By almost all historical metrics, I am an empowered woman.
I have a college education, an active social life, a steady job in my chosen field, co-workers that treat me with dignity and respect, my own bank account, control over my money and the right to vote.
For decades, women have fought to secure the social and legal rights I take for granted. Until recently, I assumed being empowered meant taking advantage of the rights I have that women before me did not.
But in college, I was promptly inundated with all kinds of propaganda and political theory concerning how women should move through the world. Some of the most popular conceptions argued women who believed and acted like me had subconsciously internalized patriarchal oppression, were uneducated or hated their own gender.
That was a time of great confusion in my life. God graciously rescued me from this fog, however, by showing me how my peers intimidated me into placing worldly conceptions of women’s empowerment above the truth — that an empowered woman is one who knows Jesus and walks in His unique, lovingly-crafted plan for her life.
I believe many women go through similar phases of alienation and information overload — but we don’t have to stay in that place. God has generously provided us a perfect blueprint of womanhood illustrating his love and expectations for us. We can gain clarity by prayerfully testing the ideas being thrown at us against His Word, the source of all truth.
Here are some thoughts, based entirely on my own experiences and observations, to get you started.
The “Temperate” Stance
In my experience, secular theories about women’s empowerment tend to fall into two philosophies.
The first, which I’ll call the “temperate” stance, argues empowered women are afforded the same respect and social privileges as men. Founded on the feminist anti-porn movement of the 1980’s, this decries policies that suggest women are socially, intellectually or sexually inferior to men.
The ongoing controversy around women’s sports is a great illustration of the “temperate” stance. Proponents would support initiatives giving women’s sports more funding and publicity, because they desire that female athletes be revered like male athletes. They generally wouldn’t support biological men who identify as women entering women’s sports, however, because they want to give women a fair chance biologically to win.
The “temperate” stance justifies anything that socially equalizes women and men. Sometimes, this aligns well with Christian values. Under this view, for instance, women should never be objectified — even by themselves — because objectification reinforces the broader idea that women are less than human.
Other times, the “temperate” stance can justify women’s sinful choices. They might support young women’s right to get abortions, for example, because they allow women to walk away from children and pregnancies to pursue their passions like men can.
The “Liberated” Stance
The second secular philosophy, which originated with the sex-positive feminist movement, believes women are most empowered when they are free from any restrictions — including biological processes — preventing them from living like men. I’ll call this the “liberated” stance.
Freedom of sexual expression anchors this theory. The “liberated” stance assumes men have the social privilege to be sexually promiscuous without judgement. Supporters encourage women to embrace and indulge their sexual desires however they want, in the way they perceive men to be able to.
Under this philosophy, empowered women work to free themselves from the biological demands of pregnancy and reproduction. Proponents typically advocate for women’s access to late-term abortions, arguing the preborn baby is under the mother’s authority because they’re inside her body. Some supporters are even researching ways to bypass biological functions like menopause.
Women should have the same freedom as men — free from the limitations like finite fertility and giving birth so women have the option to pursue their careers and passions.
Importantly, the “liberated” stance determines right and wrong by a woman’s choice alone. Objectification of women is always bad, unless a woman chooses to objectify herself through porn, certain clothing, sexual opportunism, etc. Here, objectification is considered empowerment.
A pregnant mother who wants her baby is empowered by impending motherhood; her and her preborn baby are celebrated with pregnancy announcements, gender reveals and baby showers. But when a mother chooses to get an abortion, her preborn baby is relegated to a simple blob of tissue, rather than a human being worth celebrating. The would-be mother is considered empowered for taking control of her “reproductive health.”
The philosophy’s utterly relativistic moral code means it rarely aligns with the Christian faith.
Both the “temperate” and “liberated” stances operate under two erroneous assumptions:
Assumption 1: Men have inherent social power over women.
Modern social status is determined by a variety of factors, including geography, ancestry, employment, wealth and access to education, which varies from man to man.
In fact, gender plays an increasingly minor role in determining social privilege because women have obtained critical legal rights. The power to vote, manage finances and secure equal pay for performing the same jobs as men subsequently unlocked major social opportunities — like attending school and having a career — that women were previously denied.
I believe many women experience similar situations to mine that seem to be caused by gender discrimination and were actually due to some other variable.
At this juncture, it’s important to understand the difference between true social privilege and power dynamics in gender relations. Relationships between men and women are complicated because we think and communicate in vastly different ways.
I distinctly remember one college class where male classmates consistently dominated the discussion. I noticed the men contributed significantly more often than the women, and I wondered if the teacher was sexist or if I had been trained to be quiet when men speak.
I’ve since realized it wasn’t because of my gender — they just had physically louder voices! Their volume and willingness to talk over others to be heard made it easier for my teacher, who wore hearing aids, to pick up their comments.
I believe many women experience similar situations to mine that seem to be caused by gender discrimination and was actually due to some other variable.
Sexism and misogyny undeniably exist in our sinful world— most women, including myself, have or will experience it at one time or another. But assuming all men have more social power and privilege than women is reductive. It relegates men to antagonists, puts women on the defensive and inhibits true communication that empowers both parties.
Assumption 2: A woman is empowered when she lives like a man
Both theories suggest women should strive to achieve men’s perceived privileges or freedoms as their ultimate goal.
The “liberated” philosophy, in particular, seems to suggest men live high-powered, self-centered, sexually promiscuous lives — an implication I think many men would disagree with.
The success of women’s lives and the strength of our femininity should not be measured against a male ideal — let alone a twisted one that suggests men live self-centered, sexually promiscuous lives.
At this point in my thorny argument, people generally feel I’ve misunderstood feminist theory or am hideously judgmental of women.
Allow me to allay your fears.
I understand that supporters of secular women’s empowerment theories feel they simply are advocating for women’s choice do participate in debaucherous things, rather than advocating for women to live a particular lifestyle.
Even if this were true, which isn’t the case for most mainstream feminist rhetoric, supporters are implicitly encouraging women to act in unhealthy ways by praising sex-work, casual sex, abortion and self-objectification (to name a few) as empowering.
I also don’t want women to be judged — by myself or anyone else. I want women to be healthy. I want to encourage them to live lives consistent with being a unique, loved daughter of God.
No woman is perfect, and Lord knows I’ve treated myself and others poorly, inconsistent with my identity in Christ. I know that God, in His steadfast love, has forgiven me, and forgives anyone who comes to Him to be saved.
But I refuse to feed into the lie that sin, in any of its many insidious forms, is empowering.
What God Says
The Bible tells us women are created in the image of God, separate and distinct from men, but no less valued by Him. It tells us of God’s steadfast, personal love for each individual woman, demonstrated by Jesus’ death on the cross.
Accordingly, God does not measure the empowerment of one of His children by their social status or freedom. In fact, the story of the Garden of Eden illustrates true liberation does not come from total freedom of choice, but from following God’s commandments.
The Bible tells us that true empowerment comes from abiding in Christ, our provider and source of health and wellbeing. Women can take comfort knowing they don’t have to measure up to any worldly or male ideal. Following God’s plan for our lives and following His commandments is all that’s required.
What a simple solution to such a seemingly and confusing problem — empowered women walk with God.
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest of your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30 ESV).
Photo from Shutterstock.