The Strange History of Empowerment

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tags: election 2016



Steven M. Gillon is the Scholar-in-Residence at The History Channel and professor of history at the University of Oklahoma. He is teaching a new online class available to students and lifetime learners. See: history.com/courses.

Recently both First Lady Michele Obama and Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton have been promoting “women’s empowerment.” The normally reserved Clinton has discussed how the “double standard” for women shaped her career, and the First Lady promoted a song about girl’s empowerment titled, “This is For My Girls.” 

Neither Secretary Clinton nor the First Lady Clinton have been the first or the last politician to don the empowerment mantle. But what does empowerment mean? My Random House College Dictionary offers the following definition of “empower”: 1. “to give power or authority to; authorize. 2. to enable or permit. empowerment, n.” 

Sounds simple enough. In politics, however, empowerment has assumed a number of different, sometimes contradictory, meanings over the past sixty years. It began in the 1950s as a radical critique of the power structure; it was co-opted by various liberal and conservative groups in the ‘60, ‘70s and ‘80s; and it has wound up today as a political buzzword for mainstream politicians of all persuasions precisely because it has lost its power to threaten the establishment. 

If there is a birthplace of the modern empowerment movement it is Montgomery, Alabama. When, on a cold winter afternoon in 1955, Rosa Parks refused to offer her bus seat to a white patron, she sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott and ignited the modern civil rights movement. Beyond precipitating the fall of Jim Crow laws, the boycott created a sense of community and power among people who had felt left out. As Jo Ann Robinson, one of the organizers, said of the boycott victory, “We felt that we were somebody.”  

At the heart of the early civil rights movement was a compelling vision of democratic reform based on the idea of giving power to disenfranchised people to challenge unjust laws. Though the word itself was not yet in fashion, this was “empowerment” in its literal form: The purpose of the movement was to put clout in the hands of African-Americans — a group that had previously lacked the electoral, political or economic wherewithal to better their own lot. This particular vision of empowerment, as articulated by Martin Luther King, Jr., depended on building “a beloved community” of enlightened people, black and white, that would, through the power of Christian love and nonviolent protest, transform American society. King’s vision was revolutionary in that it challenged deeply held American faith in individualism and asked people to transcend race and class differences. ...




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