Feminism Should be Celebrated, Not Junked -- One Man's Opinion

Feminism is under fire these days. Or more to the point, calling oneself a “feminist” is becoming suspect. The fact that the high-flying Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo and formerly a top Google executive, shuns the term, has created a feminist crisis moment, at least to some cultural observers writing in places like Slate and Jezebel.  

I'm focused here on Tracy Moore's piece on Jezebel, "Feminism May Be Nearing Her Expiration Date," which quotes extensively from Hanna Rosin's Slate article in which Rosin asks if the term "feminism" is even useful anymore: "If someone as smart and successful as Mayer, someone who tours the country speaking to young women, can't comfortably call herself a feminist, then maybe we need to take her objection seriously."

I find this discussion perhaps ironic. Why is it that women who clearly need feminism less than most are debating whether the whole notion should get junked? Why is the notion that feminism isn't a good brand, or that it’s a tired brand, being weighed almost exclusively against the narrow, corporate success of a single woman? We may know Mayer’s net worth ($300 million), but we know little about her value system, except for her now-famous dictum that Yahoo workers need to get their rear ends to the office and not work from home. (I laughed when I read Bill Gates' comment: "Hasn't she ever heard of Skype?”) 

Perhaps Mayer is like Meg Whitman, who became a billionaire after only one year as CEO of eBay, and then stumbled badly in that job. She then tried to buy her way to become governor of California, only to stumble again. Women executives can have as much hubris as their male counterparts.  

In her Jezebel piece, Moore offers that "feminism has achieved many of its goals." 

Hmm. What is success when violence against women continues unabated, when women have a far higher chance of getting raped in the US military than walking down a dark street alone? When only 21 CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are women, which equals 4 percent? And if you think the numbers get better in the Fortune 500-1,000, they don’t: There are 21 women CEOs in the second Fortune 500 as well.

Now, you may ask: Why is a man weighing in on this discussion, anyway? Well, funny thing is, I have always called myself a feminist, or a feminist man. I know some women think that is an oxymoron, and that's OK. But in my early 20s, I responded to an article in Ms. magazine inviting men to join consciousness-raising groups in support of the women's movement. One requirement was that the men meet monthly with a parallel women's group for accountability. (That was all very enlightening, but a story for another time.) So ever since then, I've been a feminist. So in a modest way, I have a dog in this fight. 

I don't think feminism should be jettisoned for a bunch of reasons, mainly to do with the fact that our country is a mess. The gap between the super-rich and the rest of us is astounding. The 400 wealthiest Americans (Marissa Mayer is not yet one of them, but Meg Whitman is ranked #285) have more wealth then more than half the U.S. population, more than 150 million.

Feminism, as I understood it, was always about equality and fairness. So in thinking about why feminism is wobbly in the corporate culture today, I came up with five issues worth considering.

1. One size does not fit all. Most of the labels we use for ourselves -- American, Democrat, progressive, lefty, moderate, humanist -- embrace a fairly wide spectrum of beliefs and opinions, and "feminist" isn't any different. There are all kinds of feminists -- in fact they come in waves. Why Marissa Mayer, if she has any sense of history, or of what is going on in the world, can't find herself in the world of third-wave feminists is beyond me, but the word can offer a big umbrella, and there should be resistance to shrinking it down to what the media wants feminism to be. 

2. Why do some women avoid the word? In countless discussions over many years with women and occasionally men, about why they sidestep the word feminist, I have found that discomfort with the word is almost exclusively due to what men think of it. Women, especially young women, are concerned not with the facts of feminism, but of the miserable image the mass media has attached to the word, making up all sorts of lies about the image of women, even to making up the lie that women burned bras in Atlantic City at a Miss America contest. (They didn't.)

A case in point is the candid admission by Zerlina Maxwell, up and coming feminist political commentator (who bravely tangled with Fox's Sean Hannity on the question of rape) in an interview:  

"When I first started writing for Feministing, I wondered, do I tell people I’m dating I write for a site named Feministing? And is that a test for what kind of guy this is? I don’t think that should be the case. It’s not necessarily that we only talk about women’s issues. We talk about everything through a certain lens." 

Now, it is true that I am only one man, but feminists were always the smartest, the most caring, the coolest women I knew, decade after decade. But it is true, many of these women did not need male approval to go about their lives. Does Marissa Mayer earn some cred among the male-dominated tech culture at Yahoo for eschewing feminism? Probably. There have always been successful women who have been very male friendly, and maybe that is a prerequisite to success with the Google guys, and now Yahoo.  

3. We are losing sight of the fact that 'feminism' means something incredibly valuable. First of all, it must be truly hard for a thinking women to run from the word feminist, as much as some do. As Jessica Coen writes in a response to Tracy Moore's Jezebel piece, "Whenever someone asks me if I am a feminist, instead of outright answering, I turn it around: 'Do you think that women should have the same rights as men?' The person invariably says yes, and I respond, 'Then you are a feminist.' And they sputter or look at me with wide eyes like, gee, they never thought about it like that." 

As my friend Ruth Rosen, an historian of the women's movement, writes:

These days it may be hard for some to believe, but before the women’s movement burst on the scene in the late 1960s, newspapers published ads for jobs on different pages, segregated by gender. Employers legally paid women less than men for the same work. Some bars refused to serve women and all banks denied married women credit or loans, a practice which didn’t change until 1974. Some states even excluded women from jury duty.

On August 27, 1970, in response to such injustice, 50,000 women marched down New York’s Fifth Avenue, announcing the birth of a new movement. They demanded three rights: legal abortion, universal childcare, and equal pay. These were preconditions for women’s equality with men at home and in the workplace. Astonishingly, they didn’t include the ending of violence against women among their demands -- though the experience and fear of male violence was widespread -- because women still suffered these crimes in silence.

Those three demands, and the fourth one that couldn’t yet be articulated, have yet to be met.

So yes, feminism is about making a better world -- it's about fairness, opportunity, safety, and so much more. And it's about making sure that we men are not deprived of women who are able to reach their potential and express their ideas, which we so much need for our own fulfillment, insight, balance, and humanizing.

One of the things that most made me a feminist as a young man was discovering the brilliant writing and ideas of women that frankly was not part of my education -- neither the working-class nor the Ivy League version. Reading theorists like Dorothy Dinnerstein, Shulamith Firestone, Robin Morgan in the 1970s, and then Susan Brownmiller's stunning book about rape, Against Our Will, were real eyeopeners, and so was fiction like Loose Change by Sara Davidson, Marge Piercy's Small Changes, Margaret Atwood, etc. I found a world that was expressed quite differently than the male writers I mostly was reading. And that was a happy discovery.

4. Feminism is about more than just money and success. I have to confess that when I read that Marissa Mayers has a net worth of an estimated $300 million, I wondered how she became the symbol of what feminism should bend to, according to Rosin and Moore. Her main residence is a penthouse at San Francisco's Four Seasons hotel. She spends weekends in Vail. According to Business Insider

She also has a collection of designer goods impressive enough to make Vogue gush. Oscar De La Renta, who has outfitted Eva Longoria and Cameron Diaz, told Vogue that Mayer was "one of my biggest customers." She bought 20 of his cashmere cardigans for her friends. They're about $2700 each."

Meanwhile, as I mentioned earlier, the 400 richest people in the U.S. have more wealth than half the U.S. population. Forty percent of American households – more than 100 million people --live paycheck to paycheck; over 46.2 million are below the poverty line and on and on. Feminism was never only about corporate success, and it shouldn't be now. Having a women in charge doesn't always change things for the better for other women -- as it sounds like what's happening at Yahoo, where Marissa Mayer has built a nursery in her office for her child and her full-time nanny. On the other hand, having Nancy Pelsoi in charge of the House of Representatives made a huge difference for women, because she fundamentally cared about other women. 

Feminism is about caring about a larger community, seeing the possibility of good for others, and not only in one's self-advancement; Feminism is about helping those who are struggling to get traction in a tough world: women mired in poverty; struggling young women with heavy college loan debt, a tight job market and the prospect of having to settle for far less than their dreams; aging women, working through the realities of getting old, both in the workplace and in the personal realm, and often facing much time alone. This is a fertile environment for feminism, for mutual support, where it is too easy to blame oneself for what can be challenging systemic conditions.

How can someone worth $300 million, someone whose every possible need is taken care of, be the face of a meaningful feminism? How can Hanna Rosin and Tracy Moore imagine that what Marissa Mayer thinks and says has much to do with any other woman, let alone with feminism? 

5. Men still dominate in most positions that dominate our lives. Who has the biggest say in what happens in our world? Let's start with the too-big-to-fail banks. Do you remember seeing any women running these banks? How about the military and defense contractors that suck a huge percentage of our budget and generate hugely expensive wars that result in deaths and maimed and suffering soldiers? This is a world almost exclusively of men. (Though it is true that Marillyn Hewson is now the head of Lockheed Martin.) Men run the prisons, pretty much all of law enforcement, and everything else in the security state. Even Barack Obama's second cabinet -- Secretary of State, the Treasury and Defense departments, and the Attorney General (the biggies) -- are now all men, and Obama had to scramble to give his cabinet have some semblance of gender balance. 

So no, feminism hasn't remotely met its goals, but it's a movement that is arguably less than two centuries old taking on the systemic inequalities of at least 4,000 years of discrimination and abuse.

Among the women’s movement’s great accomplishments so far -- the right to vote, equal access to education, laws against pay and lending discrimination -- it has also made room for the occasional woman to become fabulously wealthy. Society hails her as a symbol of some new kind of corporate feminism, where she takes her place in a world of the hugely wealthy, far more advantaged than the rest of us. And she probably wouldn’t be there, if it wasn’t for feminism.

Feminism should not be immune from criticism, but critiques are better coming from within the troops than from me. I asked one of my feminist-identified colleagues what she thought of this article, and she said that I was too positively embracing.

“Some American feminists have been anti-intellectual, tribal, and sometimes operating as policers of sexual behavior rather than champions for fuller expression of sexuality,” she pointed out. Yet, she added, "I'll always be proud to call myself a feminist, and I feel outraged at Mayer and a tremendous debt to the women who risked everything to earn me the right to vote, get an education, make a living, etc. However, I would like for American feminists to create a bigger tent, and also to realize that activism does not have to necessarily preclude subtlety of thought and openness to a multiplicity of views."

Feminism is a brand that needs some rejuvenation, and more pride of ownership, but it is a brand that is timeless. It represents the hopes of many millions of women, who need a women's movement now more than ever. I hope they have one. 

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