Stop selling women "empowerment feminism" — it doesn't work, and it's holding women back

Author Ruth Whippman breaks down how "empowerment" helps sell shampoo, not build up power for women

Published November 29, 2018 5:00PM (EST)

Ruth Whippman, author of "America the Anxious" (Photo by Eliot Khuner/Courtesy of Ruth Whippman)
Ruth Whippman, author of "America the Anxious" (Photo by Eliot Khuner/Courtesy of Ruth Whippman)

“Girl Power.” “FEMINIST AF.” “The Future is Female.” “Well-behaved women rarely make history.” Strong, empowering messages, right? And if you take a look at your Instagram feed or any store selling stuff to girls and women, you’d think that these slogans were the key to women finally gaining the confidence they need to single-handedly tear down the patriarchy.

Well . . . not quite.

Ruth Whippman, author of the book "America the Anxious: Why Our Search For Happiness Is Driving Us Crazy And How To Find it For Real" and a Time magazine article entitled “'Empowerment' Is Warping Women's View of Real Power,” sees "empowerment feminism" as a great opportunity for women . . . to sell glittery notepads and other “self-empowerment” merchandise.

“You just see it from everything from buying the right shampoo to taking naked pictures of yourself and putting them on Instagram,” Whippman told me in our latest interview for the "Inflection Point" podcast. “I saw one where getting plastic surgery on your vagina was pitched as being something empowering. So you know, I think it's become ubiquitous to the point where it's become slightly meaningless and has very, very little to do with actual power as such.”

Whippman has spent years researching the billion-dollar self-help industry, or what what she refers to as “the happiness business.”

“People who are in the happiness business are financially incentivized to believe that we have a lot of control over our happiness, and there's a lot of kind of . . . massaging, shall we say . . . of the evidence in that direction,” Whippman told me in an earlier 2016 interview. “The real genuine evidence doesn't really support that. And also it can quite easily morph into a kind of victim blaming, you know. This idea that if you're not happy you just haven't worked hard enough and somehow it’s your own fault.”

In fact, focusing on empowerment without focusing on the structures that keep women disempowered is helping to perpetuate the injustice the movement claims to fight.

“We have this view that happiness is kind of an individual responsibility,” Whippman said. “So instead of thinking, you know, it's society's responsibility to create the conditions under which everyone can be happy, it’s like, the individual needs to be going to mindfulness classes and reading self-help books and writing in their gratitude journal and doing yoga classes and all of these things to kind of almost pull yourself up by your bootstraps to make yourself happy. And it's quite a punitive approach to happiness and it's quite a weirdly individualistic approach. I think a lot of the same principles can be applied to this idea of empowerment feminism.”

It’s a vicious cycle, isn’t it? The people who are on the losing side of systemic inequality are the ones expected to balance the scales, but the power to create balance is held just out of our reach.

“If we were only more assertive,” Whippman posits ironically, “then all these things would be sorted out . . .  in general women tend to be punished for these kinds of things rather than rewarded.”

So how are women supposed to get power if we can’t simply take it for ourselves? Listen to my conversation with Ruth to gain some perspective on this whole question of empowerment–and what exactly needs to change for empowerment to lead to power.

Find more stories of how women rise up on the Inflection Point podcast with Apple Podcasts, RadioPublic, Stitcher and NPROne. And come on over to The Inflection Point Society, our Facebook group of everyday activists who seek to make extraordinary change through small, daily actions.

By Lauren Schiller

Lauren Schiller is the creator and host of Inflection Point, a podcast and public radio show from KALW and PRX featuring stories of how women rise up. For more rising up stories, follow Lauren on Twitter and Facebook, and subscribe to the podcast on Android or Apple.

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