Women’s Movement/Girl’s Club
by Kim Chernin & Renate Stendhal
Let’s face it, it’s hard to recognize old wine in new bottles. Old feminists that we are, we carry around memories of “Take Back the Night” marches, speculums, consciousness raising groups, the first confessional whispers about sex, the celebration 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. We’re not trying to object to this; there’s 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! Remember ERA, the never ratified Equal Rights Amendment of the late seventies? These women today are successful women who have found a way to thrive within our present system. It’s good to see women thrive, wherever they are doing it. But we can’t get around some misgivings.
We are reminded of that old term co-optation.It was around a lot when we were 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 new women’s conferences are folks like Walmart and Toyota and AOL and Maybelline. We 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.
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 the conference table, is there reason to be skeptical? 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 in 1848 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.” Are we wrong to imagine that no machetes would have been apparent at the Maker’s Conference?
Its 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 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… try as we might to admire this new “feminism,” it makes us uneasy. If we were to attend one of these empowerment events we’re afraid our 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 (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 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. 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 you will probably not 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 she 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 how about the home-grown anguish of our neighbors? Celebrating women who have achieved success endorses 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. It is doubtful thatthe corporate sponsors of these empowerment conferences mean to address the narrowing of this gap when they speak of achieving equality.
Lesbian Marriage: A Love & Sex Forever Kit (www.lesbianloveforever.com) is 160 pages, illustrated with amusing, sexy drawings. It entertains and educates with humor and a lot of common sense (the least common kind of sense).
About the authors:
With their unique toolkit, the authors, who are also relationship experts, continue their pioneering work on women and sex. In Lesbian Marriagethey are sharing their own experience as well as that of friends and clients of different backgrounds, ethnicities and ages. After a cross-cultural relationship of 28 years, Kim Chernin and Renate Stendhal are now a married couple.
Kim Chernin, Ph.D., (www.kimchernin.com) is the award-winning author of 17 books, among them the bestselling The Hungry Self, the classic In My Mother’s House and the memoir My Life As a Boy.
Renate Stendhal, Ph.D., (www.renatestendhal.com) is German-born and Paris-educated. She has published several books in the States, among them a relationship guide for couples, True Secrets of Lesbian Desire, and the award-winning photo-biography Gertrude Stein in Words and Pictures.