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The Feminist Guide to Everyday Acts of Empowerment: Part 1

The Feminist Guide to Everyday Acts of Empowerment: Part 1

Disclaimer: this is mostly focused on resources available in the US, as that is what I’m familiar with – please help broaden the scope of this guide by adding resources available to women in other parts of the world.

       Empowerment, that most noblest of goals professed by almost all contemporary feminist movements near and wide, but what exactly is it? How do you know if you are empowered, making empowering choices, or empowering others? The term has become so ubiquitous as to nearly lose any meaning whatsoever. Here are provided some answers and tips for getting the most out of your individual acts of feminist rebellion.

       There are two necessary components of effective empowerment, and a third component required for an act of empowerment to be specifically feminist. First, empowerment is a result or an effect, usually of organized political resistance. Second, empowerment provides meaningful and tangible benefits to a disempowered person or group. Finally,  it must be organized by and contribute to the rights, autonomy, and liberation of women. The following is a perfect example of this definition of empowerment:  

       In October 2015, 6,000 women who work as tea pickers for Kanan Devan Hills tea plantations in Kerala blocked the main road to the company’s headquarters. The company is part-owned but controlled by Tata, an Indian multinational and owner of Tetley Tea. Women organized the blockage themselves. They had no experience in union agitation, but defying all odds, they struggled against both the company and the union that was believed to represent them. Pempilai Orumai (Women’s Unity) stayed put for nine days. After endless negotiations overseen by the state, they won the 20 percent bonus they were demanding.

       The women of Pempilai Orumai won the 20% bonus their demanded due to their organized and prolonged resistance. Comparing this to our definition of empowerment, we find that it fits all of the 3 components of feminist empowerment. They achieved a result/effect that they demanded, the result provided them a meaningful benefit (the 20% bonus), and it was an act that benefitted women specifically. We can use this same framework to analyze other individual and organized actions, such as SlutWalk, and determine whether they are truly empowering.  

       SlutWalk organizers and participants demand an end to rape culture by marching in lingerie in order to call attention to the pervasive victim-blaming surrounding rape cases in the press, law enforcement, and social media. While an admirable, and certainly meaningful goal, “the end to rape culture” isn’t a tangible goal  – how do we know when rape culture has ended? One might argue that the end will come when women are no longer sexually objectified in popular culture, but then that would directly contradict the method of resistance employed by SlutWalk participants. Thus, if the goal is immeasurable then there is essentially no result or effect to be attained other than the ever-indefinite “awareness.” Finally, although SlutWalk was organized by women, it has been criticized as erasing or trivializing the destructive relationship between women of color and sexual stereotypes, arguing that the effort to reclaim the word “slut” is an option only available to white, middle-class women. Others have criticized it further, saying that the goal of reclaiming the word “slut” itself is a misguided attempt to promote women’s sexual liberation, as it is so entrenched in patriarchal norms of women’s sexuality that it serves to reinforce rape culture rather than dismantle it. Thus when compared to the definition of feminist empowerment detailed earlier, it’s arguable that actions like SlutWalk, although organized with admirable goals, are neither feminist nor empowering.

       Similarly, individual actions can be evaluated within this framework in order to determine whether they are empowering. Contemporary mainstream feminism in the West boasts that anything a woman chooses to do can be empowering and/or feminist, whether that is simply wearing makeup and high heels or performing in pornography or other “sex work” – as long as it’s your choice as a woman and “feels” empowering, then it is beyond critique. To state it simply, this guide does not subscribe to that definition of empowerment. This guide maintains that feminist empowerment is more than a feeling resulting from individual choices [which are always mitigated by various societal constraints] – that being said, however, there are a number of everyday acts that can contribute to your and other women’s empowerment, many of which rely on overcoming your feminine socialization and societal pressures toward compulsory femininity, which are inherently oppressive to women across racial, economic, religious, and geographic divides. So for those times when you’re not engaged in some sort of organized resistance, you can try these individual acts of feminist empowerment:

  • Learning and practicing self-defense strategies and techniques: Self-defense training has been shown to decrease unwanted sexual contact from men. It is important to find a comprehensive self-defense training program that is feminist-oriented. This means that in addition to physical self-defense techniques, the by-women-for-women program will also teach verbal skills, awareness training, risk assessment, boundary-setting, bystander intervention, confidence-building, and de-escalation techniques, such as the Warrior Sisters program, which can be found in the US, UK, and Canada. There are also videos with many practical tips that can be easily implemented in your everyday routines. Some women engage in weapons and firearms training.  If this is something you decide is appropriate for yourself make sure that your training regimen is in addition to a comprehensive self-defense program and not in place of it – having a wide variety of tools, techniques, and skills at your disposal is the best self-defense strategy.
  • Being financially independent: Being financially independent means not having to rely on men for economic support, and ideally being able to support yourself if and when you need to with dignified, and meaningful work. This can include having your own bank account, your own source of income or potential for one, having as much education and skills training as possible to secure and maintain a well paying job, craft, or trade, a prenuptial agreement or other legal arrangements when necessary, equitable division of financial obligations with male partners, salary and other negotiation skills, consumer research and purchasing skills, having, understanding, and appropriately utilizing adequate types of insurance, protection from identity theft, and financial literacy.

If you’re a low-wage earner or non-wage earner you can still pursue a lot of these skills for little to no cost – many communities, schools, and libraries will offer financial literacy and other classes – how to budget, repair your credit, do your taxes, invest or save, etc. – and you can always get books for free from the library. Although not explicitly feminist, Suze Orman has written financial advice books for women that are straightforward and easy to implement.  Many communities will offer free job training, resume writing, and interview preparation services as well. If you’re self-employed or make freelance income you may be able to find mentoring services by women, for women. There are also many free budgeting and investing apps.

  • Being politically informed and engaged, knowing your rights: Participating in your system of governance is essential for personal empowerment. Stay informed about proposed laws and how they will affect you and contact your elected officials with any questions or comments. It may not always feel like it but advocating for your needs to your elected officials does make a difference – for every instance that you advocate for yourself you are also advocating on behalf of many other women like you. Attending and speaking at governance meetings or personally meeting with your elected officials is the most effective way to advocate for yourself – handwritten postcards or letters are the next most effective method, and then phone calls and emails. Look up and save the numbers for your city council members, mayor, governor, state representatives, senators, congressional representatives, or members of parliament and take a few minutes to call on your lunch break. If you’re in the US you can call the congressional switchboard at (202) 224-3121 to be connected to your senators or representative. If you’re interested in running for office there are organizations like Emily’s List in the US that will help mentor you and provide resources, even at local levels.

Knowing your rights is also essential for personal empowerment – if you don’t know your rights how can you know if they’re being violated? The US Department of Labor Women’s Bureau offers a free download of all its resources, including equal pay, pregnancy and breastfeeding, sexual harassment, and resources for women of color, women with disabilities, and older women. In the US your employer is required to post your rights and applicable contact information for organizations like the Equal Employment Opportunity Committee (EEOC) in a visible place and cannot retaliate against you for filing a complaint. In the US you also have rights in the medical field, depending on the state, such as the right to have a female staff member present in doctors’ visits with male doctors, the right to informed consent and refusal for any medical procedure or medication, and the right to privacy and confidentiality. Title IX of the US Education Amendments guarantees equal treatment for female students, including in athletic, housing, and academic settings. 

  • Consciousness raising and feminist education: Consciousness raising is the process by which women, usually together collectively, identify and work to overcome the limitations of their feminine socialization – a topic that will be covered in more depth later. It also involves analyzing what are usually considered to be “individual problems” within a feminist framework in order to properly situate them within the systems of power that produce them (hence the meaning of “the personal is political”), e.g. domestic violence, sexual assault, discrimination, etc. Consciousness raising is an integral part of feminist empowerment as it builds the foundation for the possibility of political resistance. Consciousness raising also involves more than just learning how to identify systemic causes for women’s oppression and requires appropriately placing feelings of anger or guilt toward those systems rather than toward oneself, i.e. externalizing rather than internalizing. It’s about being able to say there is something wrong with the systems that create these conditions for women, rather than saying there is something wrong with yourself for not being able [or willing] to conform to them.

Learning about women’s history and the history of feminist resistance is also integral for personal empowerment. Women have been largely cut off from knowing about other women’s accomplishments and achievements in mainstream channels of education, especially those of women of color. Part of how feminine socialization works is that constantly seeing images of men’s accomplishments forms a subconscious impression in your mind that only men are capable of such achievements. This aspect of the socialization process is called internalization and it operates on a completely subconscious level, meaning we are often consciously unaware of the biases it produces. Educating yourself about women’s achievements and the history of feminism can not only help you become more consciously aware of those biases but also help you overcome them and form positive subconscious impressions that women, and thus you too, are capable of doing great things.

Click! The Ongoing Feminist Revolution is an online exhibit showcasing the history of the feminist movement in the US from 1940-present, including sections on politics and social movements, body and health, and workplace and family. Click!’s resource library and GoodRead’s women’s history shelf compliation offer hundreds of book recommendations to get you started. You should be able to find many of these books at your local library, but if they don’t have what you’re looking for don’t assume you are out of luck and must purchase it. Many libraries offer interlibrary loans as well as the ability to suggest a book for them to purchase, which provides a valuable service as the book will then be available for others to read as well. Writing reviews and recommendations for women’s history and feminist books on your library account page or the library’s website also helps provide exposure for other readers.

  • Learning about and appreciating your body: Women are socialized almost from day one to dislike, criticize, and even distrust their bodies. More than just the constant bombardment of unattainable beauty standards, various social institutions have both routinely pathologized and ignored women’s bodies, biological functions, needs, and complaints. Thus learning about how your body works is integral to personal empowerment. The classic women-authored book Our Bodies, Ourselves has been adapted into 30 languages, features culturally specific information for various communities, and is an excellent resource for any woman looking to learn more about her body. One simple thing you can do toward this goal of empowerment is that every time you find yourself criticizing your body for whatever reason, find something to appreciate about your body, even if it’s something small, even if it feels awkward or uncomfortable at first. Consider boycotting cable tv and women’s magazines as the images and advertizing foster negative body images. Try to only consume media that presents positive representations of women and be picky about what you allow into your mind in order to cultivate a feminist consciousness. In a feminist sense, try to emulate the Buddhist saying that you should guard your mind as you would an open wound in a rough crowd.

Some bigger steps you can take toward this goal include finding doctors who support you and take your needs seriously. If a doctor dismisses or trivializes any of your complaints, get a second opinion or switch doctors. With recent evidence showing patients of female doctors have better outcomes than those of male doctors, you might even consider seeing only female doctors when possible. Make sure that your doctor gives you all the information you need to make informed decisions for any medication or procedure. Make sure you ask questions such as: what is this medication/procedure, how does it work, what are the potential side effects, and are there any other treatment options? If the doctor acts like you’re inconveniencing them or is trying to rush you into making a decision, do not feel bad about demanding their time and attention or asking for another doctor. Unless it’s a life or death situation, even in things like childbirth there is rarely a problem so urgent that you can’t take a couple minutes to think about it. If you have trouble speaking up for yourself consider bringing along a friend or family member who can help encourage and support you.

  • Learning and practicing self-acceptance and self-love: This act of empowerment can be one of the most difficult for many women to practice or master. Women are constantly bombarded with images saying they’re not good enough in virtually all areas of life whether implicitly or explicitly, and these negative feelings can be further compounded if you have survived some kind of trauma. Thus self-acceptance and self-love are some of the most important gifts you can give to yourself as a woman, even if it seems impossible to achieve. The first step is to become conscious of that voice in your head that speaks negatively to you about yourself. Realize that this voice is not you – this voice is like a program you downloaded a long time ago that is always running in the background and is now out of date. Once you become aware of the voice you can work on overwriting that “program” with a newer, more loving one. This is something that can take years to achieve so be patient with yourself – it won’t be quick and easy, but it will be rewarding.

To overwrite your old programming try this technique: Every time you catch that voice in your head saying something negative to you about yourself don’t feel bad about it, don’t get mad or feel guilty about it (but don’t make yourself wrong if you do feel that way though). Instead, pretend that voice is like a small child who is scared or lonely and treat it with care and love and forgiveness. It may help to visualize yourself holding the personification of the voice or negative thought and comforting it, or just speak reassuringly and compassionately to it. You may have developed this voice at one time in your life as a coping mechanism to help you through a tough situation and it never got the memo that you’ve moved on. If so, thank it for trying to help, but explain that now you need it to help in a different way – you need it to say positive, encouraging things to you instead, like: and offer an example. For example if you find yourself thinking “I’m worthless” you could say to yourself in response “I am worthy of love and respect.” Eventually the new, positive thoughts will literally build up the neural networks in your brain so that you think them more often and the negative thought neural networks will die off from not being used. Note: It’s important that your positive thoughts are stated in the present tense (I am) rather than future tense (I will) and also that they focus on what you want to feel rather than what you don’t want feel.

An important part of self-acceptance is that it is unconditional. If you say “I will feel good about myself when…” then you will never feel good about yourself – your mind will never let you feel good about yourself because you have programmed it to believe that your reward is perpetually in the future, always off somewhere in the distant land of perfection [which is always unattainable]. Make a commitment to yourself that you will love and forgive yourself no matter what. Realize that you are good enough as you are right now and that you do not have to meet any conditions to deserve to feel good about yourself. You are worth the time and energy to care for yourself.

If you suffer from depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues consider seeing a feminist therapist or psychiatrist or attending a women’s support group, especially if you have survived sexual assault, domestic violence, abuse, or other kinds of trauma. When looking for a therapist it is important to find a good fit for your needs so make sure to ask potential therapists what their therapeutic orientation is and whether they utilize feminist principles. Recovery from the damage of living in patriarchal society can be like a full-time job and part of that job is trying different tools, techniques, strategies, and services until you find something that works for you. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution so don’t feel bad if you find yourself needing to switch therapists, or if you need to try a different approach altogether.

  • Asserting your boundaries and not apologizing for doing so: Women are socialized to be accommodating to others at the expense of their own needs and comfort. Thus defining and asserting your boundaries unapologetically is essential for personal empowerment. It will probably be uncomfortable the first few times and you may even get some backlash from men (or even other women), but in the end it can be really liberating. It can also be challenging due to the sheer amount of everyday sexism you may encounter. You do not owe anyone, even your partner, your time, energy, or space – these are precious, finite resources, so treat them with care. Defining and asserting your boundaries is about learning to prioritize your needs because no one else is going to do that for you. This can include how you choose to raise your children, equitable sharing of household responsibilities with male partners, taking up space/being physically comfortable, being loud or angry when appropriate, avoiding toxic friendships, relationships, or workplaces, not letting others interrupt or talk over you, workplace culture, schedule, and responsibilities, and sexual choices.

Sexual boundaries can often be really challenging for women to define and assert. The prevailing cultural message is that all women enjoy being sexually available to any man for any sex act at any time, which can be quite a shock to some men to learn that that isn’t the case. First you have to know what you like and what you don’t like and to be able to discern this requires some level of feminist consciousness (e.g. do you think you like something because mainstream culture tells you that you should or do you genuinely like it?). Once you figure this out make sure you communicate with your partner about it. If they try to pressure you into doing things you don’t like or don’t want to do that is called coercion and it’s not OK. You should be able to expect that your partner will respect your sexual boundaries without complaint, persuasion, or argument. You do not owe anyone, even your partner, an explanation for why you do or do not want to do something. “No” is a complete sentence. Having and asserting sexual boundaries includes not faking orgasms, which takes up your energy in order to stroke a man’s ego for something you didn’t even enjoy.

If you suspect you may be involved in an unhealthy friendship, relationship, or workplace environment, you may need to consider leaving or ending the relationship. When you decide that it is time to leave the toxic relationship or environment, start documenting everything just in case you need it for legal reasons.  If the relationship is abusive you may need to make a safety plan and contact a local domestic violence hotline for support before you leave.

To be continued