Feminism May Be Nearing Her Expiration Date


Maybe nobody cares if Katy “Cupcakes” Perry is a feminist. But if Marissa Mayer, by all accounts a brilliant, successful woman and CEO of a globally recognized brand, doesn’t really wanna hang her hat where feminism lives, and neither do younger women, is the problem us? Or them? Or does this continued resistance to embrace the term make it worth considering that the movement, or the word, or both, as they’re inextricably linked, be laid to rest? Or at least pulled apart, reconfigured, rebranded, and renamed? Let’s take a gander.


In a Slate piece by Hanna Rosin, she asks if the term feminist 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 maybedon we need to take her objection seriously. Maybe there is a reason why that PBS documentary was so much better on the history than it was on the modern era. Maybe feminism is a term too freighted with history and it’s time to move on.


Top powerful lady Marissa Mayer isn’t a feminist. She has bigger problems to solve, like the ones in the company she’s running, then to make sure every choice she makes is good for “the sisterhood.” Women like Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg may embrace feminism more, and while she gives in her new book “excellent advice, but it’s not the stuff of a consciousness-raising movement.”

Writes Rosin:

Think about it from a purely tactical standpoint. Mayer is exactly the kind of person feminists should want on their team. She is a young CEO in an industry dominated by men-an industry that in many people’s minds stands for the future. Unlike many extremely successful female executives, she has not sacrificed a family life; she is married and has a baby. Yet she has been treated with so much scorn: First women criticized her for saying she did not want to take a maternity leave. Then last week she was mocked for her memo to Yahoo employees that she no longer wanted them to work remotely.
Both these cases highlight the philosophical differences between movement feminists and Mayer. Her critics believe in collective action. Mayer shouldn’t give up her maternity leave because she is setting a bad example, by teaching employers to expect unreasonable levels of commitment from working mothers. What’s good for one sister has to be good for them all. Same for remote work. Yahoo may have some specific corporate reason why calling everyone back to the office is critical at the moment, but Mayer shouldn’t do that because, again, as a strategy, it sets a bad precedent. Mayer, however, does not live in a world where collective action makes sense. She lives in a radical meritocracy, where ideas and strategies survive because they are useful, or successful, or forward thinking in some way.

Furthermore, even young fresh recruits aren’t exactly scrambling to call themselves feminists, either. She writes:

Recently I was part of a panel on the 50th anniversary of the Feminine Mystique. A big part of the discussion centered on why young women today don’t want to call themselves feminists, which dismayed the other panelists. Afterward a high-school girl in the audience stood up to ask a question. She said that in her progressive school the girls were “creaming” the boys at virtually everything. She said they were better at sports and got better grades and ran all the extracurricular clubs. But the one thing she and her friends could not get anyone to do was join the feminist club. The answer to her particular predicament seemed obvious to me, the old feminist, although it felt impolite to say it at the time: My daughter, it’s time to kick you out of the house and then shut the house down. You need to build your own house now.

Big Caveat:

But this doesn’t mean these women aren’t “for equal rights”!

Mayer more or less agrees with the aims of movement feminists, only she goes about achieving them in unorthodox ways. During her tenure at Google, she took pains to accommodate working mothers, only she did in a way that did not give them special status. (She allowed employees to identify their personal priorities, so a mom could leave early for a kid’s soccer game and a young man with no kids could leave early for a weekly potluck dinner with his old college roommates). She could have passed a special policy for working mothers. But Mayer’s way seems more viable in a world in which men and women compete equally for scholarships and jobs and are moving toward sharing domestic responsibilities, too.

Conclusion: Since these are pro-equal rights women who don’t call themselves feminists, maybe it’s time to consider that the term is getting in the way.

Women’s success doesn’t mean there are not battles to be fought. But insisting on the term “feminism” may be getting in the way of fighting them. The women [Stephanie] Coontz worries about, who are choosing low-paying professions, could use some collective action to boost their salaries. But as a group, they don’t generally identify with the term feminism, and many are actively hostile to it, as I discovered in reporting my book. So why alienate them? And for the women who are Sandberg’s audience, the young and ambitious, traditional movement feminism does not quite capture what they need, either. After all, she is helping boost them from successful to uber-successful, from midlevel executive to CEO. They need tips and strategies, just like young men do. But they don’t necessarily need consciousness-raising groups, and they probably don’t have time for them anyway.

Rosin makes a lot of interesting points. If modern, successful, interesting women, and ass-kicking young girls, are cool with equal rights but not feminism, is it worth considering refocusing of the movement or its terminology? What is lost if we don’t? What is gained if we do?

Why do we even care anymore if women call themselves feminists or not? Is that really so essential to our goals? Are we trying to win equality, or a popularity contest for our “ism”? Is the idea to get all women to be feminists, because then everything will be righted? Can’t some of them still be ass-kickers without the title?

Feminism is absolutely a globally recognized way to effect change, but there’s another way: By doing the same stuff at your intersection of the world, with or without calling yourself a feminist. And the argument over who is or who isn’t a real feminist can get pretty tired. Is Sarah Palin is allowed to be a feminist? Can you shoot whip cream out of your vag and still advance the cause? Is Taylor Swift a traitor? Is Sheryl Sandberg the right kind of feminist?

Looked at that way, it starts to feel like a special club, with feminist as the secret knock meant to ease our distrust of other women whose agendas we are not sure of. Is Mayer just getting hers and then pulling up the ladder behind her? Does Sandberg care about other women who aren’t corporate climbers? Are these women or Smurfettes, happy to be the only women in the boys club and kinda liking it?

The whole argument starts to feel like only the sort of luxury well-educated, upper-middle-class women can afford. It is the breastfeeding of sociopolitical issues: Only a small set of the population has the time, office space, flexibility or maternity leave to actually worry about it this much. And they typically aren’t the people who need feminism the most, anyway. (And the working class women who really do don’t often identify as feminists either.)

Isn’t it possible to make the progress of working class women a goal whether they are feminists or not, and also applaud the Marissa Mayers and Sheryl Sandbergs, as well as high school girls killing it on the daily — whether they wear the T-shirt, or whether it’s a perfect fit?

Especially when by their actions, they are showing the world the precise aims of equality, anyway: To provide for themselves and their families, to show that we are hard-working and smart, that we are equals, CEOs, smarty pantses, and the sort of people who can cream the boys at virtually anything. Especially when they are visible symbols of success, I’m inclined to say that goes a long way toward earning your feminist merit badge.

Because in this sense, feminism has achieved many of its goals. Yes, there’s always more work to be done. But it’s the work that matters. The word is, well, it is freighted. That is part of what makes it so great, but it may be part of what undoes it in the end. On the one hand, the fact that it is offputting to some gives it the power of the uncomfortable, and it means we’re onto something.

But some women prefer to win their bees with honey, and I don’t think we should discount that so easily. What matters is if they walk the walk. We are often uncomfortable with women who achieve in male-dominated fields because they tend to minimize or maximize gender in such a way that can feel contradictory to the aims of feminism, and they often distance themselves from the term. But to succeed among men you must play the game they devised. Women who prove they can win this way are advancing feminist goals. The kind that change men’s perceptions of what women are actually capable of. This is what got women into combat. But the win, in my view, isn’t remotely diluted if those women aren’t self-identifying feminists. And perhaps not requiring such a rigid view of what it means to be “one of us” — and I do identify as a feminist — would invite more people to this party.

Take this personal example: My husband and I are raising a daughter together. He shares the housework, childrearing, bath-giving, bed-putting and the everything of this job. And I don’t mean he does the lowered-expectations version of great just to avoid a fight. He really does an equal share. This was critical to me in a mate.

You could call that feminism. I do. But he doesn’t. He calls it “his part.” We both understand the feminist gains that led to this. But it makes no difference to me. I want the food cooked, and the groceries bought, and the diapers changed. It’s the action that matters. And as long as we make the issue about the word, we’re going to ignore too much of the whole of what makes us all more equal, which are the actions of men and women together hashing this out in ways that advance everybody. Call it whatever you like.

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