To My Lovely Young Feminists, Don’t Apologize For Being Young

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.

 

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Phyllis Schlafly Is Dead, Her Legacy Remains Alive And Hell

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.

Phyllis Schlafly

So You Want A Feminist Job

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.

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Being A Young Feminist Can Turn A Girl Old

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.

On Nostalgia In Feminism

It is dangerous to present progress for women as an achievement of the past, but hey, it happens all the time. Today’s women’s movement is rife with nostalgia.

My argument is not that sharing stories is bad, nor that people with wisdom and experience to share are useless; in fact, education about the women’s movement throughout history and tapping into the talent of feminists of all generations is a vital part of moving forward.

But there is a line where the pursuit of an action agenda turns into a reflection on the past as an end in itself. Too often, that line is crossed.

Here’s just one tangible example (good grief, there are many): A few years ago, I attended a meeting of advocates working toward the ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). The woman opening the meeting said — I see the faces of all the people who’ve been talking about this with me since the ’80s. Who is new to this issue?

This statement wasn’t welcoming, undermined the knowledge of people who may have worked on the issue for years or even decades after the ’80s, and failed to place the emphasis where it belonged — the accountability of current elected officials holding the power and obligation to ratify the women’s treaty today.

The results of nostalgia-dominated feminism are manifest: newcomers are silenced,  others choose not to come back, and above all swapping memories takes the place of working together to set and achieve goals. This environment creates a vacuum where a movement is supposed to be. What is understood to be feminist action turns into a largely fear-based electoral push to “protect” the gains of the past by electing Democrats and defeating the guys who say rape isn’t so bad because then you get a baby. 

Recently Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid sent me a letter that pretty much says it all:

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(You bet I wrote back to him!)

The voter priorities suggestions are instructive. We can — and should — raise the minimum wage, reform campaign finance law, regulate Wall Street and big banking, and expand health care coverage. These are all positive goals, and activist goals at that. (Beyond the abortion whopper, WHICH WE’LL GET TO NEXT, notice that the only other negative statement of priority refers to “protecting” Social Security and Medicare. Figures. Expansions to these programs would disproportionately benefit women, since women tend to live longer and have fewer savings.)

But “defending a woman’s right to choose” is laughable because people are faced with a reproductive health care crisis today in large part due to very new laws that restrict the human rights and dignity of women.

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Abortion clinics are closing, y’all. Terrorist group Operation Rescue claims that three out of four abortion clinics that were open in 1991 are no longer open today — and that 73 clinics closed last year.

So when Harry Reid sends out a mailer in early 2015 saying we need to “defend” a woman’s right to choose, I frankly wonder what the Jupiter he is talking about. How much is left to defend? The financial and logistical barriers to abortion created and approved by elected officials of all parties means this country is filled with women who can’t “choose” their way out of a one-way street.

And while the abortion crisis is grave, and our elected officials who claim to care should stop reminiscing about a court decision from four decades ago and start working to expand abortion access, abortion is just one of so many things needed to ensure the full participation of women as equals in society.

Hanging our hats on the achievements of the past isn’t going to cut it; proactive action is the sauce. The United States needs paid parental leave like whoa. More than 5 million people don’t have health insurance because 22 states have failed to expand Medicaid. The new report from the Department of Justice makes it clear — it’s time to fire the Ferguson police department and start over. How about an Equal Rights Amendment? We could go on. 

I am talking about external, observable realities that can be seen by those outside the women’s movement, but the Democratic Party’s ‘throwback feminism without big, bold goals’ is absolutely related to what happens within explicitly feminist quarters.

Just earlier this week I attended a woman-focused gathering where a contingent of the room directed much of the conversation around their stories from the 1970s and ’80s. The stories were interesting, to be sure; but what I frankly don’t know is whether the women doing that hard work in the 1970s and ’80s spent as much of their time being told what happened in the ’30s and ’40s. My suspicion is that they spent much of their time focused on deconstructing the realities of their present and demanding a better future — which is how we will win now.

An over-reliance on the past is dangerous because much of second-wave feminism has become, ironically enough, a conservative position — within the movement and beyond. There aren’t many people who will look you in the face and tell you women’s shouldn’t be equal, and this holds true even for most of the people who push the most anti-woman policies.

Nostalgia is also dangerous because however important the gains of the past were, they were incomplete. Women have never achieved parity in this country, and the gains of the women’s movement have always centered around the needs of white women with money at their disposal. Hanging our hats on the progress of the past is a pathetic agenda for the present.

Finally, needs evolve over time, and that’s a good thing. Twenty years ago the Vagina Monologues was revolutionary; today many young people find that language limiting and exclusionary toward transgender people. (I wrote about this issue at length over at RH Reality Check.)

At the same time, we do need more history.

Women’s lives have been systematically excluded from history curricula, and everyone (boys and girls) should be taught about them in schools. March is Women’s History Month; that’s cool, but it would be nice to have all year.

In particular a deep examination of the strategies and tactics that produced gains could prove extremely beneficial to those working for change. For example, my friend Zoe Nicholson’s examination of Alice Paul’s life and strategies is electrifying, and I think about it often in the context of my organizing work today — read about Miss Alice Paul here.

The line between nostalgia/sentimentalism and drawing upon history to kick ass for the future is often difficult to draw. But it seems that, as always, women as a whole stand to benefit from making painful attempts to grow toward more accountability, and the inclusion of new perspectives, within the women’s movement.

 

Today’s Young Left Feminists Smeared From Within, Again

Katha Pollitt has a new piece up at The Nation taking the left, and in specific “today’s young left feminists” to task for, as she sees it, not considering seriously enough the questions of equality and male dominance when advocating for the rights of sex workers.

I’m sick of this.

Let me introduce myself. I have, throughout my career, been cast in the role of ‘token young feminist’ so many times you would have thought it was the job they really hired me for. It’s hilarious, really, that a certain stripe of feminist will consistently ask where are the young women? while at the same time appearing to blame young feminists for inequality left standing by veteran feminists.*

*See what I just did? That was unfair. I didn’t mean it. I wrote that to prove a point. Veteran feminists are not to blame for ongoing inequality.

A diversity of demographics, experiences, and viewpoints among feminists is not to blame for ongoing inequality. In fact these things are assets to the movement.

Even more, blaming women for oppression we experience is pointless.

There are a number of provocative points for discussion and consideration in Pollitt’s piece. But the inclusion of those four nasty words operate as a practical ‘stay away’ command to anyone who might be identified anywhere near the ballpark of “today’s young left feminists” (tellingly, a category that I’ve heard many feminists in their 40s and beyond identify with if only because they don’t feel in whole or part accepted as members of the overwhelmingly white group holding the paychecks and/or publishing power within the movement). We are, in this case, described as ones who “don’t want to think about” these things. Instead of joining the discussion, we are, with limited time and energy, left to defend ourselves and maybe our right to be a part of it.

Sadly, “don’t want to think about” is pretty nice compared to what usually happens when charges like this are leveled. Usually we’re just “wrong” or “naive.” As many of you know I used to serve in a leadership position in an old guard feminist organization. Things would happen, like the time someone spoke audibly after my turn to speak, asking if I was an intern. Mind you I was 30 at the time and had spoken confidently. Another time I read a recommendation letter for an intern applicant from a women’s studies professor who blamed younger feminists leading slut walks for cementing inequality for women and girls.

Wrong targets, not cool, cut it out.

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.