Responsively Yours: Turning the Tables
Conversations about the use of certain words to describe the work of United Methodist Women reveal interesting insights. One of those words is “empowerment.”
United Methodist Women members have a variety of reactions to this word. One idea is that empowerment is “old” language, that it sounds like jargon and feels like a carry-over from an era when women were first appointed to serve as ordained pastors in United Methodist congregations, and entering the white collar work force wearing blue suits and little tie bows — mimicking and adapting the office uniform of our male colleagues just as we mimicked and adapted their ways of learning, working and advancing.
Another idea is that the root word “power” is too scary. It sounds adversarial.
Still others say that no one empowers another. Power dynamics are external to all of us, rooted in structures, skills and relationships; or internal to us, examples being drive, ability and confidence, but are not granted by a person with power to a person without.
Of course, some of us think of empowerment as a strong, positive concept that connotes women speaking for themselves and exercising all of their abilities to address the needs of the community and the world.
This has given me something to think about! It has led me to seek out people to talk to asking, “Is your experience different or similar?” “What do you hear in your community?” “What is life like for women your age?” It has also led me to various websites and, of course, to the bookshelf. I have been amazed by the absence of current titles on women’s empowerment in the bookstores I’ve visited. Self-help? Women’s studies? Leadership? The closest themes express how to win while still being nice and how to use the dominant (masculine) styles of communicating to accomplish what you set out to do.
There are websites that use the word empowerment to describe women in various settings around the globe, but not in the industrialized West.
What? How can this be? An Hispanic woman judge is now serving the highest court in the United States. This same woman is critiqued for her judicial demeanor with the description: “She’s mean.” Responding to this, a judicial colleague and some attorneys dismiss the comment as sexism, and there is no uprising?
We have a candidate for president of the United States who is dismissed as “shrill” and evaluated for her wardrobe. Are the men casting opprobrium at each other on evening television programs and radio talk shows also “shrill” or are angry or passionate voices acceptable for men and not for women?
I wonder if we are merely uncomfortable with the word empowerment or if we are uncomfortable with the reality of our own power. The current media culture in the United States does not seem to be comfortable with a woman who exercises her power. This affects how we think about ourselves, and it affects the prospects for our daughters and nieces and granddaughters. How can we express our passion for God and neighbor, and our passion against injustice if we cannot access some holy anger? I doubt that Jesus’ overturning the money changers’ tables in the temple was viewed as appropriate or acceptable means of expression by the temple authorities. Sometimes we need to speak or act forcefully — whether or not it is a way in which our culture deems appropriate for the women of the church.
Perhaps it has always been so. Didn’t the women of the church stand for abolition and against lynching; and for admission of new African states to the United Nations and against foot binding in China? Didn’t we lead the way toward divestment in South Africa and toward protecting the environment?
If the word empowerment carries some unintentional emotional “freight,” we might need to work on our language. We must find both the will to use our power and a description of it that invites us to do so. The words are especially important because we are called to invite all the women of the church into the work of expressing the Gospel imperatives of Jesus, even when it means risking combating social norms. The work of United Methodist Women includes prompting women to speak their own story, to engage in deep listening to the stories of others, and to offer their skills and abilities for the sake of the world that God loves.
This work, guided by Christ’s example, inspires and upholds our vision of mission — a vision where women turn the tables, demand justice and work for peace.
Harriett Jane Olson
Deputy General Secretary
Date posted : September 22, 2009