The media loves to search for the next Gloria Steinem, as if what feminism most needs today is an iconic leader for everyone to follow. But we don’t need a singular icon, we need the actions of multiple leaders. The solution is reflected in the words of a Hopi elder: “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”
On the other end of the spectrum, some argue that feminism is best served without any leaders at all. The reason for pause is understandable.
Ironically enough, some of the worst instincts of second wave feminism yielded into a small but noisy sect of hierarchal, top-down leaders who lost sight of the anti-dominance ideals that are at the core of the movement. Further, leadership circles tend to reflect privilege: white, able-bodied, gender-conforming, class privilege. Diversity is not just about who is at the table, and who sees that table and believes they are welcome to sit, but also which perspectives get centered. Finally, speaking for all women, as iconic leaders are wont to do, is a ridiculous urge. Whether it is an individual or a group of people, speaking for ‘all women’ is more harmful than helpful to the modern feminist cause. I’ve written about that before here.
All those disclaimers said — feminism needs more leaders. The great news is that we are all right here. You and me and everyone we know can and should step up to be the feminist leaders of today.
One of the most important places to take leadership is outside the feminist movement. Back when I had a hierarchal title within a hierarchal feminist organization, younger women used to say to me all the time: “I want to do exactly what you’ve done. Tell me how.” And my honest answer is: Don’t. Don’t limit yourself to taking leadership inside feminism, particularly in a movement job that probably isn’t going to pay you very well or provide much mobility (especially at the entry levels).
Feminism doesn’t need a queen or a savior. But looking more broadly, more feminism and more diversity in leadership is sorely needed. Disturbingly, the world is still largely run by white guys doing it by themselves.
So yes, organize and wave your feminist flag everywhere you can (including inside the movement). But go forth and be a feminist leader in government, in business, in your family, in your faith community if you choose to take part in one, and in non-profit organizations that aren’t focused solely on women.
Do not be afraid to take leadership ever. It is incredibly feminist to take leadership. Feminism needs more leaders, not fewer leaders. The modern feminist leadership is action-oriented rather than iconic or symbolic, collaborative, diverse, dynamic, and external, not internal, in focus.