I appeared on this week’s To The Contrary with Bonnie Erbé, discussing a sexist attack on The New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson, a new film about Saudi women’s rights, and students using social media to fight sexual assault on campus. You can watch it here:
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.
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.
“The only way for a woman, or a man, to find herself, to know herself as a person, is by creative work of her own. There is no other way.” – Betty Friedan
It’s been fifty years since Betty Friedan wrote the The Feminine Mystique. How much has changed. How much remains the same.
Sexism is as foundational to society as it was during the Mad Men era that drove Betty Draper and Betty Friedan mad, if you ask me. The major difference is that people don’t smoke inside, and like colors and hemlines and shag carpets, oh the styles of expression are different.
For-men-only employment ads have jumped over to the lifestyle section of the newspaper, where you see presumed for-women-only feature articles about that ever-elusive “work/life balance.”
(Put no paid parenting leave; no childcare support; and no legal guarantee that you won’t get fired for asking what your coworkers are getting paid on a see-saw: Somehow it always seems to be the women dragged to the ground while men sit on top of Fortune 500 companies, law partnerships, and corporate boards almost totally by themselves. Most “work/life balance” experts say a super pink, super non-structural self-help approach will solve it, no government required! What a sexist joke.)
Only yesterday The New York Times published a column about “pro-life feminism,” in which a man sympathetic to the anti-human rights movement bringing you comparisons of pregnant women to farm animals, bills suggesting that women raped who have abortions be prosecuted for “tampering with evidence” and men-only congressional panels comparing the availability of birth control to choosing a place to go for lunch – a man sympathetic to all of that suggested that feminism be reformed. I beg your pardon.
But of course, the world has changed drastically since The Feminine Mystique, just look! Last week they said women would no longer be barred from combat, and daughters expect equality as do sons. Living up to the expectation of equality, and securing justice for those many experiences outside the realm of wealthy white men, has proved to be the continuing problem for the women’s movement to tackle.
Betty Friedan and her book, to say nothing of the first organization she founded, the National Organization for Women, have had outsize impact on my life as a feminist organizer.
I never knew Friedan personally, saw her across a room at a conference when I was an intern, and, you know, by then the women’s movement was so professionalized interns paid money in the form of tuition to get course credit for working free at the registration table.
When she died on a weekend in February 2006, I was in the National Organization for Women office chairing a meeting of the Young Feminist Task Force. I remember leading a moment of silence and thinking to myself what a profound responsibility I was accepting then, right then, to take the leadership required to help move feminism forward in a new way. I have never lost that feeling.
A few months ago, I decided taking meaningful leadership – contributing the most I have to give – meant leaving a big title in the big organization Friedan started. One of the key factors in my decision was realizing how many people, especially young people, were looking to me as an example of what was possible both in society and for their own lives. Believing in you, as I do, ultimately meant demonstrating I believe in myself and our power to create a better world.
I believe it is within our power to end sexism. I also believe getting there requires taking personal, interpersonal and structural risks. It requires acknowledging uncomfortable truths and working to change them. I believe younger people should define feminism for themselves and help lead the way forward. And while I am profoundly grateful for feminism and feminists of the past, I couldn’t be prouder to set this example. This is not an end. I am only getting started.
What would Friedan say about this? Honestly, I have no idea. As for me, I continue to take considerable inspiration from her legacy and The Feminine Mystique.
Gail Collins, a feminist of a different generation than myself, wrote a beautiful piece on ‘The Feminine Mystique’ at 50. In it, she pointed out more often the book is commented on for what it left out (basically anyone who wasn’t an upper middle class heterosexual white woman), rather than what it was (a piercingly accurate description of the waste of women like Betty).
Strangely enough, the waves of reaction in feminist thought went a bit too far in the other direction, in my opinion, when it became imperative for the incarnation of the women’s movement that followed The Feminine Mystique to speak declaratively “for all women” as if that was somehow possible to do really well. In my experience, people can speak profoundly well for themselves, and do both themselves and others a disservice when they try to speak for everyone else at the same time.
You cannot homogenize diversity, nor is it wise to try. It is the diversity that is the strength. It is the diversity that is the beautiful part. In encouraging diverse people to speak and lead for themselves (and having others listen and add their experience, not to change what the speaker said, but to speak and lead for themselves in the pursuit of an equality to be achievable in common by all) we can move the needle closer to justice. Modern feminism is already doing this all over the Internet. This is my experience and I deserve to be heard. That is your experience and you deserve to be heard. I know we can do better. We can be more than this. Let’s take a risk and organize something totally new and spectacular. It is very exciting, and dare I argue, a very inclusive expression of what Betty Friedan could have helped to kick off had her slice of reality, The Feminine Mystique, been published today.
This week’s Time cover story on the steady decline of abortion rights since the Roe decision 40 years ago details, painfully, the obvious.
Rather than reconstruct some of the excellent reactions out there, including Amanda Marcotte debunking Susan B. Anthony List’s ridiculous “pro-life feminist” reaction piece (serious delusion, in what universe is forcing a miscarrying Savita Halappanavar to die in the hands of a “pro-life” state a feminist policy framework), Katie Stack reminding us that while we may be losing, we don’t have to give up, and Steph Herold pushing back against the idea that young activists are making the movement weaker by taking their leadership outside the Pro-Choice, Inc., box, I’d like to simply say I agree with all of them and provide some additional food for thought.
Probably the most unique insight I provide is having served in leadership, as a younger woman, inside one of the larger establishment organizations so frequently painted in the media as unable to connect with younger people. There are realistic tweaks that could be made in many of these legacy organizations to help reverse this trend:
1. Put young people on your boards. Then, use them. Most organizations work with appointed boards filled with older women, most of whom pay their own way. Develop an affirmative action policy for younger people of all races, sexual orientations and economic backgrounds. Pay their way to board meetings. I have come to believe in my own experience that the perspective problem is not a numbers problem. There are extremely talented young people in all of these organizations. These young people are largely not being used on a strategic level. When they are used strategically, it is usually in a “junior” capacity, meaning they are specially chosen to be the one younger person to weigh in on this one specific intergenerational thing with a larger group of powerful, older, white, wealthy and heterosexual people who have already decided upon the agenda they are steering. This leads to efforts “about” or “to” young people, rather than “with” them.
2. Find a way to answer the following query: Am I supposed to go away? Legacy organizations are very familiar with the history I am about to describe. Women of color are underrepresented in membership, leadership, outreach, you keep going and you’ll find underrepresentation all over the place. Someone well-meaning, often a woman of color, brings to the group an initiative designed to bring in more women of color. Others get excited. Then, as the idea fleshes out, it requires changes to the rules, or doesn’t quite fit with previous efforts, or heaven forbid, there are a fixed number of seats at the table and it had always felt so comfortable when it was just Sheila, Annie and the remaining 27 of “us.” (The word us and how it can be misused to exclude!) Suddenly the 27 make the conversation all about them. What about me? Am I supposed to go away? Are you saying I’m irrelevant? Wait is this just that you secretly want to grab the power and kick me out of here? These feelings are natural but legacy organizations have been having them for decades without finding a way to address them, and they replace the conversations that sparked them, usually resulting in very few changes within the legacy organization, with the exception of Sheila and Annie leaving, who are then replaced with a few other tokens who try to make change, and the cycle continues. If you are curious whether this same dynamic applies to younger people (including younger people of color) in legacy organizations, the answer is sitting in plain sight. The similarity of these conversations should be used as an opportunity for serious reflection on the part of movement leaders who look like part of “the 27 of us.”
3. Be aggressive! Really, really aggressive. The health care law started with a concession that was never requested from pro-choice allies in Congress. Was this concession accepted? No. It was made worse. The answer is pretty simple: Stop trying to bargain with politicians and theocrats who are opposed to reproductive rights and human rights. Work to defeat them. Expose them. Ridicule them. Picket their events. Demand corporations stop partnering with them. Put public pressure on insurance companies that don’t offer abortion coverage. Invest. This is not an image problem you solve with a marketing consultant, this is an organizing problem you solve with investment in the grassroots! Go hyper-local: Use the city councils and county councils to regulate crisis pregnancy centers and hospitals receiving public dollars. Build budgets that don’t depend on small-dollar fundraising that publicizes every backward move (a conversation does need to be had about the financial incentives for legacy organizations behind threats to the status quo). Don’t be afraid to use the “A” word. Abortion! There is nothing to be ashamed of in this movement.
It’s time for change. The fortunate news is that social media is helping to usher in tons of opportunities for more people, of all backgrounds, to exercise meaningful leadership within the movement. It is also offering opportunities for more people, of all backgrounds, to personalize what is so political. Carefully scripted talking points and political connections have mitigated losses, maybe, but they have not led to gains. Change will be led by those both inside and outside the legacy movement organizations, and for the sake of all involved, that’s a good thing.