Wednesday, March 6, 2013

What Now for Feminism?

Republicans are not the only group that is currently engaged in internecine warfare. The same seems to be happening among feminists.

Republicans are fighting each other because they just lost an election. Feminists seem to be falling victim to their own success.

On one battlefield, feminists were attacking Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer. On another they have been criticizing Sheryl Sandberg.

Movement feminists, the kinds who live for class struggle have little use for a woman who wants to help a small, select group of women gain corporate power.

Writing in The New Yorker Anna Holmes suggests that many feminists resent Sandberg because she represents the world of privilege and power.

She bemoans the fact that feminists have been piling on Sandberg:

Part of what was so galling about the pile-on was the subtext that because Sheryl Sandberg is rich she can’t possibly be sincere in her advocacy for women. Much of the criticism presented Sandberg as a superficial, fashion-obsessed Marie Antoinette muscling her way into a milieu she didn’t belong to and couldn’t possibly understand.

Holmes suggests that women should read Sandberg’s book. Perhaps they should, but Sandberg’s ideas have been circulating for quite some time. One doubts that she will propose a radically new way of thinking in her book.

Commenting on the controversy, Hanna Rosin also highlights the contrast between Sheryl Sandberg and politically active feminists. Perhaps, she suggests, the rise of Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg is telling us that feminism has outlived its usefulness:

And for the women who are Sandberg’s audience, the young and ambitious, traditional movement feminism does not quite capture what they need, either. After all, she is helping boost them from successful to uber-successful, from midlevel executive to CEO. They need tips and strategies, just like young men do. But they don’t necessarily need consciousness-raising groups, and they probably don’t have time for them anyway.

In the book, out next week, Sandberg tells women how to negotiate for higher salaries and promotions, how to nurture their own ambition, how to behave at work if they want to advance. It is all excellent advice, but it’s not the stuff of a consciousness-raising movement. It’s advice for this age of meritocracy, when feminist success largely means professional advancement, one woman at a time. What happens if you’re up against another woman for a promotion? In Sandberg’s world, you go for it.

Rosin continues to suggest that perhaps it is time for feminism to declare victory and change the nature of the struggle. As she observes, young women today are repudiating the feminist brand in very large numbers.

In Rosin’s words:

Recently I was part of a panel on the 50th anniversary of the Feminine Mystique. A big part of the discussion centered on why young women today don’t want to call themselves feminists, which dismayed the other panelists. Afterward a high-school girl in the audience stood up to ask a question. She said that in her progressive school the girls were “creaming” the boys at virtually everything. She said they were better at sports and got better grades and ran all the extracurricular clubs. But the one thing she and her friends could not get anyone to do was join the feminist club.

Most of the women sighing were young and quite successful, and as far as I could tell hadn’t been held back all that much in their careers by the patriarchy. They were exactly the types of woman I portray in the book as benefiting from the new age of female dominance, when women are better prepared for this economy, have more independence to choose their life path and are less vulnerable to physical assault than ever before.

Perhaps these young women are ingrates. Perhaps they do not recognize how much they owe to feminism.

That is one possible interpretation. Another is that women who outcompete boys in every way might find that such success does not lead to the kind of happiness that they had been promised. They might have discovered that their great successes in school and in the business world do not translate into relationship success. They think that they are living the feminist dream, but they might have discovered that they are living the feminist nightmare.

If they believe that identifying themselves as feminists will damage their relationships, by renouncing the cause they might be attempting to improve their chances at having good marriages.

As a political movement feminism has always sought specific political goals. Second wave feminism, however, has also transformed the way women live their lives.

Being a feminist today means following a specific life plan. The linchpin of that life plan is: career, first; marriage and childbearing, second.

It is not just an article of feminist faith that women should not marry young, but the sisterhood routinely disparages women who marry and have children when they are young.

For that reason Jessica Grose’s most recent column must count as a signal that feminism is losing some of its grip.

Grose is a feminist herself, so it takes courage for her to tell  women that deferring childbearing in favor of career is often not the best thing for women. It is often not the best thing for their careers.

Grose states it clearly:

…perhaps ambitious women in their 20s who also want kids should consider having them sooner rather than later.

Even if one looks at the issue in terms of career advancement, it is probably better, as Penelope Trunk among others have pointed out, to have children when you are younger.

Grose argues the point:

Many women are in the middle of the career ladder when they get pregnant in their early 30s, and in a cruel twist, that’s when a lot of workers have the least flexibility. You’re at the whim of your bosses, and you don’t have much wiggle room. If you wait until you’re a high-ranking exec in your late 30s or early 40s to have kids—like CEOs and hot-button targets Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg did—you get to call the shots about your maternity leave, but you may struggle with fertility issues. As Jesus points out, fertility plummets after age 37. (I used to think it was sexist to assume that women didn’t know their fertility waned as they aged, but in fact studies show that women vastly underestimate how much age affects their ability to conceive.)

For all I know, women underestimate the influence of biology on fertility because they have been taught that gender is merely a social construct.

Important women executives like Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg are the exceptions. They have staffs to take care of their children and to run their households. By all appearances, they count among the superwomen who have it all. Perhaps that is why other women resent them... for setting an unattainable example.

Most women who have children in their late 30s are obliged to put aside their career ambitions at the very moment when they are on the verge of entering the ranks of corporate executives.  


David Foster said...

"If you wait until you’re a high-ranking exec in your late 30s or early 40s to have kids—like CEOs and hot-button targets Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg did—you get to call the shots about your maternity leave"

"Calling the shorts" is realistic only in a very limited way. If someone is still at the individual contributor level, it MAY be feasible for her to take a year off and come back to basically the same position...if, say, she's one of 7 sales reps in a region. But if she's a CEO, it's most unlikely that she can go away for a year and come back as CEO of the same company.

Anonymous said...

Dear God. Another post about "feminism." Just a few more, and you will have officially written more about young women and their careers than you will have written about your own. Seems a bit odd. Perhaps that's a symptom of why women seem to be moving ahead in their careers while men are lagging behind in theirs.

Given the amount of time you spend trolling the internet eavesdropping on "feminist" conversations, blogging about "feminists," thinking about "feminists," watching "Girls", keeping track of Hillary Clinton's career, and obsessing about "female executives," I really hope for your sake feminism finds SOME PLACE to go, because what on earth would you do without it????

Anonymous said...

As a guy who works around a lot of women (all ages), I can tell you right now that feminism is alive and well. Many of these women will say they aren't feminists, but their actions state otherwise.
The word "feminism" may be bad but it would be a mistake to assume that it's gone away or is in danger of going away.

Sam L. said...

"Another is that women who outcompete boys in every way

might not find that such success
does not lead

to the kind of happiness that they had been promised." I think there's an extra "not" in the middle two lines.

"(I used to think it was sexist to assume that women didn’t know their fertility waned as they aged, but in fact studies show that women vastly underestimate how much age affects their ability to conceive.)" Might one think that perhaps they have been told that isn't true, or that the trail has been brushed (old Western movie bit) to obscure the tracks?

n.n said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
n.n said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
n.n said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
n.n said...

Do other simian breeds exhibit a similar obsession with dysfunctional behavior, or is it just their ancestral derivatives -- a nominally humanoid creature -- that are obsessed with material, physical, and ego gratification? Who choose to delay procreation till their bodies have decayed, or fearing their mellow will be harshed choose to murder (typically, through a hired assassin) their offspring. While others yet choose a couplet form of union, the prototype of evolutionary dysfunction.

It's a tragic irony that women, and men, who maintain a faith in evolutionary origin, reject the principles of evolution as inconvenient.

This is the paradox of civilization engendered by dissociation of risk: dysfunctional convergence.

Oh, well. Just another civilization in a long line of civilizations incapable of acting reasonably and with reason, which suffered progressive and, ultimately, conclusive corruption.

I think humans are too intelligent, and egoistic, to survive. Perhaps it's time for the periodic "reset."

Anonymous said...

I just wrote a lengthy comment, only to have it vanish before I could publish it. Drat.

Here was the point: look up Apple's "Think Different" campaign:

Apple is the cultural standard of cool.

Tell many how many of the featured women (there were 6 out of 25 total) were married, stayed married, and had children (and the age they bore said children).

These women go back a century. Check it out. Then tell me how they compare to the men, in terms of enduring cultural impact.

Why is this? It's obvious, and it's important... and absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. Women make the world go 'round. Feminism is a spectral concept, one ranging from equality to opportunity. Our silly media-driven conversations today diminish (and often trivialize) the critical contributions women make to society.



n.n said...


And that is where feminism fails. It's the same corruption suffered by individuals who, for example, discriminated by skin color.

Dennis said...


It is why most of us make a clear distinction between women and feminists. Early on feminism represented the interests of women, but that changed years ago. As I have stated before there seems to be an iron law of issue oriented groups. They all start out addressing an issue/problem that society needs to address/solve then the radicals take control and those who started the movement cannot recognize their own movement.
The life cycle of each issue oriented movement seems to be the same. Inception, movement towards acceptance by society, radical corruption, movement away from identification as members of the movement, and then marginalization which comes at the height of the movement's power.
One can begin to notice this happening to Obama. There is, of course, the over stepping of the bounds of what made one popular and what will be accepted by most people. Once a wound is inflicted those who see a chance for power, no matter the party, et al, especially if a large number of people have been "thrown under the bus," will rush to fill the void.
One has to watch out for the beginnings of delusions of grandeur and believe one is smarter, wiser, more capable and better than others. That includes people, genders, parties, et al.

Anonymous said...

n.n: Exactly what I'm saying. It diminishes the contributions of the vast majority of women. Instead, it is meant to draw attention to the minority of wealthy, powerful and influential women. It is meant to say that those who are all-in on their career are making the "right" choice about how to lead their life, and those choosing traditional roles are medieval, un-chic, unintelligent and slaves to their men.

It is prejudice masquerading as sophistication. I'll leave it to you to consider the motives, but it certainly has nothing to do with female solidarity. It's a demonstration of elitism by rich and powerful women who have chosen career above all else... and with women, that's a clear minority. It's morphed into self-congratulatory snobbery.

Feminism is a failure as a philosophy because it seeks to marginalize the male as some kind of brute, opponent and oppressor. It is inherently combative, and such ideologies always compound existing pain and create little long-term value, principally because it is a reaction, not a thoughtful response or worthy way forward.

Feminism assumes that woman, by virtue of immutable characteristics, is somehow superior or needs to be celebrated. This is juvenile, shallow and silly, similar to machismo.

I love it when I hear a man say "I'm a feminist." Has such a man ever stopped his self-congratulation long enough to consider what he's actually saying? It's a statement of self-loathing. Therefore, in the converse, feminism is all about loathing. Perhaps self-loathing, but mostly loathing the "other," which is men.

This is all deductive scapegoating, explaining disproportionate female career success through the myth of some cabal of phallic oppressors -- brutes united to keep woman "in her place" using their most dreaded super-weapon: "The Glass Ceiling." So the feminists counter by marginalizing domesticity and the support roles most women find value in. This is an essential move, principally because the value of such traditional roles and positions is self-evident. So, to combat this scourge, the pandering news media idealizes the female president, chairwoman and CEO as heroine, hiding any downside. She's completely in control of her destiny. It's the theme of article after article after article, over and over again.

Feminism is fundamentally about mythical superiority and rank victimization. It is a DENIAL of power, not an expression of power. It is endless confrontation used to fuel a false, euphoric sisterhood of "us-versus-them." Nothing good ever comes from such stands, only anger, loneliness, rage, and fear... which feeds still more feminism. How boring.

This critique does nothing to diminish the career-minded or domestic woman. She is free to choose the path she thinks is best. What is bankrupt is the fanciful caricature of some wonder woman as the champion of a divisive and unnecessary struggle. In the big picture, it is women who suffer most from this vaunted ideal. We hear all about the women who suffer insecurity from the idealized body images they glean from the covers of Cosmo, Us and Self. How about those who suffer smallness after reading the endless parade of idealized career and life biopics of "truly great women" in BusinessWeek, Time and People? It's no different. I'm not saying "This must stop!" I am merely pointing out that one is lamented while the other is lauded, amidst the reigning mantra was "self-esteem." How's it going?


Anonymous said...

Dennis: Just read your comment after posting mine. Spot on.