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Women’s (Economic) Empowerment – A trajectory of contemporary power-knowledge dynamics

When we hear talk about women’s empowerment, we reflexively nod our head. Yes, this is what we need for a peaceful, prosperous future in all parts of the world. Yes, it is necessary to attain equal and equitable global social relations. But what does ‘empowerment’ actually entail? What does it mean to be ‘empowered’ and who benefits from it?

written by Meike Fernbach

The concept of women’s empowerment has become so ubiquitous within public discourse, so ingrained and common sensical in its association with something ‘good’ and ‘necessary’ for all women, that we hardly stop to think about what we actually mean when we call for women’s empowerment.

In the following, I will situate the concept of empowerment within its historical context and show how ‘power’ as a central element of empowerment – both literally and figuratively – takes different forms and functions depending on the way in which the term is conceived of and by whom it is wielded. I argue that the transformation of the term ‘empowerment’ highlights the connection between the power-knowledge relation embedded within the contemporary context of neoliberal governmentality. I will begin my analysis by outlining the trajectory of the term empowerment. Where did it originate and how has the meaning of the term been co-opted by a development discourse centred around the economy? I will continue by delineating how the deconstruction of ‘empowerment’s’ contemporary meaning illuminates disputes and controversies within feminism itself. The development of the term lays bare the structural differences and hierarchies between a form of ‘mainstream’ feminism that has evolved in the wake of US second wave (white) feminism, and a feminism that is more cognizant of the multiple forms of oppression that intersect across diverse, marginalised subjectivities such as race, class, able-bodiedness, or gender identity. I will conclude by outlining how the concept of empowerment can be recaptured through an emphasis on collective action and a (re)politicisation rather than highlighting the primacy of the individual subject and perpetuating a narrative of self-reliance.

Empowerment without power?

In her 2018 publication ‘Beyond Empowerment Lite’, Andrea Cornwall proposes that the term “empowerment” has a long and curious history” (8; see also Cornwall 2016). It emerged in public discourse during the 1970s, popularised amongst others by Barbara Solomon’s 1976 publication Black Empowerment: Social Work in Oppressed Communities (Calvès 2009). Critical (feminist) literature dealing with the concept of empowerment seems unanimous in its assessment of the emancipatory origins of the term through social movements and struggles fought for the attainment of equal rights (Cornwall 2016, 2018; Sardenberg 2008; Calvès 2009; Cronin-Furman et al 2017). Power and politics were situated at the heart of the original meaning of the concept. It aimed at highlighting persistent social inequalities and advocated the need for structural transformation (Cornwall 2016, 2018; Calvès 2009; Carrasco-Miró 2020). Yet while the ultimate goal – empowerment – was to be achieved through the process of dismantling the oppressive structures of a white patriarchal society, these same structures slowly co-opted and instrumentalised the term in a way that, within its new meaning, now benefits a neoliberal ideology foregrounding market values, economic rationality and individual responsibility (Brown 2003).

The conventional use of the term empowerment, so Cornwall, has been narrowed down to a myopic economic dimension which conflates money with power (see also Duncanson 2018). Sardenberg takes the critique even further by claiming that this ‘liberal’ form of empowerment “actually fosters ‘empowerment without power’ in that it gives no space for changes in the existing power relations, nor in the structures of domination that are responsible for exclusion, poverty and disempowerment in the first place” (Sardenberg 2008: 22). Empowerment, in other words, has been stripped of ‘power’ through its assimilation to neoclassical economics. By dislocating the term from the structures of power that it originally set out to dismantle, ‘empowerment’ has been de-politicised and rendered ‘neutral’ in the sense that women are now portrayed simply as “the untapped resource that can fuel growth and power our economies” (Duncanson 2018: 114) rather than a collective project that highlights how political the personal really is (Cornwall 2016). By asking what women can do for development, rather than asking what development can do for women, ‘empowerment’ no longer represents a transformative dynamic directed towards dismantling structures of power but instead “seeks simply to accommodate women within the market without disrupting existing social and power inequities” (Cornwall 2018: 7).  

More than merely being relegated to the economic sphere, however, in its incorporation into neoliberal ideology the term empowerment has also been embedded into the structures of neoliberal governmentality. Wendy Brown claims that “neo-liberal rationality, while foregrounding the market, is not only or even primarily focused on the economy; rather it involves extending and disseminating market values to all institutions and social action” (Brown 2003: no page number). Through its absorption into contemporary development discourse, the conceptual shift of the term empowerment has been assimilated to a neoliberal, political rationality that permeates our everyday social lives and functions as a tool to uphold various forms of oppression. ‘Empowerment’ has transformed from being infused with the power of collective action that targets structural hierarchies, to a neoliberal rationality that centres the individual and the individual’s responsibility for her own well-being. The term has been hollowed out and is now wielded by international development institutions such as the World Bank and hence, “instead of ‘power’” gives women livelihoods. “Instead of conscientization about structures of oppression, skills training. And instead of agency, the choice between raising chicken or cows” (Cronin-Furman et al 2017: 11).

The Crusoe’s

Having outlined the trajectory of the term ‘empowerment’ and how it has evolved from a concept of collective action and structural oppression to a focus on individual responsibility emblematic of neoliberal governmentality, I will now turn to the tensions within feminism itself, illuminated by the discussion of the conceptualisation of ‘empowerment’.

As delineated in the previous section, the term empowerment has been thoroughly integrated into the structure and functioning of the currently dominating economic rationality. Thus, ‘women’ have found their way into charts and models developed by leading economists to calculate the most efficient paths towards economic progress. However, much as these models and calculations are rationalised based on the ‘Robinson Crusoe’ simile of the homo oeconomicus which turns cis, white, heterosexual men, into the universal ‘norm’. The subsequent inclusion of ‘women’ is arguably an extension of this existing model by making ‘Karen Crusoe’ his emancipated wife and simply adding cis, white, heterosexual women to the ostensibly universal, standardised norm. Friday, echoing Grapard’s critique from 1995, is still left out of the analysis, not to mention Friday’s female equivalent.

This additive move directs the concept of empowerment on a very narrow group of privileged, usually white, Western women who are generally assumed to be mothers. The myopic focus skews the reasoning behind the economic integration of women and has profoundly negative effects on those women falling outside of this categorisation. In her publication ‘Empowering work? Bargaining models reconsidered’, Charusheela delineates some of the effects of these misguided assumptions. She critiques the widespread belief that paid labour is the main- or even the sole variable leading to the empowerment of women and outlines the misconceptions of the gametheoretical model of household bargaining which proposes that entry into the labour market increases the bargaining power for all women in the home. “The standard neoclassical literature argues that women’s labor-supply [sic] decisions are determined by the relative returns of market and nonmarket work” (Charusheela 2003: 290), implying that women may choose to enter the labour market when the returns of market work exceed those of nonmarket work in the home.

This grossly ignores the fact that “for working-class women, immigrant women, ethnic-minority women […] work was and is necessary simply to put food on the table” (Charusheela 2003: 291) and does not necessarily increase their bargaining power in the home (Kendall 2020). Furthermore, an additional factor making it ‘rational’ for middle- and upper-class women (usually white), to enter the labour market, is their ability to employ household helps and nannies which, more often than not, are women who fall outside of the universal norm created by neoliberal bargaining models. This division of labour is highly racialised and ‘empowers’ a certain category of women through the exploitation of racial and ethnic minorities. Charusheela poignantly states that “paid work has a very different historical memory and meaning for descendants of slaves, for displaced peasants, for racialized migrants, and immigrants brough in to be the cheap labor [sic] at the bottom of the labor [sic] market. The actual experience of work, far from being a liberation from the bonds of home, was and is often demeaning, undignified, and oppressive” (2003: 298). This is by no means intended to essentialise women across racial and class divides but simply outlines the symptoms of a structural framework that women’s empowerment initially set out to dismantle, yet which is now being perpetuated through the architecture of neoliberal governmentality.


As depicted in the section above, there are strong divides and nuanced positions within feminism itself. While public discourse tends to homogenise ‘feminism’ into a single project concerned with alleviating the global oppression of women, feminist movements are just as much subjected to internal debate as any other political project. Dialogue and debates are necessary for any democratic political agenda and in this case illustrates that there are “no one-size-fits-all interventions that can produce in all women the effect of feeling more control over their lives” (Cornwall 2016: 346). On the contrary, parallel to the development of the concept of ‘empowerment’ a particular type of feminism has emerged that “seems perfectly in sync with the evolving neoliberal order” (Rottenberg 2013: 419). In her analysis of ‘The Rise of Neoliberal Feminism’, Catherine Rottenberg shows how self-professed feminist ‘manifestoes’ (ibid.) such as Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In proliferate the message of neoliberal market values that actually work to subvert more marginalised feminist agendas. Rottenberg argues that for neoliberal feminists such as Sandberg, gender inequality is “associated with the dearth of women in higher echelons of powerful institutions” and that “‘true equality’ is predicated upon individuals moving up the professional ladder, one woman at a time” (Rottenberg 2013: 423; 426 emphasis original).

Through this neoliberal focus on the individual, this kind of feminism does not fundamentally challenge the inequity of social constraints but turns “gender inequality from a structural problem to an individual affair” (Rottenberg 2013: 420). While this is reminiscent of Nancy Fraser’s argument that second wave feminism “unwittingly” provided the key ingredient for the “‘new spirit’ of neoliberal capitalism” (Fraser 2012: 3), I concede with Aslan and Gambetti’s line of argument in their 2011 publication ‘Provincializing Fraser’s History’ which emphasises that this form of feminism represents only a tiny fragment of broader feminist movements and is located in an exceptional position of privilege and power. It is arguable that precisely this exceptional position of power and synergy with neoliberal ideology is the main driving factor that has embedded this form of feminism into the dominating discourse which has marketed it as the feminist fight against universal feminist oppression. Through its conformity with neoliberal governmentality Sandberg’s idea of feminism is useful in proliferating the outward image of a self-critical United States open to progressive change while ultimately working to (re)inscribe its political and moral superiority (Rottenberg 2013).


The first section of this paper has outlined the shift within the term ‘empowerment’ which has worked to the detriment of a broader, yet more marginalised feminist movement. However, the evident, widespread feminist critiques of this shift demonstrates that the original meaning of the concept has not yet been entirely eclipsed and that the debate within feminism itself is alive and well. Moreover, this paper has traced the power dynamics within and around the concept of women’s empowerment showing how it is yet another instance in which the Foucauldian connection between power and knowledge becomes strikingly clear. By co-opting its meaning, ‘empowerment’ was and is instrumentalised as a tool by the powerful to further perpetuate and legitimate a neoliberal agenda. In making this power-knowledge connection transparent and illuminating the instrumentalization of empowerment, ‘power’ is placed back at its centre and the political nature of the concept is revitalised. Through collective (feminist) action, the term empowerment can be recaptured, and its meaning shifted away from the individual towards the transformative power of the collective.


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