There’s A Lot More To Change Than Movement Organizations Doing A Bad Job

Activism and running a non-profit organization are often confused. What is sad is when the precious and rare gems who are activists get sucked into the drama of movement organizations doing a bad job, and it becomes an end in itself. Eyes on the prize, my dear doves: Change society. Let those multitudes who are not activists focus on changing the organizations that make a brand out of change that needs to occur.

Activism is a difficult, though often enjoyable, state of motion. It is fueled by a strategic demand and employs a variety tactics to change a broader culture. Activism takes time, determination, persistence. It includes a willingness to make frowned-upon personal disclosures, examine one’s own actions critically and stand up for principles, even at great personal cost or risk. In popular culture, the snapshot of activism we most see is a photograph or quote in the news, or getting to talk on television, but the cold truth is that most activist work is not that glamourous and many (by no means all) of the people getting photographed and talking on television are people who stand nearby or support the work of activists, rather than serve as activists themselves.

Women’s suffrage champion Susan B. Anthony captured the spirit of activism in the following:

“Cautious, careful people, always casting about to preserve their reputation and social standing, never can bring about a reform. Those who are really in earnest must be willing to be anything or nothing in the world’s estimation.”

Susan B. Anthony

Let’s be honest. This profile does not fit most people. It doesn’t mean that most people are bad. Nor does it mean that those people are bad who offer support to a cause once it has been made palatable or popular by activists (for goodness sakes, the point of activism is not to create a righteous little club in a world of awful, but to change society — which includes building support from those who weren’t allies before).

Further, people can be activists in some life phases and not in others. This is reality. There is often, but not always, privilege supporting the ability to push boundaries. Likewise, that doesn’t mean the people pushing boundaries are bad, but it does mean that when people need to be able to afford to eat, which is always, they might not always be able to speak out on an issue at the present time, which is often.

By its nature, running a non-profit organization affiliated with a cause or movement is a radically different state of affairs than activism itself. You have funders. You have boards. You have bureaucracy. It’s not uncommon for non-profit organizations that started out as activist collectives to, over time, become institutionalized and spend increasing time focused on the maintenance of themselves.  Sometimes, but not always, that includes developing a stake in the non-resolution of the issue that caused the non-profit to be founded in the first place. When times are bad, funders dump dollars. If the mission is accomplished, we have to go away. Type of thing. (Previous sentence is a verbal tic from a character in “The Pale King,” David Foster Wallace’s novel about employees in an IRS Regional Examination Center. Analogy purposeful and painfully apt.)

Which is not to say that you don’t have activists who work for non-profit organizations. But it is to say that it’s pretty hard to do both. There is a tension between maintaining institutions created because of the status quo, many of which will eventually outlive their relevance, and making change.

If you are an activist, recognize the non-profit industrial complex for what it is. You want a job in one? You want to volunteer for one? Go for it. Good for you. Service organizations do wonderful work to support individuals affected by an issue. Movement organizations often support activism and do wonderful work to help those making change on an issue, but no movement organization should be mistaken with the movement itself (while the media does this all the time, an activist should not bother). Political organizations help to change elections and the public policy making process, often leveraging activists, but no political organization should be mistaken with a social change movement.

Activists are rare indeed. If you are one, protect your activism fiercely to the extent you can. One of the best ways to do that is focus on changing the broader world, rather than changing a movement organization doing a bad job. It is sad to see how much time is wasted by those willing to be despised … trying to change a non-profit that is not advancing the issue they care about. If a movement organization is doing a bad job, acknowledge it and move on. Do not confuse changing it with changing society. Instead, be the change you wish to see. Think bigger, and create the conditions you believe are needed in the broader world from a space that is effective. Be awesome or don’t bother.

P.S. In a post like this, I would be remiss not to mention I’m giving an activism how-to workshop designed just for this year’s Visions in Feminism conference: Bringing Feminism to Un-Feminist Spaces. It takes place Saturday, April 6, in Washington, D.C. You’re invited!


Good Feminists, Let’s Not Try To “Speak For All Women” Anymore

No one can “speak for all women.” It’s time to let this verbal contortion go without blame, shame, recrimination — let’s us this feminist community take this rhetorical device and flush it sweetly and swiftly like a live spider, somehow misplaced indoors, that doesn’t need to be throttled to the death by our bare hands.

Not everyone does it, but many do. I have done it myself. See, there! Before you think I’m attacking you and ruffle up your collar, you can just smile and say I’m a hypocrite. Except I’m not attacking you, and I’m not a hypocrite. I’m evolving. If this topic affects you, you are capable of it, too.

Changes within feminism are cause for celebration, proof that the struggle for women’s human rights, is a living, breathing thing. It is honor, not rebuke, to our feminist foremothers and fathers to adapt our calls for justice to the times, to make them more inclusive for more people, to update our tactics, to think freely for ourselves and trust our ability and others’ ability to do so.

Indeed, speaking your own truth with confidence — embracing the confidence to know that you are the foremost authority on yourself — is a feminist act, a radical act in a society that continues to second-guess women and girls and tell them at every corner to jettison their judgement for what they should be doing better, which is usually BE MORE SEXY or BE MORE VIRGINAL or BE LESS BITCHY or FORGET ABOUT CHILDCARE AT WORK AND EQUITABLE PARTNERSHIPS AT HOME, YOU JUST NEED TO LEARN HOW TO MANAGE YOUR SCHEDULE AND BUY THESE NEAT CLOSET ORGANIZERS or STOP BEING SUCH A FUCKING SLUT (the magazine headlines put most of this a little more nicely, but the substance more or less holds).

To think freely, to take up space, to believe you have a right to your own truths in a world still so toxic toward women is a compliment to Alice Paul and every feminist who came before you.

Having spent a lot of time in feminist spaces and perusing feminist media dominated by the “speaking for all women” bug, I can attest to having seen first-hand how, as I said in another post reflecting on Betty Friedan and The Feminine Mystique, people can speak profoundly well for themselves, and do themselves and others a disservice when they try to speak for others at the same time. I have seen how, through probably no intent of the speakers, “speaking for all women” smashes what should be kaleidoscopic perspectives of women’s lives. Specifically, I’ve seen how the self-imposed and unproductive pressure to “speak for all women” tends to:

  • Discount or stand in opposition to the actual lived experiences of non-dominant groups within the in-group (if they’re even there), especially women of color, women of faith, women in other countries and cultures, younger women, younger parents — working within a religion means you are “oppressed,” teen motherhood is a “tragedy,” the classic lie that “young women take feminism for granted”
  • Redirect diversity efforts from expanding perspectives/strategies/work to focus only on representational diversity (important, but not sufficient in itself) — “we need a [black woman/young woman/immigrant woman] to sit on this panel or sign this letter we’ve already put together”
  • Trash women who do their part to move feminism forward within their realm of expertise — last night I went to a networking and mentoring event for undergraduate college women, many not so sure of themselves, and the first introduction to Sheryl Sandberg from the panel was an apology: “I know she gets criticism, but …”
  • Shift focus to “choices,” an insistence upon picking at and policing women’s personal lives rather than acknowledging we’re blamed for our second-class status no matter what we do, a dos and don’ts feminism if you will — suggestions that the fate of feminism (or at least your enlightenment) rests on whether you get married or change your name 
  • Lead some speakers to apologize for who they are and taking up space — “I’m not a younger woman, but I’m really supportive of younger feminists … am I still allowed to help?,” and other concerns that not being exactly like others around you means you “can’t be a feminist”
  • Shame feminists who are trying to get by as much as all the other women on the planet — whether that means wearing revealing clothing, not caring about your clothing, or enduring life events that are no fault of your own, including having low self-esteem, dealing with abusive relationships, being underpaid
  • Discourage the evolution of ideas and leadership within the women’s movement — if you can’t speak for everyone, well then you should just sit down and listen to someone who does it anyway (see concerns above, this is exactly why we need more voices, not fewer!)

So okay, what can we do next? Speak for ourselves. Speak for women. Acknowledge that speaking for women means also helping to lift up the voices of women with different races, sexualities, abilities, different perspectives, different views. It’s all feminist fair game if the discussion rests on revealing our own individual truths and moving forward societal actions that expand justice for other women — under this definition, we can quickly discard the few on the fray who suggest that taking away reproductive rights from women and awarding them to church and state is feminist, or that what we need isn’t the Violence Against Women Act, but more gun proliferation.

Change is good. Believing in yourself and your right to be present is awesome. So is listening to others without judgement or pressure to be more like you. Diversity is strength. Honesty is revolutionary. Good feminists, let’s not try to “speak for all women” anymore.

Podcast On Pregnancy, Eating Disorders, Body Image And Feminism

I did a new podcast with Fully Engaged Feminism on pregnancy, eating disorders, body image and feminism.

I first spoke out about my experience with Pregnancy After An Eating Disorder on this blog late last year, and in response the lovely feminist writer Amy Choi interviewed me for Feministing and added her insights.

I’m not done speaking out. I’m not going to shut up. When I first started researching resources for pregnant women who have struggled with eating disorders or body image issues, I found very little. There is a bit of medical management information for those who are pregnant or trying to get pregnant, and actively have an eating disorder today. But little about pregnancy after an eating disorder, or even negative self-image struggles.

I’m not shutting up because I know there are tons of women out there like me — women who are in recovery, who don’t need medical support to manage the pregnancy, who don’t see much out there on the Internets acknowledging our existence. Some of us want to know how to stop the old Body Image Beelzebubs from coming back. Some of us want to know how to tell them to be quiet. Some of us don’t need a “how-to,” necessarily, but simply want an acknowledgement that body shame is a) real and b) sure becomes a focal point during pregnancy.

Given the lack of information out there, I intend to keep speaking up and sharing my experiences, and encourage others who feel comfortable to do the same. Sometimes we need to create the thing we wish already existed.

Anyway, check out the new podcast. We had a terrific time and I’m so grateful to Laura for having me on. She also made a sick good pan of vegan brownies and taught me how to make a podcast. Gratitude.

A Preliminary Observation On Lean In

Encouraging women to believe in themselves and their own power? Yes. In what universe should we not?

From my own experiences as a manager and mentor, as well as employee, I can tell you some of the best returns on human capital investment I’ve seen come from encouraging younger women to believe in their worth. That they deserve to be in the room. That they should air differing perspectives. That they must be treated (and compensated) fairly.

Needless to say, I’m really looking forward to reading Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, Lean In. I want women to be openly ambitious. No, I don’t think ambition alone is going to end sexism, along with racism, homophobia, class privilege, ableism and other discriminations that interact with  sexism to hold women down. But it is a necessary ingredient.

In the short term I would like to make the preliminary observation over how perplexing it is to see that the feminist blogosphere and feminist publications have been lit up with a “controversy” over whether or not Sandberg’s book is “good for women.” Meanwhile, the cover of Time magazine asks if we shouldn’t hate Sandberg because she is successful. And a few nights ago Bill Maher had four men and one woman discussing the book. It was its own joke. No one said the punchline.

As someone who has held a variety of big feminist titles, something I started doing from a pretty young age, I’ve had a number of young women ask me how I did it, because they want to “lead feminism.”

My primary piece of advice for anyone who wants to “lead feminism” is to take your ambition and “lean in” to the real world. Generational shifts, owing to the work of older feminists, have made a strong feminist leader’s options much larger than running a women’s organization, which is always going to be more insular in reach.

Go lead a business. Go become a creative director. Go run for public office. Go become a school principal. Go follow whatever your heart tells you to do, but go out into the real world, and do it where women feminists are not the only leaders. I wish we saw more feminists on Bill Maher, discussing women in the workplace with a broader group, than we are seeing discussing, in many cases, themselves within a smaller group.