Feminism has failed to offer tools for young women to truly feel empowered

I’ve spent a great deal of my career talking about what “empowerment” is not — it is not gaining temporary attention through sexual objectification, it is not putting on a pair of high heels, it is not choosing to sell sex for profit, and so on and so forth. But I’m not sure I’ve ever tried to articulate what empowerment is.

For a time, I began to think of “empowerment” as a rather silly word, bandied about by women’s magazines attempting to glom onto third wave feminism’s marketability: “Laverne Cox Embraces Her Body in Empowering Nude Photo Shoot!” “I Don’t Wear Makeup to Impress You, I Wear it to Feel Empowered!” “Anal Sex Can be Empowering for Women Too!” These kinds of headlines seemed to just tack “empowerment” onto anything, thereby turning anything a woman did into a potentially feminist act.

Now, I don’t actually want to tell a woman not to do a nude photo shoot, not to wear makeup, or not to have anal sex, per se. I wear makeup, for starters, so obviously I’m in no position to suggest other women don’t. But moreover, while I do wish for women to make good choices — not stupid or destructive ones — I’m not interested in forcing feminist politics onto women’s personal choices. I don’t exist to be pure or perfect, and neither does anyone else. My hope is that we are all just doing our best to make good lives for ourselves and be happy. My issue was always with the notion that all things things women did had to somehow be “feminist” or “empowering.” Why? Who cares? If you want to wear makeup, wear makeup. If you like anal sex, go at ‘er. If you want to do nude photo shoots, you should probably think about why and what that will accomplish, but if you have some good reason for doing it or it genuinely makes you happy, fine. But why we decided any choice a woman makes must be defended in a political sense, I do not know.

I’ve started to think a lot about accountability and empowerment again lately, but in a rather different way than I have in the past, and realized we face a conundrum.

We have, on one hand, a culture that tells young women they can be empowered by prostituting themselves on the internet — selling themselves and their self-worth to strangers on OnlyFans, Tinder, and Instagram; or “getting theirs” by acquiring a “sugar daddy” (I mean, what could be more empowering than selling your soul and sense of self worth for a vacation and a purse?) — and on the other, a feminism that tells women they are helpless victims of culture and society, and that they can’t empower themselves until we “smash the patriarchy,” whatever that means.

In other words, we offer young women lies — superficial feelings of “validation” that don’t last, and that lead to mental health issues, trauma, and/or major self-esteem issues down the road — and simultaneously tell them they are victims of “systems of power” that ensure they are perpetually and inherently oppressed, and there is nothing they can do about that until there is some kind of revolution.

Both these directives are unhelpful. Not because I don’t understand that things like poverty or growing up working class are a major hinderence to acquiring power in this world, or because I don’t realize that women occupy a vulnerable position in society, due in large part to physical/biological realities, but because I genuinely want women to feel confident and empowered, and few are offering any good advice as to how to achieve that — certainly not in feminism.

Part of this is due to a broader problem on the left, which feminism has attached itself to. The complete rejection of individualism (something I also rejected for most of my life) has left young women (and, really, young people in general) without many tools with which they can build themselves up into strong, independent, confident people.

I don’t say this because I have opted to join the alt-right, or suck up to men, as so many have accused me of, of late. (Honestly, give me a little more credit.) I say this because it is what I’ve learned through personal experience (gasp).

I have mentioned my “robust ego” several times in conversations on YouTube or in person, with friends — a phrase that may well make me sound cocky, but is accurate. (As an actually empowered woman, I am quite done with apologizing for being confident, due to choices I’ve made in my life, and due simply to ageing (living and learning, in other words)… I’m not going to be sorry for liking myself, considering this is supposedly a goal modern women should work towards.) What I mean by this is that I trust myself, I like myself, and my sense of self cannot be destroyed by another person’s words, opinions, or refusal to “validate” me. I really don’t care much what other people think about me. My self-worth stands alone.

But this confidence was not gifted to me. This “robust ego” did not come through the “smashing” of anything. It came through many years of taking risks, of challenging myself, of developing a variety of skills, of overcoming adversity, dealing with hard times and stress and hurt. It came from putting myself out there and making myself vulnerable. It came from the endless attempts to destroy me, that I survived and overcame. It came from trying new and unfamiliar things — from doing things I was scared to do, or that I knew I would be bad at, and getting better at those things, or realizing I didn’t need to fear them after all. I made choices in my life that would build character. I didn’t play it safe. I didn’t hide from adversity or hard conversations or challenging experiences. I am confident that I can navigate difficult situations, because I have navigated difficult situations. I know that I can handle stress and pain, even though I would prefer not to. I know what I believe and feel comfortable telling people what I think, because I’ve done it so many times.

I built a life that built confidence and self-love, with intention. But the idea that one can and should make intentional choices in one’s life that will empower you on a personal level is not one that is advocated by modern feminism or by the left. And it’s created more than one generation, now, of useless, anxious, depressed, fragile, vapid people who seek external validation relentlessly, to their own detriment (and the detriment of others who they attempt to destroy in their misguided efforts to gain power).

On Tuesday, acclaimed writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie published an unforgiving essay calling out two young writers who used her fame for their own advancement, while trashing her publicly (also for their own advancement). She concludes, rightly:

“In certain young people today like these two from my writing workshop, I notice what I find increasingly troubling: a cold-blooded grasping, a hunger to take and take and take, but never give; a massive sense of entitlement; an inability to show gratitude; an ease with dishonesty and pretension and selfishness that is couched in the language of self-care; an expectation always to be helped and rewarded no matter whether deserving or not; language that is slick and sleek but with little emotional intelligence; an astonishing level of self-absorption; an unrealistic expectation of puritanism from others; an over-inflated sense of ability, or of talent where there is any at all; an inability to apologize, truly and fully, without justifications; a passionate performance of virtue that is well executed in the public space of Twitter but not in the intimate space of friendship.”

The younger generations (particularly the educated middle and upper class, here in the West) have grown up being told that they should be “safe” from harsh words, challenging ideas, difficult experiences, unhappiness or unpleasantness. They believe their every feeling should be validated, and that questions or criticism amount to “shaming,” “phobia,” or “hate.” Suggest that prostitution or pornification might not actually be that great for a young woman’s self-esteem or mental health, and you are “whorephobic.” Suggest that perhaps having sex with strange men procured from dating apps might not be the safest choice, and is unlikely to garner the respect a young woman desires (and deserves) from a man who has no relationship to her, and is therefore completely unaccountable to her, and you are “slut-shaming.” Suggest that “feeling” as though one doesn’t relate entirely to all the stereotypes attached to masculinity does not make one, in fact, female, and you are “transphobic.” Dare suggest that individuals cannot really, out in the world, be protected from racist or sexist or otherwise mean comments, and that, really, most of us need to learn how to deal with unpleasant or nasty words, and you are a white supremacist or a misogynist or someone who loves “hate speech.”

This all is sold as some kind of revolutionary (and naturally positive) change in culture, but in reality it is just creating a society of people who crumble when things don’t go their way. They don’t know how to build confidence or a strong sense of self, because they have been told that isn’t their responsibility — empowerment is supposed to be bestowed on them by society. And moreover, they believe it is insulting and oppressive to suggest they may have to toughen up, and that dealing with mean people and scary or hard experiences is a normal (and actually useful) part of life. A generation of young people, as Adichie points out, feel they are entitled to a world of their own making — one that suits their needs and caters to their preferences. This is insane. And it is a lie. No one owes you comfort, reassurance, attention, accolades, or validation.

The world is not inherently a kind, safe, and supportive place. And you can’t spend your life blaming “society” or “systems” or the people around you because you feel bad about yourself or aren’t getting what you want. That won’t help you.

This is not to say that access to things like education, health care, housing, food, and democratic rights is not pivotal — surely we all agree on this. Certainly women need the ability to escape actually violent, oppressive situations in the home or the sex trade, which means social services and transition houses. These things, to me, are a given in Western societies that have gleaned the successes of the feminist movement and that value human rights. It is to say that telling people that validation from external sources is what will empower them and that so long as the “system” is “broken” one cannot truly find success and happiness in life is neither true nor productive. All women are not destined for a life of misery and suffering because they live in a patriarchy. That simply isn’t true.

We need not be destroyed by the bad things that happen to us… Indeed those things make us grow as people. And of course it would be ideal if we could simply become confident, independent, happy people with robust egos without having to go through a whole bunch of crap, but that’s not how things work. I want women to know that they can take control of their own lives and make choices for themselves that will help them become strong, empowered, tough women who know themselves and like themselves. And I want them to make those choices! But I think that over the past few decades, feminism (and the left, more broadly) has lost sight of this.

We need to reject victim culture and the faux-empowerment served up by third wave feminism, and offer real empowerment for girls and women.

Do things that make you feel proud of yourself. Tell people what you really think. Take risks in life, career, and love. Challenge yourself physically. Learn new skills. Do things you are afraid of. Fail, and keep going. Stop expecting people to protect you from bad feelings or to validate you. Actually stop worrying so much about what other people think of you. Make healthy choices. Be accountable, and stop blaming the world around you. It’s not easy, but it will help you cultivate a better life, even within circumstances that are unfair and less than ideal.

Empowerment shouldn’t be something intangible — a theory, a buzzword, or something that can only exist in an imagined utopia — it should be something real, we can work towards and achieve.

Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including The Spectator, UnHerd, Quillette, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her very beautiful dog.