After I posted Part I of this series, my husband remarked: “I read your newest post; I had no idea you were a feminist.” I looked at him aghast. “No offense,” he went on, “I just didn’t realize it was a cause you championed.”
I was not sure whether to be amused or offended. What did my husband think it meant to be a feminist? Did he expect me to have a poster of Susan B. Anthony on my wall and refuse to let him open doors for me? What about the fact that I work in a male-dominated area of law and am the sole breadwinner for my family? I recalled a Huffington Post graphic making its way around Facebook and asked him, “Do you believe men and women should have equal rights and opportunities?”
“Of course!” laughed my husband. “Then you’re a feminist, too.” I informed him.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines feminism as “the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities.” However, many Americans still cling to the stereotype of bra-burning, humorless, man-haters. A recent YouGov poll found that just 20% of Americans (23% of women and 16% of men) consider themselves feminists, with another 8% self-identifying as anti-feminists. However, when the same people where asked whether they believed men and women should be social, political, and economic equals, only 9% said no (split almost evenly between men and women), reflecting broad agreement with the fundamental premise of feminism.
What does feminism mean to me? It is, first and foremost, an acknowledgement that gender inequality persists. As Lori Day articulated in her brilliant post, “Here’s the thing about girls, and all children, actually: They see no limits to their potential until adults point them out.” I meant it when I assured Betty Friedan that if anyone ever treated me differently because I was a woman, I would push back. At sixteen, however, I had never encountered (or, at least, noticed) sexism. Since then, I have experienced a range of sex-specific treatment, from benign comments at the gym to sexual harassment at work (not at my current job, to be clear). I’m not saying that I, or any other woman, deserves pity or special treatment. We are not a persecuted minority or oppressed population, at least not in this country. But nor are we men’s equals.
Despite numerous studies demonstrating the tangible benefits for gender diversity in private sector leadership, and surveys showing that women are considered better leaders than men by their co-workers, there are only 45 female CEOs among the Fortune 1000 companies (4.5% of the total leadership). We want to believe that the modern American workplace is a meritocracy, but I doubt that the 955 male CEOs of Fortune 1000 companies got to their positions simply by working harder and being smarter than their female counterparts. That is just statistically impossible.
More vexing, as far as I am concerned, is that these women create buzz because they are female CEOs, not because of the impressive accomplishments that earned them the position or their strategic vision for the company. I do not consider myself a “female lawyer” any more than my colleagues consider themselves “male lawyers,” although I know our clients sometimes perceive me as such. In the words of American Transcendentalist Margaret Fuller: “What women needs is not as a woman to act or rule, but as a nature to grow, as an intellect to discern, as a soul to live freely, and unimpeded to unfold such powers as were given her when we left our common home.”
The world also lacks female political leaders; of 193 members of the United Nations, only 24 countries (12%) currently have female leaders. Although the number of women in positions of power is increasing, the frustratingly-slow pace of change suggests that considerable barriers remain.
“It has been popular in recent years to laugh at feminism as one of history’s dirty jokes.” This could be yesterday’s blog post, but is actually from Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. That book, published in 1963, was listed among the “Ten Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th Centuries” by a conservative magazine (along with The Communist Manifesto and Mein Kampf) because it “disparaged traditional stay-at-home motherhood as life in ‘a comfortable concentration camp’ – a role that degraded women and denied them true fulfillment in life.” Interestingly, Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In was also criticized for deriding mothers who opted to leave or compromise their careers to support their families. But anyone who actually read their books would know that Friedan and Sandberg share a deep respect for full-time moms, they just don’t want women to feel confined to that role.
Although separated by half a century, Friedan and Sandberg are actually asking the same question. In her much-quoted opening passage, Ms. Friedan describes the happily married, middle-class suburban housewife “afraid to ask even of herself the silent question – ‘Is this all?’” Likewise, Ms. Sandberg describes the endless struggles of herself, friends, and colleagues to balance work, family, and self in an effort to “have it all.”
In her introduction to the 50th anniversary edition of The Feminine Mystique, Gail Collins describes the book as “a very specific cry of rage about the way intelligent, well-educated women were kept out of the mainstream of American professional life.” This could almost be a description of this year’s Lean In. But what about the women with less education or who face other challenges to personal and professional fulfillment? Who is speaking out for them? We have made progress in the last fifty years, but we still have a long way to go towards full gender equality in America. Other parts of the world are even further behind, and I believe that being a modern feminist means supporting efforts to advance women’s rights in those places as well. But I will save that for another post.