Women’s empowerment is a central concern of the women’s movement. It refers to the general process through which women gain knowledge about the structures that oppress them, and seek to alter the power imbalances in society. Bookman and Morgen (1988: 4) define empowerment broadly as the ‘‘process aimed at consolidating, maintaining, or changing the nature and distribution of power in a particular cultural context’’ that can range from ‘‘acts of individual resistance to mass political mobilizations.’’ Given women’s diverse experiences of inequality, women’s empowerment has been partially achieved through a variety of strategies and within a number of different historical, institutional, and cultural contexts. For example, in the first wave of the women’s movement in the US, women’s empowerment was linked explicitly to political power in the form of voting rights. In the second wave, women’s empowerment was linked to such issues as reproductive rights, workplace rights, freedom from men’s violence, and furthering women’s political rights and legal protections through the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). Not all of these issues were successful, however, as the ERA never passed into law, violence against women continues, and reproductive rights are not shared equally by all women. Nevertheless, that large numbers of women demanded changes to the unequal institutional arrangements in politics, law, medicine, and intimate relationships illustrates the process of women’s empowerment. Though the concept and process of women’s empowerment is far-reaching and factors into all areas of women’s lives, the discussion below focuses on those areas of women’s lives in which the concept of empowerment has taken center stage. These include second wave US feminist organizing; women, sports, and self-defense; women’s health care; and women and development.
In the US, women’s empowerment figured especially prominently in the second wave women’s liberation movement of the late 1960s and 1970s and took the form of consciousness raising groups. As practiced by second wave feminist groups, consciousness raising is quite similar to the development of a sociological imagination, which allows its possessor to reframe her problems as collective rather than individual, as emanating from political or institutional structures rather than personal failings. The multistep process of consciousness raising began with sharing personal experiences with other women, connecting those experiences with larger institutional forces, and linking all of the above to larger theories of oppression and privilege (Ferree & Hess 1995). The process often facilitated a ‘‘click’’ experience or epiphany and politicized a large number of women as they collectively reframed their personal experiences as the result of institutionalized sexism and gender discrimination. The feminist slogan ‘‘The personal is political’’ resonated strongly with this overall process of consciousness raising. However, not all women wanted to press for political and institutional change. Some second wave feminist organizations’ use of consciousness raising as a tool of empowerment functioned more like a self-help ‘‘rap’’ session or feminist support group than as a collective strategy to press for societal change. In some groups, the process of consciousness raising never progressed to its final phase – that of facilitating political activism. Instead, some consciousness raising groups functioned merely as psychological support groups or self-help groups, places where women could receive support from other women as they attempted to make changes in their personal lives.
In the 1970s, the women’s health movement emerged out of second wave feminist organizing in the US. Feminist critics charged that medicine in general and physicians in particular mystified women’s bodies and argued that if physicians shared information about women’s bodies at all, they did so in complicated scientific terms which rendered such information inaccessible to most women without a medical background. The medicalization of childbirth came in for special scrutiny as feminists argued that the medical treatment of childbirth placed control over this natural process entirely in the hands of medical experts, leaving childbearing women powerless to determine the course of their own care. Activists in both the feminist and childbirth reform movements believed that women must be empowered to wrest control away from physicians and reconceptualize health care to minimize power differentials between providers and patients, or as they were increasingly called, clients. Thus, women’s empowerment in health care would come, they argued, through sharing medical information with women and leveling the power differentials embedded in the traditional doctor–patient relationship. A host of second wave publications such as Our Bodies, Ourselves and How to Stay Out of the Gynecologist’s Office intended to make medical information accessible to women and empower women to take charge of their own health.
Feminist women’s health centers, in particular, took seriously the goal of women’s empowerment. Jan Thomas (2000) notes that feminist health centers empower women patients through three principal mechanisms. First, instead of merely providing care to women, these centers aim to educate and inform clients about their own health and health care options so women clients can become active participants in their own care. Second, feminist centers seek to break down institutional barriers to care by reducing the physical and social distance between clients and providers, increasing the average length of provider–client interaction, and by becoming visible in the local community. Finally, centers seek to treat all clients with dignity and respect. Thomas (2000: 144) writes that empowerment ‘‘takes place over time through the mutual sharing of information, knowledge, and skills’’ and ‘‘culminates in a woman’s active control of her health care.’’
The concept of women’s empowerment has also factored heavily in arguments for women’s sports and self-defense courses. Title IX of the Educational Amendments Act of 1972 banned sex discrimination in US schools, including school sports programs. Passage of Title IX was seen as a victory for girls not only because it banned school based sex discrimination of all sorts, but also because it required schools to offer girls opportunities for sports participation that were equal to those of boys. Advocates for girls’ and women’s sports argued that sports empower girls and women by improving self-esteem, developing positive body images, offering a sense of accomplishment, and promoting self-confidence, which then may translate into higher grades and standardized test scores, lower high school dropout rates, and higher college attendance rates. In other words, participation in sports empowers girls to develop greater confidence in their own abilities and thereby challenge gender stereotypes and power imbalances in societal institutions.
Advocates of self-defense training for women and girls argue that self-defense can prevent women’s victimization by strengthening their physical and psychological capacity to resist male violence. By teaching women basic martial arts techniques, feminist self-defense courses empower women to resist traditional gender role socialization that encourages passivity, and to develop instead both the self-confidence and physical skills necessary to resist and flee an assailant. About the impact of women’s physical development through sports, Roth and Basow (2004: 262) write, ‘‘as our bodies are transformed, so are our minds.’’ Women’s participation in sport and feminist self-defense, these scholars argue, therefore empowers women to contest traditional assumptions concerning the frailty of women and women’s bodies and thereby challenge the power dynamics embedded in traditional gender roles that leave women susceptible to potential male violence.
Recently, the concept of women’s empowerment has factored heavily in development discourse and practice, particularly among non-government organizations (NGOs). One of the ways that women’s empowerment is currently being pursued in developing countries is through micro credit lending. Historically, development programs focused on women only as a means of controlling fertility. Programs promoting women’s education were thus often justified with reference to the lower fertility rates these programs would facilitate. Focusing almost exclusively on familial roles, such development programs typically ignored women’s economic roles and rarely promoted women’s wellbeing for its own sake. Development policies and programs also typically construed women as in need of aid or welfare, rather than as in need of sustainable income generating projects, despite the fact that many studies showed that women were often the main income earners within their households. However, since the mid-1970s development discourse and policy have increasingly recognized that women’s equity in developing nations is tied to their income generating activities. Recognition that rural women earned a livelihood from a variety of economic activities besides waged labor led the Grameen Bank of Bangladesh to organize micro credit lending schemes aimed at poor women. NGOs and other private funders have adopted the model of micro lending in part, because of the higher loan repayment rates associated with micro lending compared to other credit schemes aimed at the poor.
Research examining the impact of micro-lending on women’s empowerment has found mixed results. Because micro lending is primarily concerned with women’s economic position, providing credit to enterprising women who might not otherwise qualify for credit, its results have largely expanded women’s economic resources while leaving untouched other sources of gender inequality. Offering micro credit to women in developing nations does not always result in women’s control of economic resources. Thus, if women’s empowerment means control over resources, increased self-reliance, greater independent decision-making, and shared decision-making with men, then micro-lending has been only partially successful.
- Afsar, R. (2003) Micro Finance and Women’s Empowerment: Insights from a Micro-Level Sociological Study. Pakistan Journal of Women’s Studies: Alam e Niswan 10: 129-59.
- Bookman, A. & Morgen, S. (1988) Women and the Politics of Empowerment. Temple University Press, Philadelphia.
- Buechler, S. M. (1990) Women’s Movements in the United States. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ.
- Ferree, M. M. & Hess, B. B. (1995) Controversy and Coalition: The New Feminist Movement Across Four Decades of Change. Routledge, New York.
- Izugbara, C. O. (2004) Gender Micro-Lending Schemes and Sustainable Women’s Empowerment in Nigeria. Community Development Journal 39: 72-84.
- McCaughey, M. (1998) The Fighting Spirit: Women’s Self-Defense Training and the Discourse of Sexed Embodiment. Gender and Society 12: 277-300.
- Mehra, R. (1997) Women, Empowerment, and Economic Development. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 554: 136-49.
- Morgen, S. (2002) Into Our Hands: The Women’s Health Movement in the United States, 1969-1990. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ.
- Roth, A. & Basow, S. A. (2004) Femininity, Sports, and Feminism. Journal of Sport and Social Issues 28: 245-65.
- Searles, P. & Berger, R. J. (1987) The Feminist Self- Defense Movement: A Case Study. Gender and Society 1: 61-84.
- Thomas, J. E. (2000) Incorporating Empowerment into Models of Care: Strategies from Feminist Women’s Health Centers. Research in the Sociology of Health Care 17: 139-52.
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