Sarah Jackson’s November 21 column “The Unconscious Feminist” on Role/Reboot sparked great interest and intense debate. Ms. Jackson described discovering, during a conversation with a close woman friend, that while they shared a very similar ideology regarding the issue of racial inequality—namely that it exists, persists, and requires education and ongoing action to counteract—her friend did not perceive gender inequality similarly. While her friend agreed that women faced distinct challenges, she also believed that women could fairly easily overcome them. Ms. Jackson went on to say that this interaction with her friend led her to expand her definition of a feminist and to see the lived experience of a woman—having confidence in herself, assuming professional leadership, living in a highly egalitarian marriage—as equally powerful in educating the world about feminism as those who passionately and outwardly support feminist ideals.
The word “Feminism” is a loaded gun. Most of us have an innate reaction to just hearing the word whether we self-identify as staunch supporters, critics, or somewhere in between. What is it about the term that elicits such a furor? Let me share several reasons I see why the word feminism remains controversial and fails to resonate with so many.
A first reason that feminism has failed to generate greater identification, perhaps ironically, is just because the women’s movement has been so successful. As a woman in her mid-40s, born into a generation of women who could take for granted the hard fought battles of the women’s movement, for many years I did not see feminism as particularly relevant. I grew up playing sports in school, just like the boys, attending an Ivy League college, just like the boys, interviewing for commercial bank and investment bank training programs, just like the boys, and working closely with both male and female colleagues during my first career in the investment industry. The reality of the world for many women of my generation was profoundly different precisely because the women’s movement had been so effective.
My mom was a typical Catholic woman in that she started having children very young, at age 20, and had six of them over the next 15 years. I believe she felt as though she never had much choice about any of it and that she did what was expected of her. She passed away more than a decade ago and I feel saddened that she (and most women of her generation) had so little opportunity in their lives to live, or to even define, any hopes and dreams that did not revolve around children and family. I knew life would be different for me. From my vantage point as a young woman, I thought the women’s movement, and by association feminism, had eliminated whatever challenges women might have faced in earlier times. Feminism was an artifact of history.
A second reason I did not as a younger woman—and younger women today continue to not relate to the word feminism—is that you have to reach a certain age, and stage in your life, before the challenges become relevant. Earlier in your career, things are pretty equal for women and men, and the focus is on building your skill set and demonstrating your competence. As a young woman, I deeply rejected the idea that who you know mattered. I believed career success was predicated only on ability and hard work. The reality is performance is much more concrete and easier to measure early in your career, but as you move up the career ladder, the recipe for success changes. Competence becomes assumed rather than being a differentiator, and relationships take on far greater importance in the mix. For more senior level roles, there is far more complexity—and subjectivity—in what makes someone qualified. Hard work and skill still matter, but that alone is no longer enough.
Becoming a parent also profoundly changes the equation. While gender roles have evolved, and continue to do so, women remain the chief strategist and manager in most homes with dependent children. Research shows that women continue to do more housework and child care than men, even when they both work outside the home. Furthermore, while women work the same or fewer hours after having children, men work more and fathers with dependent children work more than men without. In addition, most of our organizations were created for the traditional family of a working father and a stay-at-home mother. Like families, organizations are evolving but remarkably slowly given the dramatic changes in the demography of the workforce. When families break apart, women are typically in their 40s or 50s and it is then that their choice to stop working outside the home becomes much starker. While women’s standard of living declines after divorce, men’s increases. And while divorce rates have declined, it is still far too common an experience. In 2009, more than a third of women in their 40s, and more than 40% of women in their 50s, were divorced. It is far easier to understand the relevance and importance of feminism as one moves through the life cycle.
A third reason the term feminism is so loaded is that for most of us, it is very difficult to realize our own privilege. When I was newly graduated from college, my former boyfriend’s friend and consulting co-worker told a story that provided a small window into how my privilege benefited me in ways that I was not even remotely aware. This friend, who was black, described his older brother being stopped by the police while driving in a new car. His brother was a medical student at John Hopkins and, for whatever reason, did not have his license with him. The police assumed this young man could not be a doctor in training and the owner of this new car. He was brought to the police station and booked. As a white woman hearing this story, I realized that I could not even remotely imagine something like this happening to me. It was a real eye-opener, having been raised in a Boston suburb, where racial diversity was practically non-existent.
Similarly, I believe it is difficult for women to see, and not simply take for granted, the many privileges and opportunities they have inherited which were simply not available to women in earlier generations. By the way, it has taken me many years to see it this way. As a younger woman, giving credit to the women’s movement and feminism for many things I could take for granted felt as though it diminished my efforts and accomplishments. The reality is my hard work and intelligence have certainly been important factors in my career success, but the work of the women’s movement has greatly facilitated my journey. In earlier generations, women’s personal agency could not override the insurmountable obstacles put in their path. It was more than a question of individual action.
A fourth reason that feminism remains so controversial is that there is a divide between being supportive of, and actively advocating for, feminism (or any cause). So while many believe deeply in equality, it is a far smaller subset that will have the courage and passion to proactively work on behalf of it. An important differentiator between advocacy and support is that advocacy often involves direct conflict, while support can be far more passive. Because inertia is incredibly strong, people as well as systems do not change easily or without a catalyst. The gains of the women’s movement would not have happened without many women, and men, pushing for this change through thick and thin. After four decades of suffragists actively lobbying for women’s right to vote, it was the changed vote of a single, unanticipated supporter—24-year-old legislator Harry Burn of Tennessee—that pushed the suffrage bill over the edge in making the 19th amendment the law of the land. Mr. Burn changed his vote after receiving a letter from his elderly mother imploring him to “support the ladies.” It could have just as easily gone the other way and it might have been decades more of waiting. An enduring question remains: Are supporters of equality for men and women feminists, or only those who advocate for these changes in a visible, proactive way? This distinction is a profound one in the conversation about feminism.
The fifth and perhaps most significant reason that the term feminism does not enjoy widespread support and fails to resonate with so many, is that feminism has been recast and subsequently marginalized for many years. Let me use my evolving experience of the word feminism to illustrate what I mean: As a young woman in my 20s, if you had asked me if I were a feminist, I would have said no, though I believed deeply then, and now, in equality and women’s empowerment. For many years, I did not consider myself a feminist because my vague impressions of feminism were many of the caricatures of which we have been fed a steady diet. Feminists were bra-burners, they were strident, anti-family, and anti-men—a whole series of highly negative associations. Even in my 30s and into my early-40s, if you had asked me if I was a feminist, I would probably have said I absolutely believed in equal rights but I’m wasn’t sure if I was a feminist. Given that during this whole time my work was consulting on women’s advancement and the provision of family- friendly (I see them as person-friendly) work environments, you can appreciate how incredibly strange my ambivalence was.
It is my most recent chapter that has finally clarified for me that I am indeed a feminist—totally and completely—and finally willing to identify myself as such. In the fall of 2008, I attended a conference at Suffolk University Law School where the Honorable Judge Nancy Gertner, appointed by President Clinton, both educated and inspired me. Judge Gertner talked about how feminism was never solely about women having the choice whether or not to work outside the home. She said that feminism was far broader than choice, that at its core, feminism was about adapting work and home environments so that both women and men could have full and meaningful lives enabling them to work and remain actively engaged in caring for their families. In listening to her talk, I realized that I was a feminist and had spent most of my career actively working to support feminism.
I recently completed work on my first book, which highlights feminism in the 21st century that is a highly egalitarian approach to managing careers and raising children and frees women and men to realize their aspirations as professionals and parents. My husband and I have followed this model while raising our sons over the last 14 years. He has been a full and complete partner in the work-life juggle and supports the equal rights of women and men in both words and actions. He also has had a front row seat watching my evolving thinking about feminism throughout the process of researching and writing my book over the last two and a half years. Yet, the other day when I was trying to gather my thoughts before starting to write this article, I asked him point blank if he saw himself as a feminist. He said, “I have never been comfortable with that word. It’s so loaded.” Clearly, language is incredibly powerful and continued education about the true meaning of feminism is critical.
I look forward to the day when feminism is no longer so controversial and is far better understood to be good for women and men and families. In the meantime, I’ll do what I can in my professional work and by continuing to instill in my sons—a freshman in high school and a fifth grader—the importance and value of feminism for all.
Note: This article originally appeared in Role/Reboot.