Friday, July 26, 2013

The Soft Sexism of Women's Empowerment

Confession: I tune out whenever anyone mentions “women’s empowerment” as a solution to Third World problems. Before I tune out, I roll my eyes and sigh. And I am a feminist.

If you've had any involvement in human rights circles you will be familiar with the idea: empower women – give them an education or a microloan or whatever constitutes empowerment – and they will “fix” poverty. However, the belief that women are the key to human progress is not new, and it is not feminist. In fact, it has always been essential to the functioning modern patriarchy – that is, patriarchy in fortified imperialist/racist form. More than that, this belief is the most insidious element of patriarchal ideology, because it only superficially, and very disingenuously, values women.

Consider, for example, the American women's rights movement in the Reconstruction Era. White women were encouraged to stay home and raise children to fulfill their role as guardians of the White Race. The suffragists did not want to stay home and have tons of babies, but they happily accepted the fact that they would further the progress of their race. They insisted that voting rights for women was the only antidote to the impending peril of the Black Vote. White women, they argued, were educated and enlightened, and they outnumbered all of the uncivilized blacks and immigrants who would be tarnishing every election from here on out. White women could properly serve their function as guardians of the race only if they had the right to vote. Sadly, in constructing their argument on the basis of the Woman Savior, the suffragists merely strengthened the sexist and racist ideological framework that was instrumental in their oppression.

Of course, there is also a long history of using "women's liberation" as a pretext for imperial conquest. This may be even more pertinent to discussions about the developing world, particularly coming from the propaganda mills of powerful NGOs.

When a child has a crappy role in a school play, you make her feel better by telling her that, even though she doesn't have any lines, it is actually the most important, super special part in the play. Guardianship of the race (/humanity) works in pretty much the same way. Women have to clean up all the messes caused by capitalism, and they are told it is an honor. Whatever society as a whole used to provide, women now have the responsibility of taking care of as best they can on their own.

Valuing women does not mean forcing the entire burden of human progress onto their shoulders. It is not women’s job to fix poverty. As far as I can tell, men created the problem, so why should women have to solve it alone? I have heard, in the context of microloans, that men can’t be trusted because they waste money on alcohol and they don’t care as much about their families. Although I can’t prove that this is an exaggeration born out of Western ideas about masculinity, I can still ask: don't we want to raise the bar for men a little bit? Are the women supposed to do all the work of lifting their families out of poverty while the men drink themselves into oblivion?

But the larger issue is this: the responsibility for “fixing” poverty does not lie with any individual poor people, male or female. Poverty and inequality must be treated as a global systemic problem, one that involves a complex network of transnational social relations manipulated by a handful of people with incomprehensible amounts of wealth. It must be confronted en masse. A few individuals may be able to raise their standards of living with a good education or a loan, but poverty will continue to exist on the same scale until enough people, men and women, decide that they are not going to put up any longer with the capitalist system that creates it.