Women in the Western world have been sold a faulty dream. Raised in families that encouraged us to be strong and independent, we've strived to become successful — to reach the top — in a world that wasn't designed for us.
The imperative to become empowered has been a driving force in my life for the best part of two decades. My family taught me to work hard, get an education, and become financially independent. I had enough means to pursue my interests with a degree in Literature without ever working any odd jobs or worrying about survival.
And that the pride I felt in doing it all alone and never ever asking for help was not a strength but a survival mechanism against a world that often leaves women to fend for ourselves.
Still, I was ambitious. At 23, I packed my bags and moved from Italy to the United States. I wanted to get away, to become my own person. I wanted to show the world what a petite woman with a lot of curiosity and drive could achieve. As a rite of passage, I chopped all my hair off.
I made a life for myself. I enrolled in an Ivy League PhD program, and I reached the top.
Or so I thought.
The Lone Woman on Top
I was proud I accomplished it all by myself. I knew how to get by through efficiency, intellect, determination, creativity, and outstanding organizational skills. As a true high-achiever, I didn't like group projects because I knew I could do everything faster (and better) by myself.
I was proud of my grit. I was proud that I didn't need anybody.
When I finished my PhD, I had to face the harsh reality that academia was not the prestigious ivory tower that I had once coveted, and that the ideal I had pursued of becoming an empowered "career woman" was not only unsustainable but also unfulfilling after all.
Equality implies fitting into the existing structure of power — a problematic endeavor in a society based on stark inequalities — instead of actively engaging in envisioning a new one.
I realized that, like most institutions in this country, higher ed was a patriarchal stronghold (yes, even in the humanities — a field with a higher percentage of women than men). And, I realized that the model I was after, a model based on relentless work at any hour of the day and night, continuous criticism marked as "feedback," competition, individualism, and a logic of "always work harder," was not a model in which I could thrive.
I realized, also, that independence at all costs goes against our basic human need for connection. And that the pride I felt in doing it all alone and never ever asking for help was not a strength but a survival mechanism against a world that often leaves women to fend for ourselves. With that came the reckoning that, because of my self-proclaimed "strength," I had stayed in toxic situations for too long.
Who Really is the Empowered, Independent Woman?
Over the past few years, I've thought a lot about this ideal that had become my holy grail — the strong, empowered, independent woman. Who is she? Where does she come from? And, most importantly, who has she become?
She is who I wanted to be. The alternative? Getting married and finding fulfillment within the home, a la 1950s housewife. I knew I didn't want that. So I sought out the opposite.
The fetish is both "a token of triumph over the threat of castration, and a safeguard against it."
Where First Wave Feminism's agenda in the US focused on reaching gender equality in the public sphere, which resulted in white women gaining the right to vote in 1920, Second Wave Feminism focused, along with legislative change regarding key issues such as abortion and divorce, on equality in the private sphere. It brought women out of the house and into the streets, and from the streets into the workforce. Its mantra was "the personal is political"; its goal was equality inside and outside the home.
But the problem with equality in a capitalist society is that it gets co-opted by the dominant system. Equality implies fitting into the existing structure of power — a problematic endeavor in a society based on stark inequalities — instead of actively engaging in envisioning a new one.
As someone that studies and observes gender dynamics for a living, I argue that, today, the myth of the empowered woman has become a fantasy — something to be consumed. The empowered woman has been made to work within existing institutions instead of questioning them. And at huge costs.
How the Empowered Woman Becomes an Object of Fetishization
Co-opted by capitalism, the stereotype of the strong, independent woman functions culturally as an object of both dread and desire akin to Freud's notion of the fetish. According to Freud, fetishism is the displacement of desire onto alternative objects or body parts (see: a foot fetish) in order to avoid facing the fear of castration. In this logic and economy of desire, the fetish becomes a "penis substitute" easing male anxiety around castration (intended metaphorically as loss of manhood).
If you're a cis, hetero woman living, dating, and relating in the 21st century, you've probably wondered at one point or another whether your independence "intimidates" men. I'll get to that in a second, but first I want to speak about the men who proclaim to actually like strong women.
Is it true? And what do they like about them?
While I cannot speak for all men, I've heard far too many times that men like strong women because they like the "challenge" and they like that they are their "equals." These statements are problematic for a number of reasons. First, being "equals" in a patriarchal society means that women become like men, which is a worthy first step when equal rights are the exception, not the norm, but it's not enough. Second, this proclamation of equality rests on a cis-male economy of desire — one where the woman becomes a projection of his own ego and a "penis substitute" to ease his own anxieties around masculine power and changing gender dynamics.
He desires her precisely because she reminds him of himself; she becomes a testing ground of cis-male prowess and achievement. As Freud says in his essay on fetishism, the fetish is both "a token of triumph over the threat of castration, and a safeguard against it."
We're stuck trying to "make it" in a world that wasn't designed for us, while we don't know how to ask for help, we think we have to do everything alone, and therefore we tolerate abusive behavior.
In the process, the so-called strong woman is dehumanized. She's treated, at best, as a capitalist shell of ritualistic efficiency and intellectual stimulation. Something — not someone — to be consumed and exploited. At worst, she's viewed as an object of cis-male desire for his own masturbatory pleasure. She is a "challenge" to be won over and then discarded the moment she becomes human.
Internalizing Our Own Objectification, and the Trauma That Follows
And what about women, especially women who have followed and aspired to this model themselves? It's crucial to understand the roles that capitalist and patriarchal narratives have played in transforming the notion of "female empowerment" from something nurtured and cultivated in the women's circles of the 1960s and 70s to the individualistic nightmare of late capitalism. We're stuck trying to "make it" in a world that wasn't designed for us, while we don't know how to ask for help, we think we have to do everything alone, and therefore we tolerate abusive behavior.
Trying to fit into and succeed in the "world of the Father," as Maureen Murdock calls it in The Heroine's Journey (1990), we become disconnected from our own inner source of power. We objectify ourselves — sexually, relationally, and professionally. We internalize the notion that we exist only as a function of cis-male desire or to please the system (or both).
This state of being cut off from our own voice — which is the deepest, truest, kindest, and most loving part of ourselves — is similar to the trauma response known as "freeze." In buying into ideals that are not our own, we become frozen in body and soul. We become stuck in a survival mechanism that's the result of centuries of oppression and silencing. In the meantime, we think that we have to play by the oppressor's rules — a process of self-betrayal that causes the trauma cycle to perpetuate itself.
And if you're wondering if you're intimidating to men, the answer is, yes, you probably are, at least to many (and these are not the right men for you!). But there's a deeper level, too. You might think that you're strong and independent, but what if you're actually frozen? What if there's actually a different you behind the shell of strength and empowerment? A you that has even more power, more drive, and more grace than you even believe is possible?
Freeing Your Inner Self From the Fetishization Freeze
Of course, I want all women to be strong, empowered, and independent. But what I'm saying is to reach that state on your own terms without letting dominant narratives appropriate your identity.
When I realized that my pursuit of strength and independence had actually left me frozen and that I was trying to fit into a box that wasn't built for me in order to gain the approval that I was so desperately seeking from within, I took my Ivy League Ph.D and made the decision to blow my life up in order to put the pieces back together in a way that made sense to me.
I encourage you to look inside and ask yourself: What does empowerment look like for me?
In some respects, I have not changed at all. I'm still very driven, ambitious, and goal-oriented — probably more so than before. I'm also 100% more resilient because I realized that I couldn't rely on patriarchal institutions to keep me alive, so I had to find those resources from within.
And what strength looks like for me now is very different from the misguided millennial #girlboss dreams we've been sold. Dreams that only reinforce the current power dynamics and risk framing women as projections of patriarchal ego fantasies about masculine prowess.
If you value your professional ambitions and your drive, and if you know that you're here to have a big impact and make waves, I encourage you to look inside and ask yourself: What does empowerment look like for me?
For me, it's not about fitting into pre-existing institutions of power and losing my heart, health, and soul in the process. It's about creating my own reality and bringing everyone higher with it. And, yes, I am in a position of privilege to do so, and that's why I feel even more responsibility to make a difference for other women to be able to do so, as well.
I'm not someone else's object of desire. I'm not functional to someone else's fantasy. I'm not functional to any fantasy at all. My dreams, ambitions, and goals are mine. My body, my pleasure, and my inner world are mine.
And that is my wish for all women, too.
WRITTEN BYClaudia Consolati