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Please Stop “Empowering” Me

By Nian Hu

I am a feminist. I believe in the equality of the sexes. For me, feminism means freedom: freedom to dress the way I want, freedom to choose whether or not to get pregnant, freedom to say no to unwanted sexual interaction, freedom to have as many sexual partners as I want without being looked down on, freedom to be an engineer or lawyer or nurse or stay-at-home mom—basically, freedom to live my life.

But I do not believe in female empowerment.

The founder of Nerd Girls, a female empowerment movement, came to speak at my all-girls high school. We expected a professional coming to speak to us about the future of women in science and engineering. Instead, we were given a giggly woman in a flamboyantly sequined jumpsuit, telling us that engineering isn’t all about building rocketships and bridges—it’s also about creating makeup. She told us that engineers aren’t just men or ugly masculine women, but (shocker!) that pretty girls can be engineers, too. And she also mentioned she liked bunnies. Many, many times. She even showed us an animation of a bunny she created (“See what cute things you can make with computer science!”) that looked like something I created in fourth grade with Microsoft Paint.

I felt belittled, and I felt like she was belittling herself and female engineers everywhere instead of empowering them. Nevertheless, I hoped this was just an isolated case, and I hoped that other female empowerment movements would not disappoint me.

Recently on LinkedIn I stumbled upon an article written by a founder of yet another female empowerment movement. The article opened with a description of “strong and successful alpha (masculine) women.” Forget the whole “Ban Bossy” movement that Beyoncé and others made famous. This assertion—made by a woman claiming to empower other women, no less—is claiming that assertive women are not just “bossy,” but also just flat-out masculine. Ouch.

She then went on to talk about how it’s worrying that so many women are acting “masculine” in order to succeed in the professional world, and that they are spending too much time in the “masculine zone”—you know, by being assertive and actually standing up for themselves. And everyone knows that if a woman spends too much time acting like a man, she eventually loses her “feminine energy” and all the intrinsic qualities that go with being a woman, such as the “ability to feel compassion, to be intuitive, to heal, and to support.”

I felt sickened by this article. I was disgusted by the antiquated and completely arbitrary gender roles that the writer took for granted—that women are somehow more caring and more in touch with their emotions, and that men are better at fixing things and “getting stuff done.”

Strong and successful women are not masculine, and supportive and caring men are not feminine. Those are just random qualities that can be found in both men and women. Qualities like assertiveness and efficiency are not inherently masculine, and qualities like kindness and empathy are not inherently feminine. That is as sexist as it is to say that men belong in the workforce and women belong in the kitchen, or that men are naturally better-suited for "masculine" jobs like that of a lawyer or CEO, while women are naturally better-suited for "feminine" jobs like that of a social worker or nurse.

We already live in a society where men feel overwhelming pressure to be emotionless and stoic, lest they be perceived as “weak” or “pussies.” We already live in a society where women are not taken seriously in the workforce and told that their main priority should be getting married and raising a family. Does this author really think she’s empowering women? She’s not empowering women. She’s just bringing society back about fifty years.

I am willing to keep an open mind about female empowerment movements. For the most part, however, they seem to be more detrimental than helpful, more belittling than uplifting. Female empowerment movements may claim to be empowering women, but what they are really doing is pigeonholing both sexes into predetermined life and career paths, and even personality traits. And that’s not fair to men or women.

Nian Hu ’18, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Greenough Hall.

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