What does it mean to be an empowered woman?

And empowered woman looking confidently at camera

What does our society tell us about being an empowered woman (and are they right)?

What is empowerment? Are women in today’s America empowered? What does our society expect of empowered women? These are significant questions being asked today. We wanted to know what real women in Ann Arbor think about these issues, so we asked. Here’s what we discovered:

Empowerment looked different for each woman.

Gail, a law student at the University of Michigan, felt empowered by intrinsic factors: the ability to motivate and encourage herself, as well as confidence in who she is and not letting circumstances dictate otherwise. “Empowered” is a part of her identity, which she says she “can’t take credit for, it’s just how I was made.” Tiffany, a photographer and entrepreneur, and Larissa, an oncology nurse, offered a more transient perspective on empowerment. Both pointed to the importance of external factors in their personal sense of empowerment. While Tiffany focused in on resources and connections that enable her to pursue what she desires to do, Larissa emphasized the importance of community: “when I feel empowered, I feel extremely supported and I would say I do right now.” Despite these differences, these women agreed: empowerment is the freedom to choose your path and the ability to pursue it successfully.

We still feel we have to prove ourselves.

Not surprisingly, when these women were asked what they loved about being a woman in today’s society, all three cited the endless possibilities that many women have to do “whatever we can dream.” Furthermore, they celebrated that as women, they feel validated whether they choose to invest their time in the workplace or at home. When asked what they found difficult, their answers were more varied, but they all seemed to point to one thing: although we have the freedom to determine our own place in life, and we have the ability to get there, we still have to prove we belong.

“As a single, 36 year old mom,” says Tiffany, “it’s difficult to figure out where to fit in sometimes… I think if you’re not a wife and a mother, then it’s kind of ambiguous what your role is.” Gail shared her experience as a female at law school: “Even when you are given opportunities, you feel like you have to prove yourself, that even though you represent one half of the class, you feel a responsibility to prove that you deserve it, that you’re worthy, that you’re not just there because the school has an obligation to keep the place equal or diverse… I mean I definitely feel that on another level being a black woman as well. That intersectionality creates even more self-pressure.” Larissa shared that, “the black woman is still trying to find her identity, and there’s this overcompensation, maybe, of ‘We’ve been down for so long, we have to come and rise over to try to be above.’ A lot of that is good. It’s a new confidence.”

We’re led to believe we cannot fail.

Along the same lines, the concept of failure resurfaced again and again; specifically, that the empowered woman does not fail. Tiffany offered that society seems to believe the empowered woman must be successful, and if she is failing, or even struggling, then she’s not empowered. Similarly, Gail expressed her perception of society as viewing the empowered woman as either succeeding at “having it all,” or choosing one thing and being successful at it. In other words, whatever she chooses, she must succeed if she is to be empowered. When this is the expectation on us, no wonder we feel so much pressure to prove ourselves, to prove we are capable, to prove we belong. If failure means we’re not empowered, then we must succeed at all costs, regardless of the sacrifice.

But what if we changed the definition of empowerment?

Larissa said it well. “I think empowering is the act of giving someone the ability to stand or to move… I feel empowered as a woman when opportunity is created or when a space is given to let someone thrive, to learn, to try. I think people should be empowered to fail. They just have to be given that space, the foundation for doing so, and I think that is empowering in and of itself.”

Empowerment looks different for every woman. But for each of us, it contains the same foundational elements. It means having the ability, the resources, the power to pursue one’s dreams or make one’s own choices, whether it is in the context of a family, career, or both. To an extent, we have attained this, but many of us still feel like we don’t have space to fail. Even in “empowered positions,” we don’t feel comfortable failing. We are still trying to prove ourselves, to find where we belong and demonstrate that we deserve to be there.

Are all women empowered?

There is danger in blanket statements. To say “women are empowered” could leave out women who feel helpless. To say “women are not empowered” can exclude women who do feel empowered. Furthermore, some women feel that empowerment is transient, so they may feel empowered in some seasons and not in others.

What does this mean for us? “When you know what it feels like to be vulnerable…you want to turn around and help others…” says Gail, “You’re sort of standing on the shoulders of people who have helped you along the way, and you want to turn around and do the same thing for others.”

Chances are, we are all less empowered than someone and more empowered than someone else. Let’s reach up and grab hold of mentors who can help us in our pursuit of our dreams, and, perhaps more importantly, let’s reach out and be the shoulders for someone else to stand on.