The Politics of Empowerment


If you’re interested in spending a lot of time and resources on a lifestyle that will also compromise your personal relationships, I highly recommend looking into minimalism. I dabbled in ideas like capsule wardrobes and Marie Kondo’s method for a while, but things got really out of hand when I purchased a book last summer with a minimalist and zero-waste approach to organizing. This book is filled with photos of freshly ironed button-downs, authentic French canning jars for storing different colored quinoa, and a kitchen drawer lined with eclectic wine glasses, silver serving trays, and hand-stitched cloth napkins for a quick-and-easy entertaining “kit”. The book also contains a quote by Benjamin Franklin that teaches “a minute of organization now saves an hour of time later”. After being seriously involved for almost a year with this book’s romantic, yet fastidious, approach to home management, I’ve developed my own quote—a minute of organization now means you have approximately 4,000 hours left.

But this is the beauty of being a modern woman living in a democratic country. We each have the freedom to explore and choose from a wide-range of philosophies, in pursuit of becoming the happiest, most empowered versions of ourselves. Just by spending one hour in Barnes & Noble, one can discover everything from the codes of confidence to the secrets of Parisian women to the unlocking of work/life balance to the benefits of medicinal crystals which are maybe, potentially, an updated version of Kabbalah water. But what I find most interesting is the ability of these trends to leave women largely uninformed and unaware of the gigantic amount of time, money, and emotional breakdowns we have no idea we’re about to invest, in order to achieve and sustain spiritual enlightenment.

Experts and their manuals also seem prone to overstating how much long-term happiness and peace-of-mind a particular life philosophy can bring. I’ve worked with and lived in vastly different communities, and their claims seem to capitalize on the pressure women of all backgrounds feel to appear put together, perpetually happy, and mega empowered. Now don’t get me wrong… Despite how many times I’ve sat crying on the floor with a thousand plastic spoons encircling me, the calmness I feel from the order that has endured since purchasing my beloved book has certainly been life-changing. I even gifted the book to one of my sisters-in-law (though to be honest, it felt a bit cruel). Yet, this free market pursuit of strength and happiness ironically seems to leave many women beat up and disillusioned by reality.

The search for female joie de vivre goes beyond just contemplating our own personal journeys, however. As a society, we’re also interested in developing social environments conducive to the individual pursuit of happiness. Feminist theorist, Jennifer Nedelsky, once wrote that society should “[free] women to shape our own lives, to define who we (each) are, rather than accepting the definition given to us by others… the task is to understand what social forms, relationships, and personal practices foster that capacity.” In other words, the ability to choose your own path to fulfillment is largely dependent on the culture and people around you. There is, however, a conflict here between the definitions of empowerment that individuals subscribe to and the ability of a society to accommodate each one of those definitions.

Let’s take a look at motherhood, for example. Allowing women the freedom to shape their own lives has an extra layer of complication when kids are involved. Not just parents, but doctors, psychologists, non-profits, hospitals, and government all contribute to the discussion on what’s best for mom and baby, whether it pertains to epidurals, breastfeeding, attachment parenting, or hydrogenated oils. The monumental responsibility of raising a happy, well-adjusted child inspires more crying on the kitchen floor than plastic spoons that don’t spark joy ever could. Suddenly, your personal life philosophy now implicates a child, and this raises the bar on the conversation around choice. Not all choices that feel right for our families are simply about preference, like carrots versus broccoli. Some choices require mutually exclusive environments for their support and viability. A growing number of hospitals in the United States, for instance, have adopted what are known as “baby-friendly hospital” policies that focus staff and resources on supporting mothers in exclusive breastfeeding. Many women desire, and have even galvanized support for, environments such as these which normalize breastfeeding and prioritize access to relevant services. On the other hand, women who wish to solely formula feed may feel their postpartum needs have been overlooked and marginalized by this shift in priority. In a world of limited resources, it’s not always possible to support each woman’s journey to self-realization. We sometimes have no choice but to live in an environment shaped by another person’s definition of empowerment.

This reality could explain the sensational claims of social trends, experts, and even medical professionals that promise to make you and/or your children happy and healthy forever. The desire for empowerment is high, and so is the competition over who can provide it. If not all ideologies can be equally supported at the same time, convincing others that your methods are foolproof is essential to getting people to embrace your beliefs over others. In doing so, a wide-range of problems are often listed as preventable, giving the impression that the darker, more vulnerable aspects of ourselves and our lives (and even our kids) can be avoided all together. Dr. William Sears, father of the Attachment Parenting philosophy (AP), asserts in an article on his website that “[attached babies] cry less, are less colicky, fussy, whiny, and clingy… they just seem to feel better, behave better, and grow better.” The article­ continues with other bullet points such as, “attached babies are smarter” and asserts that AP parents are more confident, more sensitive, find discipline easier, and are able to flow with the baby’s temperament. On the other, less popular side of the parenting spectrum, a psychologist on Psychology Today writes that authoritative parenting is “the gold standard of parenting” instead. He argues that authoritative parenting “leads to higher leadership potential in children… social skills, self-control, and self-reliance are more highly developed, and these are qualities that make ideal employees, leaders, and life partners.”

At this point, one could argue that instead of reserving debates like these for an elite few, the democratic process gives anyone of any background the right to challenge ideological claims, offer valuable criticism, and present alternatives. While this is true, our over-emphasis on the inclusiveness we can achieve in dialogue clouds our ability to realize that policy, legislation, and even cultural norms don’t have the capacity to support all paths to fulfillment. Our society is ultimately built by what the majority at any given moment believes to be most beneficial and empowering, irrespective of how people of the minority opinion may feel about it.

Majority-rule can be a difficult reality to swallow for those who consistently fall into the margins of a culture. This is as true for motherhood as it is with religion—two things that have impacted my identity in ways I honestly didn’t see coming. As a new mother, I often felt blindsided by and resentful toward the inundation of parenting wisdom that seemed to conceive motherhood as a much more idyllic, much less complicated endeavor than I experienced it.

Regarding my religious identity, it wasn’t until the end of college that I slowly started to become more observant in Judaism. With a major concentration in Women’s Studies, I feared that my evolving worldview was perceived as disruptive to class discussions. At one point, I nervously confided in my professor of feminist theory, who responded by introducing me to the book, The Politics of Piety, written by the late anthropologist, Saba Mahmood. When I finally got around to looking it up, I felt immediately validated by her discussion of religious Muslim women in Egypt and the increased secularization of their society.

When these women met as a group, their discussions often
focused on two challenges they constantly had to face in their
attempts to maintain a pious lifestyle. One was learning to
live amicably with people—both colleagues and immediate kin
—who constantly placed them in situations that were far from
optimal for the realization of piety in day-to-day life. The
second challenge was in the internal struggle they had to engage
in within themselves in a world that constantly beckoned them to
behave in unpious ways.

I wonder if most, if not all, observant Jewish women can relate to this extremely delicate balance of trying to straddle the expectations of two very conflicting worlds. We are expected—and sometimes explicitly told—to be careful as religious individuals not to impose on others, while privately feeling repeatedly imposed upon. It’s incredibly difficult to engage authentically with the world when your conception of empowerment is constantly at odds with more mainstream definitions. While religious women have been increasingly embraced and included in the progressive polity, our ideas regarding personal growth are still a minority view. Our way of life is not wholly embraced, and certainly not encouraged, by the society around us. Political correctness aside, our pursuit of empowerment is just not perceived to be all that empowering.

To put it simply—living with this reality is overwhelming. It’s overwhelming to feel you have to constantly prove to non-religious friends, family, coworkers, medical professionals, and even the institutions you interact with that you are incredibly happy and fulfilled, regardless of any struggles you may be secretly going through. Sometimes, the suspicion from others is so high, and the pressure is so great, that we resort to those same sensationalist claims about just how happy we are. To the point where we can no longer even think about revealing any of those inevitable dark moments of life to others.

When I was pregnant with my second daughter so quickly after just giving birth to my first, I was beyond anxious about visiting my hometown as a pregnant religious woman—again. I didn’t want my childhood friends and neighbors to think of me as oppressed and miserable. So I said to myself, ‘Nurit, when you get there, you better be glowing. Don’t fall asleep in any public area. No walking around barefoot in the kitchen or looking too… pregnant.’ Not surprisingly, I didn’t talk to any close friends about my struggle with prenatal anxiety. Nor did I mention anything about what it’s like to eat lots of ramen noodles for dinner. And when I visited again after my second daughter was born, and I had never felt more overwhelmed in my life, I didn’t talk about that either. I didn’t talk about it, because not being happy and not feeling empowered by anything other than a nap sometimes feels like the worst crime a woman can commit.

The societal competition over what ideology produces the happiest, most empowered women has ironically left us with little room to talk about moments of sadness or helplessness that absolutely no ideology can completely eliminate. My hope is that we find ways to resist internalizing the pressure to appear perfectly confident and fulfilled to others, lest we come to suffer silently without the comfort of others. And lastly, I hope that we continue to pursue the projects that make us happier. Just keep in mind that you may occasionally find yourself crying on the floor, surrounded by a lot of plastic cutlery. I’m sure even Marie Kondo knows what that feels like.

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Nurit Siegal is a writer living in Chicago with her husband and two little daughters. She’s written for publications such as Kveller, Joy of Kosher, FYI Magazine, and author Wendy Shalit’s blog, Modestly Yours. She founded the website L & B (formerly Lipstick & Brisket) to connect women seeking real conversation on life and motherhood. She loves working in coffee shops, perusing bookstores, and thinking up clever comebacks to judgmental comments several hours after they were made.