Women Don’t Need You To Empower Them.
Last International Women's Day, we wrote an article surrounding Kimberle Crenshaw's ideas of intersectionality and the importance of intersectional feminism as a progressive way forward. You can access the article via this link:
International Women's Day is a day to celebrate all women in their diversities around the world, as well as a day to acknowledge that no nation around the world has ever achieved gender equality.
Every day there are violations of women's rights, as well as discrimination based on gender and a lack of women's representation in positions of power. Today is a day to unite as women to fight for our fundamental, non-derogable, rights of equality and freedom. Today is a day to also acknowledge the challenges that are faced for women under the current systems controlled by patriarchal dominated structures and a reminder to support those who do not have access to equal representation.
The aim of feminism is not for women to take power out of men's hands. It's precisely about destroying that notion of power. "Women should not have power over men, but over themselves" - Mary Shelley.
Through my recent studies of human rights and the many diverse conversations I have encountered, I have become uncomfortable with the concept of 'empowerment'. A common definition for the term of empowerment suggests it encompasses an "authority or power given to someone to do something". Something that becomes unsettling for me within this term is the idea that by empowering, we are creating a division within the narrative that suggests 'us' and 'them'. As a result, perceptions that can stem from the use of this term can be detrimental in the fight for equality.
A quote that resonates with my discomfort for the term of empowerment is one of G.D Andersons, that suggests: "Feminism is not about making women stronger; women are already strong. It's about changing the way the world perceives that strength".
Ideas surrounding the desire to 'empower' can often embody the very thing that's oppressing people to be able to become fully self-determined and equally represented. The idea of empowerment can frequently be misinterpreted, and consequently still enable the control and power of one person or group over another.
This issue is not just a concept that should be highlighted within the context of women's rights, but also the representation and rights of all minorities who are under-represented throughout the world.
The notion that we must 'empower' women and those that are less represented within society suggests that those who are in a position to 'empower', also have an automatic position of higher importance; and thus, have more value. Furthermore, to suggest someone needs empowering is to suggest that they have a lesser ability or importance.
To empower is to give, and to have the position of 'giving' implies a sense of control and authority. With such a position, society begins to then categorise people into a hierarchical order; often with those of privilege and representation within society, at the top. Through the actions of empowerment, it is presumed that the person ‘empowering’ has already obtained empowerment. Such a presumption is that those of the patriarch or women with larger representation within society, such as white, straight, able-bodied, cis-gendered women, already obtain such quality and ability. This automatic assumption and pre-conceived value is destructive in the progression for an equal platform of representation and highlights the subtle ways in which colonial values and tendencies continue to surface within our actions and language of today; even when discussing the fight for equality.
Through the assumption that people of less representation are inherently unempowered to begin with, has its fundamental and problematic consequences that then stem into broader societal issues and values. To participate in a discourse and narrative that continues to value a group of individuals over another, supports a system of oppression, and ultimately the current structure of the patriarch.
To value those who are underrepresented within society as 'unempowered' is continuing colonial thought processes that suggest women who are represented within the minority of society, are of lesser value and ability. In doing so, there is an automatic positioning of elitism and value for women that believe they have the responsibility to 'empower' these women. This idea that some women are of less power and ability, further suggests and harbours this notion that minorities are of lesser value and worth within society. In doing so, it continues to create inequalities and prejudices; and further, the progression of white superiority and the self-given responsibility that resonates with concepts alike to the 'white-saviour' complex.
The concept of 'giving' also implies that an individual does not have something to begin with. To assume a woman and those who are less represented within society are not empowered, is disempowering within itself. To assume a woman is unempowered on her own takes away her control and legitimacy to self-determine as a capable individual. By suggesting, we must empower others, creates and devalues an individual and their plight for self-autonomy.
The famous phrase that states: 'empowered women, empower women,' suggests that not all women are empowered. Not only does this undermine women's capabilities, but it also minimises the impact and destruction of the dominant patriarchal structure that is formulated to benefit men, which is something that should be of main focus and discussion during these debates. In doing so, we are continuing to oppress women by losing focus on the main issue at hand and the underlying cause of such destruction towards equality.
By focussing our energy on such loose concepts, we are shifting focus and diminishing the harmful impact that current patriarchal structures are continuing to cause. Women have not been able to achieve equality because they are disempowered, rather a dominant system that benefits men and is created by men has stopped women's progression. This is not the fault of women or any other less-represented group within a society. This is the result of colonial and male-dominated systems.
While it's important to acknowledge that when the term empowerment is often raised within the context of women's rights, it is mostly well-intentioned. It can be understood that it's primarily in reference to women taking back their control and autonomy. However, through the underlining values that the idea of empowerment embodies, it again, leads to the undermining of others; and consequently, the harbouring of male-dominated and white colonial values.
This is where Kimberle Crenshaw's ideas of intersectionality also fit in. Taking an excerpt from last year's International Women's Day article:
"It can be argued that the current feminist movement of today is at risk of losing its progress if it continues to fail to recognise that not every woman is a straight, white, cisgender, able-bodied individual with middle-class status. It's crucial now, more than ever, for this movement to acknowledge how a number of various forms of prejudices intensify gender-based discrimination for a number of different reasons."
Extending on from this idea of acknowledgement, it's vital for men and women, particularly those of the dominant groups within society, begin to recognise their impact and the privilege they may hold in their ability to have their voices be heard in their fight for equality. In acknowledging this, it's essential those with such privilege are aware that their impact can, in return, minimise other people's plights in reaching the same recognition and legitimacy.
It is true, that with the pre-conceived assumptions that come with white colonial structured societies, the dominant group within society has more power over those less represented. However, it is necessary to note that such power is gained simply through their dominance and exploitation of others. It is essential for people to recognise that power through privilege and the thought process behind the notion that one has a responsibility to 'empower' others, are not two separate entities. For the values that ultimately define the concept of having the control to empower others, when not executed adequately, are the basic steps to white superiority and dominance.
It's not about empowering individuals, rather, finally giving them a seat at the table and, in return, the representation they have been oppressed from achieving throughout history, as a consequence of white supremacy and the patriarch. Women are not helpless, rather, they have been restricted in their pursuit to self-autonomy and equal representation in a society that strategically limits and controls others to benefit the dominant. We must shift the rhetoric from ideas of 'empowerment' to ideas of a new 'power', that values the power within self-determination and autonomy.
We must step aside and continue the fight for equality alongside each other, allowing all women to be recognised along with their diverse difficulties. Women have a right to represent themselves and to do this without having to wait to be 'empowered' superficially by other women and men. Self-representation and determination are essential to ensure all our needs are met and that equality can finally be achieved.
"It can't be about "empowerment" any longer. To make real progress, it has to be about power—using and growing the power we women already have."- Sallie Krawcheck