When second wave feminism was happening in the sixties, seventies and early eighties, most people seemed to understand the word “empowerment” by its actual definition: “a multi-dimensional social process that helps people gain control over their own lives.” But then the 90s came, and the definition got muddied. Susan Faludi outlines the process in the intro to the 15th anniversary edition of Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women.
She describes a 90s in which the right wing, panicked that women were becoming empowered, sought to infiltrate third wave feminism and send their own messages. Commercial interests – often the bedfellows of the right wing – followed suit. Suddenly, all sorts of things were feminist! Like “organic” or “lite”, “feminism” and “liberation” had become marketing buzzwords that sold products, but had little meaning. You’ll want to hold onto something when you read this quote from Faludi (p. xiv, preface):
I soon found myself fielding (and declining) multiple invitations from merchandisers to place my feminist seal of approval on brands of blue jeans, high heels, even breast implants.
I sensed things like this happening at the time. When I heard that breast implants and blow jobs were “empowering” women, I knew the word had lost its meaning.
Empowerment vs. feeling powerful
The least empowered person in the world can feel powerful. That’s why it’s so essential to understand the difference. Imagine an African American slave in the 1800s finding little untraceable ways to cause havoc for her master. These acts of revenge may make her feel powerful, and may do her a world of good psychologically. But they don’t change the reality that her master retains complete control over her life, and if he wants to rape her, have a child with her or kill her, he is empowered to do so and she is not empowered to fight back, let alone win.
Why people resist this definition
When I wrote a while ago about how blow jobs were not empowering, I should have anticipated people misunderstanding the concept. But some of the resistance was psychological, not semantic. For many people, feelings of power or “being on top” are the closest they’ve come to actual empowerment, and they very much want to believe they are empowered. I was handing them a harsh reality: “If that’s all you’ve got, then no, you are not empowered.”
I stand by this. But then I don’t think any woman is truly empowered. I think we’ve made progress in that direction, but marketers and the right wing did their best to sidetrack us, and some of it worked. There’s no shame or blame in this. Cultural shifts usually happen like waves: one generation gives its limited and befuddled all (i.e., second wave feminism opened some doors despite its cringe-worthy failure to remember anyone other than educated white middle class ladies), and then the movement falls apart for a period of self-review, and then the next generation gives its limited and befuddled all (i.e., third wave feminism was much more inclusive, but got a little derailed by the stuff I talked about above), and so on.
We have to mark progress by looking at examples like young adults today failing to understand what the big deal about Cagney & Lacey was, because they see women detectives as an ordinary part of reality (at least on TV). So we may not be “empowered” yet, but we are making progress.
But what about individual empowerment?
Since power by definition is about a relationship between multiple entities, I find the idea of being “empowered” within yourself absurd, at least in terms of language. But let’s talk about personal transformations that psychology refers to as “self-actualization.” Self-actualization is a beautiful thing that can occur whether an individual becomes empowered or not. If the slave’s acts of revenge transform her in some positive way, even though they don’t improve her horrible situation, that’s self-actualization. Some people find self-actualization through religion or spirituality or exploration; through the dumping of a religion; through therapy; through personal revelations; through being loved by someone; through loving someone. However you find it, it’s good stuff, even if it doesn’t improve your life.
Empowerment can occur on a personal level – between you and another entity (or entities) in your life – and this is what some people mean when they talk about “personal empowerment.” One example would be an abused child who grows up, moves out and learns how to overcome or at least work around the scars left in her psyche: she no longer needs her abuser, so his power over her is suddenly gone. An actress spends years getting used and abused by the film industry, and then suddenly finds herself with the kind of fan base that will cause big trouble if the industry doesn’t negotiate with her. Or, more simply, a person raised to be shy and meek discovers how to assert herself.
These are all good things, because they can remove or improve bad relationships in your life. This is another reason why I found the notion of empowering blow jobs troubling: who do blow jobs give you power over? One of the cornerstones of feminism is the idea that power should be equal in romantic/marital relationships. I’m pretty sure the women I’ve talked to who claim blow job empowerment are not seeking creepy levels of power over their mates. So this is not a case of empowerment, and it shouldn’t be. It’s a case of feeling powerful, or possibly even becoming self-actualized through sexual exploration or a healthy romantic relationship. Again, that’s all good stuff. It just doesn’t change the fact that your political rights over your own life still pretty much end wherever a bunch of white dudes say it does.
Isn’t this just semantics?
Why is it important that we agree on the terminology? Feeling powerful, being empowered, what’s the diff? The difference lies in understanding that women are still not empowered to prevent the erosion of our reproductive freedoms (which were never fully secured in the first place), our right to education, our entitlement to the same wages men get paid for the same work (still not quite there, and this recession will provide yet another excuse), and so on.
We must bravely face our lack of empowerment, and determine that we will overcome it. Soothing ourselves temporarily with the illusory empowerment of whatever marketers are selling us is just another distraction from the real goal. And those who are truly empowered are taking, and will continue to take, every advantage of our distraction that they can.