Naturally, the idea that you have to be strong to be empowered is nonsense, but it’s one that persists in the real world. We talk about empowering women and girls (which is a good thing), but our idea of what empowerment means is terribly limited.
What comes to mind when you think about empowerment? Chances are, it’s related to encouraging girls in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields, helping female entrepreneurs access resources, and transforming corporate environments to allow women to rise to the top of their field.
These are all important, but the problem lies in the narrow focus. Not everyone wants to be a doctor or a CEO. Some women want to work in creative fields, or be preschool teachers or housewives. They might want to be a secretary or receptionist because they’re efficient and enjoy interacting with people.
They might be perfectly happy in an environment where they don’t wield power, other than their own autonomy.
Empowerment is an empty concept if we don’t value choice in a meaningful way. If we don’t feel free to make choices away from societal judgement, it doesn’t matter how many Fortune 500 companies have women CEOs.
Reams have been written about the double standard between the ways men’s and women’s choices are viewed — and that doesn’t even touch on the additional challenges faced by people outside the gender binary.
Children and parenting are a particularly fraught example. Women are judged for having children, for not having children, for only having one child, for having too many… And from the moment two little lines appear on the pregnancy test, the parent-to-be is dragged into the Mommy Wars. Which, by the way, is a terribly derogatory term. Where are the battle lines being drawn for the Daddy Wars, again?
Several years ago, I read an article in which the feminist writer Laurie Penny lamented the character of the Strong Female Protagonist. Penny’s argument was that female characters in fiction fall into one of two categories: strong or one-dimensional. A woman cannot be multifaceted or interesting if she is weak-willed or anxious or really damn tired after work every day. Sure, she can be a bitch, but only if she’s strong, like Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada.
Being strong is good. Being driven and ambitious is good. But how can we claim empowerment when that power is solely predicated on being in charge of the boardroom? Let’s stop implying that these are the only ways in which women are allowed to be powerful.