You could easily compile statistics to make the case that women — at least Western women — are already empowered. In the United States, we are 50 percent of the workplace (and 51.4 percent of managerial and professional jobs). We receive three college degrees for every two earned by men (along with 60 percent of all master’s degrees, about half of all law and medical degrees and 43 percent of M.B.A.’s). Working wives are coming close to bringing in nearly half the household income. Single, childless urban women under 30 actually earn 8 percent more than their male peers.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton would be pleased. She was one of the early American feminists who wrote in 1887:
The two great sources of progress are intellect and wealth. Both represent power, and are the elements of success in life. Education frees the mind from the bondage of authority and makes the individual self-asserting. Remunerative industry is the means of securing to its possessor wealth and education...
Even back then, Stanton's aim was "power" which was to be achieved through education and career. Hence, the more that women succeed at university and at work the more they are held to be "empowered".
The purpose of this power for Stanton? It was not directed to any social aim. It was intended to bring to women an autonomous existence. In Stanton's own words, the aim was the "self-dependence of every human soul", in which a woman had "self-sovereignty; because, as an individual, she must rely on herself". Stanton believed in the "isolation of every human soul and the necessity of self-dependence".
But if women get autonomy through education and careers and thereby became empowered, what then of the family? Well, it gets downgraded in importance. Stanton wrote of family relations as being "incidental":
it is only the incidental relations of life, such as mother wife, sister, daughter, which may involve some special duties and training
She wrote also that,
the love of offspring ... calls out only the negative virtues that belong to apathetic classes, such as patience, endurance, self-sacrifice
(Stanton's attitudes not only fit in with the larger liberal culture, but they possibly have a personal origin as well. There were 11 children in Stanton's family but all of the boys died young. In her wikipedia article we find this:
Writing of her brother, Eleazar's, death in 1826, Stanton remembers trying to comfort her father, saying that she would try to be all her brother had been. At the time, her father's response devastated Stanton: "Oh, my daughter, I wish you were a boy!")
So Stanton's wishes have been fulfilled and young women are now doing better in their educational and career results than men. So are women now empowered? According to the New York Times article, the answer is no. The changes have not yet made women feel empowered:
It isn’t true until it feels true. That’s because measuring women’s power by looking only at women — and by looking mostly at the workplace — paints a false picture.
It seems that the problem is men. Women won't feel properly empowered until we men get with the female empowerment programme:
The life-work dilemma for women has long been that “the workplace has changed in their favor, but home hasn’t,” she says. Men, however, “have the opposite problem. More is expected of them at home, but expectations have not shifted at work.”
Younger couples say they want and expect parity in their relationships. But many women still carry a chip on their shoulders, chiseled in part by years of keeping all those to-do lists in their heads. And if men can find no relief from the pressures of work, they are not going to be able to fit into the revamped economy of home.
How then to inch toward change? Can we make it “manly” (or even better, “gender neutral”) to spend a day with a child, or earn less money but have more family time, or be the only parent at a parent-teacher conference because your wife has a meeting?
It's an odd sensation reading this as a man. The female journalist, Lisa Belkin, assumes that our role as men is to prop up a female individualism. She makes this explicit later in the article:
Empowering American women can no longer focus only on women — on leveling playing fields or offering mothers “on-ramps” and “offramps” or shattering ceilings one at a time. All those efforts must continue, yes. But none will succeed if we don’t change our expectations for men. Or, more accurately, men’s expectations for themselves.
So men are merely instruments to be manipulated for the empowerment of women? I don't think so, sister.
Note too the difficulty that feminists have here. According to them, the maternal role is the subordinate, secondary and disempowering one. And yet that's the role they want men to pick up. But if the good in life is to be "empowered" by careers, why would men do this? Feminists are forced into the position here of arguing to men, "do this even though we believe it will hurt you".
And then there's Lisa Belkin's suggestion of persuading men to get with the programme by making it "manly" to do so. The assumption here is that there is no unchanging essense to masculinity, but that it's whatever we make it to be. Which makes it not very much at all.
So what's a New York Times feminist to do? She looks approvingly to Sweden where policy pushes men into taking child care leave. Initially in Sweden, either the husband or wife could choose to take the paid leave offered by the state. Only 4% of men chose to do so. The state therefore decided not to allow men and women to choose. Some of the leave had to be taken by the husband. So now 80% of men take paid leave.
The problem for Lisa Belkin is that liberalism is supposed to be about autonomous choice and not state coercion. So she is forced into a verbal contortion to express her support for what the Swedes have done:
By steering men toward a particular path, Sweden redefined the nature of choice. Parental leave was transformed ... from an emotional decision to a financial one; from something mothers do to something every parent does. Would that same kind of redefinition — of the relationship between work and home, of the roles of men and women — work on this side of the Atlantic?
Sweden redefined the nature of choice alright. You are allowed to choose what the feminist state wants you to choose.
The next time you hear a liberal say they respect difference, just remind them that liberals aren't too good at accepting differences in the roles of men and women. The preferred end point of liberalism is one in which, in Lisa Belkin's words, parental roles are "gender neutral", i.e. identical.
I won't launch into it now, but there's also a discussion to be had here about the purposes of power. Is it really true that power is to be deployed to prop up our own individualistic purposes? Can you run a society along these lines?
I would have thought that power was properly directed toward larger social aims, such as the proper functioning of social institutions. Or, at the individual level, it's purpose is to direct the will toward the expression of character and moral purpose. Already in 1887, Elizabeth Cady Stanton seems to reduce it to an instrument of mere "self-assertion".