I appeared on PBS’ To The Contrary, and discussed the Texas abortion law, the Facebook whistleblower, and declining marriage rates:
The increasing attention on the abusive treatment Britney Spears has received in the media throughout her career as well as a conservatorship that robs this talented, brilliant woman of basic control over her own life has put the spotlight on a number of important conversations, including the rights of people with disabilities to live with autonomy and dignity and the real crappiness and sexism of the 2000s.
This is when my feminist activism began, and I recall how being a feminist not of the baby boom generation was considered such an abberation at the time that basically anyone was labelled a “young feminist,” whether they were 5 or 45. I was one of them, and would like to pause and reflect back on how different it was to do feminism then than it is now.
We were marginalized. Basically everyone, whether or not they identified as feminist, was getting date raped whether they acknowledged it as that or not. People repeated Rush Limbaugh’s “feminazi” slur uncritically. Literally the first question I usually got was, “are you a lesbian?,” which rules because lesbians are awesome, but made no sense coming from people like a live-in boyfriend’s family.
While there was really exciting growth of activism among my age cohort, and second wave feminists pursued incremental progress within the corridors of power, overall the movement was in a fallow period. This is not a slam. The young feminists of the 2000s and early 2010s were successful beyond our wildest dreams. In the span of those years, feminism shifted from a punchline to a mainstream value. While I love the more radical, less-mainstreamy stuff, especially the hard questions about claiming sexual equality and pleasure, deconstructing white womanhood and its relation to systemic racism, and challenging gender roles and gender period, it matters when people more generally want to advance gender equality. We engineered that change, us feminists in the 2000s, through blogs and protests in the streets when most people thought what we did was a joke and older feminists thought we really needed to cover up our midriffs. It is because of our work that the numbers grew. There are so many more feminist activists today, just look!
Of course we talked about Britney then. We were, like everyone else, obsessed with her. We would endlessly debate whether Britney and other stars were empowering for women and what it all meant. But we were climbing up hill, all of us. I’m proud of how far we have come.
A simple request to ‘pick your brain’ can be costly and frankly insulting to some consultants who make money based on sharing the expertise they have built in a given field. But I’d like to argue for a more nuanced position:
Not all requests to ‘pick your brain’ are bad.
Personally I grant a good deal of requests for ideas, conversation, or advice from young and/or less established people who share my values. My belief is that if I’m not investing in the next generation of feminist leaders and creators, I’m not doing my job as a social change agent. This not to say that I’m a pushover: If I’m too busy, or simply don’t see a request for a conversation as a good use of my time, I will respectfully decline. But I am proud to have spoken with a number of people over the years to offer support, encouragement, or a few words of advice on their journey.
I respect those who have boundaries such that they automatically turn down all requests for free advice or quote an hourly rate. Where I have landed, however, is evaluating requests on a case-by-case basis and maintaining strict control of how much time I allot to these requests. As I do so, I remember all of those who have helped me, with gratitude.
Recently I learned that a colleague working in reproductive rights had graduated from the University of Notre Dame. My eyes nearly popped out of my head. “Stay active in your campus community,” I said. “You’ve got to do it.”
I am a proud alum of Georgetown University, which provided me an excellent education and foundation for the social justice work I do. I’ve made a point to stay active in the campus community over the years — interviewing prospective undergraduate students, serving on panels and at speed mentoring events facilitated by the career center, mentoring students through the Women’s Center, speaking to the H*yas for Choice unofficial student group, and providing direct financial support. I was very honored one year to serve as a judge for the Merrick Debate for the Philodemic Society. I have weighed in on a debate through the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affiars as to whether you can oppose abortion and be a feminist (spoiler alert: not possible!). Basically, anything they ask me to do, I will do it.
I have also undertaken activism with regard to my campus community. Every time I interact with H*yas for Choice, the group on campus which advocates for abortion rights, I give them a financial donation. Most times when I donate directly to the university, I will add notes about how I would donate more if student activities funds could be allocated to H*yas for Choice as well. Simply put, there are brilliant women at Georgetown who deserve to have their basic humanity respected.
I enjoy following the lead of the brave students of H*yas for Choice who are not officially recognized by the campus community and have had their rights trampled on by the university, as happened a few years ago when campus police removed them from tabling on a public sidewalk that was not university property. When that happened, I organized more than 200 alums to sign an open letter to the university president requesting that the situation be rectified to support free speech on (and in this case off) campus, which was met by an apology to the students and a formal explication of free speech rights on campus (and after which I gave the university the largest donation of my life).
I’m sharing this because if you attended a Catholic university and are a feminist, I’m asking you to remain engaged as an alum within your campus community. Students do not need us to lead their battles on campus — young people are inspiring and so fully capable — but it is helpful when we back them up. Further, it’s critical. There is a well-organized right wing that organizes a small but vocal minority of alums to place pressure on their Catholic universities when, for example, speakers who support birth control are brought to campus. This has led to protests of speaking engagements by presidents, cabinet secretaries, and other major players such as the president of Planned Parenthood as if consideration of all sides of an issue is against the principle of higher learning. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
I love my world-class university and all it has taught me over the years, including a non-profit management executive certificate I recently completed. What I have also seen is that the right-wing is well-organized in trying to pull Catholic colleges further to the right, at times making threats that they will petition the Vatican to revoke their Catholic status. Such efforts are widely out of step with the base of alums who need you, dear feminist alum, to take leadership. Please stay engaged in your alma mater. Even if you partake in other forms of activism, staying engaged with your former Catholic college could be some of the most important work you do in your lifetime for young women.
To my lovely young feminists, don’t apologize for being young. You are not “just” an intern or however many years old. You are a person. You deserve to take up space.
In many spaces, declaring yourself a feminist can be hard. Working for change is even harder. Overcoming internalized sexism and other forms of oppression is a bitch. For this, you are strong. Remember that strength and take up the space you deserve.
As women, we are taught to doubt ourselves and our worthiness to be at the table. I have seen this play out especially with young feminists — an identity I held for so long, it turned me old.
This is not to say that older people don’t have something valuable to share. For that matter, a younger person could be more seasoned than an older person within feminism specifically, and this isn’t to say that more experienced people — regardless of age — don’t have something valuable to share. Humility toward the experience of others is an asset. Having the wisdom to listen to others rather than shutting your ears before they open their mouths is a form of maturity that will carry you everywhere.
But as that goes, being young is also a lived experience. Yes, older people were young once, but they are not living the life you lead in this current moment. So it’s important for you to speak up and take up space. In fact, it’s critically important for you to take up space at a time when women of reproductive age are treated with such disdain under the law (and, unfortunately, even by some lawmakers who claim to be on our side but are willing to compromise on our bodies and our humanity in order to win elections or achieve other policy goals).
Don’t apologize for sitting at the table, minimize your opinion, or disclaimer your thoughts with your lack of experience. Clear your throat and say your piece. If you are afraid to do it, hate on the gendered nature of imposter syndrome — and then speak up.
Phyllis Schlafly died yesterday. Many of the obituary headlines referred to her as the ‘first lady of the conservative movement.’ These headlines were ironically, or perhaps perfectly, totally sexist in themselves, since she and not her husband sowed the seeds of the hate cult the Republican Party depends on to elect many of its candidates to office.
It was Mrs. Schlafly, as I have long called her, who worked with Paul Weyrich and others to develop the divisive strategy of preying on “moral issues” — abortion, and antipathy toward women and LGBTQ people, among other things — to secure a permanent religious right voting bloc for conservative candidates who would vote against corporate regulation and racial equality. If you wanted to get your Jerry Falwell on, Mrs. Schlafly was your gal.
She is credited with killing the Equal Rights Amendment, a wildly popular measure to this day. Most people think women have constitutional equality and want women to have constitutional equality. Phyllis Schlafly killed that, in what amounts to one of the most dismal failures of the second wave women’s movement. She did this by organizing, and speaking, but also by enlisting the worst allies.
The auto insurance industry wanted to keep charging women more, because among other things, discrimination is a driver of the rich staying rich. She fomented unreasonable panic about the military and invented the hapless, sweet woman who would be attacked by the predator in the bathroom because of your equality law. Phyllis Schlafly invented gardens and cauldrons of evil that continue to toxify the environment in which we live — against women, and now transgender people, and probably at least one if not several of your neighbors.
She was an early supporter of Donald Trump this election cycle, at a time when many cultural conservatives couldn’t get behind the lying philanderer (Note: They seem to have no problem when it’s far-right Christians who go hiking away from their marriages on the Appalachian trail with their mistresses). It made a great deal of sense, as he was, in some ways, following the footsteps she laid.
Phyllis Schlafly knew instinctively that lying, that saying hateful, outrageous things not backed by data, was not the losing proposition self-smug, reasoned liberals make it out to be. She knew that attention is part of power. She bred people like Ann Coulter, and yes, Donald Trump.
Why am I writing this? On the occasion of her death, I began to receive a number of text messages, probably because I debated her when I was 24. Here is the story I posted to Facebook last night:
Phyllis Schlafly died today.
I debated her in 2004 at a Federalist Society event on feminist jurisprudence at the University of St. Thomas Law School. I had just left my first husband and was kind of a mess, at that time in my life.
And yet I studied for weeks amid the boxes and chaos of a temporary apartment. I bought her books and scribbled in the margins. I put on my only suit. I wore heels. I called her Mrs. Schlafly the whole time.
I stunned that lady speechless. (I agreed with her that Social Security discriminates against stay-at-home mothers and called on her to work together to fix it.)
After the debate was over, she turned to me and hissed. “I have debated hundreds of your NOW ladies over the years, and nobody has responded to me that way.” Her bouffant was so full of Aquanet that it did not move.
“Well, Mrs. Schlafly,” I said in an equally low voice. “I’m just one member of a young feminist task force and one of thousands of young women in this country who are not going to stop fighting until women are equal and it’s done.” She looked at me and turned her head back to the front.
We exchanged no more words.
I guess I have a little more to say. When I was preparing to debate her, one of my strategies was to paint her as a walking anachronism. I may have called her that, even. I was barely 24 and she was in her 80s, so it wasn’t hard.
It pains me to see so many people going the cheap, quick, and easy route in dismissing her death. Hateful quotes of hers are spotlighted, and we all reassure ourselves that outright sexism is in the past and bigoted leaders are gone. They couldn’t possibly win in the future. That is not true. In a practical, political sense, Phyllis Schlafly is as alive today as she was yesterday, and she will continue to live on.
People who hold the same contemptuous views about their fellow human beings that Phyllis Schlafly did hold the majority power in Congress.
Racist gerrymandering gave us the Republican supermajorities in the states who put guns on college campuses and probes up vaginas, and give private companies the power to literally poison the public water that runs through faucets in communities of color, but/and it was the voter outreach strategy that depends on decades of Mrs. Schlafly’s work that also helped to propel them there.
The Republican nominee for president is the most outright bigot you could put on the stage, and it’s the primary reason why he won the primary base of that party.
So to smirk to ourselves that Phyllis Schlafly is gone, when the enduring and hateful power that she built is not, is to embrace a lefty ignorance that will only lose us more elections.
Fundamentally, Phyllis Schlafly understood that to win, you need the votes. The game is about numbers. The game is not about being right. The game is about saying the things that will support the organizing that gives you the numbers you need.
Now, I am not advocating that progressives abdicate the moral high ground. Lying is not right. In fact it is despicable. Preying on the worst in people is not right. There is a way to love one another, to use facts, and to win. I believe this with all of my heart, or I wouldn’t be typing this in my free time when I have a kid and no time for hobbies. But we cannot lose sight of the fact that we need to do the work and get the votes to win.
It was pretty amazing that Phyllis Schlafly was willing to do the work and get the votes to win by crossing one of the most unthinkable barriers for women — by being willing to be disliked. I think modern feminists could learn a lot from that, actually. Whether heel or sneaker, power comes from putting your foot down, too — not just from making other people, including your political allies, smile.
The other thing we need to remember is that Phyllis Schlafly was the poster child for STOP ERA because she was a woman. We will never stop having conservative women lead the organizing charge for the reactionary movement. It is not an error — it is the strategy. Women are more effective at enforcing regressive social norms than men are, particularly now that Republican men are a bit sensitive about all the ‘war on women’ stuff they’ve earned nine times over.
We need to accept that women are spokespeople and strategists of the conservative movement. We need to accept that women do misogyny, and they do it very well. I predict the phenomenon of bigoted conservative women (mostly white women) will increase, not decrease, as the years go by. Phyllis Schlafly laid the framework. Now more conservative women are going to get it.
Finally, I am really over the second-wave women’s movement congratulating itself for being right. You probably were right with regards to Phyllis Schlafly’s unique blend of hatred and doe-eyed strategic idiocy, and you certainly were with regards to the Equal Rights Amendment, and it didn’t matter. She beat you because she out-organized you. The way to win for the future is not to dig into the trenches Betty Friedan built that didn’t work the first time.
Passion won’t solve this. ‘Awareness’ won’t solve this. Unhelpful pleas for doing right for ‘all women’ certainly won’t solve it. Conflating the Democratic Party’s electoral needs with the women’s movement won’t solve it, either.
Accept and spotlight the diversity of women’s experiences in all of their messiness. Do it because it’s beautiful, but also do it to get the goddamn leadership and votes to put an Equal Rights Amendment into the Constitution.
I appeared as a panelist on this week’s To The Contrary, and discussed Donald Trump and women, sexual assault at religious universities, and the evolution of feminism.
You can watch a video of the show here:
I often get asked: I want your job; how do I do that? Here is a compilation of advice and reflection I’ve given over the years.
“Being a feminist” is not a job. Being a feminist ___ is.
Pick a function or at least a set of skills that sound interesting. Maybe you like writing? Or fundraising? Or are interested in lobbying? If there are employers out there hiring feminists because they are feminists, I’ve yet to meet them (though they do sound lovely). You are going to be infinitely more employable if you say you’re interested in accounting, marketing, something — and yes, feminist organizations hire for all of these things.
You can still be a feminist and work anywhere, not just with a non-profit or an NGO.
I have worked in: Advertising agencies, consulting firms, investment research firms, writing companies, financial service firms, media organizations, and explicitly feminist non-profits. Working for a feminist employer is not what makes a ‘real’ feminist, it’s your values that count. This world needs more feminist bankers, doctors, and retail store managers. And let’s be honest — the pay in feminist organizations has a tendency to suck. It’s okay (and feminist) to want and seek more money than a movement job can provide.
Do not, under any circumstances, work for free.
Volunteering on your own schedule and for tasks you choose is fine, but unpaid internships are not your friend. You should not work as an de facto employee or member of a team of paid employees without getting paid. There are other internships and jobs out there that can be stepping stones toward the job you really want, even inside the organization offering you an unpaid internship, and you deserve to be paid.
Further, do not work for free. Do not offer to work for free as a trial, or delay paychecks if an organization you love is struggling financially. I drained my savings to work for an organization that didn’t pay me for months, and owed me back pay for years. It was horrible and I’m ashamed of myself for doing it; don’t make this mistake.
There isn’t a cause on Earth worth a toxic work environment.
Do not, under any circumstance, confuse an employer or a single organization with a movement. There are a million ways you can do feminist work. If someone is abusing you, harassing you, or otherwise treating you like crap, put yourself first and find a way to leave as quickly as you can. No regrets!
Seek out the smaller organizations.
Some of the most interesting work in the women’s movement is happening within smaller organizations you may not have heard of. Sure, request your informational interviews with the more obvious feminist organizations, but be sure to ask each person you talk to what other organizations they admire. They’re likely to name some folks you haven’t heard of; track those organizations down. They are likely to both be doing more ground-breaking work and offer more meaningful work for someone at the entry-level.
If your dream is leadership in a legacy organization, don’t move to Washington or New York.
In my personal experience, starting at the entry level and working your way up in the national office of a large, big-name feminist organization is exactly how to ensure you never ascend beyond middle management — in the best case scenario. These legacy organizations tend to be quite hierarchical, and entry-level employees at headquarters are often paid poorly, respected less, and spit out like cherry pits. If you want to build up leadership experience and have meaningful tasks, go work in a state affiliate. That’s where many of the most impactful fights are, anyway.
But still, your dream is to be the president of ____. Oh, boy.
Love me some ambition, but if you can’t articulate why you want to lead a specific organization and/or what new thing you would want to accomplish in such-and-such role, you’re just star-fucking.
Do not enter public feminism with the illusion that people will like you.
Feminists are generally treated like shit — by the outside world, and other feminists. Very few people will applaud you for doing the hard work it takes to advance equality and justice. Most will be mean, patronizing, or stare down your shirt instead. For that matter, I meet many people who believe that feminism is like a Xanadu where women are nice to each other and sit around saying, “great idea” while eating potato chips dipped in chocolate. Not so. Movement work is hotly contested, messy, and filled with rivalries and difficult personalities. And most everything you strive for will be shot down, in the broader world and the feminist world. It’s okay to be motivated by praise from others or visible progress — it’s totally human — but if that’s critical for you, there may be better fields.
But actually, it can be awesome.
I wouldn’t trade my life for the world. Every day I get to work on issues I care deeply about, and I do believe my efforts make a difference. There are hard-fought tangible political or institutional wins, yes — and those are the best. But the barely visible personal is at least as gratifying and exciting.
It literally makes my whole life when people I know from high school or an old job tell me I helped them see an issue differently, or someone who I helped with an informational interview comes back years later and tells me they are doing awesome work. I am moved to tears by women who seize their courage, stand up for themselves, and tell me about it. I am challenged and inspired every day by feminists who have it more figured out than I ever will.
A therapist told me to try a women’s studies class, so I did that first semester of my freshman year. I still remember exactly what I was wearing that September morning in 1998, not because it was a cute outfit but because I was obsessed with my legs. The therapist had been treating me for an eating disorder that nearly killed me a few months before.
In this context, going to college was a luxury; hell, living was a luxury. I enrolled in Women’s Studies 101 to check a box. Instead a new world opened. I don’t say this hyperbolically — feminism helped save my life. I was able through relapses and hospitalizations and treatment to stabilize and beat down the anorexia. But what truly saved my life was making the connection that eating disorders are just one manifestation of a deeply sexist world that denigrates and trivializes women, weaponizes our bodies against us, and then tells us it’s all our fucking fault anyway.
With its radical messages of dignity, equality, and honesty, my feminism made it impossible for me to go back to the dark side. How the light went on! I dove headfirst into all the women writers. Kate Chopin, Sylvia Plath, Alexandra Kollontai, Shulamith Firestone, Valerie Solanis. Judith Butler. I told myself I wanted to be a women’s studies professor someday. Until I realized that a lot of this postmodern stuff was hard to read, and I could have an obscure argument in an obscure language with about three other people who maybe understood me, or I could try to work for justice out in the real world.
So this is the ironic thing. I had a series of proto-feminist moments (making GOTV calls for the woman who could have been Minnesota’s first woman senator when I was 11, writing about gender discrimination in the SAT for the school newspaper, the obsession with the Indigo Girls) well before I started taking women’s studies courses in college. But it wasn’t until I left the classroom and went into the feminist non-profit world that I became a “young feminist.” Even if by that time I was 21. Not 18. Or 11.
I’m 35 and I still get called “young feminist” in those contexts on occasion today, although that says far more about those contexts than my age. If 35 is young, it’s only to reflect our societal fears of identifying as old, and our societal inability to give our young people career opportunities with growth potential rather than a pile of student debt that’s damn near impossible for so many to repay. The weird thing is that the term young feminist exists at all.
This label, like anything that impacts a person’s identity, is complicated for me. Sometimes I love the term — you know, it is true that people will have different views of what equality will look like as they grow up in different generations. If all goes well, after all, what a previous generation of feminists fought for should be appallingly conservative to the next generation.
And yet sometimes I think the concept of a young feminist is total horse shit. I identified as a feminist a few years before feminist non-profits taught me to identify as a young feminist. Just what was the point of segregating us?
I bristle every single time I hear someone say that young women need to be educated so they don’t take the freedoms they’ve gained for granted. First because not every woman has gained the freedoms we’re told feminism has won. But also and especially because it’s so insulting. Talking down to young women is anti-feminist. Presuming young women are not capable of identifying and articulating and fighting for what they need to live as full human beings is anti-feminist. Treating young women as sidekicks in a women’s movement is anti-feminist, particularly in a legislative context where older white men are obsessed with controlling and restricting younger women’s bodies, and demonizing those who dare to have sex and live their lives anyway.
And yet it happens all the time. Today was the latest entry with Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) expressing regret over the “complacency” of young women born after Roe v. Wade (1973, how young!). Blaming apathetic young women for the declining state of abortion access has been something of a cottage industry hovering over the pro-choice movement ever since I’ve been around, but in the last few years the situation has gotten markedly better, in large part due to those with less power having the ability to present alternative views on social media. To my knowledge there wasn’t a similar mechanism to democratize voices between activists and the leaders making the big bucks before then.
You know, we should push back every single time someone ‘on our side’ tells us young women are apathetic about feminism or abortion or any number of concerns that impact our lives. We should push back that young men are somehow not included in the group who should take equal responsibility to work toward progress. But frankly I’m getting old (a privilege for which I feel blessed, not shamed) and sometimes I wonder if we will ever find that moment where we won’t have to fight for the full recognition of young people in a women’s movement that has a tendency to treat them as helpmeets or hire them as unpaid interns.
There are approximately two gray hairs on my head now, and I swear, at least half of them came from a vocal minority of older feminists who have been patronizing or worse about my work.
I appeared as a panelist on this week’s episode of To The Contrary, and discussed Hillary Clinton, egg donation, and Gloria Steinem.
You can watch a video of the show here: