Power, potentially


Empowerment seems straightforward, ideally representing the increased participation of women in economic or political activities. When conducting research or enacting policy reform, however, it is often uncertain what the exact focus should be, how to measure these activities, or how to prioritize some activities over others. Empowerment indicators often become less coherent as soon as they require practical measurement, revealing subtle differences and priorities in the conception of practitioners. For example, when women’s testimonies of social power are sacrificed for economic indicators, empowerment advocates quickly lose unity and competition for funding can become a more immediate need than the lives of beneficiaries. In the need to be ‘realistic’, complex interconnections and endogenous relations must be reduced to an hour-long survey or national statistics, and holistic outcomes soon take on a quixotic aura.

These issues will remain with us for as long as people strive for emancipatory social conditions, but without attempting these difficult tasks, policy and investment intervention will always remain utopian. This short essay is one attempt to analytically disentangle inter-related aspects of empowerment, but, for the reasons just stated, is not intended to be complete or final. The analytic components proposed are provisional distinctions that attempt to improve praxis motivated to achieve realistic empowerment in the messiness of the world without losing sight of the ideal qualities the term empowerment signifies.

The meaning of empowerment must keep women’s increased participation, power, and decision-making in mind, and connect it to the practical activities they are engaged in and goals in the ways they understand them. This form of agency is necessary for empowerment, just as empowerment is necessary for agency, and both are necessary conditions to achieve gender equality. Thus, at the analytic level, the use of empowerment should be disambiguated by a scheme that can help distinguish the causal (objective/scientific), narrative (subjective/teleological), and moral (normative/responsibility) nexus of the word’s semantics. One scheme that makes this possible are two interconnected binaries – agency/structure and empowerment/power.


In this system, agency refers to factors that have become connected to a person, and either cannot be sensibly thought of as disconnected from them. Agency would thus include skill level, income, educational ability, legal titles, self-confidence, and social connections. This should not be confused with the events that led to someone attaining these characteristics, for which they cannot necessarily be held fully responsible. For example, one’s educational attainment, health, and income are in many ways caused by larger structures within one’s home country and developmental environment.

The use of the term agency does not therefore imply responsibility or complete control over something, as it commonly does in other writings. Saying that a women’s education is part of her agency does not imply that low educational attainment is her fault. To chastise someone’s lack of education because they left school at 13 will certainly miss the greater context behind this event. Similarly, one’s legal possessions are largely determined by the legal system into which one was born and the wealth of one’s parents. However, it will be referred to here as an agential trait because, once attained,  is under one’s ‘ownership’ and can be used toward achieving one’s personal ends and taken into account in planning for the future. Whether a condition is considered under a women’s agency can be answered by asking the question, “Can she take this with her?” – earned income, yes; another’s respect, no.

Structure will refer to anything that, from the viewpoint of the agent and her future, will be mostly outside of her control. This is not to say that the women lack the freedom to respond to these situations, even when their choices are materially constrained or feel limited from her perspective. The human conditions always contains some degree of freedom in how we understand our context, which action we choose, and, to some extent, how we feel about this agency.

It is simply necessary, if we are to understand change in terms of freedom to choose and capacity to act, that there are circumscribed limits to those freedoms. It would be unjust to claim that someone’s income is determined solely by their skill attainment in the face of a macroeconomic slowdown, or that their health is determined only by their habits despite the discontinuation of a public good. These external factors are what, in this study, will be called structure. We are all free to make decisions, and yet it would be blind to the world to deny that some people certainly are more free to make choices than others. Those who have more access to choice are less constrained by structure, in part due to their greater endowment of agency.

As the logical converse of agency, structure is what is understood as not necessarily connected to an individual, the worldly context against which we work with and against. For example, cultural norms and legal structures surrounding women’s rights are critical to enabling women’s empowerment, but they can also limit their potential. As such, structure can be more or less empowering for women (more on this momentarily). Even though women’s actions necessarily reshape structural conditions, these conditions will continue to exist without the existence of any one particular woman.

Structures limit even the strongest person’s attempts to reshape systems of power, just as the landscape of the Laurentian of Mageliesberg mountains were not shaped by the erosion of one rainfall. Structure is larger than one person and endures for longer than one lifetime. For the practitioner interested in improving situations rather than remaining content with lionizing or lambasting them, the connection between structural factors and agency must be elucidated. It is through such an analytic that we can collectively craft better opportunities for women to accumulate wealth and social value, and work to ensure that these two forms of capital form a virtuous circle.

Yet there is still ambiguity in the division between agency and structure. This ambiguity can be made clear in an analysis of the connection between empowerment and power. Within this system, empowerment is a state which relations and processes can be in, while power is the state people can have when they act and thus cause events. It is generally the case that we speak of structure as being closer to empowerment, such as in the talk of empowering legal regimes or a culture that empowers women. On the other hand, agency is usually referred to in connection with an individual’s capacity to act, or to exert power. However, it is not strictly the case that everything that is empowering is structural and everything that leads to power is agential.

To disentangle empowerment from structure and agency from power, we can look to whether a process under study is a change actively engaged in by women or a state that has come to them from context and environment. Agency can be seen as empowering, as in the case of early education identified earlier. Structure can be forms of power, such as cases when the actions around an individual cause her to be empowered or, indeed, dis-empowered. This distinction has other important upshots. Structure does indeed impose limits, but these limits are not always negative. Just as resistance is what makes movement possible, the structure in which individuals are embedded in can be empowering – they provide tools and institutions to work with and goals and intentions to strive for.

At the same time, it is possible to conceive of structurally empowering conditions in which women are still seen as passive. To say that this never occurs, as if no person was ever passive in changes in their own life, would be dishonest. By disentangling structure from empowerment, we can better elucidate the ways people use their power to reinforce forms of structural patriarchy. Similarly, a policy maker can better understand how women’s empowerment is not the passive output of immaculate social conditions shaped by policy, but as an output created by women through actions they take in connection with their structural context. By making the point that there are cases where people are indeed passive while being empowered, we can also gain more detailed models of states of empowerment and see the role women’s intentions and actions have in finer detail, and therefore better understand the role women have always had in generating social change.


Perhaps the relation between the properties of agency, structure, empowerment, and power can best be brought out by an extended example. These are very abstract concepts – we only use them when talking about people in the abstract. Agency and empowerment are not generally words we use in narrating our own stories or talking about people close to us. They are impersonal descriptors, and even tend toward objectifying the people whose lives we are attempting to make more humane. This tendency makes descriptions of passivity versus action and capacity versus powerlessness contentious when talking about women in the abstract. The following example is an attempt to elucidate the philosophical underpinnings expressed in this essay, while trying to diffuse these issues that may lay dormant in the scheme it proposes.

Imagine the case of a young woman, 15 years of age. Her mother dies. This is clearly a tragedy that has befallen her, one she had no power over or ability to prevent. Certainly, she would have changed it if she had been able. Her mother had life insurance, which resulted in a significant sum of money being given to the young woman. In the course of her life, this money carries a certain amount of guilt and the memory of loss, but it ultimately allows her to afford a premier university when she turns 18. How is this supposed to be understood in terms of the four-fold understanding of empowerment?

Within this scheme, the money received becomes part of the young woman’s agency. It is firmly within her domain and capacity to use for her own ends. That is thanks to her connection to a specific social structure, where she holds specific legal rights and entitlements that make her right to the money inseparable from her legal person. It cannot, for example, be given to another family member due to her age, or gender, or legal ambiguity in how inheritance must be processed. The structure grants her agency over the money. However, this was an empowering event. In the final analysis, she was passive, that is to say not active, in her receiving of the funds – and in many ways it is good that she did not have to take actions in order to secure them.

Of course no one would contend she was ‘totally passive’ in this instance. The way she reacted to and processed her mother’s passing, and even the money bequeathed her, were deeply connected to her as an ethical actor. But receiving the money itself comes from the world outside her, as many of the best and worst events in life do for all of us. In fact, it came as a result of someone else’s power – her mother’s.

The empowerment provided by this money, as part of her agency, then creates the ground to engage her own, now extended, power. She uses her inheritance to pursue higher education, believing that education was a vital means of self-improvement and working toward that aim is a virtuous use of her life. By going to university, she increases her understanding of the world, her practical ability to manage the vagaries of the world in all its structure, and to attain a certain status carried in the degree she earns through hard work. Her knowledge, capacity, and status are thereby internalized into her being and become part of her agency. This process has of course been summarized, and in fact unfolded over the course of four long years in which she loved and lost, failed and succeeded. The agency she has attained – agency she will use to engage in more powerful acts in the future – is the outcome of a series of complex events requiring the interaction of structure, agency, empowerment, and power.

This example helps elucidate the four-fold structure proposed by this essay, and that it is only an analytical scheme that can be usefully projected onto the flow of life events. When we are caught up in these event, as the young women was, we do not think in the abstract terms used in the example. She experienced them as herself being in the world, under the first-person descriptions of desires, uncertainty, pressure, elation, and exhaustion. The interplay between agency/structure and empowerment/power are always connected and need each other for any one of them to be fully understood. At the same time, analysis helps those interested in improving social condition see the different causes and effects that each of the terms requires and entails.

The most important upshot of the four-fold division of agency, structure, empowerment, and  power is that it allows us to disentangle the complex causal, moral, and narrative features of our lives. Our protagonist was passive but not morally responsible in receiving her inheritance; the inheritance was caused by material conditions and which had effects she was able to put to use later in her life. She was, however, responsible in taking action for improving her life, and did so because she narratively understood her place in the world and the importance of education to her future.

Using the schematic understanding of empowerment proffered in this essay therefore helps one make distinctions which can be used to target, enhance, or reduce specific states of affairs. It enables an actor to take prospective efforts aimed at gender equality while at the same time respecting the necessity of women’s actions as embodied individuals constrained by real life events. This also requires respecting the burden this entails, just as the protagonist of our example respected her own burden to responsibly use the money that was intrinsically connected tragedy.


With the vocabulary so far described, we can characterize a social system as just if it is both structurally empowering and strives to potentiate further levels of empowerment. The system can achieve these outcomes through structural conditions that potentiate empowerment, frequently by making empowering agential factors available to women. Structural conditions can be empowering in other ways, such as promoting norms that lead people to use their power to empower others. Therefore, an agent is virtuous to the extent that they take responsibility for their power and use it to empower others. As we have seen, agential factors can therefore be empowering without necessarily implying power, which is the active use of those empowering states or agential possessions.

This is not to say that an agent is solely responsible for her own empowerment, or for her lack of empowerment. There are numerous examples of woman who use their power to enact change only to have their intentions thwarted by an unjust social structure or by the powerful acts of more empowered individuals. It is also all too often the case that women do not feel empowered enough to act toward their dreams because they feel they will be impossible to achieve. There are even cases where she does not take actions she would because they were never part of the world she experienced and therefore not concrete possibilities she could conceive. These examples do not mean the women were powerless, only that they did not or could not act on their power.

None of this would be a woman’s fault in a normative assessment. Against some conservative viewpoints that see lack of action as weak, irresponsible, or undeserving, this framework allows us to see how a lack of empowerment comes from a greater context and history. Indeed the lack of action is a necessary background that makes action possible, just as truth can only be understood through the background of falsity with which it is discordant. In fact, there are cases where a women does not act in the way other’s believe she ought to because she herself does not value those actions, and that should be understood as an a decision not to act, a powerful act of inaction. The importance of distinguishing empowering states against powered acts is that one cannot understand or measure power as the background of empowering states of affairs.

Instead of understanding responsibility as what leads to castigation for lack of action, we can now see that the work of empowerment uses responsibility to highlight and respect the individual’s intention and volition in their own right, which logically require passivity to be understood as action. Intention and volition causally require empowerment, despite being a state and therefore passive (or passion in the Aristotelian sense), to make power effective, and distinguishing cases where a person is passive from cases where they are active allow us to respect the autonomy women have, the decisions they make, and the actions they engage in. To not make this distinction clear, to posit that people are active in all regards, only allows respect for actions that are successful and by the light of a normative exogenously imposed framework.

Women have always had power and have always been integral to directing the course of history. Yet if we want to take the idea of empowerment seriously, it must be admitted that in many places, women remain disadvantaged in many respects. That this is something we are beholden to amend is the precondition informing the analysis performed here, and holding that proposition requires that we must also take seriously the idea that there are different levels of power. Some women have less empowerment. Some women use less power. Power has real conditions and causes, and to whitewash this through valorizing rhetoric alone is to allow power asymmetries to continue to exist, obscured behind more gentle appearances.

A woman who has been raised through empowering circumstances and is aware of how to enact change but does not act cannot be considered to have achieved the highest level of empowerment – perhaps simply for the reason that she does not feel herself to be empowered or to see such a state as a goal in and for itself. To respect women’s agency in determining their own power means respecting that there are cases in which women do not act and to try to understand why. This is only to say that an empowered act requires, along with empowering structural and agential conditions, the women’s actions, as an embodied individual within a social context, toward the material and social improvement of her life and the lives of others.

This is why it is so critical to think of economic and social empowerment together. Any person is in a state of potential power. Every person has the ability to choose and act. But there may be cases where structural conditions, such as patriarchal social norms, can prevent a woman from using financial resources she technical has within her agency. Similarly, there may be structural conditions that she cannot access due to a lack of economic good within her agency, such a laws she cannot enforce without the finances to employ a lawyer, or civil society organizations she cannot reach without a means of transport. Another upshot of the view espoused here is that one of the most important conditions for empowerment is association, in terms of both solidarity and the material capacity to coordinate and collectively press for change.


The analytical scheme so far described has been an attempt to make room for judgments that enable action. These judgments and intents require the concept of variable levels, extents, and spheres for empowerment and power. One can be empowered by possessing more rights or greater wealth, and this is of high value, but to reach higher levels of empowerment requires a level of self-reflexive action. A fully empowered individual, even if such a thing can only be understood as an ideal construct, is one who becomes an actor engaged with their own empowerment, who gains mastery over their empowering agency and influences empowering structural conditions.

This analysis has been done so as to enable normatively guided action toward greater power and more equality. One can be temporarily empowered – that is one can make a decision to engage an activity to that will yield power knowing it can end or be taken away. One can be empowered more in one geographic space than another. One can be more empowered at different life stages, among different social groups, or at different times of the year.

To make this point is to put equal stress on the fact that ‘lower’ levels of empowerment are just as valuable and significant to attain, even if they don’t lead to people being equally empowered. We must be prepared to demand more from a society that maintains or justifies lower levels of empowerment. The forms of power that are found to be limited in scale by time, space, or intensity are clearly more limited in power than sustainable conditions generating positive feedback. But they are still valuable if they improve lives, and they are still valuable as they can show us that the causes and effects that improve lives and can be instituted elsewhere. A woman can make the decision to gain power knowing it will be limited in scope, or even consciously decide to compromise one form of power for another. It would be unfair for us to say that this is not power, but also less humane to say that it is good enough. 

It is unjust to consider power in binary terms – that all women are powerful without qualification, or that all women lack power and require assistance. It would be ludicrous to say to a woman who has taken on great risk and hardship to make limited but significant change in her life is not empowered by the metrics others have employed to measure her from the outside. Seeing that, from her own perspective, the changes she has accomplished are limited compared to her ideal goal, it would be equally unjust to say that she is a powerful agent and therefore our work is done – off to the next project cycle.

By being realistic about the choices women make, we can fully respect the strength of women who take on challenges to improve their lives while still asking how people can actively work toward gender equality. Maybe a woman chooses to pursue a form of work that she knows is unsustainable but that will allow her to improve the well-being of her household, and it can be argued that she was a powerful actor using her agency to improve the structure her family will inherit. Some in development see this as ‘unproductive’, as it is not a form of sustainable investment generating positive feedback. Others argue that that her focus on improving the well-being of her family economically is not empowerment, and that the development focus should be on more holistic normative change.

From the viewpoint of this framework, all three arguments can be correct, but to choose only one while discounting the truth of the others is beyond true and false – it is wrong. It is wrong to ignore woman’s own beliefs as exhibited by her actions. It is wrong to discount the real change those actions made and the responsibility she took in sacrificing for them. It is wrong to discount the limitations of her context. But it is also wrong to not pursue the normative obligation for further structural change in both economic and social terms. There are analytically and morally impoverished positions. The argument presented here for a scheme that analyses but retains the holistic connections between agency/structure and empowerment/power attempts to overcome some of this impoverishment by focusing on the value of the real actions women take, the reasons they take them, and the way we can try to achieve further levels of empowerment.

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