The True Fight

Everyone’s Talking About Women and No One is Getting it Right.

Last summer Bronwen and I made a solemn vow to enjoy the Summer of Yes. We did not invent the idea –the original Summer of Yes had been a few years prior, when we weren’t living in New York—yet we adopted and nurtured the concept as if we had birthed it ourselves. I was spending half the summer in the city, which meant we’d be living in the same place for the first time since we were seventeen. We were both reeling from the end of relationships while trying to decipher what life had planned for us, and we figured we should try new things. So we agreed to say yes to almost everything.

One of us wanted to go see an art exhibit at 9 AM on Saturday? Cool. The other one would wake up and be there. One of us found a dress that would eat up the last few dollars of her paycheck? The other must strongly encourage (as in force) her to buy it. One of us wanted to: go swimming in the Hudson, take a last minute trip to LA, bungee jump, watch five straight episodes of So You Think You Can Dance, eat two pints of ice cream in one sitting, ride a mechanical bull, date a fellow employee, go hiking? The other one had to go along and/or endorse said behavior. We were young, single, we had summer tans. At the end we figured we’d at least learn more about ourselves.

And we did. We definitely did. For example, I learned to never go on blind dates set up by former employers. Twice I agreed to meet some guy who would be “perfect for me.” Twice it went hilariously bad.

The first guy was nice enough, but the night ended at nine with him throwing up on a sidewalk in Hell’s Kitchen. He had insisted on taking five tequila shots. Alone.

The second guy, though. He seemed great at first. He was from the south, he was funny, he feigned interest when I talked about scintillating details of the federal budget. He was not much taller than me, but I wasn’t worried about it. I texted Bronwen an emoji thumbs up.

We were at a tiny Mexican restaurant on Allen Street and I was giddy in that way Lower Manhattan can make you feel in the summer. We were waiting for the check. I was just about to ask him if he wanted to come out and meet my friends at a jazz club around the corner when he leaned forward. “So,” he said. “You’re black, and you’re a woman, and you’re getting a graduate degree.”

“Last time I checked,” I said.

“Is that why you went out with me?”

“What?” I felt myself doing the squinty-eyed thing I do when I’m confused.

“Is that why you went out with me even though I’m short?” he asked.

“I’m sorry," I said, "I think I lost you.”

“Well,” leaning back again, pausing. “I mean, statistically speaking, you’re in trouble.”

“Trouble?”

“Yeah. I mean, you’ll probably never get married. Black women don’t get married.” He hesitated as if perhaps he would stop there, but he plunged ahead. “But lets say you do. I can tell you’re smart. But, I mean, you’ll probably never get the top jobs. Women, especially women with families don’t do so well.” I could tell by his tone that neither of these were social phenomena he personally endorsed. Yet, either way, he stated them as if they were fact.

“Is this your idea of good first date talk?” I asked.

He laughed. “Oh, come on. Don’t be so sensitive,” he said. “I’m just saying. You kinda need me.”

We paid our bill. I put him in a cab. I went to the jazz club alone.

Maybe he hit a sore spot. At that moment I was less than a year away from graduating. I had no idea what the future held, personally or professionally. (Spoiler alert: still don’t!).

But it was more than that. I was angry. I was oversaturated. People seem to like reminding my friends and me that the numbers don’t look good.  If we want a family, it’s going to be a struggle. And if we want professional success, it’s also gong to be an uphill battle. We can really only choose one, as long as we understand that we may not get either.

Let me be clear. I did – and I do – think these issues deserve discussion. I’m just ready to change the framing.

***

Before last summer I had never even heard of Sheryl Sandberg or Anne-Marie Slaughter. But in the past few months they’ve popped up over and over again in casual conversation. They somehow seem to have become captains of semi-warring factions. Both deny that they are attempting to “represent” any movement, but it’s played out that way on the ground – no two people have garnered this much attention for talking about working women in a long time

The two women disagree on plenty, and they take two completely different approaches to examine gender inequality. But there is one thing they have in common – they are fixers.

I like fixers. The women in my life are fixers. My mother, my friends, my sister, my grandmother. They assess. They plan. They rectify. My grandmother will fight to get a law passed, my friends will get an immigrant amnesty or help a juvenile beat a case, my mother will write a computer program or assemble an Ikea bookshelf or find my third-grade book report in a box in the back of the storage closet. I love this about them. My admiration for all of these women is immeasurable. The idea of them living half-lives simply because they are women – not voting or speaking out or having the dignity to make personal decisions simply because they are women – is unimaginable. But, as we know, not so long ago that was reality.

So I can see how attaining the autonomy to be fixers on a large scale was a huge victory for women. To me, that is part of the historical feminist construct – gaining the power to control your life, your career, your family. The ability to fix more than just your husband’s dinner. The ability to change the system.

Women have been fixing problems for a long time. And women have been fighting for other women for a long time, too. I sense just how rewarding and critical that is. But I wonder if there has been an inadvertent downside. I wonder if it’s time to rethink fixing. I wonder if it’s time to rethink feminism. 

I can only speak for me. But my idea of next level feminism: Acknowledging that women don’t have to be the fixers. It doesn’t mean we can’t. And it doesn’t mean we won’t. But we should acknowledge that we don’t have to be.

And that is where Sandberg and Slaughter lose me. Isn’t that the legacy that these two narratives have in common? We have to fix it. Yes, Slaughter at least ventures into systemic analysis. But still, both of them argue that women will have to do the dirty work.

In a way it’s the same sort of thing I hear from church members or family friends or the sudden influx of impeccably intentioned people giving me life advice: Work on your relationship! No, work on your career! There aren’t enough men. The men aren’t grown up enough, you have to be patient, you have to wait for them to grow up. There won’t be enough opportunity. When an opportunity comes, you have to take it, even if it’s not what you were looking for.

I’m tired of hearing about how the odds are stacked. I have hit my limit with the good articles, the bad articles, the pseudo-sociology articles, the follow-up support pieces, the response pieces, the blogs, the comments on the blogs. I’m tired of the joking or pitying commentary, the friend talk and family talk and date talk about black women and marriage, or women who want to work and raise children. Mostly I’m just tired of debating how women can make things better for women so that the potential professional or personal landscape is better for women. The way we think about gender equality - the way we think about who gets screwed by its absence and who benefits from its existence - has to change. 

***

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg came to my Law and Social Movements class a few weeks ago. I tried to think of a more clever way of introducing this story, but it kind of just stands on its own. A Supreme Court Justice sat in my class, only the second female Justice ever. Crazy. It’s not every day one of the most powerful women in America shows up to speak to me and forty of my classmates, but my professor, Lani Guinier, has the ability to make that happen. She’s a feminist pioneer in her own right, and the first black female tenured professor at Harvard Law. (Side note: is it appropriate to call a Supreme Court Justice adorable? Because she WAS. I just wanted to go up and hug her but there was Secret Service and they could totally tell because they were not smiling and staring at me the whole time. She had this cute braid pleat thing, and I think there was a bow on the end, and she was so tiny and regal and EEEE cute.) 

Anyway, Justice Ginsburg sat in her chair and told us stories about days of yore at the law school, stories about the rampant sexism and the cutthroat competition. And when it came time for questions my friend raised her hand and asked the Justice about her own conceptions of feminism: How far had we come? How far did we have to go?

She paused for a second before beginning a story she had clearly relayed many times. Orchestras used to be sexist, she said, and women musicians had a very tough time getting employment. But that was before they began doing blind auditions. Under pressure, orchestras began holding auditions from behind a curtain. And soon after, orchestras suddenly became about half women.

I could sense the triumph in her voice, the sly tone of nostalgia. Women having the opportunity to demonstrate to men that they can play on the same team? For Ginsburg, this was feminism victorious. But frankly a lot of us were unimpressed. For our generation, the anecdote was outdated.

Ginsburg is unquestionably a hero who has been fighting for women’s rights for over half a century, so this isn’t a knock on her. In fact, outdated anecdotes about social movements are probably a good thing. That’s what should happen. Movements change. Goals evolve. Approaches shift. Feminism in Justice Ginsburg’s time wasn’t wrong. After all, progress is a matter of working with what you have.

But now we have more.

Ginsburg’s story got me thinking – about Sandberg and Slaughter, and about Date #2, and about what feminism means to me. I’d like to think now that women are at another crossroads. Or maybe I’m just at my own crossroads. Or maybe we’re always at a crossroads. Whatever. My point is that none of these conceptions – not Ginsburg, not Sandberg, not Slaughter – are going deep enough for me. I want them to go farther. I want them to go bigger.   

Yes, Sandberg takes things a step further than Ginsburg. It’s not good enough for her to just make it to the orchestra. Sandberg is asking for more than just a shot at participation – she’s arguing for a chance to lead. I read Sandberg’s 2011 Barnard commencement speech recently, and it wasn’t all bad – the same sort of reach for the sky and believe in yourself and go forth and prosper message that every single commencement speaker ever has proclaimed. Her ethos is well meaning.

But at times I find it both delusional and insulting. Underneath all of those normal graduation-y words were some pretty loaded statements that left me rolling my eyes. Statements like “We will never close the achievement gap until we close the ambition gap,” or “Leadership belongs to those who take it.”

It’s career manifest destiny language, intended to inspire twenty-two year old women to rise to the top. But in the process it shifts all the weight to women. The implication is heavy – women have the potential for power and we’re just not taking it. There’s nothing wrong with encouraging persistence, but since when is persistence the reason women don’t hold more professional positions of power?

What’s more, much of Sandberg's TED talk and speeches and book jacket focus on encouraging women to be more confident and assertive. Not inherently bad qualities. And maybe some women should be more of those things. Or maybe the workplace should adjust itself and make room for alternative personalities. I can’t help but feel that Sandburg is encouraging women to absorb more male qualities so they can make it in a male-dominated work world. Maybe that’s practical, but it’s not aspirational. Change yourself and you can be insanely successful, she seems to say. But I’m not sure I want to change myself. I don’t want to have to be more assertive than I already am. I’m assertive enough. If our voices aren’t being heard, maybe men should listen better.

Slaughter gets at this in her Atlantic piece. I mostly agreed with her. (Although, I do think she runs into some major class problems that I won’t address here but are dealt with eloquently in this HuffPo piece.) She goes deeper than Sandberg and she goes farther then Ginsburg – she talks about the system and the structure in a way that I often found refreshing. She’s really the only one to say that just making the orchestra isn’t enough – even just being first chair in the orchestra isn’t enough. (First chair is an orchestra term right? I quit the flute in third grade so I don’t know.) Just making it on the team isn’t that useful if the team isn’t fairly structured.

But, as much as I agree, there are parts of Slaughter’s argument that rub me the wrong way, too. While Slaughter does highlight tangible incentives and methods for change, she focuses most of them around how they are going to benefit women.

In fact, both women state explicitly that until women are at the table as much as men are nothing will change. Slaughter wrote, “Only when women wield power in sufficient numbers will we create a society that genuinely works for all women.”

Don’t get me wrong: the idea of a world with half women leadership makes me giddy. But I’d like to believe that’s not our only chance of ensuring a world that works better for women. Maybe we should shift the burden. Maybe we should focus on a heightened level of male accountability. I fear that, unintentionally, men are being let off the hook. I don’t think women want that, and I’m not sure that men do either.

Also, while we’re at it, I’d prefer a different title. “Why Women Can’t Have it All” seems like it’s supposed to incite pity, not anger or action. Next time I read an article like this one, I’d like to it to be in GQ. And I want it to be called “Hey Men, You’re Missing Out If Your Workplace Doesn’t Have Enough Women at the Top, Here’s A Guide on How You Can Help Fix That.” (It’s a working title, OK?)

***

It’s funny that Sandberg and Slaughter are causing me to think this much, since managing my work and my home life is last in a series of hurdles I haven’t yet begun to jump. I have to find a career and a family before I even begin to experience the competing concerns of career and family. Turns out Sandberg and Slaughter don’t spend much time discussing this part of the process. Sandberg especially seems to think that these things will just work out – you’ll find the partner and the 2.1 children. But black women have been hearing a different narrative for some time now.

You know what seemingly every single news source says about black women– we never get married. Especially not to black men. There are too many of us and not enough of them. Black men are less educated and less successful than black women. A whole pack of them are locked up, can’t get jobs, have kids, are cheaters, and on and on and on. (Remarkable, isn't it, how this construction manages to equally insult black women and black men?) Articles like this one in Psychology Today (called, dramatically, Love in Limbo) keep warning black women that men, especially men of color, are a scarce resource, to be competed over like food rations. (Note: notice her egregious use of exclamation points in this article. OKAY I GET IT.)

Recently, a friend of mine and I were sitting around the table eating popcorn while she caught me up on the last few months of her love life. She had been dating a man who seemed promising, but things had gone downhill. The story was unfortunately similar to ones I’ve heard before – boy meets girl, boy woos girl, boy does something sketchy, girl suspects or discovers that boy has illegal job or secret wife/ kids or hidden identity. She told the story very matter-of-factly, in part because that’s her personality but in part because she wasn’t that surprised.

And, as these conversations seem to go, it expanded into the two of us trading war stories and lamenting over men, particularly black men, and opportunities for love and the chances of ever finding partnership. I found myself feeling bad for her. I found myself feeling bad for me. She quoted a male friend of ours. “He told me that I was black, female, and graduating from Harvard Law School. He said I might as well just give up now,” she said.

This is how a lot of the conversations with my black friends tend to go. It’s not an unfamiliar trajectory. We’re inundated in the discourse, in part because the blow-by-blow given by Psychology Today echoes much of the (unsolicited) advice given to us by various people. Black women should be willing to date outside of our race, or rethink the importance of marriage, or be okay marrying someone less successful than we are. (All of these, for the record, are choices I find perfectly acceptable.) But most of all, we should be prepared to not end up in a relationship at all. Because black women just don’t get married.

Biases aside, I have some amazing friends. Gorgeous, bright, concerned about the world, funny and ambitious. Yet most of us spend an inordinate amount of time wondering if we’re ever going to be able to reach the personal or professional goals we set for ourselves. On one hand, it’s the only prudent decision.

But on the other hand, it’s completely disconnected from our reality. Most of the women I have these repeated conversations with aren’t looking for this future right now anyway. Right now they’re too busy getting great educations and working at amazing jobs and going on casual dates or drinking wine with their friends while watching Scandal to worry about marriage. My friends and I haven’t even really considered if we WANT marriage. But because the image of the perpetually alone black woman is constantly reinforced, we end up worrying about it regardless.

More and more I’m realizing that this, too is a narrative that needs renovating. I can’t deny that women are at a numbers disadvantage, primarily because I don’t run the census and I’m not a statistician. Sure, there might be a problem. But whose problem is it?                               

***

This is a public service announcement: Stop implying that it’s just my problem, or just a female problem. At least respect me enough to imply that it’s everyone’s problem. Lets put it this way: if you are a man – or even if you are a woman – and I have to convince you that having a personal and professional system that demonstrably works well for women and men is a good thing, you are sexist. It’s that simple. I should not have to convince you. It’s not rocket science. It’s math.

My freighbor (neighbor friend) is one of the most ambitious, strong, and thoughtful women I know. She told me a story the other day of a conversation she was having with a male high-level employee at a well known consulting firm. The firm hires just as many women as men in their first-year associate class. But by the time it comes to making management, the women have often left the company. Most of the partners are men.

“I’m not sexist,” he told her, “but it doesn’t really make sense. If the women are going to leave anyway, why bother hiring them in equal numbers to men?”

She recounted this story to me indignantly. “That’s the wrong question,” she said. “The question is, why isn’t that firm looking into why all the women leave? Why aren’t they fixing the problem?”

Exactly.

It goes beyond sexism. This is much more than a fight for equality. Or maybe it’s less than a fight for equality. In fact, let’s ignore the fairness argument for a moment. The system should work for me simply because I’m valuable. Not just as secretary, not just as staff, but as management. I work hard, I’m smart, I bring things to the table that a male-dominated hierarchy doesn’t. And I don’t just speak for myself. I speak for my mother, my grandmother, my sister, other family, old friends, new friends, women I’ve met in passing. It may be presumptuous of me, but I’m going to say I speak for every woman who is qualified for any job, be it janitor or attorney or CEO. I speak for assertive women and not-so-assertive women, soft-spoken women, women in pencil skirts or pantsuits.

Of course we should build a system that works for women like me as much as it works for working mothers as much as it works for men. Why the hell wouldn’t we? Where’s the conflict?

***

I know some really great men. I know a ton of them. My father is incomparable. My male friends are incomparable. They believe in stuff like female equality.

So what the hell happened to men in the fight for women’s rights? I’m speaking mostly from my own observations, so let me be clear that I know there are exceptions to my statements. But I don’t really see men on the frontlines. I know that when Todd Akin says something ridiculous, plenty of men are outraged. But what about other times, when the scenario is less extreme? I know that there are many men out there who support women’s rights – rights to equal pay, reproductive rights, etc. So why does it seem like women are the only ones who show up to the fight? Why is tacit support enough? Especially when, on the other side, there are plenty of men fighting to take rights away from us?

A friend of mine majored in engineering in undergrad at Columbia, one of the few females in the program. I didn’t know her then (lets be honest, never once did I step foot in the engineering building) but we’re in law school together now. Earlier this week we were discussing how male dominated her academic undergrad experience was, and she shrugged. “You know what? I find being a woman in law school much more difficult than being a woman in engineering school.”  

I understand what she means. For me, at least, I find it sort of eerie. At a school where it seems like everyone is in multiple organizations focused on all sorts of advocacy issues, I’m always surprised at how few men there are at talks or meetings focused on women’s rights. Last weekend I noticed that the Journal for Law and Gender was having a meeting in the library. It was packed to the brim, and almost every single person there was female.

And it’s not just at Harvard. Look at the numbers in Congress. In the Senate last year, there were almost five times as many men as women (83 compared to 17.) Yet, of the fifteen bills or resolutions introduced that explicitly dealt with recognizing women or women’s rights, only four of them were introduced by men. The other eleven were introduced by women. In the house, where there were also about five times as many men as women (363 to 72), thirty-two bills were introduced. Eleven of those were introduced by men, while twenty-one were introduced by women.

It seems like even the men who cheer are often cheering from the sidelines. I think those men – and all men – should also be in this game. I think they should be held equally accountable for systemic gender equality. I find that when I request accountability I am often pleasantly surprised. And after all, every time we indicate that the burden and the benefit are both for women, aren’t we, in a way, disempowering men?

I hope this goes without saying but don’t think all men are sexist. I don’t think most men are. I don’t think men don’t care. I don’t think they’re immature Neanderthals. And I’m also not arguing – nor do I want to – that having strong women in power is necessarily any more important than having strong men in power.

I just think that, in a way that is no one and everyone’s fault, men have been less invested in the movement for women’s rights. I just think somehow men got comfortable with a system that doesn’t work for women. Or if it does make them uncomfortable, it’s not uncomfortable enough to incite action. All I want to do is throw out an idea – maybe we should all get in the business of reform, both professionally and personally.

And in order to do that, it can’t just be about fairness. It can’t just be about equality. It has to be about value. Women are valuable. In the personal context, fair is basic. Fair is fidelity. Value is a much higher standard. And professionally? Fair is when a consulting firm hires a class of half women and half men. Value is when that firm adjusts to ensure that women make management.

***

I’m tired of constantly establishing my value. I’d rather just assert it.

I’m tired of hearing about how the odds are stacked, especially from people who aren’t working to change the odds. I’m tired of hearing that if I absorb all these manly qualities, I’ll move further up, that when I move I should think about where the most eligible men are, that me or my friends should make excuses for men who are bad partners because it takes them longer to grow up. I’m tired of women writing books and articles and commencement speeches about how women should change themselves, or how women should change their environments.

All of this puts responsibility on the woman to prove over and over again why she’s worth a promotion, a date, a healthy relationship. And once I’ve proven that, where’s the part where you prove yourself to me? Where’s the part where men work to be good colleagues, good bosses, good men because they realize how invaluable we are?

I’m going to try something new. Anger and resentment just isn’t my style. I’m going to whip out my own pity arsenal and use it more often. But I’m not going to pity women. I’m going to pity men. Next time some thirty-three-year-old idiot breaks up with my friend because he’s not ready to grow up, I’m going to pity him. Not her. And if me or one of my friends isn’t hired or isn’t promoted because she’s a women, well, that sucks. But in the end it’s their loss, not ours.

It’s not that I think women should sit back and do nothing. Women should continue to advocate change. I just think men should be in here, nailing and hammering too.

I’m tired of being so afraid of what I can’t have that I’m not asking myself what I want.

What I want is to go to yoga, have dinner parties, read books, go dancing with my friends.

As for what I don’t want? I don’t want patronization. I just want partners. I want to work with and be friends with men who will fight with me for all women. And on that note, if I’m going to date, I want to date people that value me, rather than imply I need them over introduction margaritas.

We have to change the nature of the debate. Valuing partnership isn’t just a boon for black women. It’s a boon for everyone. And changing the workplace structure isn’t only good for women, it’s good for everyone. Let’s shift the onus. Let’s take feminism further.