Sunday, March 10, 2013

Feminism's Mixed Messages

Wherefore feminism?

Is feminism unraveling before our eyes? Or is it just wishful thinking to imagine that women have finally seen through the feminist con game.

The recent kerfuffle over Marissa Mayer’s ban on telecommuting at Yahoo!, coupled with the negative reactions to Sheryl Sandberg’s new book have led some feminists, like Hanna Rosin and Tracy Moore to declare that perhaps feminism, in Moore’s phrase, “may be nearing her (sic) expiration date.”

If so, the reason might be that feminism is sending out mixed messages. Or else, that it is speaking out of both sides of its mouth. Perhaps, it has gotten caught speaking with forked tongue.

Such is the conclusion of Leslie Bell’s book on the hookup culture. Salon announces breathlessly that this is the book that it has been waiting for, and that may be true for people who live under a rock, but frankly, if you are looking for reliable information about and cogent analysis of the hookup culture, you would do much better to read Susan Walsh’s blog, Hooking Up Smart.

While Walsh often reports on well-researched studies, Bell interviewed twenty women who had nothing in common and then called it a sample. Of what, we can only wonder?

Bell should have limited herself to her own theory, because it does have merit.

She posits that feminism has been sending out mixed messages. It has not provided women clear guidance about how to conduct their lives. One of the first requirements of an incipient culture is to set out rules and guidelines so people will know what they need to do in order to remain a member in good standing of the cult.

If feminism’s messages are contradictory, then anything can be a feminist act. But then, there is no such thing as a feministically correct action. Good bye, feminism.

Women are told to “live it up” in their twenties, but they also:

…spend their twenties hearing gloomy forecasts about their chances of marriage if they don’t marry before thirty, and their chances of conceiving a baby if they don’t get pregnant before thirty-five.

Bell summarized her view in an interview:

Well, they have a few different messages coming in, like “your 20s should be a decade that’s all about having as many sexual experiences as possible, diverse sexual experiences with diverse partners; in fact, that’s the way you figure yourself out, but at the same time you better temper that by making sure that it doesn’t go over a certain number.” At the same time, in terms of relationships, they’re getting messages like, “You really shouldn’t settle down. This is not a time to be in a committed relationship because you need to really put your efforts into education and career advancement and a relationship is gonna take time from that, but you better make sure you’re married by the time you’re 30 because your biological clock is ticking and the pool of men is gonna decrease.” So there’s just a huge range of messages out there. It’s also an unprecedented time, historically, to have this decade for highly educated young women who aren’t necessarily expected to be getting married and having children.

These messages involve one’s life plan. Women who try to follow them find themselves neither here nor there… lost. So they try to clarify the precepts by removing the contradiction. They decide that they must choose one or the other, career or relationship, good sex or committed love.

On the other hand, feminism has always defined one principle clearly: defer marriage and childbearing while developing a career. 

I don’t know whether Bell discusses the issue in her book—I haven’t read it—but clearly women will do better in both their marriage and careers if they reject the feminist label.

This leads us to Amanda Hess’s intriguing review of Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, Lean In. According to Hess, Sandberg is sending out every kind of mixed message, thus providing poor guidance for young women. 

Hess summarizes Sandberg:

Sandberg encourages women to fake confidence in the workplace by investing in “an hour of forced smiling” or by “assuming ‘a high-power pose.’ ” Then again, women would do best to communicate “authentically.” Women shouldn’t be afraid to cry on a colleague’s shoulder at an emotional time, she says. Then again, “research suggests” that “it is not a good idea to cry at work.” Women shouldn’t be afraid to advocate for flexible work hours to handle family commitments. Except that “employees who make use of flexible work policies are often penalized.” Women “need to shift from thinking ‘I’m not ready to do that,’ to thinking ‘I want to do that, and I’ll learn by doing it.’ ” But then again, men are promoted based on their potential while women are promoted based on their past accomplishments. Except that “a woman who explains why she is qualified or mentions previous successes in a job interview can lower her chances of getting hired.”

First of all, in comparison to most of the messages that Bell isolates, these are tactical, not strategic. They are not mixed messages as much as they are tactics to help a woman to negotiate a male workplace without denying that she is a woman.

On those points, Sandberg is surely correct. And yet, however much she would like to make herself into a feminist heroine, Sandberg did not get to where she is by following the feminist script.

She got ahead by working hard at her job, not by sacrificing her job to make a point. 

Sandberg did not spend her time militating against sexism in the workplace. She did not insist that she was just like the other guys. She recognized that women are different, that they behaviors are judged differently and that she could work with it. Sandberg succeeded as a woman, not as a feminist.

Tracy Moore grasps the point, but she insists on making it a feminist issue. In truth, Sandberg does too. They are both wrong on that score, but they are both right in evaluating how Sandberg got ahead in the high tech world.

In Moore’s words:

We are often uncomfortable with women who achieve in male-dominated fields because they tend to minimize or maximize gender in such a way that can feel contradictory to the aims of feminism, and they often distance themselves from the term. But to succeed among men you must play the game they devised. Women who prove they can win this way are advancing feminist goals. The kind that change men's perceptions of what women are actually capable of. This is what got women into combat. But the win, in my view, isn't remotely diluted if those women aren't self-identifying feminists. And perhaps not requiring such a rigid view of what it means to be "one of us" — and I do identify as a feminist — would invite more people to this party.

Perhaps women who identify as feminists are distressed by Sandberg’s book because she is a woman first and a feminist second. Or perhaps they believe that she is a latecomer who has adopted the feminist label as a marketing ploy to sell a book.

For the record, Sandberg has been highly supportive of Marissa Mayer’s decision to ban telecommuting at Yahoo! But Mayer admits that she is a feminist, while Sandberg appears to be a FINO, feminist in name only.


Sam L. said...

What do women want? Really want? This is an invalid question, IMHO; it should be what does this particular woman want, and how then should she go about getting there. Broad generalizations are poor advice, but that seems to be what feminist writing is all about.

Lastango said...

I'll go with "speaking out of both sides of its mouth".

My read on Tracy Moore's piece is that she, like many strategic feminists, recognizes that it has become necessary to switch gears, and try feminism by other means. The central problem is that men are catching on, and aging women are getting hit by the downsides of decades-worth of misandry and strident rhetoric. So it's time to wage peace instead. Examples include:

-- re-packaging feminism as "Men's Studies".

-- putting male professors out front of efforts to engage students in "dialogue" about masculinity.

-- shedding terms associated with feminism (i.e. "equality" and "empowerment") in favor of pseudo-masculine lingo like "resiliency", in an effort to convince men they're even more manly protectors and providers when they stay home with the kids so Superwoman can aim at the heights.

- shedding angry rhetoric, and claiming that helping men is a key feminist goal.

The power-seeking and spoils-producing goals of organized political feminism remain intact, of course. Only the tactics and strategy shift, due to the growing recognition that feminists need to keep men in the game and available to be taxed and otherwise exploited so women can get what they want for themselves.

JP said...

I don't think that talking about Marissa Mayer helps anything here.

She's where she is now because she was Google's 20th employee and basically outworked everyone.

If I were in her position, I wouldn't want to be CEO of Yahoo.

By taking that position, she has actually shown that she is either (1) not the sharpest tool in the shed, strategically speaking or (2) really just an upward grinder or (3) just in it for the money.

Anonymous said...

There's always been gender-based pay discrimination in the workplace; it's just the absolute opposite of what most people believe. The fact is, women get paid the same for LESS work due to gender discrimination. In some cases, women also get paid MORE than men for the same amount of work.

I'll give you the holy grail of examples. Male and female tennis players receive equal prize money in grand slam tournaments, despite the fact that men play best of five set matches while women play best of three.

Now imagine this commonplace scenario in a grand slam final: two male players duke it out over a five set match, while the women's final goes for its maximum three sets. This means the women have played only three-fifths the amount of tennis that the men have played (60%). And the prize money is equal...


In the 2012 Australian Open, Victoria Azarenka received $2.3 million for winning the women's singles title. In doing so she played a total of just 15 GAMES in 7 tennis matches.

The men's 2012 Australian Open champion was Novak Djokovic, who also received $2.3 million but played 55 GAMES in 7 tennis matches.

These kind of disparities are an outrage. Male players are clearly working harder than the women and therefore deserve more money. This is also disenfranchising for the crowds who pay to watch these events because it will artificially inflate ticket prices as female athletes are being paid a disproportionately large sum of prize money (compared to male athletes) in relation to to the amount of revenue that they are actually generating for tournament organisers.

Now obviously the above is only a specific example in a professional sport. BUT I assure you that this same principle (women getting paid more for the same amount of work, or the same for LESS work) is actually apparent in MANY PROFESSIONS AND MANY FIELDS. Other fields where I have been exposed to this FIRST HAND are the police force and the military.

The whole concept of men being paid more is nothing but a feminist fairy tale.

Dennis said...


I could understand your comments, to some degree, if they were aimed at feminists and feminism, but blaming all American Women is a bit of overkill. Suffice it to say that most American Women are not feminists.
Having spent two years traveling all over Southeast Asia I can also understand the fascination with Asian women. They almost always have a ready smile, there is an exotic quality about them and they generally are very easy to get along with as people.
You will find that if one watches any number of foreign films, especially out of Asia, that men and women have exactly the same problems.
There does seem to be a racial, sexual, et al component to women's actions, but that does not change from culture to culture in my experience.
A "shotgun" approach tends to scatter and miss the real target. It is a fact that in this country father's rights suffer from a judicial system, and a government for that matter, that thinks it is the "Daddy" to these poor defenseless children which does seem the ultimate bigotry to both males and females. Far better to enlist women in one's cause than to make enemies of them.
Again, most woman are pretty nice people and probably share the same concerns in the long run.
Feminism has turned into the disease not women themselves.

Anonymous said...

John Rambo, your generalization of American women is just as bad as any Feminist generalization of men.
There are good women in the US, there are bad women. There are good men. There are bad men. There are men that want Asian women so that they can treat them absolutely like dirt and the Asian women jsut take it and be thankful for their ticket into the US. There are men that fall in love with any foreign woman simply because they seem to "fit." And they make it work for the next 50 years. But to say that no American man should date any American female?
As an american female who has always been faithful (although I've been cheated on twice by "good men" swearing fidelity to multiple women who knew nothing about each other and all thought we were on track with this "perfect American family man" to marriage.)
I remain the non-feminist female, faithful and low "n" knowing that there are good American males out there (or, perhaps a foreign man, I'm not against that, if that is who I am meant to be with)
I agree with Dennis -- both men and women in the U.S. have the same fundamental problem. We have a hard time separating the players/manipulators from the good/true ones. Those few on both sides are ruining it for the rest of us who don't want to be playing games. We don't want to rack up multiple partners in pursuit of the "one" to spend the rest of our lives with. We don't want to be manipulated, lied to, cheated, swindled, used, misled, or otherwise wronged. We understand that honest hurt will come from the honest pursuit, and accept this hurt as a risk for the greater reward of the longer-term gain we know exists...
Feminists are ruining it for men.
Players/@s&h*les are ruining it for women...