If you, like me, live in a progressive western capital like New York, you probably heard about feminism a lot in recent times, especially for the past few years — since Hillary, during Donald, after Weinstein.
If you, also like me, are under 30 and come from an old world country like Italy, you probably haven’t heard nearly enough about feminism and why it matters.
That is to say, it’s apparent to me why it’s important to yes, still talk about feminism — even when it seems like a tired topic, even when brands abuse it (in fact, maybe because of this, too). The importance of feminism isn’t up for debate. However, the conversation on how feminism comes to life isn’t always so black and white. Feminism is always evolving because it exists in the context of the world and people, which are both inherently nuanced.
Within HOWL’s year-long exploration of the concept of grey — a perspective in which everything exists in nuances — we are starting by exploring how grey invites self-definition. As a women-led company, we naturally felt compelled to talk about how this applies to the evolving state of feminism.
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I found myself discussing the topics of grey and feminism with my friend Rebecca Adams, who’s the Health & Wellness Director at Refinery29 and one of the people I regularly turn to for enlightenment on a number of subjects. Together, we set out to create a space to candidly discuss and expand our understanding of feminism. Let’s be honest — in 2018, what does it mean to be a feminist? Is feminism the right word anymore? How can we earnestly talk about feminism when it’s still not intersectional? And how do we, as women, learn to embrace allies knowing that many of them are going to be imperfect?
One year after the first Women’s March, our conversation took place at a dinner table, family style, in the company of W&W’s own all-women leadership team and nine women of various walks of life, ages, sexual orientations and ethnicities. Here’s what bubbled to the surface.
FEMINISM HAS TO LIVE IN HUMAN EXPERIENCE, NOT THEORY.
One year ago, we were all in the streets marching. This year, many of us felt strangely lukewarm about the Women’s March. We talked it out and, turns out, it was because it didn’t seem to reflect how the movement is intensely layered by intersectionality. While moments like the march bring out a symbolically unified front, the day-to-day reality of feminism looks different for every person. We cannot come together under one banner of feminism, if that banner doesn’t acknowledge and embrace the different experiences of feminism that women have. “A woman I respect once told me that if we don’t march for everyone, we march for no one,” said Alex Gottlieb of Penguin Random House.
I think of the Gay Pride parade and its continued success of turn-out over many years. Maybe it’s because, within a single march, it intentionally offers a physical space for every LGBTQ+ group, no matter how small in number, to be seen and acknowledged. How would the Women’s March feel like if it did the same?
Point is, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to feminism.
If the past few years brought intersectionality to the forefront, looking forward in 2018, an intersectional lens must be applied to every aspect of the conversation. There is no point in debating feminism without taking into account the various aspects of every person’s unique humanity. (I might add that it’s precisely the lack of intersectionality that turns any talk of feminism hollow).
EMBRACE SPECIFICITY: UNIQUE ROLES AND DEFINITIVE GOALS.
By definition, feminism advocates for the political, economic and social equality of every human — affording them to pursue whatever opportunities each individual desires. For example, some women prefer devoting their time to a career, others to their families, others to both or neither. Some of us at the table found it important to show up at the march, many of us didn’t. But, interestingly, all of the women who didn’t go to the march felt guilty about it.
Carrie Dennis of Time Inc., said, “I might feel conflicted because I'm not sure what the goals of the march are. Ultimately I think that there's huge value in it being symbolic, but my personal attendance ... I just felt very strange about it, and then you can't really identify why you feel a little bit afraid to say that to people.”
Some of us felt the need to show up to keep momentum, others didn’t feel like that was the right role for them. One thing that escapes many conversations around movements — including feminism — is the awareness that there are different roles to be played by different people and they are all important. Valerie Nguyen, partner at W&W, put it best, “It's about claiming your power space in that movement and figuring out what you’re going to do.” So it’s not choosing either or, but exploring how you feel compelled to take action. “Marching matters but there's no need to feel guilty about not going to this one thing because your presence could be just as useful in other places,” said Ujala Sehgal, Communications Director at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University.
That said, it’s evident to everyone that not putting words into action doesn’t move things forward. Many at the table brought up how this year’s Times Up initiative was powerful because it drew a clear line between intention and action. Sure, the star power helps, but the real differentiators are the clarity and consistency, from the goal-setting to the doing. “I think Time’s Up will have bigger impact than the Women's March will because there are leaders being very clear about, ‘Here are our goals and here's what we work on.’” said Robyn Exton, CEO of HER.
MAKE SPACE FOR IMPERFECT ALLIES AND IMPERFECT FEMINISTS.
Feminism is complex. And complex topics are difficult to unpack, navigate or talk about. In the face of complexity, we often feel shy, or not smart enough, or can’t put words to feelings — complexity makes us feel stuck. But sometimes, the most powerful action to counter the paralyzing effect of complexity is to make things personal.
Cléo Kim, Portfolio Developer at The Medici Group, said, “We need to engage people who have power and money and capital and resources and all the above, but we also have to ask, ‘What can I do in my smallest self? In my day-to-day, in the spheres of influence that I have.’ Cultures change with the people around you. Microcosms can have impact and that is a tangible conversation we can have.”
This becomes even more crucial as we work to involve allies, people who believe in feminism and want to contribute to the movement. In particular, most of us agreed that we need to learn how to engage people who might not be perfect feminists but who make the effort to listen and learn. It was apparent to all that, while talking among women is important, including others in the conversation should be a priority for feminism moving into this year.
Reading Roxane Gay’s brilliant book, Bad Feminist, I realized how feminism has a code of conduct that can feel unachievable and intimidating for many people. If we acknowledge that no one of us fits the ‘perfect feminist’ bill, would that help us open up to and engage with so-called imperfect allies?
A MOVEMENT NEEDS STRONG EARS AND STRONG VOICES.
The need for action was a potent thread throughout our dinner. So to close up, we went around the table to say out loud and to each other what each of us was going to do moving forward. Our plans ranged from hosting a similar dinner conversation with men, to smuggling sex toys to Beirut, to simply leading by example, to investing in more women’s businesses, to a radical commitment to sharing and listening to personal stories. Dana Arbib, founder or A Peace Treaty, got to the point, “For me, it’s less judgment over other people’s experiences. I guess I don't have to expect everybody to be 100% all the time and instead be more understanding of the different complexities.”
Personally, I believe that sharing knowledge is the trade off we make for our privilege and access. If I’m able to host and entertain conversations like these, with people who have different perspectives than mine, then I have a responsibility to share what I learned to encourage others to engage with this topic.
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This article is by no means an attempt to provide an exhaustive overview of feminism today. Rather, it’s a record of an intimate conversation among a group of smart women in New York at this time in history.
The hope is that by sharing our thoughts, you can be encouraged to talk about these issues within your circles, coworkers or with others you admire, in order to advance your own understanding of what feminism means for you and what it means for people around you. It’s an encouragement to anyone around the world to continue unpacking this issue, to ask frank questions and to be brave enough to seek the perspectives of others and listen.
In the weeks to come, we’ll be sharing first-hand perspectives of some of the women at the table whose stories offer a non-exhaustive yet deeply personal point of view on feminism that might help others out there find their voice in the grey. We’ll also share the questions Rebecca and I used to moderate the dinner so that you have some starting thoughts to do it yourself.