More than power poses: why self-empowerment is a myth and what we can do instead - Ruth Whippman, author

Subscribe to “Inflection Point” to get more stories of how women rise up right in your feed on Apple Podcasts, RadioPublic, Stitcher and NPROne.

Author Ruth Whippman has been studying the self-improvement industry for years. She’s come to the conclusion that ‘empowerment feminism’ is, well, BS.

According to Ruth -- the author of "America the Anxious. How Our Pursuit of Happiness Is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks-- systemic change doesn’t come from trendy girl-power t-shirts or aspirational Instagram quotes. In fact, Ruth thinks the conceit that women could make equality happen if we just...empowered ourselves more shifts the blame for a system of injustice to individuals with the least power to effect change.

So how women are supposed to get power if we can’t simply take it for ourselves? I sat down with Ruth to gain some perspective on this whole question of empowerment---and what exactly needs to change for empowerment to lead to power. If you’d like to read Ruth’s article on empowerment, you can find it here. And catch our earlier conversation from 2016.

Take a listen, and when you’re done, come on over to The Inflection Point Society, our Facebook group of everyday activists who seek to make extraordinary change through small, daily actions.


(Note, if you enjoy having transcriptions, please consider funding more of them here.

Lauren Schiller:                  From KALW and PRX, this is Inflection Point, stories of how women rise up. I'm Lauren Schiller.

Ruth Whippman:               People who are in the happiness business are financially incentivized to believe that we have a lot of control over our happiness. And there's a lot of kind of massaging shall we say of the evidence in that direction. The real genuine evidence doesn't really support that. And also, it can quite easily kind of morph into a kind of victim blaming. This idea that if you're not happy, you just haven't worked hard enough, somehow your own fault.

Lauren Schiller:                  A couple of years ago, I talked with Ruth Whippman, the author of America The Anxious. Her book was about how our pursuit of happiness is creating a nation of nervous wrecks. She investigated the multi-billion dollar self-help industry to see if it was actually making a dent in the American psyche. It turns out that the return on our self investment is actually pretty darn low.

Ruth Whippman:               People in the United States are more likely to suffer from an anxiety disorder, a clinical anxiety disorder than anyone anywhere else in the world.

Lauren Schiller:                  Like really, really low. I'm Lauren Schiller and this season on Inflection Point, we're trying to discover how all the "empowerment" women are expressing right now can lead to actual power.

Lauren Schiller:                  More than 100 women were elected to Congress in the past midterm, the rise of the #metoo movement, the toppling of powerful men like the late Roger Ailes, Bill Cosby, Charlie Rose. But will all this newfound power last? Will you feel proud to wear that Future is Female T-shirt in three years? And if not, whose fault is it? Yours? Are you feeling anxious yet?

Lauren Schiller:                  Recently, I came across an article that Ruth wrote for Time magazine right before the 2016 election. The title, Empowerment is Warping Women's View of Real Power. So I started to think back on our previous conversation and to think that maybe power like happiness is considered entirely up to us as individuals.

Ruth Whippman:               I mean, it puts this incredible burden on women to sort out these really systemic major problems, like the pay gap, inequality in the workplace, like violence against women. And it almost becomes a kind of victim blaming, you know, if we were only more assertive, then all these things would be sorted out.

Lauren Schiller:                  So Ruth and I sat down once again to sort out exactly how women are supposed to get power if we can't simply take it for ourselves, and gain some perspective on this whole question of empowerment and what exactly needs to change for empowerment to lead to power.

Ruth Whippman:               Yeah, so I think there are a lot of parallels between this idea of empowerment feminism and the self-help industry, which is something that I really looked at a lot when I was writing the book. One of the conclusions I reached pretty quickly was this idea that we have this view that happiness is kind of an individual responsibility. So, instead of thinking society's responsibility to make everybody, to create the conditions under which everyone can be happy, it's like the individual needs to be going to mindfulness classes and reading self-help books and writing in their gratitude journal, and doing yoga classes, and all of these things to kind of almost pull yourself up by your bootstraps to make yourself happy.

Ruth Whippman:               And it's quite punitive approach to happiness. And it's quite a weirdly individualistic approach. I think a lot of the same principles can be applied to this idea of empowerment feminism.

Lauren Schiller:                  So what are some of the ways that you've seen women try to find empowerment or be empowered?

Ruth Whippman:               Well, this word, empowering, I mean, you see everywhere now. There was a headline in the Onion, you know, the satirical magazine, which was Women Empowered by Everything a Woman Does. And, you know, I think it really rings true. I mean, you just sit from everything from buying the right shampoo to taking naked pictures of yourself and putting them on Instagram. Saw one of the get plastic surgery on your vagina, that was pitched as being something empowering. I think it's become kind of ubiquitous to the point where it's become slightly meaningless and has very, very little to do with actual power.

Lauren Schiller:                  And it sounds like the examples that you just gave are all about women changing themselves to achieve what? What are they empowering themselves to be?

Ruth Whippman:               This is the thing. So I think that empowerment of, I think that the word empowerment has been used to cover a lot of really important initiatives as well. So let's not write it off completely. But, you hear this word empowerment associated with the kind of feminism, which I think of as the kind of lean in style of feminism. You know Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In which is all about being more assertive, stop apologizing, speak up in meetings, ask for a raise. This idea that if we could just be a little more assertive, if we would stand up for ourselves, then we would be paid equally, we would reach positions of power and all the rest of it.

Ruth Whippman:               I think this idea is quite problematic for a number of reasons. One is that this whole assertiveness model doesn't actually work. I mean, in general, women tend to be punished for these kinds of things rather than rewarded. So men can speak up in meetings and going all guns blazing and demand a pay rise and all the rest of it. And actually, for women, that kind of thing tends to backfire. And there's lots of research that backs this up.

Ruth Whippman:               But also, it's this idea that these are deep systemic problems. I mean, why is Sheryl Sandberg writing a book saying, address to women saying go and demand a raise rather than addressing her message to corporations to actually look at their pay structures and try to pay men and women equally. Why are we placing the burden on individual women to fix these problems?

Lauren Schiller:                  That's such a good point. I feel like her thinking on it has evolved since she wrote that book but I haven't been keeping up with her writing on it. I mean, have you seen anything where she's been changing her ...

Ruth Whippman:               I think she's changed. She sort of tweaked a message rather than changed her fundamental message. And this is a terrible tragedy. And my heart goes out to Sheryl Sandberg because she lost her husband a couple of years ago, a few years ago. And I think that led her to kind of tweak some of her messaging around have a great partner and use your partner and support. And she realized that actually, she was in a very privileged position to even have a partner.

Ruth Whippman:               So I think these are more kind of tweaks than addressing the fundamental message. I mean, Sheryl Sandberg could be using her authority to really address pay inequality by targeting companies or by targeting men. I mean, this is the other thing. By targeting companies, by targeting governments to enact proper legislation around this and by targeting men. Because I think the advice is always, you know, women speak up in meetings. It's never men, listen in meetings. It's always women stop apologizing. It's never men. Maybe you could do with a bit more apologizing.

Ruth Whippman:               It's all about assertiveness for women, rather than kind of deference for men. And it kind of comes back to why, you know, why are women such a wonderful target for this type of thinking? Why is the burden always on women to do the changing? Why do we always have to shift our norms and cultures? Why is it assumed that the male pattern is the better pattern? And I think it kind of comes back to the fact that we as women tend to have this massive appetite for self flagellation really. For guilt, for feeling we did something wrong. We buy these books. I mean, we are the ones who buy this book.

Ruth Whippman:               When I was writing my book and I was looking at the self-help industry, over 80% of self-help books are bought by women. Men do not want to change. Women do.

Lauren Schiller:                  Right. They don't want to ask for directions, they don't want to go to the doctor. There's nothing that needs to be made better about them But yet women feel, we feel like there's so much more we could be doing and not only can we change ourselves, we can change the people around us.

Ruth Whippman:               Right, exactly. And the burden is on us. I mean, I don't know if you've come across, these are ones that I noticed when I was doing my research for America the Anxious. There's this whole series of books called women who, and it's women who love too much, women who think too much, women who do too much. And you never see the titles, men who love too little or men who do too little or think too little or whatever. I think the reason is because no one's going to buy those books. And this is a massive industry. It's a massive industry to encourage women to feel bad about ourselves.

Lauren Schiller:                  Actually, let me just say this. We are sort of making generalized statements about all women, all men, and obviously within each gender and across the gender spectrum, there are individuals who have different approaches and different feelings about all of this, right?

Ruth Whippman:               Of course, yeah.

Lauren Schiller:                  But I do wonder if now would be the time when the men who series could actually thrive. There are men who are getting more introspective about the systems that they're perpetuating.

Ruth Whippman:               Yes, and I think that's great and especially with young boys. You see this paradigm with boys and girls as well. I have three boys. You go into the kind of clothing section of target and you see or [inaudible 00:10:37] or wherever. And every girl's T-shirt is a kind of future CEO, girl power, all of this. And the boys, the things for boys are still little monster, little terror, little whatever.

Ruth Whippman:               And I just yesterday actually saw it for the very first time, I went into Target to buy a shirt for my son and I saw a shirt which said be kind on it in Target. I had to do a double take and kind of check that it hadn't been accidentally left there from the girls section that somebody had moved it. And then I saw on the wall, there was a picture of a boy wearing the shirt. And it was really quite extraordinary. You do not see that message that it's boys who should be doing the changing or the onus being on boys and men to actually meet a more female standard.

Ruth Whippman:               So I do think you're right, I do think things are may be starting to slightly shift.

Lauren Schiller:                  Well, I mean, we've all grown up in the system and for some reason, you know, because we've grown up in it, we accept that that's how it is. And so, we as women are trying to use all of our smarts and abilities to navigate within this system when we actually could have this opportunity to just change completely the expectations in the ways that we work and live.

Ruth Whippman:               Absolutely right within the system. I think all of these ideas where you put the burden on the powerless person in a situation where we talk about personal responsibility, it's a kind of bait and switch in a way. It's a kind of taking the responsibility of the powerful people and sort of shifting it on to the powerless person.

Ruth Whippman:               And I think this whole idea of empowerment, it's become so divorced from anything to do with actual power. I think all this shampoo and makeup tips and bikini body journeys and all of that, when we label all those things as empowering, it kind of takes us away from thinking about power, who has power, why they have power and what we can do to change that. It kind of obscures the message I think.

Lauren Schiller:                  Right. Well, it becomes just taken over by companies wanting to market their products on "trend" of feminism and the future is female and girl power.

Ruth Whippman:               Yeah, girl power. I know I grew up in the UK and we changed feminism into the girl power with the Spice Girls and it kind of, it really neutered it. It made it cute, you know, girl already, it's infantilizing. It's not woman power, it's something cute. It looks nice on a sparkly T-shirt. It's pretty. And it's non threatening. And same with empowerment.

Ruth Whippman:               The one thing about the word empowerment, you know that anybody in any actual position of power will never ever use the word empowerment. You go on Instagram and its kind of, here's my naked photos of my post-baby body, you know, but you will never see a man saying, oh here's my naked photos of my post-prostate surgery body. I'm finding it so empowering. That will never ever happen. You will never hear the president saying, oh, it's just so empowering having these nuclear launch codes. It's something that people use when they are very far from power.

Lauren Schiller:                  Having sons and being clearly very aware of the world that we live in here, I mean, what are the kinds of things that you talk with them about?

Ruth Whippman:               This is a big question. My oldest son just turned eight so they still are young. This is a very interesting and scary time to be raising sons. I think up until now, people with daughters I think see themselves as part of this big grand feminists project to change the world and people with sons have kind of been allowed to ignore it. And I think we've reached a point with the Kavanaugh situation, with the current president, with this kind of #metoo movement, with this kind of toxic masculinity just really out there. That I think people, parents of sons really have to address this. I think the urgent work is on us really.

Ruth Whippman:               The conversations that we're having, I think we're just starting, I tried to talk with my sons about an early version of consent and standing back and listening. It's hard. These are hard conversations to have. It's hard to talk about consent before you've talked about sex.

Lauren Schiller:                  Right. Unwanted hugging or kissing.

Ruth Whippman:               Yes, exactly. So it's unwanted hugging and kissing. Having those conversations without, you know, there's kind of an elephant in the room which is the main, the main thing hasn't really been addressed and that's a hard conversation to have. And I know parents of sons, friends who've approached it in all kinds of different ways. Everything from explaining absolutely everything up front at the age of two, that's one friend, to really leaving this as a discussion to have around about puberty. I probably am in the middle when it comes to that.

Lauren Schiller:                  But the question of consent is also, I feel like it's tied to other issues like listening to women or respecting them when they're being assertive or not expecting girls to apologize. All the things that you were just talking about for us as women being important in meetings at work, I feel like it all ties back to how we relate to each other as males and females.

Ruth Whippman:               I mean, we're living in a time where even male and female now as two binary categories, that's kind of changing a lot as well. Even working within those kinds of structures, absolutely. One question I've had to ask myself is, you know, we say women shouldn't be apologizing but actually maybe apologizing is really a good thing. And so maybe, men and by extension, my boys, should be apologizing more. I think we've had this idea that whatever is the male cultural standard is automatically the better cultural standards. Men speak up in meetings therefore women should speak up in meetings. Rather than saying, you know, turning it on its head and saying, well, women tend to listen while in meetings, so maybe we should encourage men to do that.

Ruth Whippman:               I would love to see, every year when it's time for summer camp, I send my boys to summer camp and I see these lines of girls all going off to summer camp and it's assertiveness camp, go girls camp. It's all about getting girls to speak up and be assertive. Now, I would love to send my boys to deference camp this summer. I would love for them to go and learn those skills of listening because I think there are skills that you can learn and they're heavily, heavily socialized into girls and not into boys in all kinds of very, very subtle ways.

Ruth Whippman:               But these things just don't exist. I did actually read, there was an article in The New York Times that came out to recently, which was all about boys groups, which I think are all about empathy and listening and emotional intelligence. I think these things are just starting to emerge, but not in any kind of major mainstream way. I would really love to see that happen.

Lauren Schiller:                  Yeah, I think that feels like a much more productive response than some of the other responses that I've heard from parents of boys who feel like, well, with all this focus on girl power, what about my boy. It's totally disempowering for my son to have to defer to these assertive girls and what's their future going to look like and expressing fear that somehow by women actually having more power or the female "female approach" to interactions becoming the standard is actually bad for boys.

Ruth Whippman:               And I think that's a really, it's a tough question because obviously, as a mother, as a parent, you're kind of fighting your own maternal instinct, which is like, I want everything for my kid, and I want my kids to have the best of everything and to do well and to succeed and to be happy and to be assertive and to do all of this. That's the individual versus the collective. But I don't think you have to see those things in opposition.

Ruth Whippman:               I think there is plenty of success and happiness and everything for everybody if we can all learn to communicate effectively and to learn from each other. What I'm not saying to my boys, oh, you know, you have to stand back and only girls can succeed now. That's not really the point. The point is that we all communicate in a way that's respectful to each other, and then everyone's given an equal chance.

Lauren Schiller:                  What a concept. So what about for you growing up as a girl, I mean, you grew up in in the UK.

Ruth Whippman:               I did.

Lauren Schiller:                  And so, I kind of have a two-fold question which is one, I'm curious what girls growing up across the pond were taught and specifically what you were taught versus what was happening over here in the United States around that same time, which I'm just guessing you were born somewhere between the late 70s, early 80s.

Ruth Whippman:               I was born in 1974.

Lauren Schiller:                  Okay, there we go.

Ruth Whippman:               And so, I'm like in the Generation X cohort.

Lauren Schiller:                  Yes, me too.

Ruth Whippman:               I mean, this is really a fascinating time for me because when I was growing up, feminism really was a dirty word. You had to preface every, even the mildest statement for some kind of equality with, I'm not a feminist but, you know, I'm not a feminist but I quite like to be paid the same as a man but I better not mention it. Feminism was seen as something to distance yourself from. It was seen as unattractive and angry and man hating.

Ruth Whippman:               I don't know, this maybe getting off into a slightly different track. In the UK, when I was growing up, it was all, you know, it was, it was a time of relative prosperity. It was a time when, you know, we were all into this kind of banter and light hearted jokes. I think that really cemented this kind of male power. It was all irony and detachment and nobody wanted to appear too earnest or be too invested in things. And so you see kind of tropes of pop culture from the 80s. I mean, Brat Pack movies, Sixteen Candles. I mean, these things really normalized things like rape culture and inequality as completely and utterly normal. And that's how I saw it.

Ruth Whippman:               I worked for various large organizations in the UK in my 20s and sexual harassment was completely and utterly normal. We would have conversations, I was a TV researcher at the time and we just completely accepted as normal that men in power would sexually harass us, and we would talk amongst ourselves about who to avoid the most. Never get in an elevator with that man and never, you know, whatever. But we never would have even thought to question this to higher authorities. We were so steeped in this patriarchal thing. Now, I think the #metoo movement has actually given us all a pair of kind of goggles to see the world in a very different light.

Ruth Whippman:               I remember when I worked for a major TV station and we were asked by the powers that be to pitch ideas for a series which was supposed to be about the major injustices in British society. So it was going to be an episode on each one. And I pitched an idea about feminism. And literally, people laughed me out of town. It's like, well, we can't do that. I mean, that would be ridiculous. And this was, I mean, probably 10 years ago.

Lauren Schiller:                  You are kidding me.

Ruth Whippman:               I mean, it was as though I had suggested the most fringe, peculiar, bizarre thing. And they were like, well, obviously not that. Anyway, back to the man.

Ruth Whippman:               And so things have really massively changed. It's a huge social change I've seen in the last 10 years. And I think there probably is a difference between the UK and the US on that. I think a lot of the trends, I mean, you see the difference now between, actually now, I was going to say you see the difference between the way people responded to Anita Hill and the way people responded to Christine Blassie Ford. But actually, ultimately, those two things ended up at the same place. So no, perhaps there hasn't been as much of a difference as we'd like to think.

Lauren Schiller:                  As we cry into our coffee.

Ruth Whippman:               Yeah, we're all weeping.

Lauren Schiller:                  I'm Lauren Schiller and this is Inflection Point. As we've seen in the past few years, each time we gain ground, those in power push back and then blame us for not working hard enough, not being assertive enough, not being ambitious enough or having too much ambition. Is it the American dream or the American gaslight? We'll talk about that in a moment.

Lauren Schiller:                  Hi, it's Lauren Schiller from Inflection Point. One of the most powerful young voices and international activism is coming to the Bay Area for an Inflection Point live recording at the Bay Area Book Festival. Join me and Khalida Brohi to talk about culture, power and her extraordinary memoir, I Should Have Honor, presented by the Bay Area Book Festival's Women Lit Society, Inflection Point and KALW, Thursday, December 13 in San Francisco. Tickets are, that's

Lauren Schiller:                  This is Inflection Point. I'm Lauren Schiller with stories of how women rise up. I'm talking with Ruth Whippman about empowerment and individual responsibility for our own happiness. I asked Ruth to respond to something we heard earlier in the season from Dr. Barbara Adams, an organizational psychologist and diversity and inclusion expert. Here's Barb.

Barbara Adams:                 All of that is based on this myth of meritocracy. It's going to go to the hardest worker and they are the people who are going to succeed and it's the smartest people blah, blah, blah. But that basically implies that if you're the black candidate or you're the woman who didn't get ahead, well, it's your fault. And it ignores what's really happening and what occurs in a system that's designed to help ensure that you don't get ahead because that's where all of those biases are built in.

Ruth Whippman:               So I think Barbara Adams expresses it brilliantly. I think this idea of meritocracy is a very, very, very steely thread running through American society. People in this country have this very, very strong belief that if you just work harder at being happy, being rich, being thin, being successful, being healthy, being everything, then you can achieve it. And yes, it is a myth and it absolutely is putting the onus on the wrong people. I mean, it absolutely does not acknowledge, as Barbara Adams says, it does not acknowledge the systemic injustices which absolutely run through this culture and all of the obstacles in getting to that point.

Ruth Whippman:               And I saw a lot with the happiness industry, the self-help industry when I was researching my book. It is this idea that you have this individual responsibility to be happy. I mean, you see these memes that on Facebook, things like happiness is a choice. So the idea is, you know, if you're not making that choice and you're not working hard enough, then you have no right to be happy. Positive psychology and the self-help industry absolutely minimize the effect of our circumstances, whether that's our kind of personal circumstances or our kind of demographic circumstances in terms of our class, our, our gender. They absolutely minimize the effect of all those things and absolutely play up to the max this idea of individual effort and individual control over these things so we can just try harder. It's this kind of bootstraps approach to happiness.

Ruth Whippman:               And same with feminism, this idea, the reason why you're not being paid equally is because you just haven't asked for a raise. Do power poses in the restroom, that should sort out the patriarchy. And you just think, oh please, give me a break here.

Lauren Schiller:                  Exactly. I really tried to convince myself for a while that those power poses made a difference.

Ruth Whippman:               It's all been disproved as complete nonsense anyway. How about getting men to do some capitulation poses in the restroom before a meeting and so that they might listen a little better to people. And let's look at the corporations, let's look at governments, let's look at legislation, let's look at real ways to actually address these very, very thorny issues.

Lauren Schiller:                  What do you think about the rise of these women's only spaces? Women's coworking spaces? I mean, you mentioned the girl assertiveness camps and things like that. I think the idea is that, it's a male free zone so there's no navigating the gender dynamics and you have the space to fail or to express yourself without being shut down, etc, etc. I don't know. What do you think about those kinds of spaces?

Ruth Whippman:               Yeah, I think women only spaces have the place for sure. I think you can absolutely see. I mean, some of it is to do with threat. You see women's refuges and places where women can go because they're literally in fear of male violence, and that's obviously a very important thing to maintain. In terms of coworking spaces and all the rest of it, I mean, absolutely. I think people traditionally who have been disempowered in various ways really benefit from having their own spaces.

Ruth Whippman:               I mean, actually, interestingly, I was reading this article about boys groups in the New York Times. And I think that is an example of where male only spaces can actually be productive as well. I think this is a thorny issue because, obviously, male only spaces historically have been used to exclude women from places of power. But I think with boys, I think there are lots of boys in this article who are expressing this idea that they feel like, usually, they feel like they have to be one of the guys or impress women or whatever, and it was a safe space to kind of express emotions and all the rest of it. So when handled carefully, I think those things can be important too.

Lauren Schiller:                  Yeah. I feel of two minds. One is this, well, it's fun to hang out with other women. At it's most bottom line. There is something about that that is just feels relaxing and it's fun and we have a different way of talking with each other than we have talking with man. It is how it is. Is it that way because this is the system that we were raised in? Is it biological? Like, I don't know. I think there are definitely pros to it. But what I start to worry about is that we are heading toward another weird kind of segregation of the sexes. We're like by accident going backwards. When really what we're trying to do is create respect for all genders together in the same place where we can be sources of power for each other regardless of our gender.

Ruth Whippman:               Yeah, absolutely. It's a very complex issue and I think it so much depends on the circumstances and why people are doing this and in what situation. I think the future of society is not to completely segregate the two genders and, we're not the Wailing Wall here. I think you're absolutely right. The future is for us all to be able to cooperate together and to communicate and to get rid of this ridiculous system of gender stereotyping and segregation and all of these tropes that we have in place about what you are or can be because you're born either male or female.

Lauren Schiller:                  You wrote an article in Time right before the 2016 election, which was called, I just love it. I mean, we've talked about this, but empowerment is warping women's view of real power. You quoted Sady Doyle. Can you talk about who she and-

Ruth Whippman:               Sady Doyle is a writer and journalist. She's fantastic. And she wrote this very long and wonderful and influential piece about Hillary Clinton, which sort of tracked, amongst other things, tracked people's attitudes towards her in different situations. So when Clinton was in office in whatever role, people regarded her very highly. But when she was seeking her next office, this was when all this kind of vitriol and anti-Clinton stuff would come out. And what she concluded was that it was something about this act of asking for power, which made her unpopular as a woman. So it wasn't her performance in the job. People pretty much thought she did great when she was actually in the job. But when she was seen trying to seek power, people became very, very uncomfortable.

Ruth Whippman:               This all feels like sort of like we're living in a different world now, but we all saw during the election this just absolute spew of sewage against Hillary Clinton for who she was, everything she did, she was scrutinized in a way that no male candidate has been. I mean, the Trump-Clinton thing was this kind of ad absurdum example of this principle that a man can get away with virtually anything and a woman can get away with virtually nothing when it comes to looking for power.

Ruth Whippman:               This was such an extreme example of it. I mean, his corruption reaches levels that are quite extraordinary and she had her emails on a slightly problematic email server, and yet she was the one that was like utterly labeled as corrupt and everyone shouting locker up when, you know, anyway, that's another story. This was a very, very strong example of it. I encourage you to go and read the Sady Doyle piece about it.

Lauren Schiller:                  Yeah. Well, what was also interesting to me is that the quote that you have in the article is that she talks about prejudice against women caught in the act of asking for power. What actually stood out to me is not only the idea of striving for something more than we have being a problem, but the notion that we have to ask for it.

Ruth Whippman:               Right, absolutely. I mean, that is the whole, I mean, you know, without getting too much into the semantics of it, the word empowering, it's like somebody is handing power to the disempowered person. Who is the somebody handing the power because they obviously still maintains the same power hierarchy. Why do we need to go and ask for power in that way? I mean, it's assumed that men are the ones who by rights naturally have the power and women are the ones who have to go and seek it. People are very, very uncomfortable with that.

Lauren Schiller:                  Yeah. I actually think that we should spend a little more time on the semantics of empowerment because the more you read about empowerment, the more, I don't know, sometimes I'm like, that's great. The UN is empowering girls by ensuring that they have more education in third world countries and are able to read and therefore take care of their families and earn some income, etc. So like, that kind of empowerment, I'm like, yes, that's empowering because, in fact, a powerful entity is giving power to a less powerful entity. But then sometimes I read about empowerment and it just feels totally fluffy and like meaningless.

Ruth Whippman:               So I think the thing is, we don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I don't know if you use that expression.

Lauren Schiller:                  We do.

Ruth Whippman:               You do. Yes, absolutely, of course, under the banner of empowerment, there are many wonderful initiatives of which you've named some. I think historically, this word started with a wonderful idea which was to put power in the hands of disempowered communities for whatever reason, and it was kind of rooted in activism and all of the rest of it. I think as this has evolved, the word has become associated with this kind of feminism, like this kind of feminism as a branch of the self-help industry somehow, that empowering has become a description, more of a feeling rather than of anything to do with actual power structures.

Ruth Whippman:               So, we talk about, you know, I'm finding this so empowering. What we're describing when we say that is kind of this inner feeling of potency or kind of feel good self worth rather than anything that actually breaks down any actual power structures or puts us in a position of authority, a recognized position of authority.

Lauren Schiller:                  Okay, so let's talk about how we're going to change this system.

Ruth Whippman:               Right, let's do it now.

Lauren Schiller:                  We're going to put the power back in empowerment right here. We always aspire. So another guest on the show is Rebecca Traister, who has a book out now called Good and Mad. And she talks about anger as a tool for revolution. Or is it? I feel like we, like it's not just the righteous who are angry, right? Her theme is really that we need to listen to the stories behind people's anger and take a minute to understand where they're coming from and why they're angry, and that it's not just about all of us women getting out there with our pitchforks and marching angrily down the street and demanding change.

Lauren Schiller:                  But the question that it raised for me, and I feel like this ties in with your work on the happiness industry or the self-help industry, which is like, how do we actually get anything done if everyone's just mad at each other all the time.

Ruth Whippman:               Right, absolutely. I mean, Rebecca Traister is wonderful. I haven't yet had a chance to read her book but I've read lots around it and I've heard her speak on various occasions. I think this is so important, this idea that women's anger has been erased through history, that we need to listen to why women are angry, all the rest of it. Where we perhaps part ways is exactly as you said, I don't think anger tracks neatly nuclear to progressive ideals. I mean, I think there are many very, very angry people in the world at the moment and only some of them share my values. Fox News is an incredibly angry space where people are, hate is spewing forth against immigrants and against women, against all sorts of things. And I wouldn't necessarily say that that was productive. In fact, I would say it was extremely unproductive.

Ruth Whippman:               So, I think to just say, anger, let's harness it doesn't work. I think it's a good starting point because I think anger can motivate people but I think, it's a much more complex and messy field than that would perhaps suggest. I think Rebecca tries to be fair, does acknowledge that as well. And also, anger, there's anger as a kind of political driving force but then there's also anger as an emotion, as a feeling. And I think that anger can kind of cloud your thinking as much as it can clarify it. It's good to recognize the reasons why we should be angry and act on those. But at the same time, I think we're all just in a giant rage all the time, that's not necessarily going to lead to kind of skillful change.

Ruth Whippman:               And a lot of genuine change comes from kind of incremental policy. Trying to get into the nuts and bolts of what things actually work and what things don't work. That kind of is tedious work but it's also important work as well. And I think, you know, us all being in a giant rage ... I think also the thing is like, parallels with women's increasing anger is also men's increasing anger and that is quite a scary prospect. I mean, you see men's rights activists on Twitter, online. I think there has been this huge spewing forth of male anger. It's almost as a response to women seeking power, women becoming angry. Men dig in. And I think as you say, this idea where everyone's kind of ragefull all the time is not actually a particularly productive way forward.

Lauren Schiller:                  This may be the next billion dollar industry.

Ruth Whippman:               Anger industry.

Lauren Schiller:                  I know there's already anger, you can go take an anger management class I guess. What do you think some of the answers are in terms of shifting the way that we think about power and who should have it and how our world works on a daily basis? Is it getting more women in office? Is that one piece of it?

Ruth Whippman:               Yes, getting women in office is definitely a piece of it. Women being involved in politics is hugely important. I think it's also focusing on men and in our personal relationships and personal style, I think it's about targeting man and how men behave in public. Starting with young boys and working on that. I think that's a huge piece of it. I think legislation, it's corporations that need to take responsibility for this. And people, the next Sheryl Sandberg who's writing their feminist manifesto, please can you target it at companies or governments. These systems of power rather than individuals. I think that's a huge, that's what we should be focusing on.

Lauren Schiller:                  Yeah. That also speaks to, when we get more women leaders inside these companies who have worked their way up through the existing system, it seems that in some cases, they tend to just perpetuate the system that they manage to succeed in.

Ruth Whippman:               Absolutely.

Lauren Schiller:                  I don't know that we have the answer here, but how do we get the women who are making their way up the corporate ladder, breaking that glass ceiling, to then look down and say, that really sucked the way that I had to get here. I want to change it for the next woman.

Ruth Whippman:               Yeah. I mean, I think that is a cultural change, is a complicated thing. And you're absolutely right. Women in power don't necessarily make things better for other women once they get there. They are working within the system. I think cultural change takes time. I think that we are in a period of very accelerated cultural change. We've got pushed back and then we've got acceleration, and then we've got pushback and we've got acceleration. So I think things are changing.

Ruth Whippman:               I think the next generation of leaders have grown up in a very different world than the one that I grew up in. So I think this will happen. But yeah, it's about educating men and boys, it's about a certain amount of education for women. It's about targeting. It's about acknowledging the reality of it and stop it, trying to stop this attachment that we have to this idea of the individual being the one who can affect change. I think we have to acknowledge that systems need to change, laws need to change, companies need to change and people in power need to change.

Ruth Whippman:               If we stop selling this dream of, you know, just stop apologizing and ask for a raise and then suddenly you're going to be fine. I think if we acknowledge that that is a minor, minor piece of the puzzle, then I think we can start to look at the bigger picture.

Lauren Schiller:                  Yeah. So here in California, recently, one of Jerry Brown's last acts as governor was to sign a law that by the end of 2019, any California based company had to have at least one woman on the board, one female on the board, and by the end of 2021, there had to be at least three females on the board.

Ruth Whippman:               I mean, it's a pretty sort of depressing state of affairs that we actually need that law, at least one women on the board. It's really such a low bar, isn't it? At least one woman. I think it's good that there's incremental change in that way. I would have preferred to see 50-50, but, you know, take what you can. But also, I think we have to look at the kind of nuts and bolts of how we make that happen. How women can rise to the top. What we have in place in terms of flexible working, in terms of maternity policy, in terms of childcare. Those things that actually help women to rise up. And those can be thorny things to work out but I think the devil's in the detail often.

Ruth Whippman:               Sometimes I think that there are initiatives which are kind of well intentioned but you just think oh my goodness, I mean, one that I saw recently was in the press was about Goldman Sachs paying for female staff to airfreight their breast milk from wherever they are traveling in the world back to their baby, to their young baby. Oh my goodness, we've got something very wrong here. I mean airfreighting your breast milk, I think we're slightly missing the point about women being with their babies and childcare. What we really need is actual paid maternity leave and legislation making sure that your job is still there when you come back, effective childcare, those sorts of things. I mean, it's not the actual milk that's the issue. It's everything that goes along with it.

Lauren Schiller:                  I'm having flashbacks to traveling and pumping in my hotel room and having to call the hotel staff to come and get it because the refrigerator in the room was not cold enough to freeze it. And then keeping it in the hotel kitchen until it was time for me to leave, at which point they returned to me with a giant baking dish of all my little bags of breast milk, which I then shoved into my little black pumping bag, put on my back and went to the airport, where they then opened it up and were like, what's this.

Ruth Whippman:               I have to say, the women with the like double boob, pump action bag full of breast milk, that is a very American image. Something about this country where there is like a six week maternity leave, which is actually some kind of like disability rather than, with no federally recognized maternity leave, in some awful little corner of the office where people are pumping away while on the phone, while sending an email. I mean, you don't see that in Europe because there is protected maternity leave for the first year. The UK is not the best in Europe for this but at least you do, I can't remember, I think it's 35 weeks of paid maternity leave. There is legislation around this. So I think that image is just such American society gone wrong.

Lauren Schiller:                  Crazy. That to me sounds like actual empowerment, like an actually empowering tool for women and families.

Ruth Whippman:               Absolutely, absolutely. I think that laws are the things that can make changes most effectively. Another huge thing which is not popular here is unions. I mean, union representation is a really important piece of this because these are organizations that can actually bargain for genuine material change for workers and for women. There's a reason why companies hate unions, and that's because union workers have much better conditions than the non union workers. So I think collective bargaining is a huge piece of the puzzle as opposed to this tiny individual power posing in the restroom piece of the puzzle.

Lauren Schiller:                  What's the best advice that you've ever been given about how to recognize a situation where the onus is being put on you as the individual to make sweeping changes in your world when really, it's not actually up to you, that somebody else should be in charge? What do you do in that situation?

Ruth Whippman:               That's a really interesting question. I mean, I don't think I've ever been given a specific piece of advice on that because I think it's so, this idea of the individual making the change is so baked into culture that I don't think anyone's really thinking in those terms.

Ruth Whippman:               Having thought about this quite a lot, I think the advice, the path I would give is that if you're in that situation and it feels wrong and you feel like you're exhausted and overburdened and why should I be the one doing all of this, you know, to stop and think and to call it out and to say, this isn't me, this is the system. And there are problems here and who's really in charge here, who really has the power here and who should really be backing the changes? It's about calling things out for what they are and not accepting that we're the ones who need to make the changes.

Lauren Schiller:                  Ruth Whippman is the author of America The Anxious, and her article in Time Magazine was entitled, Empowerment is Warping Women's View of Real Power.

Lauren Schiller:                  Self-empowerment is the 21st century equivalent of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, which was the 20th century version of let them eat cake, which was the 18th century version of I have no idea what the problem is here. All of these concepts were thought up by people in power who are blind to the advantages they had on their own rise to the top. And as my producer Eric pointed out to me, you can't physically pull yourself up by your bootstraps. If you have some, give it a try.

Lauren Schiller:                  The question is, if the people in power refuse to change the system that gave them their power and the people without power exhaust themselves attempting to make change so everyone has power, how will we ever make a more equal world? Well, we won't. Of course we need to continue to ask for what we want, be assertive, project confidence. And, as long as we're speaking up for ourselves, we need to insist that the individuals running the system, specifically white men, learn from our strengths. There's strength in listening and making room for new perspectives. There's strength in empathy and vulnerability and humility. There's strength in focusing on the greater good. This is how we all rise up together. This is Inflection Point. I'm Lauren Schiller.

Lauren Schiller:                  That's our Inflection Point for today. All of our episodes are on Apple Podcast, Radio Public, Stitcher and NPR One. Give us a five star review and subscribe to the podcast. Know a woman with a great rising up story, let us know at While you're there, I invite you to support Inflection Point with a monthly or one time contribution. Your support keeps women stories front and center. Just go to We're on Facebook at Inflection Point Radio. Follow us and follow me on twitter at @LASchiller. To find out more about the guest you heard today and to sign up for our email newsletter, you know where to go.

Lauren Schiller:                  Inflection Point is produced in partnership with KALW 91.7 FM in San Francisco and PRX. Our story editor and content manager is Alaura Weaver. Our engineer and producer is Eric Wayne. I'm your host, Lauren Schiller.

Lauren Schiller:                  You have a notebook sitting in front of you which is cracking me up because of this conversation that says the word feminist in all caps on it. It's slightly pink with like kind of a gold type. So talk to me about that.

Ruth Whippman:               This note because probably a great example of this kind of empowerment feminism. My notebook, this was a gift. It is pink. It has gold lettering, it's very feminine, delicate. And it says the word feminist on it. And I think the word feminist in this kind of empowerment feminism sense has got this kind of cultural cache as long as it's cute. As long as it's pretty and it's pink and it's gold and it's lovely, there are all kinds of products that, I think suddenly, it's got this kind of cultural cache that it never had before.

Lauren Schiller:                  Do you think it's ironic that you're carrying it around?

Ruth Whippman:               I think it's ridiculous. And actually, I'm kind of embarrassed of this notebook. But I needed a notebook and it actually has these kind of feminist quotes. We can look at it. "I say if I'm beautiful, I say if I'm strong. You will not determine my story. I will" Amy Schumer. Well, there you go, that's another example of this very individualistic take on feminism because actually, we don't write our own stories to a large extent. Society, the patriarchy writes our quite a lot. And this idea that, you know, I chart my own course, I am my own person, I just need to power pose in the restroom, yeah, it's not quite that simple. Let's try another one.

Ruth Whippman:               Here we go. "It took me quite a long time to develop a voice but now that I have it, I'm not going to be silenced." By Madeleine Albright. I mean great that Madeleine Albright is not going to be silent. I think more important is the actual office that she held and the fact that, this idea that it's just about women speaking up for ourselves rather than kind of changing systems is interesting that that's the quote for Madeleine Albright that ends up in the feminist gold and pink notebook.

Lauren Schiller:                  When she's done so much else.

Ruth Whippman:               When she's done so much. Why is this what we're looking at?

Lauren Schiller:                  Support for this podcast comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Speaker 4:                              From PRX.


Ruth Whippman

Ruth Whippman