Artillery Row

Feminist fallacies: Empowerment

Women aren’t passive objects; we don’t need to wait around for somebody to grant our empowerment

“Empowerment” is the first article in Julie Bindel’s new online column for The Critic, “Feminist fallacies”, which explores modern-day myths about the women’s liberation movement.

Feminism is not about “empowerment”; in fact, it is the antithesis. I bristle whenever I hear the word. The very definition of “empower” is “to give power to (someone); to make (someone) stronger and more confident”.

The key words here are “give” and “make”. Empowerment means you’re transferring power to someone else. When it is used in relation to women (as it only ever is), it means we need permission from others. Making it the opposite of autonomy, which is the bedrock of feminism.

The term “empowerment” in relation to feminism began in the 1980s with the corporate US brand of women’s liberation that focused on glass ceilings and women in power suits with shoulder pads so wide they had to walk sideways through the doors of their plush offices.

Women are not passive objects; we don’t need to wait around for somebody to grant our empowerment. I want men to step aside and recognise that they are not the ones to determine what power or agency I have.

The actor Emma Watson said: “If you want to run for prime minister, you can. If you don’t, that’s wonderful, too. Shave your armpits, don’t shave them, wear flats one day, heels the next. We want to empower women to do exactly what they want.”

Simple as that, apparently.

I want women to take the power from men and liberate themselves from patriarchy

Watson’s trite statement would have meant nothing to working-class girls. The version of empowerment on offer to them is the type that comes with watching porn with their boyfriends, pole dancing for exercise, and getting their tits out for the lads. Gyrating in a hypersexual manner does not make patriarchy disappear. This “girl power” is just about embracing sex stereotypes.

No one who actually has power ever talks about “empowering” themselves, which is why men never use the phrase about their own activities. Tell me the last time you heard a man say: “That team meeting was so empowering.”

Women are neither empowered by being naked nor by covering their bodies under the guise of “modesty”.  For many women living under Islamic law, being informed that the full face veil is a positive choice is as mad as telling a bloke he should cover his abs and legs when working on a building site in scorching heat in case he gets touched up by a hen party.

Margaret Thatcher always told women they could “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” and do anything they chose. The concept of empowerment ignores structural oppression, which leaves all the responsibility for change with individual women instead of the powers that be.

If all we strive for is empowerment, as long as our porn is “feminist”, and we can do all of the things traditionally earmarked for men, we can declare feminism a raging success. I don’t know why I have dedicated 40 years of my life into campaigning to end male violence when all women have to do is declare ourselves liberated.

A fool-proof test as to whether or not a particular brand of feminism is effective is to ask: “Do men like it?” If the answer is “Yes”, then we are doing something wrong.

Take the popularity with the dudebros of Slutwalk, a global movement founded in 2011 in response to victim-blaming and street harassment, as an example. I witnessed one in NYC and saw loads of young, bearded men on the sidewalks whopping and cheering the topless women on the march, pointing with glee at the word SLUT drawn in massive letters in lipstick across one woman’s bare breasts. She was most definitely empowered, yes?

Empowerment is essentially corporate-friendly, liberal feminism that challenges no one and allows men to not only maintain the status quo, but exploit women while they do so.

Women don’t need a feel-good anthem. The message is clear: if you want to be empowered, you have to be improved. It means changing yourself as an individual rather than the power structures that keep you down.

I don’t want women to be “empowered”. Instead, I want women to take the power from men and liberate themselves from patriarchy. Nobody gives you power, least of all men. So, sisters, we need to seize it for ourselves.

Julie Bindel’s latest book, Feminism for Women: The Real Route to Liberation (Constable, Robinson), is out 2 September 2021.

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