By now, we are all used to hearing the phrase “women’s empowerment.” It has become almost synonymous with the notion of feminism. In some ways, this is a positive development. For most of history, women were kept on the sidelines and prevented from holding positions of authority simply because they were not men. In the last century, women have attained a position in society which would once have been thought impossible; they are presidents, CEO’s, professors, and have a foothold in pretty much every profession imaginable. All this is great news. It means that women are able to bring their God-given feminine genius into the public sphere and use their positions of authority for the betterment of the human race.
And yet, I tend to balk at the term “women’s empowerment.” I think this is for a couple of reasons. For one thing, it is overused to the point that it has lost almost all meaning. I recently heard an anecdote about a leader of a women’s professional mentorship program who suggested “empowering” the women in the program by providing them with cell phones. If we are going to talk about empowerment as an essential part of the project to uphold the dignity and rights of women, we need to have a concrete idea of what we are talking about.
More important than the lack of meaning in our use of “empowerment” is the flaw in the meaning it has retained. While we may only have a vague notion of what women are supposed to be “empowered” to do, the phrase “women’s empowerment” carries with it a flawed understanding of the true meaning of power. Too often, our society sees power as a good in itself. To have power is to be able to do what you want or to coerce others to do what you want. We are only considered successful if we attain a high-ranking leadership position in the public sphere. To have power is to be in control. And while, historically speaking, this is certainly a valid use of the word power, it is hardly a notion we should embrace and encourage.
Just as true freedom is not freedom from constraint, but freedom to choose the good, true power is the ability to do good. True power is from God, and through His Son, He has taught us that “the first shall be last, and the last shall be first.” Service is power, and power is service. Paradoxically, we are most powerful when we surrender our wills to God’s will. As St. Paul wrote, “When I am weak, it is then that I am strong.” Due to our fallen nature, mankind has long struggled to accept this truth, and historically, men have probably been more guilty than women of succumbing to this misbegotten desire for power (although this is by no means universally true). With her natural aptitude for cherishing the most vulnerable and her receptivity to God’s will, woman has an important role to play in leading mankind to an authentic understanding of power. Mary is the ultimate example of this. As Pope St. John Paul II wrote in his Letter to Women,
“Putting herself at God’s service, she also put herself at the service of others: a service of love. Precisely through this service Mary was able to experience in her life a mysterious, but authentic “reign”. It is not by chance that she is invoked as “Queen of heaven and earth.” The entire community of believers thus invokes her; many nations and peoples call upon her as their “Queen”. For her, “to reign” is to serve! Her service is “to reign”!”
We must continue to assert woman’s right to participate fully in society, whether in the home or in the public sphere. At the same time, let us be sure to remind our sisters in Christ that true power is from God. Only by embracing our unique receptivity, generosity, sensitivity, and maternal tenderness can we truly imitate Mary in her reign of service.