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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Video: July 2015 To The Contrary Appearance

I appeared as a panelist on this week’s episode of To The Contrary, and discussed young feminists and the evolution of feminist activism.

You can watch a video of the show here:

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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.

 

Unpaid Interns: An Apology

I regret having supervised unpaid interns while working at a previous employer, and would like to apologize. I’m truly sorry. Free labor is exploitative and exclusionary. I’m writing about it now in hopes that it will spark others to change.

During the course of more than three years at a progressive non-profit organization, I worked with dozens upon dozens upon dozens of unpaid interns. I selected and directly supervised about a fifth of the interns in the office. Supervising unpaid interns means that I was complicit in a modern employment system that is elitist, racist and treats workers in a horrifyingly bad way. Rather than name and further exploit the interns I supervised, who were all somewhere on the continuum between pretty great and really great, I would simply like to acknowledge that if you’re reading this, I can see your faces in my mind, I think you’re awesome, and I’m sorry.

No one should be expected to work for free, especially in order to, as the lore about unpaid internships goes, “make contacts and get a job someday.” While publications make sport of who can most lambaste the millennial generation for being lazy and self-absorbed, they rarely report on the growing expectation that our youngest workers should give away their labor for free. If you work on a regular schedule — not as a volunteer who controls your schedule and the projects you will and won’t do — and report to people who are getting paid, you should get paid, too. Period. It’s unacceptable to force workers starting their careers in a ho-hum economy to work for free, simply because they are young. It’s also unacceptable to replace paid workers, often older, with younger interns who are not (or barely) paid.

Those people in power who insist that unpaid interns are required for an organization to survive should get real. If your organization depends upon the artificial condition of employee-like unpaid laborers to survive, your organization needs to either get a new business plan or dissolve. From both moral and operational point of views, this holds true even for non-profit organizations not legally required to comply with unpaid internship rules the Department of Labor has created for for-profit organizations. From an unpaid intern point-of-view, you’re not any more or less not paid whether or not your employer is driven by profit. On the operations side, if you’re filling a niche that is no longer relevant or resists being filled according to your formula, change your business plan or quit and work with a similar organization doing a better job serving the needs of today. If an organization can’t survive enough to pay its workers, it’s on artificial life support — one that is extremely harmful to the people working there for free.

Everything bad about race, class and gender comes out for unpaid internships. Women are 77 percent more likely to hold an unpaid internship. High-income students are more likely to be involved in paid internships. Whites are more likely to be able to afford the privilege of putting an unpaid internship on a resume. Want to learn more? A recent study by Intern Bridge should be all you need to read, vomit and resolve to push for change.

Beyond those I worked with and/or directly supervised, I have known many unpaid interns in my day. Much, but not all, of the non-profit “equality” organizational landscape depends on the free labor of youth. I know how to recognize when people aren’t eating enough not because they are dieting, but because they have no money for food. I find it reprehensible that “free food” is a joke to fetch interns in Washington, D.C., where many interns go to briefings and parties because they are hungry in the poverty sense of the term. I think, specifically, that feminist organizations can do much better, and I resolve to be a forceful advocate for paid internships wherever my career may take me.

In the meantime, I am sorry to my wonderful unpaid interns past. Even if you were satisfied with our time together, and referrals or recommendations I may have given you since, you deserved to be fairly compensated for your work. If I could go back in time, I would fight for you to be paid. You earned it. What I can do now is help to call for change. I hope that others in supervisory roles will join me.

A Preliminary Observation On Lean In

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.