For Women’s History Month 2014, ACRL WGSS has asked writers from outside of the association to share their writing on our blog. The first piece comes from Alex Dill. She is a working writer living and daydreaming in Manhattan, NYC. You can find her first published work, a book of collected poetry entitled Venn Diagrams, wherever eBooks are sold. For more thoughts on feminism in this post-millenium world, check out her blog continuumissues. Please give Alex a warm ACRL-WGSS thanks in the comments.
The first thing you should know is that there is not only one kind of feminism.
Like all big political/cultural movements, there are different sects and different strains. When you stop for a moment to think about why this is, the answer seems simple: women are not all alike. We are not one monolithic group. We differ across race and class lines, we grew up in different neighborhoods with different families, we have different motivations and desires, and yes, even different bodies. But while women everywhere are different, in some ways, we are still alike in others. We are oppressed by a system (the patriarchy) that works to keep us quiet, confused, and caged, and stifles our full potential. This oppressive system works in big and small measures, in ways both obvious and insidious, and it will affect each person differently, depending on some of the factors I have mentioned above. Feminism has to morph and shift around race and class lines, and spread across all the neighborhoods on all the continents on this earth. Feminism has to be huge because the needs of women world wide are huge and no girl or woman can be left behind.
We feminists are not always successful when we try to do feminism. Usually, someone gets left out or left behind. These shortcomings do not negate the good our work does, but we must be ever-vigilant and self-reflective so we can get better and better at doing feminism as globally and completely as possible. I think we will continue to approach the limit without ever reaching it. But even so, we will keep striving.
Feminism today has many voices and faces, folks of all genders and races and backgrounds who align with feminist values. Technology has given those voices a great boost, especially in the blogosphere. It is only a matter of minutes after someone (usually a dopey, aging senator/governor/political candidate) says something so sexist that his quote is blasted across the interwebs, scathingly dissected and re-tweeted and mocked as a symbol of a system that is bygone and breaking down. I think that this is freaking awesome. Adding my own voice to these stories is one of the most rewarding things I do.
Sometimes, though, it’s not just the old white guys who mess it up. Sometimes it is one of our own. And I think how we deal with those kinds of screw-ups is much more important to the movement. The latest example of this is a new campaign launched by Sheryl Sandberg, author of the well-known, but less-liked, book Lean In. The campaign is titled Ban Bossy (#banbossy), which is simple and alliterative and perfect for a Twitter hashtag. The video features such prominent bad-ass ladies as Beyonce, Condaleezza Rice, and Jane Lynch. The issue they are hoping to tackle is the dearth of female leadership in this nation, both as political leaders as well as your run-of-the-mill front-office execs, scientists, board members, etc. This is such an important problem to tackle. The message is that when boys are assertive, we call them leaders and give them a gold star, but when girls act the same way, we call them bossy. So they think we should stop using the word “bossy.”
Hm. If that sounds kind of awkward, well, that’s because it is. I wanted to like this campaign so much (hello, Beyonce is involved), and yet it lands with a thud at my feet. We are going to change how girls feel about themselves by banning a word? A word that could actually be helpful to use when it is warranted? One word, amongst all the varied and hateful words that are used against women of all ages, that make us feel less than human, small, and incapable? That’s the plan?
Now, over at leanin.org you can take the #banbossy pledge and download some activities for girls of various age groups. There are some actual leadership tips, so it’s not totally about the word “bossy.” But I would really love to see more action from a group of women with considerable resources, reach, and influence.
Let’s leave that aside for the moment and just be happy that Beyonce is out as a feminist and that the media is talking about these issues at all. Here is where and when I take a step back, become just a little bit more frustrated. This campaign, like Lean In, is for a very specific group of people. Lean In speaks for women who want to make partner or senior executive at a corporate firm, land the corner office. It is a campaign for educated upper-class women with high-paying jobs. It is very smart and I believe it makes some important points. However, it doesn’t speak for women who want to succeed without foregoing work-life balance. It doesn’t speak for anyone who doesn’t have corner-office ambitions. It is absolutely pro-corporation and gives no advice on how to change the system itself, only how to better work within it.
The campaign #banbossy echoes that Lean In idea. Not all little girls are leaders. For that matter, neither are all little boys. And while I can completely back the need to make room for more girls in leadership roles, what about the quiet girls? The thinkers and dreamers? They too need tools and tips to gain self-confidence. Not everyone is on-track to make partner at a law firm or run a Fortune 500 company. And the sad fact is that because certain players have the money and the voice, it is the issues that they choose that will get the most press coverage and the most support. It means only one kind of feminism gets disseminated., It means that we alienate potential allies who look and say ‘That doesn’t have anything to do with me. That’s not for me or about me.’
Ok, obviously, one campaign cannot cover the vast array of issues faced by women (access to healthcare, reproductive rights, the wage gap, everyday sexism and misogyny, homophobia, domestic and sexual violence, etc.). I don’t expect any organization or campaign to touch on everything and, indeed, specialized sects are good. It’s better to focus on one thing and do that thing well. Some other campaigns and organizations that are worth discussing are the #girlscan campaign from Cover Girl, the Joyful Heart Foundation, Planned Parenthood, and Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls. Can you guess what all these have in common? They have lots of money, a corporate sponsor, or celebrity endorsements. Which is absolutely tremendous and wonderful. But I get nervous that those with the most money, and the most access to celebrities and politicians, will end up with all the light and resources despite other worthy issues.
Regardless of the limitations our media does have, we must remember that campaigns like these are important, because they shine light on feminist issues even if they aren’t perfectly executed. And I believe with all my heart that when powerful, popular women come to bat for feminism, that act does a great service for a movement that continues to be misrepresented and maligned (we are not all whiny complainers who don’t shave their body hair and wish men would disappear, although body hair is totally fine, FYI). I hope that the more people are given access to facts and stories they can relate to, the more they will come to understand and internalize feminist values. We are all more alike than we are different and I believe that empathy and compassion are the best tools we have against the hateful, against the patriarchy, and against our own persistent shortcomings.