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August 29, 2013


Nope. No Empowerment Found Here.

When you are done reading this blog post and you are mad at me because either you need to change your verbiage, you think I’m too into semantics or you just don’t agree with me, I challenge you to go read five dictionary entries on the word “empower” and then think about who uses the word and how it’s used in common contexts.

Empower first began to pop up in circles of people who wanted others to do something differently. It’s a paternalistic connotation meaning “I’m smarter than you, so I’mma gonna give you some of this” and really, it’s a negative connotation. Over the last several years, I’ve begun to strip it from my vocabulary for several reasons but first, let’s just look at the word: says:
em·pow·er [em-pou-er]
verb (used with object)
1. to give power or authority to; authorize, especially by legal or official means: I empowered my agent to make the deal for me. The local ordinance empowers the board of health to close unsanitary restaurants.
2. to enable or permit: Wealth empowered him to live a comfortable life.

World English Dictionary:

— vb

1. to give or delegate power or authority to; authorize
2. to give ability to; enable or permit

So let’s use that in a birthy sentence. The obstetrician gave power or authority to the VBAC mom. The midwife authorized the mom to have a vbac. The doula permitted the client to vbac. Yeah, not quite that same feeling, is it?

Empower is passive for the woman. It means that someone out there is not acting and you are giving them permission to act. So, this is the exact opposite of what we want to convey as birth workers and care providers. We want active women. We want..dare I say it…POWERFUL women. Yes, POWERFUL. Not empowered. Women who have power and know it, not power that is given to them from the outside to work with like some sort of permission.

When you empower someone, you give them the legal right to act on your behalf. A woman empowers her midwfe, not the other way around. A woman empowers her OB to act on her behalf and make medical decisions. When a woman refers to herself as “empowered” she means that someone else gave that to her. No, not the slightest bit. She had the power all along, but much like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, she had to choose to use it. She had to find the internal strength. I can support women while they are doing that, finding that strength. I can be their sister, their support, I can help them find information but they must choose to access it, to activate it, to step into their own power.

And I’ll leave you with one last thought.

What if empowered is just one more way we use words to say that women really are kind of weak and indecisive and uneducated and we should enlighten them? What if we use this word about poor women? black women? other women of color? At some point, don’t you get the feeling you are acting for someone when you listen to how the word is used?

No. No empowerment here. I don’t empower anyone.

She is powerful because she IS. Powerful. Amazing. Strong. ACTIVE.



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3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Joyce Vanselow
    Aug 29 2013

    YES! THIS!

  2. Cristen
    Aug 30 2013

    Now I get why people are so touchy about this word! I have always found it irritating, but not for the reasons you gave. Thanks for actually spelling out the definition — this is good to know!

  3. Nov 26 2013



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