by Letha Dawson Scanzoni
(with responses from Kendra Weddle Irons and Melanie Springer Mock)
Marissa Mayer was Google’s first first female engineer when she joined the startup company in 1999. Through the years, she advanced to an executive position with Google. This month, she was recruited by Yahoo to become its new CEO.
Long heralded for her accomplishments in a field dominated by men, she is featured on Makers, a jointly produced project by AOL and PBS spotlighting “trailblazing women who make America” to be aired on PBS next year.
So if anyone would be expected to call herself a feminist, it would be Marissa Mayer. Right?
This is what she said in this Makers Moment video :
“I don’t think I would consider myself a feminist. I think that I certainly believe in equal rights. I believe that women are just as capable, if not more so in a lot of different dimensions, but I don’t think I have the militant drive and the sort of chip on the shoulder that sometimes comes with that.”
She went on to say that feminism has become a negative word.
In calling attention to the incongruity of such an accomplished woman’s distancing herself from feminism, Chloe, on the Feministing website, wrote:
“. . .Marissa, it is too bad that feminism has become a negative word. You know what’s also too bad? Your failure to acknowledge that without feminism, you could never have become the CEO of Yahoo.”
Amy Tennery makes a similar point on the Ms.Magazine Blog.
People Who View Feminism Negatively
As I read about all this, I thought back to our last post on FemFaith. In it, the three of us talked about the fear that many women have of being associated with feminism. Why does this negative connotation exist? And how can we deal with it?
To answer that, I think we need to distinguish between two separate groups of people who oppose feminism. I’m calling one of them warriors against feminism, and the other worriers about feminism.
The Warriors against Feminism
The warriors camp despises the ideology of gender equality both in theory and in practice. Whether men or women, they have a vested interest in keeping men in power. Many have websites devoted to denigrating feminists and feminism. They make outrageous claims of what feminism is, what it does, and what its goals are.
And their poisonous accusations seep over into the media, which have all too often perpetuated a lot of the myths about feminism (even if watered-down somewhat). The major “disinformation” being spread is that feminists are man-haters, that feminists are selfish, and that they look down on motherhood and have contempt for stay-at-home moms. And feminists who are mothers themselves are charged with putting careers ahead of their children. Feminists are accused of wanting to destroy the family.
Opponents of feminism also like to accuse feminists of being “strident” (have you ever heard that word applied to a man?) and militant (the “chip on the shoulder” idea that even Mayers associated with the word, feminism). In this way of thinking, to point out gender injustices and work for change is considered combative, unfeminine, overly sensitive, hostile, and humorless.
And there is always the “L” word to hurl against any woman—regardless of sexual orientation— who dares to call herself a feminist and who questions or refuses to conform to traditional hierarchical gender roles. Suzanne Pharr writes that lesbian-baiting “is a homophobic attack, from either within or outside an organization, that implies or states that the presence of a lesbian or lesbians hurts or discredits the work of the organization. Its purpose is to hurt lesbians, to control all women, and to stop women’s social change work” (Susan Pharr, Homophobia a Weapon of Sexism, Little Rock, Ar: Chardon Press, 1988, p.34).
The Worriers about Feminism
The worriers about feminism are those who have accepted a lot of the propaganda spread by the warriors against feminism, and so they don’t want to be called feminists— even though they say they believe in gender equality and appreciate the gains women have made over the years. One of their main worries centers on how people will judge them if they are associated with an ideology so misunderstood and maligned.
The subgroup of worriers who are Christian believers have an even thicker fog of propaganda to trudge through. They have been told that God intended women to be subordinate to men in the church, home, and to a large degree in society—that men are the designated rulers. And when the power of a dominant group in a hierarchy is questioned, those holding such power (and those dependent on them or with a vested interest in the status quo) are going to resist.
So in addition to all the misinformation the worriers have heard from secular despisers of feminism, they now hear religious warriors claiming that a woman’s very desire for gender equality means she is rebelling against God! These warriors assert that feminism goes against clear biblical teachings on separate roles for women and men and that were established by God at creation.
And so some people who are “almost” or “would-be” Christian feminists are frightened into holding back, believing they might otherwise be violating the will of God. Another fear many Christians have is a fear of chaos. They yearn for order—an order that seems easier to maintain when everyone knows and remains fixed in her or his place in a prescribed social order.
What Can Christian Feminists Do?
I think before we can dialogue with anti-feminists, we first need to try to determine which category they are in. Are they “warriors against feminism” who hate the very idea of gender equality? Or are they “worriers about feminism” who recognize the value in gender equality but are afraid to embrace it because of the falsehoods they have heard?
If they’re in the first category, we might be wasting our time to engage in a discussion. We need to stay alert to why the war against feminism is important to them and recognize the weapons they use to fight against social and economic gains for women. Such people are not likely to be open to reasoning or any kind of efforts at persuasion because they have such a strong investment (emotionally, materially, or politically) in keeping the battle raging; they would just like to pick a fight. (Think of the religious and other reactionary groups that have found how effectively sensational warnings about feminism can be used to raise money.)
But if we’re talking with “worriers,” people in the second category who are genuinely afraid of feminism, we can help dispel their fears with a loving, gentle attitude, patiently introducing them to new ways of reading and interpreting Scripture, as well as providing positive examples (maybe our own example) of what a feminist really looks like and how Christianity and feminism intersect in emphasizing justice, equality, and respect for the full dignity of all people regardless of gender—or anything else.
Kendra’s Response: We Need to Do More
Thank you, Letha, for providing a clear way to think about those who either are against feminism or those who espouse values in keeping with feminism but who want to distance themselves from the movement because of misinformation. Identifying two very different perspectives is useful in knowing how to respond: having the wisdom to reach out to those who might be persuaded while at the same time cutting one’s losses among those who have no hope of seeing the light makes a lot of sense to me.
I suppose these are not static categories, as I can imagine many people floating back and forth between the two. Too, I’m sure we would all agree we need to be careful to interact with others as individuals with their own unique experiences and ideas about feminism.
In thinking about compassionately bringing others along as they are ready and willing, I was reminded of the invaluable mentors who have assisted me, including you, Letha. This kind of one-on-one work is crucial even if it seems to make little overall difference.
And yet I also feel like we need to do more.
I went to college in the late 1980s in the Midwest where strong women were prevalent though feminism as a topic was absent. All of my professors in my field (Religion and Philosophy) were men, and I never even for a moment thought about the implications of having no female role-model. Nor did I consider how a woman might teach these subjects differently from a man.
The feminist movement had rocked the world around me and I was completely insulated from its reverberations.
None of my professors planted the idea that I might want to attend a graduate school where feminist thought was intersecting with Christian theology and history. And because my professors were silent about this movement, I did not know what possibilities existed. As I look back on my ignorance, I lament not knowing more. Not being aware of an entire movement underfoot resulted in my journey to feminism coming much later than I wished it had. And I suspect that had I known about the burgeoning field of feminism and Christianity, it would have shaped my professional life in that direction, too.
But that’s just me.
Much larger is the reality of a current anti-feminist movement, intentional with its goal to return feminism and equality (and even in some cases the right of women to vote) to the pages of history. Anti-feminists are calling on women and men to see feminism as a war, one they need to win because the stakes are no less than defaming God, the Bible, or both.
There is at the same time momentum working in favor of feminism through the courageous work of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. In their willingness to stand strong against the Vatican’s claim that they are being too feminist, we as Christian feminists should see this as an opportunity to work with them in this moment of potential change.
Additionally, there seems to be a growing movement among all of the world’s enduring religions. Each is re-evaluating its thinking about women and patriarchal preferences and there is a concerted effort to discuss these challenges with practitioners of other faith traditions as seen in this recent YouTube video.
We should be kind and warm-hearted, no doubt. But, I hope we will also embrace the solidarity our feminist foremothers (including Letha) have taught us and from that place speak truth to power.
Melanie’s Response: Are We Missing Bigger Issues?
As a news junkie, I’ve been following the story of Marissa Mayer’s hiring by Yahoo! with particular interest. And what a story it is! As Letha points out, Mayer is a leader in a field populated predominantly by men. Because of her strengths and ability, Mayer has moved quickly through the ranks in the Silicon Valley, and at 37, she’s the youngest CEO now running a Fortune 500 company. Oh, and she’s about to become a mother; her first child—a son—is due in October.
So yes, like Letha and Kendra, I feel some disappointment in Mayer’s unwillingness to claim a feminist identity, especially because the work and sacrifice of earlier feminists have made Mayer’s ascendency possible. And, like Letha and Kendra, I see in Mayer’s denial the threads of an anti-feminist movement that seems to be gaining strength, evidenced in the many ways Letha and Kendra describe.
But I worry that by focusing on whether or not Mayer embraces a feminist identity, we might miss the bigger issues in this story, issues that reflect not just a society dead-set against feminists, but one that also holds deeply entrenched antipathy toward all women. In a year when the rights of women—for control over reproduction, for equal pay, for health care—have been undermined, we see again in Mayer’s story the many ways women are unequally treated.
Rather than expressing disappointment in Mayer’s response, then, we need to ask the following questions:
1) Why is this even a major news story? When men take over Fortune 500 companies, there may be a small notice in the business section of newspapers. Mayer’s hiring became major news for days, her new position mulled over by pundits on radio and TV and the web. Should we be wondering why a woman’s position as CEO of a major corporation causes a stir? What does this say about the lack of women in executive positions?
2) Why was she asked about her identification as a feminist? After all, a reporter will likely not ask a man whether he identifies as a feminist or any other –ist. Why does Mayer need to answer this question, and what does this say about our societal assumptions regarding successful business women? Until every new male CEO is also asked whether he is a feminist, it seems unfair to ask a new female CEO—or to be critical of her answer.
3) Why was there so much focus on her impending family? In the days after the Yahoo! announcement, journalists of all stripes began critiquing Mayer’s insistence that she would work through a short maternity leave. You can see a synthesis of these critiques in an excellent Salon article by Mary Elizabeth Williams titled “Hey, moms: Hush up,” but essentially, Mayer was taking heat, mostly by other women, for asserting that she would have no problem working and raising a child. Her critics scoffed at her idealism, asserting Mayer was naïve in her assumption that having her son—and being a CEO at the same time—would be a cake walk.
Were the new CEO hire a soon-to-be father, you can be sure this information would be a footnote in any story about Yahoo! There wouldn’t be any questions about what kind of leave the father might take, nor about his ability to balance family and work. Instead, news stories would focus on the man’s skills as a leader, his already triumphant career, and his plans for turning a troubled business around. Why so much scrutiny, then, about Mayer’s dual roles as a parent and a CEO? Why are there different expectations for mothers than for fathers, both in the workplace and at home? And how can we ever achieve equity until those expectations are the same?
I appreciate Letha’s identification of the different opponents of feminism; her analysis is helpful in guiding our consideration of how—and in what ways—critics have found fault with the feminist movement. And, like Kendra, I hope we can work toward solidarity with those who identify as Christians and feminists, speaking truth to power as a way to initiate change.
But, to be honest, I think we also need to give Mayer a break when she makes the choice to reject any kind of feminist identity. She’s received enough criticism already, and will face continued scrutiny about her work and life choices that other Fortune 500 CEOs will not have to face, if only because our society continues to hold women to entirely different—and harsher—standards than men. Even if she never decides to label herself a feminist, I will be cheering for her to succeed, because I think her success, as a CEO and as a working mother, is its own kind of truth to power that we all need.