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The Carletonian

Beyond easy rhetoric

<ne of the leaders of the Collective for Women’s Issues (CWI), a feminist group on campus, I get e-mails from Viewpoint editors asking me to write opinion pieces about women’s rights fairly frequently. I usually ignore them out of laziness, but this week’s prompt piqued my interest enough that I finally decided to respond.

According to Hadley Freeman in an article she wrote for The Guardian, the term “empowerment” originated in publications written for primarily black audiences in the 1970s. The term was used to describe ways in which marginalized communities of color could respond to oppression and assert their own power. Over the past 40 years, however, the term has been claimed by a broader swath of American society and is now used in ways that have little to do with its original intent. I love bright lipstick and wear it with some frequency because it makes me feel attractive and confident. But red lipstick is not “empowering” in the original – and I think more powerful and valuable – meaning of the term. Lipstick can inspire confidence, but just because it can make women (or anyone else for that matter!) feel confident about their appearance doesn’t mean it empowers them in any significant way. We need to push beyond this easy rhetoric. Female empowerment means so much more than wearing red lipstick.

In my opinion there is nothing inherently wrong with this term being used by white women or non-black women of color, even though the term originated in the specific context of black communities. Certainly, this term was originally used by black women with an eye towards fighting back against the intersection of racism and sexism that these women faced then and continue to face today. There is unquestionably a place to talk about how all women—from different religious and class backgrounds, with different sexual orientations and gender identities, of different ability levels—can empower themselves to fight against sexism, racism, xenophobia, ableism, homophobia, and transphobia. But I do take issue with the ways in which comparatively privileged white women have taken this term and watered down its original meaning. In the spirit of answering the prompt as given to me, I’ll say that I feel empowered and inspired when I read feminist writings and make myself engage with the arguments those authors put forth. But so many frankly absurd things are allegedly “empowering” today – buy this skincare product! Take this yoga class! Read Ivanka Trump’s new book! It’ll empower you as a woman! By focusing on something shallow (like red lipstick) it becomes easy to forget the challenges that achieving female empowerment poses in our society, especially in this day and age. I am not going to pretend that I, as a straight, cis white woman, have all the answers in terms of empowering women. I do know that empowerment is  not quite so easy as swiping on some red lipstick, getting a group of lady friends together and spending one afternoon at the Women’s March. It’s going to take more than that.

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