Women’s Empowerment

Last week two significant films about women debuted: He Named me Malala and Suffragette. Rooted in different cultures, focusing on different issues (education of girls and voting rights for women in the U.S.), set in different times they both demonstrate the desire of all women for EMPOWERMENT. Recently, there have also been a number of conferences of/for/about women in the 21st century.

As both an educator and advocate for women and girls, I offer these personal reflections on EMPOWERMENT. I begin with three short stories, two of high school girls – one white, one black and one of an elderly woman:

The first is about Becky, who chose an elective course dealing with gender & identity.  I taught the course in an all girls’ school.  Becky was white, middle class. As we were reviewing for the final test Becky raised her hand saying: “Wait a minute, are you saying, that I have as much value, that I am as important as my father and brothers?” I replied: Yes, that is what I am saying. Oh No! At that point, her peers begin to talk with her.  I stood back, listening and observing (remember this was the end of a course, so the students had obviously listened, studied, reviewed and were sharing this with Becky); trying to help her see her value and equality.  As I brought the discussion to a close, recapping what her peers had been passionately saying to her Becky experienced a eureka moment.  She was sitting in the middle of the classroom and merely uttered very quietly – oh. . .!  The light bulb went on.  It was a rare, teachable and sacred moment.

The second story is about Pam – an African American, who lived in the city and attended our small inner-city school. Because of its size some faculty members taught more than one subject.  I taught history, English and religion.  Again, because of the school’s size I sometimes taught students 2 or 3 subjects throughout their four years.  At the end of her senior year, the week before graduation, Pam came up after class and asked if she could tell me what she had learned from me.  Now, for any of you who have ever taught this can be a major question from a student.  So, I’m thinking ok, I taught Pam English, history, and religion so it could be anything!  I waited. . .

“What I learned from you is that I am a child of a loving God, that I am a good person, that I am not evil.  All my life I’ve heard that I am NOT good, that I am a bad person. Now I know and believe differently. Thank you!”

What do you say to that?

My final story is about Mary, a woman who came to a talk I gave last year in Ontario, Canada.  At the breakfast buffet, she came up to thank me for my presentation and then asked if she could ask me a personal question. Her question:  “How did you become such a determined woman?”  Chuckling, my reply:  my friends and relatives who know me and knew my mother insist it is in my DNA! Mary’s response:  that is what I’m taking from your talk last night – I’ve been a doormat all my life; I’m going to become a determined and independent woman.  My husband and I separated recently.  Mary is 80 years old!

I have spent my entire adult life as an educator in a variety of venues – in formal classrooms – high schools, universities, migrant camps, inner cities, professional forums, churches, in the streets and in national and international forums.

Through it all I have believed, and continue to believe, that education is about empowerment.  We all know when we see and/or hear the effects of empowerment. These two girls and woman were empowered.  Empowerment comes from within no matter what the circumstances.  Think about it:  what have been eureka or light bulb moments in your lives? Isn’t it eureka moments in our own lives that have been watershed moments for us?

This is what I hope, dream and work for, for all women.

Part of being empowered is to have a voice.  In today’s world and really, throughout history, women’s voices have been present but frequently ignored and/or dismissed – however throughout history and increasingly today women are speaking up, speaking out, refusing to be silent – we hear these voices from every class, race, every age, formerly educated or not, from every continent, in every profession.  And what are these voices saying, what is the message?

Pay me what my work is worth, enough of gender inequity.

No human being deserves to be beaten.

NO means No!

Women’s rights are human rights – words spoken by then-first lady Hillary Clinton at the United Nations 4th world conference on women in Beijing.  I was privileged to represent the leadership conference of women religious, better known as LCWR. I was one of about 50,000 women present from all over the world.

Catherine of Siena, a 14th-century woman, designated as a doctor of the church, urges us: Cry out as if you had a million voices. It is silence that kills the world.  I believe it is silence that perpetuates any injustice.

Today, we hear Sheryl Sandberg urging women to LEAN IN!

Many today – women and men – are speaking of women’s value, dignity and rights as the challenge for the 21st century just as slavery was for the 19th and civil rights for the 20th.

I believe women, people of color and other marginalized groups are voicing a resounding NO to the status quo that upholds, sanctifies, solidifies, perpetuates those who have and those who have not – whether this be power, wealth, money or status. Who benefits? Who loses? Who decides? Who controls this scenario?

This system is changing.  Why? For many reasons; a major one: many of the current operating systems are not working; they are not effective.

Think about it – the economy, education, institutional religion, politics.

Consider the current presidential campaigns and candidates!

Another factor causing change – growing numbers of voices are saying, “The emperor has no clothes on.”  In other words enough of this charade.  More of us are being clear: We do not want a bigger piece of the pie.  We want to change the recipe.  We want systems that are inclusive and participative; not exclusive and hierarchical.

Depending on who we are, where we are, what our talents and skills are, we can all be part of this change that I like to identify as a ‘preferred future.’  However, there’s an important caveat.  We need to ask ourselves how invested are we in the present system, in the status quo? Ask yourself: does my value system include the value of the common good? Do I want a more inclusive society?  How big is my world? In this 21st century what changes do I need to make to help create a future, a better life not only for my family, my community but also for all those with whom we share this planet and for future generations.

I conclude with some specific suggestions for participating in what can be described as a paradigm shift:  Ask what truth claims by institutions need to be questioned as assertions of power. Question the status quo.  Be aware of the shifts taking place regarding gender, race, class, demographics.

Seek to become more knowledgeable about the role of women and people of color in history.  This can enable a more effective discernment regarding what is truth and what is myth. It is important to include in our choices women & people of color who are historians, theologians, sociologists, economists, artists, politicians.

We’ve quite an undertaking ahead of us.  I leave you with the words of the poet, Christopher Fry. (The Sleep of Prisoners)

Thank God our time is now when wrong
Comes up to face us everywhere,
Never to leave us till we take
The longest stride of soul one ever took.
Affairs are now soul size.
And the enterprise Is exploration into God.