Women’s Empowerment

What is Women’s Empowerment?

Simplified, it is the actions that result in women being able to own and control property. It is primarily financial, but extends into the areas of body autonomy (the ability to chose what is done with your own body), childcare, education and violence against women because they all directly impact a woman’s ability to work, run a business and/or manage property.

Addressing inequality and Human Rights violations are key to resolving poverty. When inequality is high, poverty goes up; when inequality is low (and equality is high), poverty goes down.

It’s an important economic concept that has been thoroughly examined, discussed and researched by academics and activists all over the world (see references below).

My Own Experience

Since I’m just a poverty survivor and not a world-renowned academic expert in economics (or anything else), allow me to provide a ground-zero perspective from life here in the United States of America.

The examples I have collected show how an individual is kept in poverty or under absolute financial control of another individual. Therefore, it is important to understand that placing one person in a family (or community or collection of humans) under the absolute control of another person contributes to poverty overall.

The most simplistic explanation for this statement is this: If the controlling person is wealthy, the person they control is impoverished because they care unable to own property.

However, these human rights violations continue the cycle of poverty in many other ways. If a woman is unable to make decisions, maintain control over her body or well being, is subjected to violence, or is simply trapped in her home, then she is not contributing her full potential to the household or the community. Also, if something happens to the individual who is controlling all finances, leaving him unable to work, then the entire family becomes homeless.

For the purposes of this answer, I will focus on the effect on the women (specifically). Please understand that there are others who are effected, both directly and indirectly, by these issues.

1960s

Image source: Asterisk Gallery: No Moms Allowed: Teen Hangouts Through History

(Note: this is NOT a photo of my mom. Technically, it’s a 1950s photo, but the hairstyles remind me of photos of my mother during her late teens.)

During the late 1970s, my mother told me the story of her first drivers license. She a navy child, so my grandfather was out at sea when it came time to go to the DMV, take the test, and get her license; so, my grandmother took my mother in herself.

The man behind the counter asked one question: “Where’s your father?”

They explained the situation and he flat out refused to allow my mother to get her license without a man present, providing his permission. She was not allowed to drive until my grandfather returned home. You can imagine how infuriating it was for both my mother and my grandmother.

Why this is important

Not being able to drives means being shut out of nearly all forms of employment in the far majority of people in the USA. It also significantly restricts movement and the ability to complete simple daily tasks, like shopping for food and going to the doctor.

Simply making divers licenses available to women (and punishing this sort of discrimination on the part of DMV workers) improves both women’s rights and women (economic) empowerment.

1970s

Images Source: NIH: Domestic Violence in the 1970s

As a kid growing up in the Midwest, I had a stay-at-home-mom and lived in a house surrounded by houses filled with stay-at-home-moms. Some of the women were literally trapped in their homes without a vehicle or access to public transportation (at that time, it did not exist outside of the city). A few were doubly trapped by an abusive spouse.

Domestic violence was also common. Not just in my little town – everywhere.

This was when the women’s movement was picking up steam and making a lot of progress, but deep social and political change always seem to take an extra 5–10 years to reach the deeply rural areas and the states located in landlocked areas between the coasts. It took a while, but it did, finally, arrive.

Why this is important:

Without realistic options for income, these women were unable to escape violence and abuse against themselves and their children. Without employment they could not escape. Employment was not possible until after they managed to escape. It was an impossible situation.

When domestic violence awareness campaigns reached all corners of the USA, and changes to the laws provided all people of all ages protection from violence and abuse, then large numebrs of women were finally able to achieve both physical and financial freedom.

1980s

Image Source: 1985 cover of TIME | Current & Breaking News | National & World Updates

As a teenager in the 1980s I found myself faced with some strange contradictions. There were people who were claiming that women had achieved equality and feminism was dead (sound familiar).

Yet, at the exact same time, many of my classmates were getting pregnant due to many difficult realities. Chief among them were the anti-birth control and anti-abortion sentiments of the local religious and political leaders and the disturbingly common occurrence of date rape.

While the majority of teenage girls simply gave their babies to family members to raise, there was a not-insignificant minority of teenagers who were forced to marry their boyfriend and/or rapist. I listened to more than one story that roughly translated into the following process:

  1. Boy ‘likes’ girls and wants to control her (permanently).
  2. Boy rapes girl.
  3. Boy tells everyone, including girl’s parents, that they had sex and the baby was his. There may not be a baby on the way. This did not appear to matter.
  4. Girl is now socially tied to boy. Other teens and adults perceive her as ‘his.’
  5. Boy continues to rape girl until she gets pregnant.
  6. Boy demands marriage.
  7. Parents force marriage, while trying to absolve themselves of any wrongdoing.
  8. Girl is now physically, socially and financially trapped by boy.

This is not a relic of the past – it continues to happen.

Why This is Important:

Body autonomy is about significantly more than ‘wanting to be a parent.’ It’s about physical safety and freedom – literal freedom.

No human being, regardless of age or gender, should be subjected to rape. Laws are in place to protect the victim, but they are difficult to enforce. The circumstances are also frequently complicated, particularly when it’s ‘date rape.’

The ability to prevent a pregnancy under any circumstance is the last line of defense against this particular kind of predator. Therefore, birth control is absolutely necessary in the fight against rape, domestic violence, and women’s inequality.

The ability to raise a child as a single parent, and still pursue a career and/or life goals is something our entire society MUST support, because it provides freedom to girls facing this kind of abuse,

The ability to address everything that goes along with a teen pregnancy, including medical care, without being forced into a marriage, is also absolutely necessary.

Those who have access to these necessities are also provided access to the possibility of a financially independant and reasonably secure future.

1990s

Image Source: Huffington Post: Why Anita Hill’s 1991 Testimony Is So Haunting Today

I started working full-time after college. Then I went to grad school, and returned to working full time immediately after. That makes the 1990s the decade of my introduction into the regular workforce. Here are somethings that I heard on a regular basis during that decade (said to me directly and to other women):

  • Of course your pay is low, you’re married. Your husband is bringing in the real income.
  • You’re young and married. You’ll be having babies soon. We don’t expect you to stick around.
  • We need someone to take notes. [Name of only female in room], you can be the secretary for the meeting.
  • The best job [a woman] can get is secretary (nurse, teacher, [other stereotypically female position]).
  • You should wear clothes that are tighter (more revealing, more fashionable, etc.). If you want to get ahead, you have to learn to work it. Don’t you want to succeed?

I could go on but you get the idea.

While all of these things were frustrating, uncomfortable and occasionally infuriating; none of them were perceived as harassment. In fact, the possibility of harassment didn’t come up until the Anita Hill hearings brought the topic into the TV sets and living rooms of every American with access to standard news channels. Even then, the focus was on extreme examples of sexual harassment.

Therefore, I will put aside the general atmosphere that was prevalent a few decades ago, and focus on the one specific comment that had real and far-reaching consequences for every working woman in the USA:

  • Of course your pay is low, you’re married. Your husband is bringing in the real income.

This is just one of the many excuses/responses to questions about pay disparity that I, personally, encountered. Attempts to pursue this line of inquiry, or negotiate for a simple pay raise, were usually (invariably?) met with threats (direct or implied) of dismissal.

(Note: Reason it’s important will be explored in 2000s)

2000 to Present

Image Source: Equal Pay For Equal Work (Also see: Equal pay for equal work – Wikipedia)

While being held back in the pay-scale during my 20s was frustrating, I didn’t realize just how important it was until many years later. The problem is this:

  • New employers base their pay-level offering on the amount of money previous employers have already paid you.

Requesting pay history and verifying the amount former employers paid is standard background check process. These are also standard discussion points during the interview process.

When it comes time to talk salary, it’s ALLWAYS based on information the new employer has on what previous employers paid. If you made $30,000 doing the same (or similar) work at your last company, why would the new company pay you significantly more? The fact that the men in the company are getting $90,000 during their first year, is irrelevant.

Bottom line: Your price has been set.

Why this is important:

Women consistently making 70% of the salary earned by men (across all professions) has serious implications for total household income. It reduces a woman’s ability to sustain herself and her children without a roommate or a husband. It significantly reduces her ability to find a job that pays a living wage, if she happens to be an unskilled worker.

However, it also has wider implications that directly affect men. The existence of wage disparity establishes a process by which some people are financially discriminated against. This process can be…and often is…applied to any group of people, as the company sees fit.

This isn’t about finding the best candidate or paying for a stronger skill set. Wage disparity is the act of paying significantly different wages to people who are doing the exact same work.

This perpetuates poverty by systematically restricting select groups of people from accessing key resources.

What the Academics Have Said

There are many highly respected academics and activists who have been saying poverty is reduced when women are economically empowered for a long long time. Here are a few examples of published academic papers that illustrate this fact:

For an excellent speech on the effects of violence (specifically) and unenforced laws (in general) on poverty, please watch this TED talk:

Ted Talk (YouTube.com) Gary Haugen: The hidden reason for poverty the world needs to address now

Originally posted in response to How powerful is female empowerment in resolving world poverty? on Quora.

Nothing Can Stop Us

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Amazon.com

It was a case of women coming together at the right time and deciding that we were going to stand up for ourselves and stand up for other women. Once we coalesced for action it felt like nothing could stop us.

-Calling Invisible Women by Jeanne Ray

The Power of Insults

Quote

Amazon.com

When we sat down a week later to sweet teas at a local Starbucks, I asked Madonna what she loved about Limbaugh. “His criticism of ‘femi-nazis,’ you know, feminists, women who want to be equal to men.” I absorbed that for a moment. Then she asked what I thought, and after I answered, she remarked, “But you’re nice . . .” From there, we went through Limbaugh’s epithets (“commie libs,” “environmental wackos”). Finally, we came to Madonna’s basic feeling that Limbaugh was defending her against insults she felt liberals were lobbing at her: “Oh, liberals think that Bible-believing Southerners are ignorant, backward, rednecks, losers. They think we’re racist, sexist, homophobic, and maybe fat.” Her grandfather had struggled as a desperately poor Arkansas sharecropper. She was a gifted singer, beloved by a large congregation, a graduate of a two-year Bible college, and a caring mother of two. In this moment, I began to recognize the power of blue-state catcalls taunting red state residents. Limbaugh was a firewall against liberal insults thrown at her and her ancestors, she felt. Was the right-wing media making them up to stoke hatred, I wondered, or were there enough blue-state insults to go around? The next time I saw Madonna, she was interested to know if it had been hard for me to hear what she’d said. I told her it wasn’t. “I do that too sometimes,” she said, “try to get myself out of the way to see what another person feels.”

Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild

Admiration List: Monica Lewinsky

Monica Lewinsky is someone most people would not include on an admiration list because of her connection to President Clinton and the scandal that brought the White House under investigation and significant political fire.

She was 22 when her affair with President Clinton was revealed and exploited by both the Republican party and the news media (read: ratings, revenue, non-stop-sensationalist ‘news’ stories about every possible sexually graphic detail…you get the idea).

I was also in my twenties at the time and, as details about the investigation hit the news media, all I could think about was how this women was a victim. She was seduced by the most powerful man in the world. He was her boss, a career politician and a well known serial-seducer. By all accounts, she was neither his first, nor his last, conquest. This was predatory manipulation of a naive young women and, possibly, harassment.

Unfortunately, the scandal occurred during the 1990s, which was also when the details of the Anita Hill vs Clarence Thomas trial were frequently challenged as ‘not really harassment’ by most of the adults I knew. That trial outlined a situation that could be defined as workplace rape, yet people continued to justify it. As for Monica Lewinsky – presenting her as a potential victim was incomprehensible.

Not surprisingly, Monica Lewinsky faced a level of public humiliation, shame and ostracism that is hard to comprehend. She was publicly cast as a home wrecker, a whore and a litany of other things; while Clinton was…you know….a powerful man. You can’t blame him, it was that woman.

Fast forward many years and Ms. Lewinsky has resurfaced as a strong, confident woman. She is an anti-bullying activist, putting her own experiences with public humiliation to good use as she works to prevent suicide and fight cyber-bullying, face-to-face bullying and mobbing.

I admire all people who have faced incredibly difficult experiences and, somehow, managed to reach the other side. I have great admiration for people who use those experiences to become stronger and more determined to help others who have also been through the proverbial fire. Monica Lewinsky has done that.

Ms. Lewinsky has been added to my admiration list because, frankly, she deserves it.

Admiration List: Jennifer Brea

Jennifer Brea has been suffering from an un-treatable and not-yet-properly-identified neurological disease. She has been given diagnosis (e.g.: chronic fatigue syndrome) that basically mean nothing and was told it was ‘all in her head.’ This woman has been through the proverbial fire.

Yet, despite extremely difficult physical and social barriers, she has persevered, created a film about her experiences and pursued a life of activism, acting as a voice for all people suffering from invisible and un-diagnosed illnesses.

From her TED talk, you can see her strength, attitude and remarkable good will, as she expresses her hope that one day the medical community will learn how to face a disease like her own and speak the honest truth: I don’t know what is wrong with you.

I have to agree with her statement that this ability to be able to admit to not having an answer is a key step in eventually finding an answer.

Admiration List: Alaa Murabit

Alaa Murabit has achieved some pretty amazing things. She’s championed the cause of women in countries where that sort of activism could get a person killed. She has lived through death threats and all sorts of challenges. She has also successfully improved the status of women, within Muslim countries, by leveraging the same tactics used  by her opposition – quotes from the Koran.

Her resilient personality, positive attitude and ability to take all of the challenges in stride are evident in her TED talk. There are many things to admire.

Having said that, I must admit that none of those accomplishments are the reason why she is included here. The primary reason for my own, personal, admiration is the fact that I watched this video and kept thinking: How do I expand my social circle to include more women like her? I need more friends like that.

 

The Best Life Advice I Ever Received

The best advice I ever received came in the form of a lesson in auto repair.

Auto Maintenance Lessons

One afternoon, many years ago, when I was a teenager living on (and working) the family farm, my father approached me and said that he had decided to teach me how to overhaul an engine. Now.

My father was not someone you spoke back to or questioned directly. When he made a decision and gave an order, you were expected to do as you were told. Period. (This was the late 1980s, it was a different world back then.) So, I followed him to the barn, which also acted as a garage, and he proceeded to show me how to overhaul the engine of one of the family cars.

For the sake of clarity, ‘overhaul’ literally meant: take the entire engine apart; clean everything; replace any parts that were malfunctioning, worn out, broken or questionable; and then put it all back together.

The lessons lasted a few weeks. I would join him in the barn and he would show me the official car manual, point to the page he was working with, pull apart that portion of the engine, point to the page again (read: this part is that picture), hand me a tool, flip to a new page and tell me to get to work (read: find this part and do what I did). Sometimes he would send me out to the garage by myself with instructions to locate a specific part in the book, locate it on the engine, and figure it out (remove, fix, whatever) alone.

(Side note: This was the most verbal interaction I had ever had with my father at that time – or since.)

When the car was complete, he called over a neighboring farmer and his sons so that all of us could use a winch, the tractor and sheer muscle to get the engine back into the car. This resulted in some snide remarks about girls overhauling engines and boys doing nothing…it was annoying (read: the boys and their father were angry with me for showing them up) but that’s how things were back then.

After the first car was finished, I was handed the same type of printed manual for the second car – a 1979 Ford Granada – and told to do the same. Alone.

As it happened, due to being blood relations to a member of the military I had full access to a nearby military base and all of the facilities, including the auto hobby shop. In the interests of avoiding another episode of moving car engines by calling on the neighbors (and all of those comments about girls who work on cars), I drove the Ford Granada to the auto hobby shop and availed myself of some wonderful equipment!

That is where I met Woody.

Woody ran the auto hobby shop. He controlled the tools (kept behind a locked door), kept the peace, and provided advice to everyone who used the shop – both the asked for and the unasked for kind.

At one point I was looking up the torque for specific bolts and trying to make sure I got everything tightened properly when he came over and interrupted my work by saying (loudly) – (paraphrased from memory):

NEVER memorize a torque! Always look it up EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. If you don’t then one day you’ll be tightening the bolt on an airplane, you’ll remember the wrong torque, the plane will go down and it will be YOUR FAULT.

Then he walked away.

My response was a dazed moment of ‘what just happened?’ followed by shrugging it off as ‘just Woody’ and making a mental note to NEVER memorize a torque.

Another time I went up to the tool cage and asked for a hammer. He came out with a sledgehammer and basically dared me to challenge him. I politely stated that I just needed a regular hammer, which resulted in a lecture about always knowing exactly which tool you need – including the size!

On one more occasion I was struggling to either get something apart or together (I no longer remember what). My hands hurt and I was getting really frustrated. Woody interrupted my task with the following – (paraphrased from memory):

When you just can’t get it to work, walk away, stare at the wall, swear up and down a blue streak, and when you come back it will work.

I thought this was funny but Woody insisted it was true and encouraged me to try. After he left (and I’d taken a break) my mechanical problem magically resolved itself.

Auto Maintenance Fails and Wins

As you may imagine, I had both success and failure with these projects. A few significant fails include:

  • Forgetting to unplug the battery while working on the alternator. I connected some wires, dropped a metal tool (with rubber handles) which hit the side of the (metal) car and caused an enormous FLASH BANG. I stared at the car in that state of terror that comes from barely sidestepping death – I was lucky to be alive. The brand new alternator was NOT so lucky. I had to replace it…again.
  • Forgetting to tighten the bolts on the flywheel. Every other dern bolt in that engine was perfectly tightened according to appropriate torque, but a small handful of little bolts at the center of the engine were loose. The car won’t work if the flywheel isn’t bolted down. We had to pry open the engine, just enough to slide in a tool and tighten those stupid things. My father fixed this mistake. I handed him tools while learning a long list of brand new ways to curse life the universe and auto repair.

My massive success came in the form of a 79 Ford Granada with a newly cleaned up engine, done entirely by me!

What Does This Have to Do With Life and Advice?

The following lessons were learned from the experience, and every single one of them has not only stuck with me but has served me well across the decades:

  1. Look it up. Find a reliable, accurate source of information and use it. It could be a book. It could be the guy running the auto hobby shop or a parent. Whatever the source may be – USE it.
  2. Verify – ALWAYS verify. Whether it’s a torque, gossip or a news article, never assume that you just know the truth – verify it!
  3. Communicate. Whether it’s a hammer or the specification for a project at work or your concerns with the current political system, it is extremely important to clearly communicate your needs, concerns and demands. You will never get past the sledgehammer until you learn how to ask for the hammer size you actually need.
  4. Details! Absolutely everything can be perfect, but miss a few bolts on the flywheel and you might as well have never touched the engine. Forget to remove two clamps on a battery and you’ll be lucky to survive! All of the details are important. Pay attention, complete each step before moving on, and double check your work.
  5. Take a break. Trying to force something to work (or happen) just isn’t realistic. When you’re frustrated, tired, hungry or just beating your head against the proverbial wall, it’s time to walk away from the situation and take a break (swear if you need to – or just take a nap or a walk or…whatever). When you come back, there’s a strong possibility that the problem will look different and you will get closer to a solution.
  6. Both Failure and Success are Powerful Teachers. Both the massive fails and the huge successes in this process taught me things about both cars and life. Things that I have never forgotten. It can be painful to fail, but it’s all a learning process.
  7. Haters will Hate, Do It Anyway. The neighbors who felt threatened by a ‘girl’ doing auto repair weren’t the only people with commentary. My female friends from high school also made it clear that what I was doing was ‘weird’ and potentially proved I was a lesbian (this was the late 1980s in VERY rural Wisconsin farm country, on a military base – lesbian was a dangerous word.) Yet, I completed the project and found pride in that fact. Even though my father had made the decision for me (and there was no getting around that) I enjoyed the process and consciously chose to disregard the haters, defy society’s stupidity and do it anyway. In life that is often the best…or only…choice a person can make.
  8. Reaching a Goal is it’s Own Reward. Because of the culture of the times, I couldn’t brag about my success to many, if any, people and it didn’t matter. I’d done it, I knew I’d done it and I was proud of that fact. I didn’t need to tell anyone else about it because I was driving the car that was the (literal) symbol of my success.

-Originally posted to Quora in answer to the question What is the best life advice you have ever received?

Activism Alphabet

Quote

“Equal rights
black, brown, or white.
Clean and healthy is a right.
Every place we live and play
Environmental justice is the way!”

“F is for feminist.
For Fairness in our pay.
For freedom to Flourish
and choose our own way.”

A is for Activist by Innosanto Nagara

Admiration List: Ani DiFranco

I have been a fan of Ani DiFranco‘s life story since 1992. I was working in radio as a copy writer and part-time (weekend) DJ when I stumbled across a magazine/catalog of up-and-coming artists. It consisted of artist photographs, a brief categorical description of music style (e.g.: folk, R&B, rock, etc.) and a short biography. The magazine targeted station employees in charge of selecting music, with the objective of enticing the decision maker to listen to a sample and consider adding the featured musicians to the playlist. It probably came with a CD or cassette tape (cassettes were still regularly used back then), but I only saw the magazine.

The magazine is important because the biography is what attracted me to this artist. She not only writes and performs her own music, she also runs her own recording studio and is known for refusing to take potentially lucrative contracts that go against her political/ethical beliefs. In short, she defied the music industry’s standard operating procedures – and won!

I did not get the opportunity to hear her music until about 8 years later. 

Frankly, while I admire her skills as a lyricist and include a few of her songs in my private list of top-50-favorites, it was never the music that earned my admiration – it’s her actions as a small business owner, an activist and a person.

I would welcome the opportunity to hear her play live in concert but I would LOVE to hear her talk about her journey as a small business owner and an activist.

Fight For Your Right To Vote

Quote

Wordery.com

Elizabeth had learned long ago that only men could change laws. Because only men could vote. That was the one thing that could change everything. If women could vote, they could change all kinds of laws!

Elizabeth Leads the Way: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Right to Vote, written by Tanya Lee Stone and illustrated by Rebecca Gibbon

Election day is November 8! Get out and vote!