Women empowerment is a phenomenon that has existed for generations. While it might seem obvious that this was meant to free women from the strangling yoke of patriarchy, many still hold the view that female empowerment, especially as practiced under feminism, is a male-bashing concept. This misconception lies in the misunderstanding of what women empowerment is. However, the definition of women empowerment varies according to who is defining it. For instance, increased income or better healthcare are perceived to be the pillars to women empowerment. This is not a complete definition, as a woman may enjoy a good income and healthcare, but the quality of this may fall below what a man in a similar position is enjoying. Mosedale (2005) offers a better definition of women empowerment, by identifying four crucial aspects:
• Disempowerment – There needs to be an element of disempowerment, for a woman, or group of women to be empowered. This is because relative to men, women are generally less empowered.
• Cannot be given by a second or third party – Empowerment cannot be given but must be claimed by those who wish it. For example, those in a place of authority, be it employers in an organization, or development agencies cannot empower women. The most they can do is to offer a favorable and enabling environment. It is up to women themselves to claim it, and they can only do this if they acknowledge that they are disempowered.
• Starts from an individual level – While women’s own empowerment efforts tend to be collective and group oriented in nature, empowerment-orientated development interventions by organizations or institutions are often individual-focused. However, both these approaches are effective, depending on the prevailing circumstances in the society.
• It is a process, not a product – Female empowerment is an ongoing process, and there is no final stage to it. Women are empowered or disempowered relative to others, or themselves at a particular point.
Given this clear definition of women empowerment, it is therefore easier to observe and evaluate its achievements and failures, especially in contemporary times where women have made significant strides. Though there is much to be achieved still, there is no denying that women have made significant progress in social, economic, and political fronts; progress that would have been deemed impossible one hundred years ago. In this day and age, it is not unusual to find women running companies, heading organizations, being in academia, and actively participating in politics.
This progress has not happened in a vacuum, as many factors have contributed to the women’s empowerment in the contemporary times. The aim of this paper is to therefore trace the genesis and evolution of women empowerment, and to therefore highlight its progress and shortcomings. More importantly, this paper will also highlight the ways in which women navigate two worlds: that which is filled with age-old stereotypes, and the contemporary one where women are more aware of their rights and liberties, and the difficulties and problems that arise out of this transition.
The International Relations theory of constructivism states that important aspects of international relations are socially constructed, rather than them being products of nature. This theory can therefore be applied to women, and their social construction. However, the social construction of women cannot be understood without its creator – patriarchy. In essence, patriarchy is an institutionalized social, economic, and political system whereby men hold the positions of power and are decision makers. In this type of system, women are perceived and treated as inferior to men, be it physically, intellectually, and emotionally.
Sociologists and anthropologists alike recognize that patriarchy evolved from the division of labor among men and women; roles that were bestowed upon them based on perceived and real strengths and weaknesses. For example, since men and generally physically stronger than women, their role historically has been that of a provider and protector of the household. Women however, were given domestic roles – those of cleaning and maintaining the home, bearing and raising children, and tending to the men’s needs.
However, men’s roles began to be given more importance than that of women’s. This was exacerbated by the fact that men were generally physically stronger than women, and thus this created a superiority complex among men, which eventually led to patriarchy, which in its essence is male chauvinistic and misogynistic in nature, with women being seen to exist for the sole purpose of being a man’s helper. The problem with this kind of system is that it completely dehumanized women, stifled their capabilities, and treated them the same way as children.
To best illustrate this division of roles among men and women, Planned Parenthood (2018) recognizes four basic traits which are founded on the aforementioned division of labor, and can be witnessed in contemporary times:
• Physical Appearance – Historically, women are expected to be graceful, and depending on the culture, thin or curvy, while men are generally expected to be tall and muscular. This physical appearance is also aided by the manner of dressing, which is expected to adhere to the male and female gender stereotypes. For example, women are expected to wear dresses and skirts, while men are expected to wear trousers and shorts.
• Personality Traits – Women are expected to be emotional, caring, nurturing, accommodating and compromising in their values, while men are expected to be aggressive and self-confident.
• Domestic Behaviors – In this aspect, women are generally expected to cook, clean, and maintain the house, while men are expected to take care of the household finances, and thus be the head of the house.
• Occupations – Stereotypical gender roles can also be evidenced in occupations. For example, professions related to STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) are normally seen as the preserve of men, while professions such as nursing, and teaching, seen as the preserve of women.
The Beginning of the Feminist Movement
The subjugation of women continued for centuries, but the late 19th century marked the beginning of women empowerment movement, which was carried out under feminism. In its essence, feminism is the belief and strife for political, social, and economic equality of men and women. While this is a contemporary definition, in its formative stage, feminism was solely centered on improving the economic, social and political rights of women, given that their rights were either non-existent, or only available on a limited scale to elite women.
Since its beginnings in the late 19th century, the feminist movement has occurred in several waves; with feminist scholars differing on whether there are three or four waves of feminism: first wave feminism, second wave feminism, third wave feminism, and fourth wave feminism. While there is still a long way to go when it comes to women empowerment, the achievements of these four waves cannot be denied, and are discussed below.
First Wave Feminism/Women Suffrage Movement
As the name suggests, this was the formative stage of feminism, and began in the late 19th Century to the mid-20th century in Western Europe and North America. Its main focus was to achieve women suffrage – the ability of women to vote; as this right was solely given to men. This wave also focused on the attainment of other civil rights such as the right to an education, the right to work, the right to work safely, the right to the money women earned when they worked, the right to a divorce (Fisher 2013).
Second Wave Feminism
This period began in the early 1960s and sought to continue with the social and economic theme that began with first wave feminism. In this regard, issues such as women employment, domestic violence, workplace discrimination, reproductive rights, and divorce laws. Attention was also drawn to the fact that the feminist movement focused on women from the Western world, completely ignoring the plight of women of color, especially those in Africa, and their experiences in post-independence Africa.
Third Wave Feminism
This movement began in the 1990s and its main objective was to address the failures and shortcomings of first wave and second wave feminism. However, as Thompson (2016) explains, what sets this movement apart from the previous waves is its inclusion of men and its focus on gender and gender roles rather than exclusively dealing with the subjugation of women. Another way in which this wave stands out is the fact that several strands of feminism have emerged, to address specific issues dealing with women from different backgrounds and races. Feminist strands such as radical, black, Christian, post-independence, liberal and Marxist. Have taken root under this wave of feminism.
Fourth Wave Feminism
There is a lot of contention among feminist scholars on whether there are three or four waves of feminism, as aforementioned. This is due to the fact that fourth wave feminism is seen as offering nothing new for the feminist movement. However, the proponents of fourth wave feminism cite an important aspect – intersectionality, as an issue that was not previously addressed. The issue of intersectionality refers to the fact that sexism, class oppression, and racism are inextricably bound together and thus the feminism agenda cannot be fully realized without addressing these forms of oppression. The advent of social media is also a critical component of forth wave feminism, as issues affecting women can easily be raised and awareness created. The #MeToo movement is an example of fourth wave feminism at work, as it seeks to expose sexual harassment issues.
As demonstrated above, the feminist movement has brought on rights that women in the 19th century could only dream of. Issues such as women being able to vote, get employment, own property, and vie for political office, are all possible because of the feminist movement. Even though the feminist movement began in North America and Western Europe, it has spread to other parts of the world, and Africa, especially Kenya in particular has not been left behind in this movement.
Kenya has been home to many trailblazing women, who have been products of first and second wave feminism. For example, Maria Nzomo, became the first Kenyan woman to earn a doctorate degree in Political Science, and Wangari Maathai became an internationally renowned environmentalist and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate. These two women are just examples of women empowerment at work. Of course, there are many more women, those known publicly and not, who have made the transition into this new world that is full of possibilities for women. However, there is still a long way to go to achieve full gender equality, especially when it comes to bridging the gender pay gap.
Given the gains that women have achieved over the past century, the transition from the world of age-old stereotypes to one where women have unlimited possibilities has not been easy on the women themselves. There are many challenges and problems associated with this transition, and many women have not been able to make a successful transition, being forced to stay in the status quo where their abilities and strengths are stifled by patriarchy. Some of the most pressing issues regarding the transition are discussed below.
Men’s Position in the Society
Green (2015) argues that power is a zero-sum game – a gain that leads to the loss of something else; with women empowerment being a prime example of this. The position of men in the society has evolved if not changed completely, due to the effects of women empowerment. Women have indeed gained power through the feminist movement; a gain that has led to the disempowerment of men in general. Critics of feminism argue that the lack of involvement of men in the feminist movement during its formative stages has led to men losing their power, which has led to a myriad of effects.
The lack of men empowerment has led to men not being able to fully understand and adapt to the changes brought about by women empowerment. While it is true that men were at a position of power which ultimately led to women lacking it, feminism should have at the very onset involved men in the movement. This would have ensured that men are enlightened on the rights that women were fighting for and would therefore been able to participate in them effectively. This would have ensured that both men and women are empowered at the same time, which in the end would have led to a more equal society.
This general powershift towards women has shifted men and women’s relationship. One way this is evidenced is on the home front. Women empowerment initiatives especially through development projects and improved access to higher education, has marked a significant increase in women’s earnings which in turn gives them more agency, autonomy, influence, and ultimately, more power. Therefore, the “head of the house” role that men have historically held due to their economic power over women is slowly fading. Though not always, this leads to men pushing back and trying to assert their power in other ways, one of them being through physical violence.
Given this consequence of women empowerment, many women who witness this happening to other women may then strive not out-earn a man, be “too ambitious”, or self-driven in fear that this will intimidate or drive away the men they are married to or involved with. A similar situation can be witnessed in dating, whereby more and more successful women are single, as compared to their counterparts a century ago. This goes back to the fact that these women are finding it difficult to find men to marry or date, who are in the same level as them financially and mentally, and importantly, men who do not hold the age-old stereotypes of women. This can discourage some women and make them settle for men who are not at par with them financially and mentally, which will eventually lead to an unhappy union as the woman will be living a life where she is true to herself and her partner. This can also result in some women choosing to remain single, or purposefully become single mothers due to lack of a suitable husband.
Potential Loss of Gender Identity
An unforeseen and definitely unintended consequence of women empowerment especially as practiced under radical feminism, is the potential loss of gender identity. This brand of feminism is extreme in its goals and objectives and has received much criticism for its extreme views on gender relations, and men in particular. In essence, radical feminists hold the view it is only the destruction and elimination of men that women can realize their full potential and achieve freedom.
Many women who practice this brand of feminism add that getting married, having children is a creation of the patriarchy, and thus the need to engage in them. Some go ahead and have their reproductive organs surgically removed to achieve the goal of not having children; with the concept of femininity also being perceived as a creation of patriarchy. Inasmuch as the women involved are getting empowered, this in turn creates women who have completely detached themselves from the concept of womanhood and femininity, into an entity that is completely other. On a different scale, some women stop identifying themselves as such, since that is the oppressed gender, and begin dressing and acting as men. Some even go to the extent of changing their gender surgically and becoming transsexual men.
Sense of Entitlement
It is no doubt that the feminist movement and women empowerment in general has brought significant gains to women. Affirmative action in regard to women education and employment has ensured that women get opportunities for education and employment; opportunities that would have otherwise been denied to them based on their gender. The Kenyan context provided a perfect example of this. The 2010 constitution created the Woman Representative position; with each of the forty-seven counties electing a woman to parliament. This was meant to increase female representation in parliament which has historically been low, and to also enable more women’s issues to be raised and debated, and relevant laws to be passed regarding them.
The problem with affirmative action is that it has the potential of instilling a sense of entitlement among some women, believing that they are meant to have certain positions, be it in employment, education, or politics, due to their gender and not because of prior qualification. Given that affirmative action is meant to be only a temporary action to improve women’s representation, its effects may be temporary as well; as those who were previously tasked with implementing it would drift back to employing men only, as then there would be no incentive to, or punitive measures against them if they do not employ women.
It is no doubt that the twenty first century has brought with it opportunities that were not in existence before. That combined with the effects of women empowerment initiatives, has ensured that women have made significant strides economically, politically, and socially; a phenomenon that would have been unthinkable two centuries ago. As discussed above, feminism has had lasting effects on women empowerment; effects that began to be felt during the feminist waves. These effects were both intended, and unforeseen, both of which continue to define women’s transition to this new order that is full of possibilities.
However, this progress has not come without its costs; costs which have incredibly challenged women’s transition to this new order. Women’s continued empowerment, and men’s general exclusion from the same has led to a powershift towards women, which has completely changed the nature of relations between these two genders. As demonstrated above, men’s position in the society has changed. This combined with women’s potential loss of gender identity, and entitlement issues continue to make women’s transition into the new order more problematic.
Given the unprecedented effects that feminism and women empowerment has brought fourth, there needs to be a re-thinking and re-evaluation of women empowerment, to correct and address the unforeseen negative consequences that have arisen due to it. The best way to do this is to actively involve men in the feminist movement, as they too need empowerment. It is only when both men and women are empowered that these negative effects will cease to manifest themselves; with patriarchy being replaced with a system that is favorable and equitable to not just women, but to men as well. This might seem idealistic or even utopian in nature, but it is doable; only requiring will-power from both men and women to achieve it.