Authority

Authority is a quality that circulates within relationships. Authority arises whenever someone finds the words or ideas of another person important and attaches value to these ideas. I can recognize whether someone has authority for me, by the fact that his or her judgment is important to me, even when I disagree with it.

Authority can not be claimed or demanded, and it can not be codified in formal symbols, but must re-prove itself in any given situation. This is why authority is not the same as power (and has nothing to do with what is often called „authoritarian”).

Authority does not necessarily correspond with specific talents or capacities such as expertise or skills but is connected to the desire of the one acknowledging it. This acknowledgement usually happens when another person says (or does or writes) something that helps me follow my own desire. Those who possess authority can inspire, offer new ideas, challenges, encourage or point out previously unknown possibilities. That is why authority may prove so effective: It moves people to change, to start something new, to rethink their previous views and develop further.

For women’s political practice, it turns out to be particularly fruitful to strengthen and willfully foster authority in relationships between them. It helps to free themselves from the male-dominated symbolic order. If a particular woman has authority for me, it provides a new yardstick offering me orientation, allowing me more freedom from the standards of the existing symbolic order. For example, if I am not sure whether a text that I have written is good, I rely on this woman’s judgment and therefore depend less on conventional recognition (that is, university grades or whether I’m being published by an established medium). Her approval will strengthen my resolve to stand up for my wishes and views.

Relationships of authority not only mean mere acknowledgment, support, and encouragement. Recognizing authority also lets me accept criticism and scrutiny, and it requires the willingness of the other person to stand by the authority afforded them and to venture judgments.

Intentionally cultivating relationships of authority is also a way to make difference among women fruitful, and to take conflicts seriously. 

Hannah Arendt, ‘What is Authority?’, in idem, Between Past and Future. Eight Exercises in Political Thought, with Introduction by Jerome Kohn, New York, London 1962/2006, Penguin Classics, 91-141. 

Diana Sartori, ‘Women’s Authority in Science, in: Kathleen Lennon & Margaret Whitford (eds), Knowing the Difference. Feminist Perspectives in Epistemology, London/ New York, 1994, p. 110-121. 

Anne-Claire Mulder, Religious Authority, Religious Leadership, Leadership of a Religious Organization – Same Difference? An Effort in Clarification, in: Journal of the European Society of Women in Theological Research 24, Leuven, 2016, p. 133-154 (www.eswtr.org/en/journals)

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