How Feminism Works for the Privileged
I’ve often heard Madeleine Albright’s statement “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” I cringed when those words made their way to my Starbucks cup. As someone who didn’t grow up in a generation with women supporting each other, I found it to be confounding.
Inspired by the civil rights movement, feminist leaders were focused on gender based issues, such as access to better jobs and equal pay. Betty Freidan’s book, The Feminine Mystique, highlighted the life of college educated suburban housewives trapped in homes and caring for their families. American Feminism at its core was New England, moneyed, and part of an upper class movement to advance college educated women. Although working class women were part of this movement, their interests differed from the upper class; they wanted access to birth control and the opportunity to reach a middle class lifestyle. Looking at the feminist divide as completely generational is misguided, class has a lot to do with young feminists rejecting Hillary Clinton. She’s part of an elite society with an abundance of wealth, power, and privilege. Working class feminists may not see her as relatable. Clinton, Albright, and Steinem have benefited from American feminism. They see it as a moral obligation to support each other. Young women haven’t benefited from feminism in the same way second wave feminists have, which is one reason they reject gender based voting.
The second wave of feminism sought to position women as a class. In theory it was meant to be a collective movement to advance the lives of women, but that was a fantasy. Wealth and education divide people, even women who saw themselves as marginalized individuals. The chasm in American feminism is not just along economic lines, but racial ones as well. Feminism is complicated and there are deep ideological differences within the movement. I assumed Clinton would rely on second wave feminist allies for support; however, I never imagined how much support she’d expect from young feminists. It seemed plausible she’d receive strong support from women who were part of the second wave feminism, but third wave feminists have largely rejected the notion of collective identity.
For the past few days, I tried to think of an American woman (outside my family) that has helped me. There wasn’t one. Some people may find this hard to believe, especially if we’re meant to believe feminist movement involves women helping each other succeed, but American feminism doesn’t benefit me.
In college, my second wave feminist professors were often indifferent towards me. It reached a point where I began taking English Literature courses led exclusively by male professors. Eventually I transferred to a university in a large city, but feminism had already begun to exclude me. Of course there were female professors who were supportive, but they were French, German, English, and Russian. None of these women were American. Those European professors who supported me through my academic career are one of the reasons I left the United States to seek a graduate education abroad.
The assumption that American feminism is blind to societal prejudices is a myth. Do women help other women succeed? Of course they do, but upon close examination, we’ll discover these women are often of similar backgrounds. An established Cornell grad may assist a recent alum, but they usually have a great deal in common (racially, economically, geographically, and socially). Often what’s troubling about this is how these women physically resemble each other. In some cases, they could be siblings, which is when I realised feminists tend to hire individuals that remind them of their younger selves. I can’t help but wonder how that affects women who are physically dissimilar but reflect a similar academic background. How often do they look past physical appearances and hire someone else?
Once I contacted the founder of a Boston based marketing agency, I was referred to her by a family friend. He thought this executive would be a great help to me and put us in touch. She seemed keen to speak with me. We had a good discussion where she highlighted her history of hiring women and her desire to support female candidates. She asked for my CV, which I sent. CV requests are common with these conversations. Eventually I heard from the HR manager, who asked me to come in for an informational interview. Nothing about her agency was normal. All of her employees wore their blonde hair long, they even dressed alike. It looked more like a sorority than an agency. Of course, I never heard from them again.
Women suggesting a unity must exist between women is not new, but those sentiments are dangerous considering how feminism is not inclusive of all women. Often those calls for unity are from privileged women, who don’t reflect society. The implication that women who don’t support a female presidential candidate are somehow being disloyal is unfair. If I were to operate under Albright’s premise, I’d be forced to vote for Sen. Bernie Sanders. Women were meant to assist one another and my experience with American women does not reflect that experience. No American woman has ever hired me for a professional job so when someone tells me to support Clinton based on gender, I wonder why should I when no one has ever done that for me? No American woman has ever offered me a job based on the strength of my CV, much less because of my gender. Using gender to gain votes may work for some women, but it certainly won’t work for those of us who have been excluded from the feminist movement.
Without the false narrative of a collective identity, young women are forced to question why are they morally obligated to support Clinton? Being scolded by Steinem and Albright does nothing but infuriate third wave feminists. As the divide grows, it’s unlikely young feminists will come together to support Clinton based on gender alone. Clinton and her peers will continue traditions that exclude certain women from the feminist movement. I’ve listened to older women describe a sisterhood and pretend it works for all women. It doesn’t and they know that, which is why this must stop. This post isn’t an indictment of American feminism, I believe the movement functions as it was meant to, which is to advance upper class women.