have discovered statues and artifacts from these cultures everywhere in the world — in Europe, the British Isles, China, India, the Middle East — particularly in Anatolia, a part of Turkey, where a figurine has been found of a woman sitting in a birth chair, with a lion on either side of her, in the act of giving birth. For years, hundreds of these figurines sat in the bottom drawers of museums because the men who were archaeologists and anthropologists didn’t know what to make of them and, in truth, weren’t all that interested. The figurines were also considered rather vulgar. When Sheela Na Gigs — figurative carvings of naked women displaying an exaggerated vulva — were found all over Europe on cathedrals, castles, and other buildings — we began to realize these were probably a form of homage to the earlier goddess-worshiping religions that Christianity replaced.

There is a wonderful statue of the Great Earth Mother that was found in an underground temple in Malta. A full-figured woman is represented wearing a full skirt under which the people used to hide when they were frightened or hungry. She was their refuge and strength.

There is even a Neolithic burial ground near my home that is entered through an opening that represents the cervix. Side entrances signify the breasts. So the birth canal and the female reproductive system as a whole were very important. Dead bodies would be carried through the birth canal back into the body of the Mother until spring, when new life would begin again.

The cyclical nature of life, too, was very important, helping people overcome their fear of death with the understanding that new life would be generated from the old.

Thus, the Earth-based religions of the British Isles celebrate Imbolc, on February 2, which welcomes the return of spring; Beltane, on May 2, which is a festival of courtship and impregnation, greeting the summer; Lughnasadh, on August 2, is a celebration of the harvest; and Samhain, on November 2, is a festival of the dead. These Earth-based, seasonal rituals were very nearly forgotten, but there is a resurgence of interest in them now as people seek a return to Indigenous and Earth-based wisdom and connectedness.

The MOON: I recently watched the newest film about Apollo 11, timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the moon landing in July 2019. I was stunned by the awesome — and fearsome — power of our technology because we can’t be trusted to use it responsibly; compassionately; benignly. And that was technology from 50 years ago. Could a more benign power really ever hope to replace the power of domination?

Elworthy: Yes, absolutely. There’s been an ongoing evolution in human consciousness throughout history and, although each advance may seem to have taken a long time, each successive advance is coming more rapidly. Humanity as a whole — not everyone, but most of us — now realizes that for the human species to survive we need to make a leap in our consciousness to a more humane, compassionate, and sustainable way of living on this planet and with each other. If we don’t, we won’t survive. The planet will; we will not. Across the globe, I’m seeing a far greater awareness of the need to welcome women into positions of leadership, to listen to the wisdom of Indigenous peoples, and to be far more respectful of the Earth.

The earlier goddess-worshipping cultures were destroyed by warlike tribes on horseback armed with metal spears. The Old Testament talks about overthrowing those cultures to replace them with a Father God, his Son, and the Holy Spirit — all of them masculine. But people now are ready for the balance to be restored, although it won’t be from the top down, nor by a reverse form of domination. All over the world we’re seeing a desire to honor what’s left of the world’s Indigenous wisdom — Maori, Q’ero, Inuit, Lakota, Siberian, or African. Respect is now being paid to these religions, all of which talk about our interconnection to each other and to the Earth. Women and young people of any gender are rising up against the power of domination that is destroying the planet’s ability to support human life, as well as many other forms of life.

The MOON: Many females in leadership positions have learned to wield masculine power…perhaps because they felt it was “the only game in town.” Would you say more about this? What are the attributes we should look for in leaders who demonstrate what you have called “inner power,” rather than domination power?

Elworthy: I think it’s clear that women who rose to positions of power in the past often felt as if they had to rely on masculine attributes or they would simply have been filtered out. Newer leaders, however, both men and women, are demonstrating inner power, which I describe as having a “rootedness,” or groundedness, compassion, and an ability to truly listen — which is really the greatest respect you can pay another person and the fastest route to conflict prevention or resolution.

A person leading from inner power is calm under stress. They don’t become agitated, fast-talking, and strident. They draw upon inner resources associated with wisdom; they’re not looking to say whatever might be popular with the people in the room. They know who they are, what their purpose is, and what they need to do.

The MOON: You describe this inner power as having an integrity that is immune to corruption. Can you describe it, please?

Elworthy: Integrity isn’t something you can read about and then adopt. It’s something you develop through your response to life circumstances. For me, the person who exemplified it the most was Nelson Mandela. I once was present at a meeting where he spoke, and as he began to speak I got goose bumps. When he finished, 30 minutes later, I still had goosebumps. My gut told me, “Here is a person who can’t be dominated, manipulated, flattered, or cajoled. He is clear about his purpose. He will listen; he will take others’ views into account; but he will make his own decisions.” That’s integrity of a kind that can’t be corrupted.

The MOON: Many men feel that women do exert power — including unfair power — over men: the right to withhold sexual access, while at the same time flaunting sexual attractiveness. What are your thoughts about this?

Elworthy: From centuries of powerlessness, many women have learned to use their attractiveness to manipulate. This is not what I mean by inner power, which is based on knowing who you are, not what you can get from someone else. As women gain true power, I expect their need to manipulate to diminish. And when you compare the manipulations of women to the rape and slaughter they have endured for centuries and their continuing oppression to this day, the charge of “manipulative” seems rather weak.

The MOON: In your most recent book, The Business Plan for Peace, you give powerful examples of conflicts resolved through the leadership of women. Would you describe one or two of these for us, please?

Elworthy: Gulalai Ismael lives in northwest Pakistan, one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a woman. She was 15 years old when she started an organization called Aware Girls to enable females to go to school. Malala Yousefzai was shot in the head for doing this. Ismael is now 25 and takes teams of young men and women into madrassahs, religious schools, and identifies those who are being trained to wage jihad. The team members then go home with these boys to discuss with their parents what the Quran says about violence. Their efforts have dissuaded more than 200 teenagers from becoming suicide bombers. That is the most dangerous, grassroots, and effective violence prevention — and yet you seldom hear a word about it.

Another example is Asha Hagi Elmi, who, in 1999, when no females were allowed on the delegation to the Somali peace talks, created her own delegation to advance female participation in Somali politics. Called the Sixth Clan Movement, her efforts resulted in 12 per cent of seats in the new Parliament being reserved for women. In 2017, there were four female ministers in this conservative Islamist state. Elmi is also active in ending the practice known as female genital mutilation (FGM).

My organization, Peace Direct, works with people of equivalent courage all over the world, but you don’t hear about them. In Great Britain, we have a saying about media coverage: “If it bleeds, it leads.” We don’t hear about the good news. For example, did you know that global terrorist attacks fell by 23 percent last year — and that last year (2018) was the lowest in fatalities for terrorist attacks since 2009? Moreover, 2018 marked the third consecutive year of decline in terrorist attacks. My organization is committed to publicizing the peace-building efforts that are working — because that is key to them receiving stable funding and replacing violence as a means of solving conflict.

The MOON: We’ve been conditioned to think of feminine power as weak; insufficient. But we also associate nature with the feminine — and nature is far from weak. How might we implement the more human values associated with the feminine in the public sphere — particularly in questions of winning elections, deciding controversial issues, protecting the rights of minorities and other species, and, too, in international relations?

Elworthy: Look for people who are using what I call FQ, for Feminine Intelligence. First we had IQ; then EQ, for emotional intelligence. FQ is feminine intelligence, which is equally available to men as to women. Mother Theresa demonstrated FQ; the leaders we’ve previously discussed do, as well. FQ is composed, first of all, of compassion. We all know that a compassionate person has to be strong. To have enough energy to care for others, or the Earth, as well as yourself, means you must have a strong constitution. FQ also includes a strong sense of interconnection. Those who are connected to the Earth, the seasons, nature, or have a strong sense of community, don’t need to rely on nerves or weapons. They are sufficient unto the moment. They know they can draw upon the resources they need when they need them. Their connectivity empowers them.

Secondly, people with FQ are excellent listeners. Most of us think we’re good listeners, but few of us really are. In a conflict situation, we tend to believe — with our heads — that we are right and the other person is wrong. But if you ask someone you’re having a conflict with to sit with you for 30 minutes and tell you how the conflict feels to them — and you do nothing but really listen so that, when they are finished, you can repeat back what you heard them say — I guarantee you will have moved out of your head and into your heart. Most important, they will feel heard. Then it is your turn to do the same — say how the conflict feels to you and ask them to honestly repeat what they have heard. Now you truly understand each other — perhaps not completely, but far more than you did an hour ago.

This is what I teach people in big corporations to do. In hierarchical organizations, very few people really listen to each other — but when they do, they can resolve in minutes what might have taken years, if ever, to resolve otherwise.

The third quality of FQ is cooperation, not competition. Cooperation includes collaboration and valuing others’ unique experience and perspective. It is the opposite of the competitive elbowing others out of the way that passes for civil discourse today.

The MOON: What advice can you give us as individuals for helping the world transition from the power of domination to the power of cooperation?

Elworthy: Anyone with a child in school can approach the principal and ask them to introduce a 10-minute period of quiet at the start of each day…and this is particularly important in nursery schools, where many children are overwhelmed by the noise, the jostling, the bullying. In one example I’m aware of, the school introduced a period of quiet breathing each morning, the children laying down with a cuddly toy on their stomachs, watching the animal rise and fall with their breath. Within a week, the teachers reported that the kids were learning better and bullying was down. These are the powerful results of just a few minutes of daily connecting with oneself.

The Dalai Lama has said that if every child learned to meditate, we’d end war and violence within a generation. I list 31 additional conflict-prevention measures in The Business Plan for Peace. They include strategies like: support non-violence education in schools and at home; campaign for your government to build a national infrastructure for peace; point out to national editors how rarely they feature the stories of peacemakers relative to how frequently they carry accounts of war and terror; and help shift military activity away from war preparation and towards crisis response.

The book also includes a Toolkit of personal skills you can develop, such as tips for more effective communication, managing your Inner Critic, and transforming “power over” to “power with.”

The MOON: I really love the story with which you open The Business Plan for Peace, and I’d like to include it here because it demonstrates again that the power we are calling “feminine” can be wielded by men with extreme effectiveness. Will you tell it again?

Elworthy: In 2003 shortly after the invasion of Iraq, US Lt. Col. Chris Hughes was leading his men down a street in Najaf, when suddenly people came pouring out of the houses lining the street, surrounding the troops. The local people were furious, screaming at the soldiers and waving their fists. The heavily armed soldiers, who spoke no Arabic, had no idea what was happening. Hughes, however, strode into the middle of the crowd, raised his rifle above his head, pointed the barrel at the ground, and shouted an order to his troops that they had never heard before. It was “Kneel!” The men, burdened by their heavy body armor, lowered themselves to the ground and pointed their rifles into the sand. The crowd quieted in disbelief, and there were silent for about two minutes. Then they dispersed. This gesture of respect averted a bloodbath. No one was killed, no weapons were needed, no shots were fired, no revenge was required. The quality of Lt. Col. Hughes’ awareness, combined with his wisdom, changed the course of history for the people of this village. This is the inner power I see rising in the world today. We need to do everything we can to cultivate it.

— -

Like what you read? Please consider a contribution to keep The MOON shining. There are two ways to contribute: via our secure PayPal link, or our Patreon page, where you can become a continuing supporter of The MOON for as little as $1/month. (To you beautiful souls who already support The MOON, thank you! Your contributions keep us going!)

Leslee Goodman

I’m the publisher/editor of The MOON magazine (www.moonmagazine.org), a monthly journal of personal and universal reflections. The MOON shines in the dark!