New Feminism's Price Tag
Or: The money my male friends aren’t spending on empowerment and self-improvement.
Because it’s Women’s Month… Disclaimer: I was nervous to hit ‘publish’ on this one. It’s probably worth clarifying that I identify as a feminist. This isn’t an examination of whether or not gender inequality exists (spoiler alert: it does), but rather, an exploration into my own relationship with ‘feminism as a movement’ (particularly the 3rd wave variety) and a challenge of what it is we’re working toward and how we might get there. (4 minute read)
One of the best gifts my parents ever gave me was eight years of tuition to an all girls school in Columbus, OH. From first grade through eighth, I attended The Columbus School for Girls and I’m convinced that it’s a gift that keeps on giving. I can’t say I wouldn’t have become the assertive person I am had I attended a co-ed school during these formative years, but I’m certain the all-girls atmosphere only made me feel more free to be myself from a young age.
At CSG, it was all ‘girl power’ all the time (Go Unicorns!… not even kidding). I thought remarkably little about boys mostly because they weren't around. I never gave much oxygen to the ideas that perhaps girls weren’t supposed to be good at sports or math or that girls weren’t meant to be leaders. I harbored little doubt about whether or not women could hold positions of power because it seemed like everywhere I looked, women were in charge. The atmosphere was an optimistic one — it was the 90s after all. As a girl, what a lucky environment to grow up in.
I moved through my teens and early twenties with an awareness that *of course* there was gender inequality. Of course there were times I felt objectified when I would have preferred not to. Of course it seemed absurd that almost all of the Fortune 500 CEOs were men. Of course a woman was capable of being our President. But, of course, the world wasn’t fair. I operated under the largely unspoken assumption that we were continually moving toward something more balanced, something better.
After Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 presidential election, feminism re-entered the national dialogue in full force, but this was feminism in the age of Instagram. Soon, I began getting invited to more and more ‘women only’ events; ‘women in business’ dinners, reasons to shop from female-led brands, a lot of opportunities to drink wine with other women. I scrolled through a lot of posts about being a #girlboss. The following year the ‘me too’ movement exploded, and effectively dumped a jug of lighter fluid on top of the flames already re-committed to burning down the patriarchy, and most of what came out as a result was long overdue.
And still, admittedly, something about much of this women-centric programming often feels a little off. Despite a lot of good intentions, I can’t help but notice that being an empowered woman today comes with a price tag. There are books to buy, clubs to join, dinners to pay for, retreats to attend, women-owned brands to shop from. When you consider that women are still making, on average, 20% less than men, it’s a bit ironic that we’re so easily convinced that we should spend more of these precious dollars ‘investing in ourselves’ under the guise of empowerment.
It also became painfully clear that my male friends weren’t being asked to do the same for the sake of their own careers. Why do women seem more willing to ‘work on’ ourselves? When did feminism become another marketing opportunity?
Often it felt too likely that this programming might be doing more to perpetuate stereotypes about the differences between women and men rather than effectively combat them. It seemed to create more separation between the sexes. It seemed like there was a lot of shouting into an echo chamber, especially on social media.
Yes, there are times when women-only environments invite a type of free conversation that is more challenging to achieve with men in the room, but it can also feel as though the ‘no boys allowed’ vibe misses a chance at a more interesting discussion. We miss out on the possibility of full collaboration in moving toward a more balanced society.
As grateful as I am to have spent my younger years primarily in the company of girls and women, as an adult, these siphoned-off environments can feel more limiting than empowering.
Still — there is something deep-rooted about being a woman that has long felt unfair, and still does:
Last week, I listened to an episode of Barack Obama & Bruce Springsteen’s new Spotify podcast (love it) where they discuss the American tradition of ‘going the road’. Each told tales from their younger days, of hitchhiking, of broken-down cars, cross-country journeys, of not knowing where they might sleep. I reflected on some of the most iconic stories about those who venture out on their own: Odysseus, Kerouac. Anyone who passed high school English knows that these adventures are not really about the distance covered, but about going as far as it takes to find oneself.
And yet, from a young age, women are made to feel as though we aren’t safe in the world (regardless of how true that even is). We are the vulnerable sex. We’re taught to seek affirmation from ‘the group’. We definitely aren’t supposed to hitchhike. Which begs the question: If it’s too unsafe for us to take the journey, is it also too dangerous for us to find ourselves? And further: How are we to become self-actualized in a world where it’s impossible to move about completely freely?
Through this lens it becomes clear that the struggle isn’t only about money or feeling ‘safe’ to report bad behavior to HR — it’s a fight for self-actualization that all people, regardless of gender, deserve a chance at.
Hillary Clinton was right when she famously remarked that women’s rights are human rights. I worry that the type of promotional feminism that centers around wine and shopping and selfies is more a distraction (and a marketing opportunity) than genuine progressivism. To create a society that feels truly balanced and fair with regards to gender, I sense that it will take the relentless pursuit of legislative action that protects the rights of women, and frankly, all people — from consumer protection laws to the criminal justice system.
In the meantime, anyone looking to move toward a ‘post-gender’ society could take a stab at creating professional or creative events that already feel that way, where people connect over an exchange of ideas instead of shared appearance. I look forward to the day when we can stop pointing out the gender of every woman who reaches a position of power and when ‘Boss-Babe merch’ feels outdated. We all deserve a chance to be taken seriously, free of charge.
In the event you missed it: Scott Galloway’s Real Time debut. You could say that Bill Maher ‘let the Dawg out’. If you didn’t catch Prof. G on last week’s show, it’s at least worth watching this four minute segment on “Crony Capitalism”. Galloway echoes E.F. Schumacher when he astutely points out that “We should be protecting people, not companies.” We’ll see if the Dawg gets invited back to Maher’s show (hope so).
Have a great week!