Sheryl Sandberg has a new campaign. Beyonce has a sexy dance at the award show. A woman is running for political office. And, reliably, in every instance, you will hear women’s advocates disagree with what she is doing.
This should happen for the simple fact that women are not all the same, and we don’t all think the same. We sure as hell don’t have the same experiences. Yet surprisingly, this fact is little acknowledged within mainstream discourse. One woman’s actions are interpreted to speak for what is possible for the whole. We do not do this to heterosexual white men.
If a heterosexual white man is elected into office, we don’t comment on the message he is sending to other heterosexual white men. We comment on his ideas. If a woman has enough privilege to share her ideas with a broader audience, which remains relatively rare, we insist upon placing a frame around her that simultaneously evaluates all other women and urges women to disagree with her.
It is precisely because women in the public eye are interpreted as representing the whole that women, including but not limited to feminist women, are under pressure to so vehemently disagree with the actions of women in the public eye. We have been presented with a vision of gender empowerment that gives women one to a few slots among a sea of other slots primarily occupied by heterosexual white men. We are supposed to celebrate the few women leaders we have, and encourage ourselves and others to be just like them. What this means is that someone else has already beaten us to the punch. We are, in other words, encouraged to compete with other women rather than insist that heterosexual white men share power to the extent that a diverse array of women can share an equal seat at the table.
When a strong woman acts, the next step in the social media world is to talk about her ideas or actions in relation to that woman. A referendum on her action ensues. It is beneficial to analyze, disagree, and parse out new opinions, yes. Women are not all the same.
Still, it would be nice to see a referendum on the practice of assigning women and in particular feminist women the job of picking apart the actions of the comparatively few women leaders we have. It is both radical and necessary to call for a culture of abundance, where more than one type of womanhood is celebrated and supported, and more than a few women get to speak for the whole. The whole is never going to be one woman speaking for all women; that form of feminism is out-of-date. Let’s also rewrite the sell-by date on the practice of demanding women reply to and vehemently disagree with the actions of the pathetically small number of women at the top.
If we are truly engaged in a zero-sum game for increasing the options available to women (a premise a culture of abundance rejects anyway), a handful of brand-name women with platforms are the wrong target; white heterosexual men are not called upon to defend the way patriarchal dominance means they are evaluated primarily for their ideas every time they try something new.