Girls’ empowerment is more about social change than self-esteem, professor tells new female faculty

Sara Goodkind


In a very timely lecture, Sara Goodkind told Pitt’s new female professors that empowerment in the #MeToo era needs to “shift the focus from fixing girls to engaging girls in fixing society.” 

Goodkind, an associate professor in the School of Social Work, Department of Sociology, and Gender, Sexuality, and Women's Studies Program, was the speaker at a reception on Oct. 11 welcoming new women faculty members. The annual event is sponsored by the Provost’s Advisory Committee on Women’s Concerns and the Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies Program.

“It has become our tradition to feature Pitt women at this annual event, so we have the opportunity to collectively appreciate and celebrate the work of women at the University of Pittsburgh,” Provost Ann E. Cudd said to the gathering, which included new and veteran faculty members.

Goodkind’s topic was “Redefining Resilience and Reframing Resistance: Girls’ Empowerment in the #MeToo Era.”

She said she discovered early on, after building a program for girls in Romania during her time in the Peace Corps, that gender-specific programming often lacked “attention to issues of race, ethnicity and culture.”

“I think that in our excitement to help girls, we sometimes draw, uncritically, on ideas and materials that can unintentionally reinforce their oppression,” Goodkind said. “Well-intentioned efforts to individually empower girls risk leading them to blame themselves if they’re not able to successfully surmount the socially created obstacles in their way.

“I believe many of our social policies, programs and interventions … expect girls, especially girls who are marginalized by race, ethnicity and social class, to individually empower their way out of oppression by working on or fixing themselves.”

She labels this the neo-liberal co-opting of feminism or “commercialized feminism,” and she believes we must “reclaim empowerment” to lead girls to make societal changes.

Feminists and social workers, the areas in which Goodkind specializes, see individual and social change as connected.

She quoted activist Bell Hooks for her definition of feminism: “Feminism should not have the goal of the overthrow of men or even equality with them. Which men would we want to be equal to? … Feminism is based on the belief that our current social arrangement hurts everyone, including men. And on the desire to make our world more just.”

New women faculty at Pitt

And on empowerment, Goodkind drew her definition from Iris Marion Young, who taught at Pitt in 1990s and for whom the Young Award for Political Engagement is named: “The meaning of empowerment used by social service theorists is a process in which individual, relatively powerless persons engage in dialogue with each other and thereby come to understand the social sources of their powerlessness and see the possibility of acting collectively to change their social environment.”

“Commercialized feminism” is most prominent in the self-help industry, Goodkind says, “where large sums of money are being made from people desperate to find ways to feel better about themselves.”

“Much of the self-help industry … tells people, especially girls and women, that the source of their bad feelings is their lack of confidence, independence and a failure to measure up to societal ideals, rather than questioning the ideals themselves.”

In looking at programs for girls in the justice system in Detroit, Goodkind wondered, “Is it fair to blame girls for low self-esteem when society so devalues them?”

One of the second-wave ideals of feminism was for women to not rely on men to demonstrate their worth, but also this individual valuation was supposed to be accompanied by broad social change in which the social value of all women is enhanced.

The programs in Detroit and other places are instructing girls that they have to power themselves out of poverty, abuse and oppression, Goodkind said. It downplays discrimination and tells women they have more control than they actually do and leads women to blame themselves when they don’t succeed.

On its surface it seems positive telling girls and women that they can do anything and pushing them to work toward lofty goals, Goodkind said. But she takes issue with the implication that this is all that is needed to achieve gender equity.

“The #MeToo movement is a good example of empowerment in the reclaimed sense, of girls and women working together to heal themselves and their communities and to create social change,” she said.

The recently formed Black Girls Advocacy and Leadership Alliance — in which Pitt, Chatham and Point Park students serve as mentors — is helping to develop girls as leaders who will advocate for social change.

The goal is that through involvement in a program that helps the girls identify the obstacles that they face, they will be personally empowered, promoting their physical and mental health.

Goodkind concluded that “any meaningful empowerment of girls and women will require social change. Individual girls and women ‘leaning in’ will not be enough.”

Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at or 412-648-4294.