Power vs. Empowerment
Y'all, I've been watching the Olympics for these past couple of weeks, and I've been appalled. No, not just because of this sexism or this sexism. And not only this sexism or this sexism. Those examples are so overt you can gather them together in a basket of bullshit - Olympic-level basketbull we could call it - as many of the linked sites have done. But they're not what rankles.
What's making my eyes twitch just thinking about it is the dog-whistle term "empowerment" when used in reference to powerful women athletes. Yes, to most the word "empowerment" sounds great. But think about its meaning - WHO empowered these women? The women, by this definition without power prior to whatever or whomever empowered them, couldn't have done it. So what? Who? The answer, according to many media outlets, is "the men who married/trained/helped conceive them." The notion of external empowerment, rather than inherent power, fueling these world-class women athletes should offend us all.
So, in honor of all of the powerful women athletes competing at the Olympic Games, I'm reposting this piece from earlier this year. Good on you, powerful women. Here's to hoping that in 2 years' or 4 years' time all your glory will be rightfully attributed to you.
Are you empowered? An empowered feminist? An empowered person?
An empowered worker? An empowered thinker? And empowered parent?
Maybe you shouldn't be. Maybe you should aim higher.
Right now in our culture and in our language, we value the idea of being "empowered," and the word is thrown around as something to aim for and something to value. Colloquially, the two terms “empowered” and “powerful” have come to mean the same thing, especially, it seems, when speaking of women. Women are empowered, and the strong ones seek empowerment. We want to be strong, empowered women.
Or do we?
Or do we want to be something stronger, something more permanent, something more lasting, something more essential?
Do we want to - do we have the courage to be, instead, powerful?
Let’s break down the language.
Empowered means to have been granted authority by an outside source, to have been enabled to act, to have been given permission. It is a passive verb construction to say that one “was empowered.” To have "been empowered" is a phrase that removes all agency from the person described as “empowered” and grants it instead to an unnamed, power-granting individual, institution, or tradition. Empowerment is a gift from another. It is granted, and, as such, can be refused or taken away. It is conditional, it is situational, and it is temporary.
It is the still-black morning when I rode the close-packed subway from Brooklyn to Harlem to teach my morning's classes. Crammed against the pole with people on both sides of me, unable to move, I felt a hand on my left hip, and another on my right, before I finally felt an unseen stranger shove his clothed (thank God) erection against the small of my back. I couldn't see his hands because they had burrowed under my coat to seek a firmer grip. I couldn't see his face because I couldn't turn around in the crowd enough to look behind me. I could feel him pressing himself against me slowly, but hard, so that others might not notice what he was doing to me.
But they did. Those near us did witness what was happening, see his thrusts and see my panic. And I watched them shift away from my gaze with obvious discomfort as I sought - what? - help? Confirmation that what I was experiencing was really happening? Validation that I wasn't imagining the whole thing? Empowerment enough to act in my own self-defense? Action that I did not take when I, instead, shoved past everyone at the next stop and fled, ashamed then, and ashamed now a decade and a half later to even recall it.
“Powerful,” on the other hand, is something else altogether. The powerful move, change, influence, and control. The powerful affect, alter, demand, and receive. Power is agency, action, strength, and might. Like empowerment, power, too, can be temporary and taken from you. Unlike empowerment, though, it can also be taken by you - for you.
It is the still-black morning only a month later when I rode the close-packed subway from Brooklyn to Harlem to teach my morning's classes. Holding the metal rail running high and parallel to the seats below, I saw a man on the seat below me with his pants down, furiously masturbating inches from my body. The commuters all around us willfully avoided noticing what they had to know, especially since those sitting immediately next to him could obviously feel his rhythmic agitation. And I boomed in the deepest, fiercest voice that I could summon that he needed to "pack [his] shit up and get off my fucking train." I yelled him up out of his motherfucking seat, back into his motherfucking pants, and off of my motherfucking train. MINE. On which I have the goddamn right to a morning's commute unmolested, and in which I had taken the power to ensure that right with all of thunder I could not muster and was not granted a month earlier.
As Malcolm X said, “Nobody can give you freedom. Nobody can give you equality or justice or anything. If you’re a man, you take it.” And the same, I’d say, if you’re a woman. But before we can take it, we must stop politely asking and waiting for it to be granted to us. We can take power as our due, rather than politely asking for and waiting for empowerment.
As Alice Walker said, “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any. And the same, I’d say, by speaking as if their power is something to be, at best, gifted or, at worst, loaned. To claim the word “empowered” is to disclaim power as a lasting, achievable goal and an essential right.
So, women, I encourage you - us - and all of our many-gendered, feminist, fellow travelers to call out your power. Get your power. Stake your claim. But don’t wait for someone to give it to you. You don’t need to ask for power, you need to take it. And when it’s yours, you need to acknowledge it - glorify it - by name so that others can shake off the weakening mantle of “empowerment” and get their own proper, lasting power.
Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Pittman Hughes don't ask. They throw a fist and demand what's theirs. And yours. (Image Source)