Resources on understanding female power
January 12, 2014 9:08 AM   Subscribe

I am interested in books, articles, perspectives, etc., to help me understand female power in its various forms.

I would like to keep this question a little broad, because I don't know exactly what I am looking for (if I did, I would go right for it).

What does it look like to be empowered? Is that a worthwhile goal? What does it mean financially and relationally? I'm interested in understanding this better in terms of career choices, partner choices, and other choices.

I have a murky idea that some women are more empowered than others, e.g. based on the country they live in, and that in some ways women are more empowered than decades ago. I'm not so much looking for a history of feminism, but specifically writings/watchings/etc on what it means to have power and what that looks like. How is it measured? How does it change in the lifespan and what does it mean for it to be lost and gained? What choices most affect it? Etc. In particular for women.

Some of the first examples that come to my mind of powerful women are Anna Wintour and Angelina Jolie, with both having a lot of control over their interpersonal and professional lives. However that's a really obvious image of a powerful woman, and a fairly superficial one. There may be ways to be empowered in a more everyday ways. I'd like to get a better understanding of this concept of power for women.

So as to not be chatfilter, I am asking this question because I have career and partner choices ahead and would like to understand how people smarter than me have thought about these topics. Also I'm not looking for personal insights (unless they're really awesome) as I am to links to resources.

posted by htid to Human Relations (9 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not sure exact what you are looking for but....

Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook fame had gotten a lot of credit for her book Lean In about how wonen can be women but also make ranks in business.

You might also check out Wendy Kopp's book One Day on how she started Teach For America desoite resistance. TFA is now more than 20 years old and she continues to grow the organization.
posted by jander03 at 11:26 AM on January 12, 2014

If you're interested in reading philosophy, Michel Foucault's "Discipline and Punish" and "History of Modern Sexuality" provide insight into how power structures operate and how they permeate society, including our personal lives and ways of thinking.
posted by unsub at 11:54 AM on January 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

I am not sure exactly what you have in mind either, but a book that I found illuminating is "Kinds of Power" by James Hillman. It does not focus on female empowerment, but it clarified for me that power comes in many different shapes and styles. For instance, who is the most powerful person in the room when there is a crying baby present?
posted by elf27 at 11:59 AM on January 12, 2014

Here is an article about how microfinance empowers women in third-world countries, by giving them access to a bank loan. Once they have their own money, the power dynamic within their marriage changes. They bear fewer children, and there's less domestic violence. Article by the creator of microfinance, who won the Nobel Peace Prize: Microcredit and Women
posted by cheesecake at 12:16 PM on January 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

Does giving birth count as an "other" choice? For me, the most empowering decision I made for myself (other than asking my now-husband out on our first date) was to give birth naturally, at home, with only a midwife, her assistant, and my husband in attendance. I was in my own home with my own stuff and my own bed, so I was comfortable. The midwife deferred to me or made suggestions as necessary. Everyone came through happy and healthy. The whole prenatal treatment was personal and health-centered for me and my baby. The best advice my midwife gave me, other than to encourage better activity and better nutrition, was to believe that my body knew how to give birth. To trust in my own body. Trusting in my own body to get me through. And it did. It knew what it needed to do. That first "pushy" feeling confirmed to me that, yes, my body knew what it needed to do. That, to me, was empowering. To trust in myself.

I was lucky enough that my health and circumstances allowed me to give a natural birth. I know many women are not that lucky, and I do not want to diminish their experiences. Stories I have read and heard from some of my friends who weren't so lucky and instead got unhappy experiences in a hospital that led to unhappy months afterwards. I think a good word to describe some of these experiences could be "disempowering". (Keep in mind, this is just my opinion on specific friends' experiences - YMMV and I am not judging anyone else's experiences.)
posted by jillithd at 9:33 AM on January 13, 2014

There are a great many ways you could approach this depending on your previous knowledge. One way is through 19C social justice history and the roots of the feminist movement: the Suffragettes, the Workers' Educational Association, the Fabian Society (tainted by an early enthusiasm for eugenics), Marie Stopes. Birth control being an intrinsic part of women's struggle to obtain education and independence in the developed world.

Or you could research individual inspirational women. Here's one, Wangari Maathai, a Nobel Prizewinner.

Female empowerment isn't an isolated phenomenon, it has repercussions for general population health and stability, infant mortality, land rights, and environmental/ ecological issues. Also, women can be individually extremely powerful without making any difference to structural conditions that are generally oppressive to women. Similarly IMO female empowerment has to be a general concern in any initiative concerned with equality in general, since women are constrained by biology (I mean bearing children and sticking around to bring them up) much more than men. In development terms providing support for women and girls tends to have a greater affect on a community.
posted by glasseyes at 9:56 AM on January 13, 2014

I wish there were more answers here... and maybe it's telling that there are not more.

I'm interested in understanding the history as glasseyes has laid out, in some ways. I had never thought about land rights before, nor about empowerment of an individual looking out for herself, vs. working to create change for other women.

I'd love to read some more about how an individual woman can empower herself, and what that looks like, with some historical or academic context. I'd like to understand how everyday choices fit into the historical context.

It's clear that it's more empowering to take advantage of the legal and social institutions that are set up to protect or help women. Like, marriage (oftentimes) vs cohabitation. Ownership of property.

I am less clear on what empowered behavior looks like in a personal, or interpersonal, context. I would love to understand what someone smart/knowledgeable thinks about this, rather than the gazillionth stupid pop culture book on how women should behave.

I know what it looks like to have more power and equality in my career. I don't quite understand what that looks like in a life as a whole, beyond career. I'd love something to read about that would give insight on that. I guess I'm interested in power besides economic power, especially as it pertains to women. by someone who really deeply understands this topic.

This question is a few days old (and a bit esoteric) so I'm not sure anyone else will read and reply. Any more replies would be welcome, though! Thanks.
posted by htid at 8:31 PM on January 14, 2014

Empowerment is absolutely a worthwhile goal.

For me, here are some things that have made me feel more powerful:

* Making an informed decision to lift weights, thus defying the cultural message that women should be pretty and thin but not strong.

* Getting control of my finances, so that I have more and better choices about my future.

* Saying no to relationships that will not be good for me.

* Choosing to learn more about various subjects.

* Saying no to obligations that will be a drain on my resources and do not align with my goals.

You might be interested in reading biographies of different powerful and influential women: Elizabeth I, Hilary Clinton, Freya Stark, Eleanor Roosevelt, Julia Child, Marie Curie, Oprah, Ellen, Madonna, Jane Goodall ... books and movies about and by empowered women could be a whole separate
posted by bunderful at 1:45 PM on February 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

Our local university is performing "That Takes Ovaries". This and the corresponding book sound like what you are looking for.
posted by jillithd at 11:49 AM on February 18, 2014

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