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Let’s face it, it’s hard to recognize old wine in new bottles. Old feminist that I am, I carry around memories of Take Back the Night marches, speculums, consciousness raising groups, the first confessional whispers about sex, the celebrations of the clitoris, the founding of shelters for battered women. Activism was our feminism, a heady brew.
It is said that that a new type of feminism is emerging, taking place in conferences, sponsored by corporations, sporting its own dress code of heels and short skirts and a whole lot of fashion stuff we rejected in the old days. I’m trying not object to this; there is a serious purpose inspiring these gatherings and they happen all over the place—in Los Angeles, New York, San Antonio, Miami, Boston, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, Palo Alto, etc.
This movement is largely concerned with women who are in the work place and want to rise to full equality with their male colleagues. And well they should! This is a movement of successful women who have found a way to thrive within our present system. Well, I’m happy to see women thrive, wherever they are doing it. But I have some misgivings.
I am reminded of that old term co-optation. It was around a lot when I was young; it meant the appropriation of something fierce and radical by conservative interests who used it for commercial and conservative purposes. The corporate sponsors of these conferences are folks like Walmart and Toyota and AOL and Maybelline. I would bet that not once, in all these presentations, was the “P-word” ever spoken. A thorough critique of P-atriarchy would have had to hold its tongue, if anyone even remembered it as a negative concept.
Who am I to take on against well-paid, fashionably dressed, successful women who like getting together? Many of the women at these conferences have never been in a room with so many women before. “…I’ve never experienced anything quite like it. It really did feel like a sisterhood.” From grass-roots to conference table, is this a legitimate extension of the feminist idea simply because it involves women?
“It’s the formation of a new girls’ club”, says a marketing consultant who advises companies on connecting with women. “I mean, no offense, but men have been doing this kind of conference networking for years.” Why shouldn’t women take advantage of these organizing tools, enjoy each other’s company, make connections, bring about change?
What change? More seats on the board, more money for equal pay, a “change for women in the workplace.” What workplace? Where the service workers gather? Or the hotel-workers meet? Which women? Well, clearly those who could afford to attend an event like The AOL/Makers Conference (multi-media women’s initiative) in a resort on the cliffs in Southern California. (The goal of the Makers conference was: “…to gather and spotlight the prominent leaders and innovators from corporations, not-for-profits, and government organizations that are committed to women’s and working-family issues.”)
An article in the New York Times compares these conferences to Seneca Falls. Okay, Seneca Falls. It’s probably a good idea to consult some feminist history to see what the women who attended the first feminist convention risked in order to be there. In their time, women were not allowed to speak in public or pray aloud in gatherings of men and women; a woman could not go out of her house unaccompanied by a man. It took guts to attend the gathering at Seneca Falls, it was not in any sense a “girl’s club.” Marlo Thomas is aware of this: “The path has been cut by brave women before us with blood, sweat, tears and machetes.” Am I wrong to imagine that no machetes would have been apparent at the Maker’s conference?
It’s sponsors: Forbes Women, Cosmopolitan magazine, Merck of the contraceptive drug lawsuit, Tim Armstrong from Aol, newly infamous for his comment about his employee’s “distressed babies” who, he claimed, were causing his company’s health care costs to rise. (After this comment went viral he apologized and restored the cuts he had made to his employees’ health care plans).
Are these sponsored events really an environment in which startling new ideas (women getting the right to vote), cutting-edge critiques (the inhumane treatment of slaves), audacious plans for action (holding meetings on the Sabbath) are likely to occur? The fashion, the stars, the fancy admission prices, I can’t help it, try as I might to admire this new “feminism,” it makes me uneasy. If I were to attend one of these empowerment events I’m afraid my first thought would be: “Oh my god, I have nothing to wear.”
The conferences are said to be consciousness-raising and this is undoubtedly true. Women together will discover the exponential increase in female power that arises from the sheer fact of being together. But this does not mean the conference will teach women the staying-power of sweat and tears or how to translate inspiring speeches into prosaic action. One can only hope that the participants stay focused on their goals while they enjoy the famous women, good comedy, gift bags, (like the S.H.E. swag bag,) and advice on style and beauty (Maybelline at the Cosmopolitan event). “You could honestly spend your life going to these things,” said a 35-year-old comedy writer, “…it’s almost a competition, maybe you don’t even want to go, but now you have to because you’re afraid of what you’ll miss out on if you don’t.” This is not reassuring.
A gathering of women is not feminist simply because women have gathered. Even Gloria Steinem, a frequent and inspiring guest at these events, cannot by herself turn a girl’s club or a fun conference circuit into a feminist gathering. (Place Seneca Falls against Cosmopolitan’s “Fun Fearless Life Conference”)
The conference that best fulfills the meaning of consciousness raising is Tina Brown’s “Women in the World.” If you want to know what it was like to be a woman during the Arab Spring, or to run an orphanage for children fleeing violence in Uganda, or know what it takes to make a film about honor killings, this is the place to go. “Women in the World” serves up a strong dose of the hard-core reality of places in which most of us would not have the skills to survive as women. Still, there are places, many places, in America where it is tough for women; I think of a single mother with a large family working three jobs to keep her children fed. By any definition she is a woman in the world but I don’t think you will find her as either a speaker or participant at Tina Brown’s conference, although you might find one or two of her daughters. The mother of Rosie Castro, celebrated Latina activist who spoke at the conference, was a poor, single mother. Ursula Burns, the first African-American woman to head a Fortune 500 company, spoke about moving as a child from a tenement house to the projects and knew that she had to explain to her audience what that meant.
Brown’s conference is a valiant effort to bring us face to face with the trials of women in far-off places but does it distract us from the home-grown anguish of our neighbors? Celebrating women who have achieved success promotes the idea that gender equality is a question of equal pay and stature, fancy titles and lots of money, with not a single word mentioned about the disproportionate poverty of women in America. Yet, the gap in poverty rates between women and men is wider in American than anywhere else in the Western world. I doubt it is the narrowing of this gap the corporate sponsors of these empowerment conferences mean to address when they speak of achieving equality.