“Empowerment” Is How Rich Women Convince Themselves That Buying Shit Is Feminism

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I hate the word “empowerment.” I always have, on some level, though I don’t recall it being so cloyingly ubiquitous even just a few years ago. Today, though, the word and the general concept of “empowerment” as it relates to women feels all but inescapable, and the more I move in the circles of branding, personal finance, digital media, and — most importantly — the general life of being a New Yorker with disposable income, the more that word is used in my own life. In the past two weeks, if I had to hazard a guess, I’ve probably heard it about a dozen times, relating from everything from my decision to cover up my adult acne with $50 foundation to the fact that I own a business. Most people who ask about TFD automatically suggest that the mission is empowerment, and I always have to stipulate: no, because empowerment isn’t real.

Or, well, it is real, but really only as a marketing tool. Because ultimately, “empowerment” as we’ve come to use and understand it means “making upper-middle-class professional women feel as though every decision they make is feminist and self-determined.” Everything from the razors we buy to the corner offices we command to the choice to drink two glasses of rosé with lunch is, when put through the prism of generalized “empowerment,” a positive and affirming decision that we make as women. We are “giving ourselves permission” to enjoy things, or ask for things, or buy things, because we’ve been so deeply deprived of that right, in the narrative of #empowerment.

The thing is, from where I’m sitting, the idea of encouraging a bunch of wealthy white women to go to Bergdorf’s and get themselves the power bag they earned so they can walk into the bank they work for and demand a raise doesn’t feel very much like overcoming some kind of systemic oppression, but that’s just what #empowerment has come to mean. Go to a luncheon, go to a symposium, go to a workshop or read a Lean In-esque book about getting to the top of whatever ladder you’re in the middle of, and the language is clear: because we are women, somehow our class privilege is cancelled out and is actually warped into a kind of oppression from which we must dig ourselves out of. The fact that we have to choose between working more on our Macbooks at our white-collar jobs and going out with girlfriends to get fish tacos — and the fact that either choice can be spun as empowerment — can become a rallying cry, instead of a moment to realize our enormous cultural and financial access.

The truth is, poor women aren’t going to be #empowered in the way the word is usually used. When every day is focused on making ends meet, and one’s options are limited (and we cannot express ourselves through our purchases or professional accomplishments), our choices are deeply handicapped. Perhaps you can argue that teaching a poor woman proper savings strategies is “empowering” her to take control of her financial destiny, but what if she doesn’t have money to save? What if she doesn’t earn her own money? What if she has to choose between a single, simple luxury to make her day feel a little better and putting away five dollars? How are any of her choices going to be considered “feminist” when she doesn’t truly have control over them, which is the foundation of the vapid empowerment narrative?

Obviously, the answer is that her choices are not empowering, but the bigger answer is that she was never included in that conversation to begin with. No one who was ever writing about how women’s choice to get a bikini wax (or not get a bikini wax!) was a powerful statement ever thought once about where a poor woman might fit into that conversation. Empowerment has always been a class marker, a way for every minute and often banal decision a woman of means makes into something radical and enriching. We have to tell ourselves that the fight for upper-middle-class white women to ask for $10,000 more dollars per year is cosmically noble instead of, perhaps, just another successful person in a capitalist system getting more for themselves. And pinkwashing everything with a meaningless stamp of self-determination is probably the most efficient way to do that.

TFD tries every day to be inclusive of a lot of different socioeconomic voices and realities, but the truth is that our team is comprised of middle-class or upper-middle class women living (mostly) in major cities. Most of our contributors are in that situation, too. Some of us grew up in poverty, but it would be disingenuous for us to pretend like we’re still all faced with those realities. Most of what TFD produces, as a result, is a guide for middle-class and beyond, mostly-professional women to have more control over their financial lives, and to talk about them more openly. We get criticism a lot that a lot of our advice presumes that you already have a bit of a flexible budget, which is true — we listen to that, and try to counteract it wherever we can. But the truth is that, to do what we are currently doing requires us to all have some financial stability, and that colors the perspective from which we write, and it would be a lie if we pretended like that wasn’t the case.

We are giving women who already have a lot of tools more tools to do the things they want, and talk about the things that scare them. But we aren’t “empowering” anyone who wasn’t already in a position of power, and we aren’t “giving permission” to anyone who wasn’t already in a cultural, educational, and social place to do the things we are talking about.

If we actually want to help women find self-determination who don’t currently have access to these things, the answer most likely lies in several things: elevating more voices from those groups, donating time, money, and resources to meaningful causes, and advocating for all women at a workplace, not just the ones at the top rungs who are consumed with the idea of having one more female executive, instead of all of the criminally-underpaid female administrative workers having health care. There is a way to “empower” in the sense of “taking someone without contextual power and helping them have more of it,” but it has nothing to do with the dumb word that allows rich women congratulate themselves for making literally any decision.

Not everything we do is going to be feminist, or noble, or good for women as a whole. In fact, most things we do will probably just be self-interested things that may or may not, as a byproduct, help someone else. I am under no illusions that going to a brunch or giving myself a face mask or asking a client for more money is somehow me “empowering” myself — I already have enough power to be making all of those decisions on a daily basis, and have the power of flexibility when it comes to how I make them. I can say that those things might be positive for me, and perhaps for the women on our team, which is about as broadly “feminist” as I could term it. But we can all feel good and fulfilled without feeling like each decision we made was somehow radical, because we know that most of them aren’t. And pretending otherwise is just another way to sell purses.

Image via Pexels

  • Sonia Alam

    A really interesting and well put together article. As a now middle-class professional woman of Bangladeshi origin living in London I found the article refreshing. Thank you x

  • Janae W.

    UGH this is insanely true. I work in a white-collar environment where so many women are patting themselves on the back constantly for doing the most self-serving things. “Feminism” in the mainstream sense has become dominated by, like you highlight, the upper-middle-class White Feminism (TM) that feels like just putting a feminist label on a behavior or choice is enough to make it that way. I don’t mind talking about “empowerment” in the sense of helping someone get the tools they need to do something, but as you say, the word has extended to cover so many things that even the real attempts to help someone feel co-opted by the lazy narrative. LOVE the post.

  • Andrea Sease

    where did my comment go?

    • chelseafagan

      I found your comment to be unnecessarily cruel & personally hostile, so I removed it, and will remove any other comments of that nature — I keep the TFD comments section, to the best of my abilities, a place where constructive criticism is welcome, but cruelty and personal attacks are not. As you said in your comment, you don’t know why you’re even reading TFD anymore, so I sincerely encourage you not to — there are many other sites where you can find budget content without the tone or angle you don’t like. Thank you for reading, and best of luck in your internetting!

      C

      • Andrea Sease

        Could you please highlight the personal attempt portion or even the cruel portion?

        you literally only have an office of middle to upper class white women and then wrote an article about how society gets empowering incorrect. did you think maybe instead you could channel your content to illustrate that you are inclusive? maybe even bring in more writers of different backgrounds?

        and you are correct i will no longer read TFD if you believe you comment section should be an echo chamber.

        rather than stepping back and wondering why you continue to receive criticism( i know its not just me, i have read your blog for a while now) that your content is often targeted towards one demographic, you have written a piece in which you blamed ‘society’

        I gave you constructive criticism, in the form of multiple topics of interest you could write about to widen your audience and address multiple issues you highlighted.

        if you consider my pointing out times when your writing has gotten lazy, or your blog sounds out of touch, as criticism, perhaps you should take that opportunity to figure out why

        you are part of the problem you complain about

        • chelseafagan

          I think I identify that we are a part of the problem for several paragraphs, and completely own up to the fact that, by the nature of being able to afford working at a very small company, we are a team of middle-class people primarily. (Though you are wrong that the team is all white, and I did not say that.) There is also the catch-22 that if you are paying someone fairly, they are no longer poor, which almost inherently prevents someone in poverty from working on the team if we hope to compensate fairly. We do our absolute best to bring in diverse socioeconomic voices and pay as many freelance contributors as we can (and grow that budget each month), but we still must operate within our own economic constraints. But I fully acknowledge that the tone of much of our writing, and of PF writing in general, is “here’s how to make your budget work for you,” which presumes you have a budget to work with, which is inherently privileged.

          We get far more praise than criticism here, and it would be very easy for us to never address these issues, and adjust our narrative to be more pleasing instead of confronting the problems we’re a part of. I choose to write these pieces because I reject the overall tone of corporate/mainstream “empowerment,” and feel — as do many of our readers — that it’s a dominant cultural phenomenon. You may not agree with that, or may not like my tone or approach, but all I can say to that is that I encourage you to not read my pieces. I am more than aware that my writing is not for everyone!

          Best
          Chelsea

  • elenea

    “We are giving women who already have a lot of tools more tools to do the things they want, and talk about the things that scare them. But we aren’t “empowering” anyone who wasn’t already in a position of power, and we aren’t “giving permission” to anyone who wasn’t already in a cultural, educational, and social place to do the things we are talking about.” damn that is real & 99% of PF blogs

  • Fritz Vanburgson

    I was really hoping this article would end with a call for pitches from women/PoC who don’t share your same demographic but it did not 🙁

    • chelseafagan

      That is a really good point and something we should have done here but had planned to do a fall CTA in a separate post. I will be putting that up shortly, but don’t worry, it is v much on the agenda!

      • Fritz Vanburgson

        Yeah I figured as much – was just getting AMPED for the payoff and then nothing haha. But glad to hear it is going to happen in the future :).

        As an aside: may want to sync up with Femsplain since they do a great job reaching Women, PoC, and other demographics.

        • chelseafagan

          Ahhh it’s going to be going up like beginning of next week soon, and now you have me regretting that I didn’t make it into an awesome ending for this article! Thanks for the feedback! :))

  • Reanna Osler

    A brave post indeed. I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect from the title, except that, at the very least, you would inevitably be stepping on some toes. Still, I’m happy that it wasn’t just an article of pointing fingers because you have the platform to do so.

    Your decision to publicly accept responsibility for how you (Chelsea and the TFD Team) are complicit in the skewed conversation on money/feminism/empowerment shows a level of self awareness and maturity rarely seen in social media forums like this one. As both someone who has written for TFD before and a WoC not from a well-to-do family, I do see opportunities for the conversation to be more inclusive, but I trust that you are hard at work creating space for those perspectives.

    Thanks for this piece!

  • Bridget

    THANK YOU FOR THIS SENTENCE — ‘Because ultimately, “empowerment” as we’ve come to use and understand it means “making upper-middle-class professional women feel as though
    every decision they make is feminist and self-determined.”’ As my new favorite saying goes: if it isn’t intersectional, it isn’t feminism.

    (Also, I don’t want to take away from this piece, but a small note on the meaning of “pinkwashing” — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pinkwashing_(LGBT).)

    • chelseafagan

      Oh my gosh I had no idea that word existed, I thought I was being clever! Thank you for letting me know :))

  • Lauren Conrad

    Brilliant article. I had never really thought that much about the word. And yes, I am that white girl working full time as a writer at a media company from a comfortable family with unbelievably supportive parents, both financially and emotionally (starting to sound like a stereotype). And I agree that many of these content sites feel demographically geared towards women of certain races and social classes. I think that as human beings, we are inclined to consume the same reading material as those closest to us. It’s a cycle of writers and filmmakers targeting one demographic, that demographic reading/watching the material, and writers and filmmakers continuing to target that demographic that viewed their content. Bursting that bubble isn’t easy.

  • Violaine

    I really love that you’re able to see that “flaw” (I don’t mean flaw but can’t think of a better word): yes, giving and sharing strategies to save, invest or retire is for women who already earn quite a bit and it won’t be helpful if the person reading tips on investing is someone who has to go to a food bank to get dinner on the table. It’s harsh but it’s brave to admit it. My own “problems” with money (finding a saving account with high interests, learning how to invest, etc) are problems that my mum did not encounter at my age – because she did not earn enough to save and her issues were more like “how to make clothes last longer” and “how to cook leftovers”.
    It’s interesting and it’s a good reminder – I feel ashamed that I sometimes forget – that our “issues” and current situations and how much we want to be “bettter” might be somebody else’s better. I can complain all I want about my savings not “working” enough for me, at least I have a job that allows me to save and at least I have food on the table every night – that’s more than many people and they won’t need investing tips. Sad but true, and I love that you recognise that. That’s what makes it a great website – it does not shy away from self-criticism when appropriate. It does not mean there’s a solution or that you need to start changing it – after all, any website has a demographic and you can’t expect to appeal to everyone – but it’s great to have that self-awareness.

  • Amelia

    I hope it’s not weird but this post just cemented Chelsea as my new girl crush! haha. You and all the TFD team are awesome!

  • “Obviously, the answer is that her choices are not empowering, but the bigger answer is that she was never included in that conversation to begin with.”

    Nailed it. Incidentally Andi Ziesler’s new book is all about how capitalism coopted feminism as a marketing strategy to get you to buy things. Think of that Secret ad that tried to tie itself into feminism as a way to bravely combat the wage gap and ask for a raise. It was ridiculous and I laughed so hard because it was so obviously stupid. But there’s a long history of doing exactly this (eg. chocolate is sinful so you’re bucking the patriarchy by eating something they told you not to! Or cigarettes as freedom torches because smoking is “unladylike” and fuck being ladylike!) and I think it’s important to recognize that consumption is not praxis. It is quite literally buying into the same capitalist system we’re supposed to be trying to upend.

  • Piggybanknomics

    I appreciate this post, greatly. I think we live in a time when it is easier to “empower” oneself, than “empower” one’s peers. It seems that a lot of women are one “self-empowerment” streaks, but they are so quick to bash other women, doing the same thing. It is sad.

  • D. Broussard

    Hi Chelsea!

    I really appreciate your article, especially as a young black woman who was raised in an inner-city. Finances were never really something you hear about to often in my area, unless someone was discussing welfare, WIC, or some other government funding program. As you’ve said, poor women are strictly left out of the conversation.

    Your site has continuously been transparent about needing to be more inclusive, and the ways in which it may fail to do so, and for that, I appreciate you. It’s not all on your site, though, because I think more people of color have to become comfortable sharing our stories. Even though the stories may not be the most happy, these stories could become learning tools for other poor women, minority or not.

  • ClaraC

    Yesssss. Thank you for this article, Chelsea. *clapping emojis*

  • Ellie Hamilton

    *picks jaw up from off the floor*

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