I recently read a positive article about strong women. A positive article, which referenced my hero Xena, and which I thoroughly enjoyed reading. However, I noticed that my thoughts were hovering over the word empowerment. I’d always previously accepted this word, and indeed used it myself plenty of times – with the best of intentions, but now I found myself wondering ‘why empowered, instead of powerful..?’ If these women were empowered, that must mean that power had been bestowed upon them, as a gift, presumably from males of the species.
Empowerment sounds like a strong, positive word. Yet it implies that the person needing to be empowered occupies a position of weakness. Think about it, when was the last time you heard about empowerment in relation to men? If you have heard it in that context, I’ll wager those men were considered to be disadvantaged in some way.
Strong, independent women are not empowered, and certainly aren’t in need of empowerment. They already have power, plenty of it, and it’s not likely that it was given to them as a gift. They likely worked hard to secure the life they have, just as do their male counterparts.
The notion of empowerment is a part of social construction – it’s part of a story that gets told about certain people: people perceived as being in need of a helping hand, people who are weak in relation to those constructing the story. It’s akin to positive sounding sentiments such as ‘don’t be scared’ – which suggest the person is, or is expected to be, the thing you’re telling them not to be. ‘I can empower you’ tells you that you are currently powerless and that, luckily for you, I’m in a position to help – I, like She-Ra, Have the Power.
What does it mean to have power, on a personal level? There’s plenty written about this. My thoughts are that it means stuff like this;
- Being able to exercise choice about what you do each day; ie having control over your life
- Being able to learn about the things you enjoy
- Having the opportunity to do what you love for a living
- Having some influence over those around you
- Being listened to and taken seriously
- Being financially independent
- Having time to yourself when you want it
- Being able to do something with your ideas
- Being able to pass on knowledge or learning to others
And I’m sure you can think of lots more.
I believe all us have power to some extent. There’s no reason to make the assumption that only men (and men of a certain type) are born into power. Even people as seemingly powerful as the Royal Family are severely restricted in the choices they can make in their personal lives. And a young woman born into poverty may still have opportunities to exercise power – even if it’s simply the teaching of younger siblings.
I’m not downplaying inequalities here. Inequalities are measurable facts. People can be at great disadvantage within their society, especially when it comes to accessing education or employment, or to enjoying good health. Inequalities are to be taken seriously; people die young due to inequality.
I guess my message here is to think about the story we’re telling with the language we choose. To be cautious with language that tells people they are powerless; language that reinforces the divides between people and suggests (certain) people aren’t expected to have any power without a good degree of outside help. Especially to be avoided is stealthy language like ‘empowerment’ which can sneakily label people as ‘needy’ (which also means ‘a burden’ and ‘not very useful’) whilst purporting to be helpful.
I believe it’s better to have conversations (eg about equality) that begin not with an assumption that a person is in need of help, but rather with the assumptions that;
- everyone has a degree of power, which can be grown
- everyone has gifts to share
- everyone is capable
- everyone has potential to make a difference in the world – even if it’s a small difference
- and, most importantly; everyone is valuable.
So, as a woman, I politely ask, stop trying to give me power as a gift. It transpires I already have one just like it, and I greatly prefer my own version.