For most of the 21st century, the feminism that has been in fashion has leaned heavily on the idea of women’s empowerment. Glossy, celebrity-driven rhetoric, peppered with slogans like “nevertheless, she persisted” and reassurances that “girl, you got this,” suggests that if women display competence and strength — or even just “the confidence of a mediocre white man” — we will eventually earn equality.
This type of feminism has taken several forms — Lean In, the Women’s March, the girlboss and hashtag feminism, just to name a few iterations. But the ultimate promise has remained the same: If we work within the system, the system will reward us. If we hustle hard enough, vote hard enough, carry ourselves with enough confidence, show that the data is on our side and bravely share uncomfortable truths, we’ll be able to break through.
Adherents of empowerment feminism can point to many successes: In 2022, more than a quarter of the seats in Congress, almost a third of the seats in state legislatures, nearly half of the seats on the Supreme Court and, yes, the vice president’s office are all occupied by women. The list of female chief executives leading Fortune 500 companiescontinues to grow (though it remains abysmal). And as the #MeToo movement has made clear, when women speak up in great enough numbers, we’re able to topple some of our abusers — even incredibly powerful ones, like the once untouchable film mogul Harvey Weinstein.
And yet as we stand amid the metaphorical shards of all those shattered glass ceilings, it’s hard to ignore the fact that empowerment feminism hasn’t really delivered on its promises.
Women may be represented in Congress and on the Supreme Court in record numbers, but we still lost the constitutional right to abortion. Other policies feminists have advocated, such as universal child care, have stalled in Congress. #MeToo may have outed plenty of big-name abusers, but many still remain in power, and some of the accused — Johnny Depp and Marilyn Manson most notably — have turned the tables on their accusers, using the court system to sue for defamation (Mr. Depp successfully). As the rights women had come to take for granted evaporate, it’s hard not to feel a sense of betrayal. Where did we go wrong?
Perhaps the fault isn’t in ourselves but in our strategy. Fundamentally, empowerment feminism requires a system that’s operating in good faith, one that rewards our hustle, respects our confidence and values honesty and truth. In a rigged system — one that attempts to discredit women and girls, that forces us to jump through unnecessary hoops and is more interested in discouraging us than in listening to what we have to say — working within the system no longer makes sense. We can’t power-pose our way to a safe abortion in Texas. So what’s the point of playing by the rules when it feels like they are written to ensure we wind up losing?
What if, instead of empowerment feminism, we embraced a feminism of disempowerment? Rather than seeking the approval and validation of an unjust system, what if we rejected the system’s legitimacy and worked from there? What strengths might we be able to tap in to if we recognized that the game is rigged and gave up on trying to “win” it?
It’s hardly a new idea. Indeed, for many marginalized groups throughout history, strategically working outside the system has been the best or only path to progress. In America, the civil rights and L.G.B.T.Q. liberation movements would hardly have found success if they’d simply stayed within the lines and asked nicely for their freedom. Colonized people around the globe have only been able to expel their oppressors by refusing to recognize the legitimacy of the systems that subjugated them.
These tactics, often dismissed in mainstream feminism as unappealingly militant, are a far cry from the empowerment touted on Instagram and Pinterest boards — a version of feminism that systemic racism and inequality left many women out of.
I first began thinking about how feminists might reject palatable, socially acceptable protests and strategies when I spoke with the artist Emma Sulkowicz, who is best known for her performance piece “Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight),” in which she carried a mattress around the Columbia University campus in protest of the school’s handling of her allegation that she was raped by a classmate.
It was Ms. Sulkowicz, known for a protest that was intentionally ugly, discomforting and inconvenient, who suggested “disempowerment” to me as an alternative mind-set for feminist engagement. In her search for justice, she’d repeatedly hit dead ends. The police had seemed dismissive and Columbia cleared the student whom she said raped her of responsibility. Though going public had garnered her a number of supporters, it had also exposed her to harassment and cruelty. She’d gone through the proper channels, and yet she felt she’d still been let down. Clearly she believed the system wasn’t serving her — so what was the point of engaging with it?
The feminism of disempowerment is not limited to art projects or academic theory — it has real-world applications, too. There’s no shortage of examples of feminists who’ve opted for social-boundary-breaking or even illegal solutions when going through established channels didn’t work — particularly when it comes to matters of sexual health and safety. Some of these activists have rejected the officially sanctioned modes of justice in favor of an unconventional alternative. American rape crisis centers, for example, have been working with victims since the early 1970s, providing support regardless of whether a survivor chooses to involve the police in their case. Others have ventured into legally grayer areas: Vigilante groups such as India’s pink-sari-clad Gulabi Gang, for example, wield sticks against abusers and rapists.
Abortion-rights advocates have also turned to these kinds of guerrilla tactics: In the years before the right to legal abortion was established in Roe v. Wade, a group of women known as the Jane Collective provided safe abortions, performing an estimated 11,000 procedures in the pre-Roe era. Then there were the Brazilian women who realized that the ulcer medication misoprostol could safely terminate a pregnancy and became pioneers of self-managed abortion. And mifepristone, the other drug often used in medicated abortion, owes its presence in the United States in part to Leona Benten, a feminist whose decision to bring a single dose into the country sparked a controversy (and a Supreme Court vote) months before President Bill Clinton asked the Food and Drug Administration to re-evaluate its import ban on the medication. Many of those who venture outside the box do so at great risk to themselves and their families — whether those risks are physical, emotional or legal.
For more established players, the potential gains that come with disempowerment strategies may not feel worth sacrificing the benefits that come with staying within the lines. As abortion access has been curtailed, the mainstream, well-funded organizations that many associate with abortion access have been limited by their legal obligations and commitment to the system. Taking too bold a stance could put their existing clinics and patients at great risk — which seems to be why Planned Parenthood of Montana pre-emptively cut off access to abortion pills for some out-of-state clients.
In contrast, scrappy websites like plancpills.org and mayday.health have refused to be bound by those rules. Sometimes operating completely outside of the regulated medical system, they spread information about how abortion pills offer a way to safely terminate a pregnancy and how to obtain these pills, whether through official channels or other, more illicit means.
In other countries where abortion is heavily restricted or illegal, feminist activists have gone even further. Abortion accompaniment networks, which can be found around the world, including throughout Latin America and in parts of Africa, operate outside of official medical channels. But they have still managed to help countless people, with some groups successfully aiding safe medication abortions well into the second trimester of pregnancy.
None of this is to say that the feminism of disempowerment is an ideal, or first line, strategy. It is always better when we’re able to secure our wins through established channels, when our rights are recognized through all levels of society — and certainly, voting remains a crucial tool in our toolbox.
But the feminism of disempowerment is a reminder that even when the system is rigged against us, no one can take away our truth, our personhood, our autonomy.
Lux Alptraum (@luxalptraum) is the author of “Faking It: The Lies Women Tell About Sex — and the Truths They Reveal” and the host of the Audible Original podcast “Say You’re Sorry” and the second season of the podcast “Tabloid,” from New York Magazine and Luminary.
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