Culture & Society

THE PROBLEM WITH “STRONG” WOMEN

capitalism’s co-opting of feminism

By AURORA ROJER

What does it mean to be a feminist today? Or even a female role model in general? Check with Beyoncé, Buzzfeed, Upworthy, Thought Catalog, or Cosmopolitan — they can all agree on one thing: It’s all about being a Strong Independent Woman. In some ways, this sounds good. Feminism infiltrated the mainstream, and now girls want girls to be stronger and more independent! Progress! But as Nina Power describes in her book One-Dimensional Woman, “If the contemporary portrayal of womankind were to be believed, contemporary female achievement would culminate in the ownership of expensive handbags, a vibrator, a job, a flat and a man — probably in that order.” What was once a struggle for equality for all has become a consumerist brand. Feminism: So you too can have the power to buy.

The Strong Independent Woman is often qualified by her remarkable quality that she “don’t need no man.” This lack-of-man-needing can take the form of the vibrator, as Power suggests. Rather than engage with another human being, women should pay money for a machine that will produce an orgasm sans snuggling and pillow talk. But if women are to engage in intercourse with a fellow human being, our hook-up culture champions the women who can go out and get what they need without any emotional ties. This is the modern woman, perhaps even more so than the vibrator consumer.

But what is with this fear of needing someone? Carol Deppe, a scientist and writer, asks, “Is independence even a virtue? It seems to me that to be truly independent I would have to love and care about no one, and be loved and cared about by no one. And I would have no one to learn from and no one to teach. It’s a depressing image.” Feminism in its truest sense argues that men and women are equal. I would argue that men and women both need people, of any gender. People need people. We need love and support and hugs and jokes. Being independent sounds nice, but when we tell girls that they should want to be independent, it only makes them feel bad when they find themselves needing someone else. This is wrong! Needing others and having others need you is not a sign of weakness; it is a sign of being human.

Before sexual freedom, economic freedom was the crucial struggle for women. First-wave feminism in the 19th and early 20th centuries focused a great deal on employment and women’s property rights. When divorce meant a woman lost her children, house and spending money, it is no wonder why it was seldom practiced. To be tied down like that is certainly not gender equality. However, it is important to note that while many middle class and upper middle class women were housewives at this time, such was not the case for the working class; the Industrial Revolution allowed for many women to get jobs in factories and the like, for better or for worse.

Lowell Massachusetts was an industrial powerhouse in the United States, producing textiles with new machinery and organized mass production, and the majority of the workforce was made up of women. By working in a factory, the Lowell Mill Girls achieved economic independence from their fathers and an alternative to marriage. However the work was hard and the conditions were grim; they worked 12 to 14 hours a day in a loud, stuffy room filled with dangerous machines. Housed by the factory in boarding houses, these women developed a supportive community. They were also intellectually driven, pushing themselves to expand their minds even though their bodies were exhausted from their far-too-long work day. They read voraciously, exchanged ideas and attended lectures.

The Lowell women were unhappy with their conditions, seeing that they were no way for human beings to live. Through discussion, study and solidarity, they saw that though they had no power as individuals, as a united force, they could make an impact. The Lowell Mill Girls went on strike in 1834 and 1836. In January 1845 they started their own union called the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association. They ran it by themselves, holding elections and meetings, organizing other female workers, setting up other branches and organizing fairs, parties and social gatherings. These women fought for shorter workdays and better pay as a matter of personal dignity; they saw themselves as humans who deserved a life outside of the factory.

Their collective action is in strong contrast to Sheryl Sandberg, author of Lean In and the New York Times Bestseller brand of feminism. Rather than uniting women to fight for equal wages, Sandberg puts the onus on each individual; if you aren’t making enough money, it’s because you haven’t demanded it. But this sort of thinking is not a reality for the vast majority of working women. Walking into an office and putting your stilettoed foot down only works when you are already in a high-powered, difficult-to-replace position. As feminist scholar Bell Hooks explains, “there was never and is no simple homogenous gendered identity that we could call ‘women’ struggling to be equal with men. In fact, the reality was and is that privileged white women often experience a greater sense of solidarity with men of their same class than with poor white women or women of color.” Sandberg reduces feminism to a struggle for gender equality within the existing social and economic systems. But as these are systems that also actively oppress groups other than women, is this really the fight that should be taking place? The point of the feminist movement is to have a movement of women working towards mutual advancement, not one woman clawing her way to the top.

Independence itself is a flawed concept. Strength, on the other hand, is merely incomplete. Strong women — those whom we are supposed to look up to, are the ones in the top of their fields. We smile with pride when we hear of a female CEO or Prime Minister or neurosurgeon. But as feminist writer Jessica Valenti puts it, the idea that women should celebrate other women because of their positions of power suggests that all women want is … another woman. In this sense, assimilation is the goal; as described by Jessa Crispin, “the markers of women’s and feminism’s success — money, power, high-level employment — are the same markers as men’s success.” But is it really women who clawed their way to the top of what Hooks calls our “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” who deserve our adoration?

Role models should not be chosen for their general power. Supervillains often have as much power as superheroes; the difference lies in what that power is used for. Similarly, women in power should not be applauded simply because they “got somewhere.” The question is what they use their position for — good or evil. Of course, it is rarely as simple as that. But to say that a woman CEO is a hero just because she climbed the capitalist ladder means for young girls that their dream should be to do the same; they should fight for some small, token role within the system rather than fight the system and its fucked-up nature itself.

Feminism is not a brand of self-help, despite what Sandberg and others like her would have us believe. In this corrupted capitalist form, feminism has become little more than a justification for narcissism, where women can explain away every self-serving decision they make with “because feminism.” Hooks defines it instead as “a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation and oppression.” With this definition comes the understanding that it is not enough to have more women in high-paying jobs; the fight is not just for rich white women, or just white women or just women at all; the challenge is to end oppression for all.

So what should women be doing? I think that strong women should use their strengths to help others. This can be through delivering babies or fighting for important legislation or teaching a classroom of children how to read. It can be as simple as putting dinner on the table for your family or as complicated as finding a cure for a disease. But whether you are a housewife or a chemist, a lawyer or a teacher, you should give love to those around you. They need not be a husband or a child, but they can be. Feminism is not a race to the top. It is accepting all people as people and thus deserving of equality and rights. The battle is not to place as many female CEOs as we can, but to improve the lives of as many people as we can.

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