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‘Empowerment’ has become a buzzword in feminist circles, a rallying cry to improve the lives of women in rural developing countries as well as those trying to shatter glass ceilings in Fortune 500 companies. Four syllables capture the very abstract, but vital goal that feminists and organizations worldwide are trying to accomplish.

Like anything that has gained traction in the public consciousness, many have capitalized on ’empowerment’. A search for ‘feminist products’ will bring up novelty items like a mug with the words ‘male tears’ emblazoned on it, and Etsy has multiple pages worth of accessories and apparel dedicated to wearing feminism, quite literally, on your sleeve.

This isn’t a problem in and of itself, but it encapsulates the increasingly cosmetic standard of the word. This doesn’t just redirect our attention to how we’re using feminism to make ourselves look, rather than think. It spills over into a bigger phenomenon of a superficial feminism, one that steers clear of the messy, unattractive and painful problems beneath it.

For example, Hilary Clinton should be a resounding victory for feminism, as a woman who has managed to be a serious candidate for presidential nomination not once, but twice. And during her tenure as secretary of state, she was a champion for women’s rights. However, in her campaign, where she sells herself hardest, she’s ignored basic, but crucial, policies that have an indelible impact on American women.

One often-cited example is her stance on the minimum wage. Truthout reported she supported a $12 minimum wage rather than the hoped-for $15 that Sanders endorses. Women are among the lowest paid workers, and that $3 would have a huge impact on their quality of life.

Additionally, Wal-Mart is the US’ largest private employer, and also staunchly against unionization. This doesn’t immediately strike one as a feminist issue, but labor issues and feminist issues are often tightly intertwined, and unionization is said to protect women, to an extent, from discrimination in the workplace. Clinton was, at one point, on the board of Wal-Mart. While she promoted gender diversity in terms of numbers of workers, she did little to enable unionization.

In another high-profile case of feminism-for-purchase, the controversy around Sheryl Sandberg’s ‘Lean In‘ showed the holes in an upper-middle class movement. The book spent months on bestseller lists, encouraging women to spend time pushing themselves ahead in their careers, engaging their spouse in child-rearing, and not worrying about being liked.

While it sounded empowering, some were rankled by Sandberg’s privileged assumptions. The Washington Post noted:

Sandberg is the Harvard-educated chief operating officer of Facebook and a self-avowed feminist who wants to transform the role of women in the workplace. She is also incredibly wealthy — reportedly worth hundreds of millions — and is too often tone-deaf to her voice of privilege. This makes it hard to close the distance between lucky her and the women who could most benefit from her advocacy….By the time she describes the pangs of guilt as a mother working outside the home — some of her most poignant passages — it is impossible to forget that she, like many of the female friends she quotes, is a wealthy, white, married woman with a “vast support system.” Surely she could have included a story or two about successful women who are more likely to have been born to nannies than to hire them. Or at least more who didn’t graduate from the Ivy League.”

Soon after, it was discovered the Sandberg wasn’t paying interns at the Lean In Foundation. The implication being that you were welcome to Lean In if your parents could support you during an unpaid internship.

As women, we have to be careful not to let ’empowerment’ become a luxury good, to be distributed to those who can afford it, with only a lucky few further down the social ladder maybe benefiting from the work of NGOs and outreach programs. Physical displays of solidarity are indeed encouraging, but make minor – if any – impact. Real empowerment does not fall solely on the shoulders of our politicians or foundations, but asks for active effort from ordinary citizens, in ways both big and small.

Empowerment can be as simple as donating the $3 you’d spend on a necklace to a charity, or buying ethically sourced products (though that’s out of reach of many’s budgets). In that case, it may mean volunteering your time or mentoring young women, or something as simple, but beautiful, as babysitting your neighbor’s kid a for an afternoon a week so she can take a course or do some errands or simply take a breather.

Empowerment isn’t a product, and often isn’t sexy. It is more in actions and thoughtfulness, and done right, shouldn’t be raking in profits for any one person. In the lead up to the Women Deliver Conference, we should remember who needs to be empowered most – not Sandbergs, not Clintons – but the working moms living in our buildings, struggling to get through the day; our countrymen, scraping by on minimum wage; our fellow women worldwide, eking out existences and enduring brutality, all while many of us browse Amazon to proudly display our sense of feminism.

Girls’ Globe will be present at the Women Deliver Conference, bringing you live content straight from the heart of the action. If you can’t be there in person, you can be a part of Women Deliver through the Virtual Conference, by hosting an event in your hometown, and by engaging online using #WDLive and #WD2016. 

Featured photo credit: Carlos Alfaro / Flickr

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