I arrived in Montreal yesterday to speak at a conference sponsored by Infopresse called “Femmes et Communications”. I’m speaking on the business opportunity – both from a hiring and a producing/selling perspective – that women represent. This seems like a “no shit” kind of a talk to me, but the truth is, a lot of brands would rather have anyone but a woman as their ideal customer, even though their money is just as green (or whatever the color scheme of your local currency).
There are few good ‘reasons’ for this. The best I can come up with is that marketing has its own stereotypes of women, stereotypes rooted in the post-war suburban housewife, but colored by the 1980s era yuppy working mom, and the 1990s era frazzled soccer mom, and now the current holier-than-thou hipster mom.
These women are uniformly humorless and usually sexless (in the sense that they are not sexual, or erotic – except maybe when breastfeeding children old enough to ask for, and chew, steak). They are overwhelmed by modern life. They are responsible for everything yet very rarely get to enjoy any of it. They are typically not the breadwinner, but might well be either the spendthrift or the penny-pincher, depending on the day. And more often than not, if you’re a brand that overtly wants and plays to women, they are the “Busy Mom on the Go”.
Women, in marketing, are almost always moms. And in that world, moms aren’t fun, moms aren’t sexy, moms aren’t cool. So, if you’re a fun, sexy or cool brand, or one that likes sophomoric humor, the message is clear: stay away from women.
So when I landed in Montreal last night, I checked into the hotel, and the radio was on in the room, playing Joni Mitchell’s song “Woodstock” on the CBC. Then they went into an interview with Ms. Mitchell (you can listen to it here).
Among many other things she said that Dylan fans, Nietzche-haters, and war-and-pollution-protesting Boomers will take exception to, when asked why she doesn’t like the term feminist, Mitchell said this:
“I’m not a feminist… I don’t want to get a posse against men, I’d rather go toe-to-toe myself, work it out. And that’s what I’ve done, I’ve got a lot of men friends. It’s too, there are too many Amazons in that community, you know… Like if I saw a feminism in Africa I would join in a minute, that was really feminine. The feminism on this continent isn’t feminine, it’s masculine. It’s contra… pseudo-male versus… it’s just not feminine, right? Our feminism is masculinism, it’s not feminism. They tried to say to me, I wouldn’t say I’m a feminist, ‘if you’re not with us you’re against us.’ I mean all the feminists I have met have been so nasty, I’ve been, ‘Oh, hoo-hoo-hoo, I’m not joining your club.’”
I think, if I try real hard, that for a hot minute during my sophomore year of high school, that I thought that I wasn’t a feminist because I wasn’t against men. Maybe. Then I got over it.
The image of a feminist is pretty straightforward. When you search “feminist” in google images, one of the subsets it offers you is “Angry Feminist”. When you click on that group, it offers you another subset, “Ugly Feminist” (with the requisite photo of Andrea Dworkin).
In our popular imaginations, feminists are angry; they dress not just like men but like “dykes”; they’re either actually ugly or they’ve pierced, shaved, and tatted their way into it; they’re probably lesbians, but they somehow also just want to get a man.
There was a moment in time when “feminism” was simply about legal equality for women. I say “legal” in front of “equality” for a reason – because it is accurate. Women didn’t want to BE men, they wanted the legal rights of men: to vote, to run for office or otherwise campaign, to be able to freely contract, to own and inherit property, to get divorced, to maintain custody of one’s own children, to be employed, to be paid equally. We have made, let’s say, some progress.
There of course has always been an undercurrent of a larger issue – women’s right to self-determination. That women should not be forced into roles defined almost entirely by society – that they should be able to choose their own paths without stigma or threat. Those who advocate for access to abortion, birth control, and other reproductive rights services; those who advocate legal prostitution; those who advocate for women to serve in the armed forces and in the clergy – all are drinking from this undercurrent.
You would think this feminism thing would be a big tent. It isn’t.
Somehow, the concept of feminism has been divvied up, over and over again, so that some people can be in the club, others can’t, others still won’t. There’s Joni. But there’s also Margaret Thatcher, first woman Prime Minister of the United Kingdom – on the day she died, Thatcher was lauded as a feminist pioneer and, on Twitter, as among the first to #LeanIn. She also said:
“I owe nothing to women’s lib.” and “The feminists hate me, don’t they? And I don’t blame them. For I hate feminism. It is poison.”
We have Phyllis Schlafly, successful wife and mother who also happens to be a political activist, author and the founder of the Eagle Forum , who said:
“Everything they stand for is bad and destructive.” and “It has poisoned the attitudes of so many young women.”
Am I just piling on? All women in any kind of leadership role are instantly up for criticism about whether they are doing feminism wrong, or whether they can speak for all women, or whether their backgrounds of ‘privilege’ preclude them from speaking for all women, or whether their ‘hetero-normative’ lives preclude them.
Marissa Mayer was criticized when she became the youngest American CEO of a Fortune 500 – and the first pregnant one – as the head of Yahoo!. For a moment she was held up as the only role model women in tech had. She was therefore supposed to speak for all of us. She was supposed to be a feminist, but rejected the title. And then she had the gall to cut flex time, something allegedly disproportionately used by women, who allegedly need it most. She let down the movement. The movement she doesn’t include herself in. The movement that if she did include herself in and started waxing philosophic about or otherwise promoting… would probably immediately reject her.
Sheryl Sandberg proves this point. Sandberg’s “Lean In” movement (about which I already commented here) is for many women a breath of fresh air, a useful perspective, and a statement of solidarity from someone who has risen to the very top in so many of her endeavors. Others reject her point of view, not solely because of what she says, but because of who she is – affluent, straight, Ivy Leaguer, a mother, married. For me, my moments of disconnect from Sandberg were in how completely male dominated her experience had been; she has literally never had a woman boss. That hasn’t been my experience – I’ve been lucky to have male and female mentors and bosses. But for others, there’s the usual splintering and slicing – she doesn’t speak for women of color, for lesbians, for the transgendered, for those without children, for those who don’t want children, for the unmarried, for those who didn’t go to Ivy League schools (for those who did, but not Harvard), and so on.
But this is not a new critique.
When Simone de Beavoir wrote The Second Sex, she came under the same criticisms of privilege and not speaking for all women.
“Bair also quotes (as “oft-repeated criticism”) British scholar C. B. Radford who thought Beauvoir was “guilty of painting women in her own colors” because The Second Sex is:primarily a middle-class document, so distorted by autobiographical influences that the individual problems of the writer herself may assume an exaggerated importance in her discussion of feminity.“
Instead of disqualifying the feminism via the feminist, couldn’t we instead talk about the knock-on effects of feminism’s goals and outcomes?
This critique by Melissa Gira Grant has the most purchase for me.
“Sandberg’s understanding of leadership so perfectly internalizes the power structures of institutions created and dominated by men that it cannot conceive of women’s leadership outside of those narrow spaces… Sandberg may miss so many women in her movement simply because her brand of gender equity is almost entirely privatized, doled out from employer to employee.”
I found myself wondering, while reading Lean In, is this feminism? Or is this a business book? It wasn’t about sweeping change or challenging the status quo overtly. It acknowledged that the status quo isn’t pro-women, and suggests individual, privatized tactics for women to negotiate for better. The idea seems to be that a rising tide lifts all boats, some boats a little higher than others – a kind of trickle-down feminism.
In any case, it’s not a perfect feminist tract, but I don’t think Sheryl Sandberg was setting out to write the perfect feminist tract. I think she was just trying to help women like her, who – despite their ‘privilege’ – still struggle to get paid, promoted, retained and recognized in their professional lives, still struggle to feel successful in their personal lives.
But if this transactional, privatized world view is feminism, where professional women join LeanIn circles, and we laud Margaret Thatcher as a LeanIn pioneer on Twitter, is this the tent in which Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem shake hands? In this tent, can we claim Joni Mitchell, even if she doesn’t want to be claimed? Can we claim Phyllis Schlafly? What about Michelle Bachmann? Is there room in this tent for those who would actively undermine feminism’s real goals – of legal equality and self-determination? Is the qualification for this kind of feminism that you must be a woman who achieved professional success and also produced children (sorry, Gloria)? Is this country club feminism? If it is, no wonder so many women feel disaffected. First they wanted me to not be pretty, and now they want me to be a CEO.
Taken together, women are 51% of the population. We are not the minority. But when we distinguish women by their race, sexual and gender identities, economic status, marital status, reproductive status, religious affiliation, and (FFS) industry affiliation… what do we gain? We render ourselves into minority groups, we dilute our power and influence, we lose the plot of feminism entirely.
So what do you do, as a movement defined by gender, when some of our sex don’t want to be part of a big tent movement, and at the same time any one women lets down all women when she does not act expansively on the behalf of all women… In other words, in a movement where no one woman can speak for – or to – all women?
I think you have to stop focusing on the edges. I think you have to get back to the underlying goals – legal equality and self-determination. I think we talk about actions, and outcomes, and grapple with the knock-on effects. I think we do policy and practice – yes, through social protests, political campaigning and lobbying, but also through economic pressure, corporate reform, and even through privatized, transactional tactics. I think, in other words, that feminists (even those who don’t want to be called one), should think about the big, world-changing goal, and then just get on with it.