A Line in the Sand

Line in the sandEvery once in a while, a feminist here or there likes to come along and draw a line in the sand, declaring one side as “real feminism” and the other side as fake feminism, or kowtowing to the patriarchy, or…well, fill in the blank with your preferred negative term. Many feminists rightfully get uneasy about these sorts of things, myself included (who am I to say that your feminism is not “real”?). I typically think that labels are nebulous to begin with, and are generally used to describe some rough cluster of beliefs, values, and opinions. But I’d like to go against my uneasiness and perhaps my better judgment and draw a line in the sand for a moment, in the hopes of delineating one critical aspect of feminism. (Don’t worry; I’ll force myself to soften up a little bit at the end.)

In some of my recent discussions with feminist friends, the general topic of “getting women into positions of power” has arisen. Feminists and others have talked endlessly about wage gaps, glass ceilings, and chilly climates, so I won’t spend any time talking about these things. But I think it’s pretty safe to say that several major feminist complaints, and several feminist solutions,1 focus on the lack of representation of women in CEO positions, in the media, in government, etc. Alongside these ever-present concerns, relatively recent discussions2 about Marissa Mayer (female CEO of Yahoo) and Sheryl Sandberg (female COO of Facebook) have focused on their supposedly new brand of “feminism” that encourages women to invest the extra effort to push for higher positions of power. I agree with some of the criticisms of these opinions, such as how they claim to be feminism without involving any collective action (source) or how they place the onus on women to “pull themselves together” (source) rather than focusing on structural change. But to put it bluntly, feminism that focuses on putting women into power bothers me. Let me explain.

P is for Privilege

"Got privilege?" buttonFirst, let me get something off my chest: I’m a White, heterosexual, able-bodied, cis-gendered, middle-class man. I have privilege oozing out of every porous surface of my body, and that limits what I can rightfully claim as “personal experience” of oppression. So by all means, take what I say with a grain of salt. However, I am a feminist and feminist ally, and I am committed to standing alongside those who have faced oppression, in whatever way I can possibly do that given my own background as Mr. White Boy. But let’s also remember that Mayer and Sandberg are White, (presumably) heterosexual, able-bodied, cis-gendered, upper-class women. I fully acknowledge the issues they face as women, and the negative stereotypes that they have battled to get to the positions they now hold. But I find it disingenuous for a woman who has her own pretty hefty set of privileges to tell women that if they just work hard and “lean in”, that they can be successful and rise the corporate ranks as well. It’s the “American dream” pie-in-the-sky philosophy packaged in slightly different terms and sold to a specialized target demographic. The raw individualism of the message ignores the fact that women and other disadvantaged groups need collective action to make any sort of progress. “Leaning in” just isn’t going to cut it unless you’re already close to the finish line.

But Intersectionality Fixed That™, didn’t it? Third-wave feminism has done a wonderful job acknowledging the role of intersecting systems of oppression. Black women face oppression in ways that are qualitatively different from White women or from Black men. And that’s absolutely critical to acknowledge. But let’s not forget the role that social class and wealth play as their own system of oppression. And what irks me about the feminist goal to get women into positions of power and influence is that it trades one oppression for another. “Let’s cheer for women CEOs” to me means, “Let’s cheer for women who are at the head of a system that is actively oppressing others—even other women.” A woman at the helm of a company who has factories in developing nations is a woman who has power over other women who work as seamstresses for pennies a day. If we’re being all intersectional about this, I think this should be cause for concern. How can I support a feminist goal that merely results in a change of master for women in poverty? How can I support a goal that raises up one woman while continuing the oppression of thousands of others? That seems antithetical to the stated purposes of feminism entirely.

The Oppression Pie

Piece of the pieA friend of mine once said something in the context of the Occupy Wall Street movement that has stuck with me ever since. He described the movement as a bunch of middle-class people just trying to “gain a bigger piece of the oppression pie.” That seemed like an apt description to me.3 I certainly agree with the people in the movement that it is unfair that a hedge fund manager makes a six-digit salary while they got kicked to the curb. But for those who have no curbs, it all seems like an argument made in bad faith. The forces that keep the rich distinct from the middle class are the same ones that keep the middle class distinct from the poor. To fail to acknowledge that is to fail at understanding what oppression is and how it operates.

I have come to realize a similar argument for liberal feminism (at least in this respect). Feminists who support women rising to the seat of power over a patriarchal, class-driven, oppressive system are arguing for women to get a “bigger piece of the oppression pie”—especially when it is plain to see that the women who are most likely to gain those seats of power are White, able-bodied, cis-gendered, etc. Intersectionality involves an acknowledgement that systems of oppression cannot be dealt with in isolation from one another. I have little desire to see a woman in power who merely perpetuates the same system with little change except perhaps a little greater attention to “women’s issues”—which end up being mostly White, middle/upper-class women’s issues. As we can see from examples like Mayer and Sandberg, having a woman in power is no guarantee that they will work to change the system. Instead, they tend to encourage other women to use the same techniques they used: be privileged, be assertive, and measure your success exactly how the businessmen do. This is not progress. This is not improvement. And I’m arguing that this is not feminism at all.

Terms and Conditions

Human pyramid waterskiingI’m going to give a new term to people who ascribe to women-to-the-top feminism: they’re not feminist, they’re “feminish”. Being “feminish” means holding an ideology that seems feminist, has the surface-level appearance of being feminist, but ignores one of the core elements of feminism: changing the system4 into something that achieves equality between men and women. Women-to-the-top feminism just cannot do this, because the women who make it to the top are precisely the women who will be least motivated to change the system once they get there. People who are “feminish” might have their heart in the right place, but they are just not rocking the boat hard enough. In fact, they’re hoping the boat will stay steady enough so that they can push a woman or two upward in a precarious balancing act, hoping that the success of women in power will somehow filter down to the women who would never be able to make it upward. I am willing to put my foot down and say that meaningful system change is a fundamental, defining feature of feminism, even if different flavours of feminism may disagree over how exactly that change comes about.

What does real feminism look like in comparison? It involves collective action, especially from women (and the men who support them) at the bottom. It means acknowledging the importance of intersectionality, in the sense that sexism cannot be dealt with in isolation from the other forms and systems of oppression that exist. And as far as my own opinion goes, it means rocking the boat hard enough that the people balancing at the top are thrown overboard (i.e., working to dismantle hierarchy). Once we’re at that point, we don’t need women to find their way to the “top”—we just need women and men to work together to keep the playing field level. That means equality in the home, in the schools, in various fields of expertise, and in whatever form business takes once corporate hierarchies have tumbled. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t deal with sexism before resolving other forms of oppression; what I would argue is that we must deal with sexism in conjunction with other forms of oppression in order to actually have a meaningful impact. Without doing so, we end up perpetuating the hierarchies that exist even within the collective group known as “women” and helping perhaps only the top few women while leaving the rest untouched.

Dialing Back

Solidarity with women's struggles all over the worldSo I mentioned that I was going to soften things up at the end a little bit. I’ve just basically said that much of liberal feminism is just “feminish”, so perhaps I need to dial it back a little bit. Do I think there is still a role within feminism for these “feminish” people? Absolutely. They have the right values; they just need to find their way to a place where they accept the need for system change that goes beyond a change in the gender of the people at the top of the hierarchy. Perhaps there are ways to reform the system to achieve equality, though I’m not personally convinced of this. But at the very least, the recognition that system change must go beyond pushing women to the top is a necessary component of (intersectional) feminism. Without this, it makes little difference for the millions of women who will never be anywhere near the top—i.e., most women in the world.

I also think it is important to make a distinction between advocating for women in power and women in leadership. Should women be encouraged to take leadership roles? Absolutely! We need more women who are examples of strength and who challenge gender norms. But the type of people who make it into positions of power are the type of people who are least likely to give it up once they have it.5 In contrast, leadership doesn’t need to involve authority and decision-making power; it is about providing a voice to the voiceless, providing guidance and vision, and empowering others to make a collective contribution to the well-being of themselves and others. Finding ways to encourage women and members of other disadvantaged groups to take on leadership roles is a wonderful goal, and provides a rich diversity of experience that benefits us all. Without being “feminish.”


  1. Here is one example. []
  2. Yes I know, these stories are from a while back. My brain doesn’t always work on the 24-hour news schedule. []
  3. To be fair, the Occupy movement was certainly a heterogeneous group of people, composed of individuals with very different backgrounds. So there were definitely those who were there to challenge the system as a whole, and wouldn’t fall into the description my friend gave. But the heterogeneity gave plenty of space to those who simply were angry at being bumped down a notch from their middle-class income, and as the movement progressed it seemed to be more about painting everyone as “the 99%” instead of acknowledging the active role that many in that 99% have played, and continue to play, in oppressing others. []
  4. “The system” can be a little hard to define, but I am referring to the system as essentially the prevailing social, economic, and political norms of a society, and especially those processes carried out by institutions (government, business, media, etc.) that sustain those norms in that society. []
  5. With this statement in mind, please note that I’m not trying to make the argument that women should be kept out of positions of power. I’m saying that power relations themselves need to be restructured. []

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