The problem with ’empowerment’?

As the start date for the Young Women’s Empowerment Group at Durham School of the Arts approaches, I am re-thinking using the adjective, empowerment, as I did not consider how my own privileged identity may have influenced my previously positive perception of the term.

The Oxford dictionary defines empowerment as “the authority or power given to someone to do something” and “the process of becoming stronger and more confident, especially in controlling one’s life and claiming one’s rights.”  While empowerment has been used to describe a wide array of initiatives, in this post, I am going to argue that the popular use of “women’s empowerment” as an apparatus for social change presents numerous obstacles for the fight towards gender equality. Today’s concept of women’s empowerment ignores structural obstacles, blames women for their own secondary status, and also excludes many groups of women.

In order to critique the contemporary concept of women’s empowerment, it is important to examine its complicated history.  Barbara Solomon, in her 1976 publication of Black Empowerment: Social Work in Oppressed Communities, initiated the conversation of empowerment as a tool for assisting marginalized populations in expressing themselves and gaining power from a dominating class. In the 1970’s, empowerment began to gain agency “in research and intervention concerning marginalized groups such as African Americans, women, gays and lesbians, and people with disabilities.” (Calvès).  Throughout the 1990’s, particularly in Southeast Asia and Latin America, feminists latched onto “empowerment” as a tool for advancing women’s rights in international development.

Although feminists in the Global South, such as activist Srilatha Batliwala, argued that “power relationships can only be changed through… transforming the structures and institutions that reinforce and preserve existing power systems,” some liberal feminists were reluctant to acknowledge the culpability of institutionalized socio-political structures in perpetuating gender inequalities. (Calvès, Stanford Encyclopedia).  At the turn of the twenty-first century, liberal feminists advocated for empowerment that would enable women to realize the rights and privileges afforded to them by society and wield them to combat their own oppression.  I would argue that instead of this individualistic approach, liberal feminists should have instead placed a greater emphasis on questioning the lack of choices available to women and acknowledging systemic sources of oppression, such as sexism.

Furthermore, some feminists critique the liberal feminist model of empowerment as exclusionary, since only women already equipped with a certain level of power can further elevate their status.  A 2016 New York Times article, “How Empowerment Became Something Women Could Buy,” explains that “the ready partici­pation of well-off women in this [empowerment] strat­egy…are, by definition, already there.” As social scientist, Anne-Emmanuèle Calvès notes, “institutionalized programs for empowerment…often only benefit the women who are the least marginalized.”  I would argue that Sheryl Sandberg, Beyoncé, and even Wonder Woman, all sell a glamorized view of empowerment that excludes many women who would arguably benefit the most from it.