some of us are brave

The Atlantic Article, Trickle Down Feminism, and my Twitter Mentions. God Help Us All

This is one of those posts that can go nowhere but down.

There are things you simply cannot do in this life and slaying unicorns is one of them.

What do I mean by “slaying unicorns”? It’s an old Livejournal term. It means providing evidence that one’s sacred emotional belief or object is either not a) universal b) all that great or c) grounded in reality or supported by empirical evidence.

I am really, really bad about this. I tend to slay unicorns even when I only mean to make an observation or intend to honor my own truth or even when I just mean to get through the day. I end up slaying unicorns way more than I’d like. My hands are filthy with their rainbow blood.

So, I wanted to leave alone The Atlantic article about women having it all.

An initial tentative reaction about not seeing my experience as a black woman in the article provoked such passionate responses that my mentions on Twitter took two days to recover. And, I don’t mean the responses that disagreed with me. I mean I got tweets that charged me with not being a feminist or not understanding because I don’t have children and one lovely message that seemed to intimate that I was just too stupid to “get it”.

I decided to leave that unicorn alone.

But that did not mean that I did not want to make sense of it myself. After a great deal of thinking I think I can finally articulate my reaction and I owe much of that process to this tweet:


I’m a Reagan baby. You can’t say “trickle-down” to me and not evoke a response.

I went back and re-read The Atlantic article. I’ll try to take my thought process step-by-step in an effort to do minimal damage to the unicorn.

First, I do not have an emotional connection to the piece. That cannot be overstated because a great deal of its value to some of the readers, as far as I can discern, is grounded in the fact that it evoked an emotional response. Much of that appears to be rooted in relief that someone is validating their experiences. I get that. It is valuable. However, if it is important to the article’s value to its many, many supporters then it is important to note that I did not have that experience.

It could be race, class, or experience (I’ll get to that later) but I don’t have fond memories of attending the Seven Sisters or an experience of being told that I should want or have “it all”. It truly never occurred to me that so many others did. Again, as someone pointed out, I may have been too poor to get it. I will own that.

In exchange, I ask others to consider that as much as it is about class status or race or background that one’s visceral reaction to the article is about his or her individual relationship with power. That’s not exactly about race or class, that’s about ideological orientation.

I do not aspire to power. I do aspire to do well and to do good but I am somewhat ambivalent about power. That is a result of my upbringing but it is also a result of the many small decisions I have made during my emotional and intellectual development about who I am in relation to power. I will also admit that is greatly shaped by social processes that limit the potential of my access to power. Whether I am accepting those limitations or asserting my own agency is unclear but either way I know that fat, black, southern bodies that went to low-status schools and come from rural, formerly enslaved people have limited avenues into power. Slaughter makes an odd aside to the narrative of “having it all” that includes one needing to be skinny to be boot. It’s an aside for her but a real structural barrier for me. The difference is illustrative.

The article seemed to not only take for granted that all women have been told that they should have it all but that all women have, if not an intimate,  then definitely not an adversarial relationship with power. This could be because I am the daughter of a 70s revolutionary but my feelings about those who possess or embody power are decidedly adversarial. More often than not, power has worked to undermine my reality and my existence. And I don’t mean that in some fuzzy theoretical sense. I mean that when power, for example, starts talking about reforming welfare it is usually meant to be an act made ON people who look like me; people with whom I identify even if I do not share their economic status. This act, it should be noted, is irrespective of the political party or intent of the power structure enacting reform ON said people. It is the same when the welfare reform is done by Reagan as when it is done by Clinton. It is aggressive and it alienates people I care about in an intimate way and so I see power as being “other”.

For that and many other reasons, I never expected to grow up and marry power. I surely did not expect to sleep with it or to court it or to fight others for it. That expectation of one’s own relationship with power and powerful people is probably why some people felt included in the sweep of the Atlantic article and others, like me…actually I will only speak for me. That is why I did not feel included. That is not so much about money and wealth as it is about relational expectations.

Second, without the emotional connection it became easier, I think, to read the piece as just another Op-Ed, which is how I read it. That’s how I could get hung-up on the “trickle down” perspective mentioned above and later by Slate magazine. Slaughter’s argument appears to be that when powerful women are in power, en masse, their relationships with their family demands will necessitate that certain accommodations be made. Those accommodations will, in turn, become organizational policies that will spur policy positions that will positively affect all women i.e., powerful feminism will trickle down to the rest of us.


I’m going to take this as deliberately as I know how.

That could happen.

What has been known to actually happen, however, is that power makes allowances for power and the powerless continue to not be beneficiaries. It is not that I do not trust power. I trust power to be what it is. What I do not trust is that power will be what it has never been.

There are a lot of suppositions holding Slaughter’s trickle down theory together and all of them fly in the face of what power has been known to be.

First, it supposes that powerful women won’t, when at a critical enough mass, just change family leave policies for other powerful, wealthy women. It happens all the time. It’s why a customer service rep can be fired for taking a smoke break while the C-suite executives of the same company are rewarded for four hour lunches. Policies are applied differentially all the time and they are often applied to the benefit of the powerful.

Which leads us to the second supposition: that powerful women will behave differently than powerful men. I…mean…I guess that’s possible. My experience, however, is that power IS all corrupting. And this may be a function of race. My experience of powerful white women is not vastly different than that of my experience of powerful white men. There is no reason to think that women will engage institutions of privilege and power significantly different than powerful men. Or, to be more specific, there is no reason to think they will do so differently in a way that positively impacts non-powerful women.

As evidence of the diversity of powerful women included in Slaughter’s argument someone on Twitter reminded me that she names Condi Rice and Michelle Obama. That is as excellent an example for my third concern as I could have come up with. What, in God’s name, do Condi and Michelle have in common that suggests that a dozen more of each in high power positions would result in a uniform change in public and social policy that would impact all women? The thought appears to be that just being women and being theoretically capable of having children (Condi does not and Michelle does) is enough to build a inter-political coalition that will move forward policies that will somehow help poor, minority, middle class, working class, NOT POWERFUL women. I think that is some dangerous essentialization.

Just this month we saw a unanimous Republican vote against the Equal Pay Act. That group included Sens. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and Susan Collins (R-ME). Sure, politics was at play but aren’t the outcomes we’re asking for in the name of all women — equal pay, affordable child care, anti-discrimination laws — inherently political acts? Do we think that 40 more Olympia Snowes and Susan Collinses will get us there just because there would be a statistical majority of women making the decision? Again, it is possible. But to revisit my earlier relationship with power, my experiences suggest that powerful people, be they men or women, will act in the interest of power, not in the interest of gender (or, race for that matter). It is also important to note that social and political history tends to be congruent with my experiences.

Finally, there was the inherent assumption that the less powerful should trust that powerful women will make decisions that are best for us. And, yes, I include myself in that group, although, I admit that these days I am not clear that if I am choosing to do so or if I am an authentic member of that group. Graduate school does that to you. But, I’m clear that my natural inclination is to identify with the plight of the powerless and struggling than that of the powerful. So, there’s that.

But, I digress. There was a heavy dose of paternalism in the piece that is not the exclusive domain of men. I will speak about my own milieu. It is not accidental that this piece spoke so strongly to academics, I think. The nature of what many of us do is to study powerless people (power does not allow itself to be studied), to translate their experiences into a language sanctioned by the powerful to be sold to other powerful people ostensibly for the betterment of the powerless that we study. Yet, that rarely happens. What happens more often is that we, individually, accrue wealth, power and status by studying those who have none of those. The research rarely impacts policy or is given back to the communities we study that they might make better use of it than do we. And in so doing the women among us do struggle to make it all work with children and families and sexist policies. But it is arrogant of us to forget that we struggle with those things while doing to others precisely what is done to us.

That does not mean that the struggles of powerful women do not matter. It does mean, to me, that they matter mostly to powerful women and we should be clear about that. Don’t talk about “women’ when you really mean white women or powerful women or women who attended the Seven Sisters or Jack and Jill (Yes, Jack and Jill; black people have power paradigms, too). Because some of us do know what you mean and we know that even your very language is erasing us while supposedly doing so in our defense.

Trickle-down economics wasn’t the best experience for people like me. You will have to forgive me, then, if I have similar doubts about trickle down feminism.

edited on June 23, 2012 for typos that do not change meaning or content. Also edited to add a sentence about Slaughter’s aside about being “skinny” in the original Atlantic article.

31 comments on “The Atlantic Article, Trickle Down Feminism, and my Twitter Mentions. God Help Us All

  1. mycoignofvantage
    June 24, 2012

    You might want to get a different perspective on power or at least to expand your notions of it. I have two books to recommend. One is Robert Greene’s book The 48 laws of power. (He also has one about seduction but I was surprised by how much I enjoyed reading both of them.) and one that may be in harmony with your ‘revolutionary’ upbringing. Truth or Dare by Starhawk. She’s a pagan writer so that part may not work for you but other aspects of how she envisions power may speak to you.

    • tressiemc22
      June 24, 2012

      I’ve bought and given away more copies of Greene’s book over the years than I can count. I am pretty aware of how it reads. I have even read many of the texts that it essentially aggregates and summarizes (Machiavelli etc. ). I am not aware of anything that book says about how power operates that contradicts my writing about it in this post. If anything, Greene paints a picture of a self-perpetuating system that is only concerned with sustaining and obtaining more power to the exclusion of all other goals, including bettering the position of those it rules. I rather believe Greene’s examples of power throughout history and major texts supports my thesis that it is unlikely that powerful women would behave much differently in their relation to the powerless. To powerful men, maybe but that is not part of my consideration here.

  2. jadedid
    June 24, 2012

    One counter argument too, that came to mind immediately about trickle down, is, as much as it feels good for those in the middle to be helped, time and time again, it has been shown that when you make changes for the people at the bottom, it tends to help those above them too. Specifically I’m thinking of the actual effect of the often misunderstood affirmative action (not quota) policies and who the actual beneficiaries of those were…

    and to slightly counter your Jack & Jill/Seven Sisters binary, I think Jack & Jill still exists as it does, because regardless of everything, black bodies are still excluded from the mainstream, so even when all social markers outside of blackness say they should be in a different power social position, their blackness still continues to shape their experience and social mobility, despite the few exceptions that have been made visible.

    • tressiemc22
      June 24, 2012

      There are many reasons Jack & Jill exists as it does today. Some of those reasons are fascinating but it does not change, for the purposes of how I use it in this argument, that it does exist and that in existing it is another boundary for powerless black people to cross before they get to engaging with white or gender or other class elites.

      The ways in which affirmative action “trickled down” primarily to the benefit of white women is a very good example. Thank you. It is similar to the article I just read yesterday about Title IX:

  3. soonerhawkeye
    June 24, 2012

    A couple of thoughts come to mind, as I chew on a full response: Based on your explanations of and experiences with power, is there a point to resistance or to challenging power? If so, from where can it originate to be effective (if it is at all possible to be effective)? I see no potential for change from your perspective, or perhaps none offered here (which was not your point, so, that’s fine), I do want to know…what do you propose as a productive framework? This is “A Bridge Called My Back” territory, but what are your thoughts?

    The relationship between qualitative and quantitative inquiry also comes to mind as I read this. My media studies training is in critical cultural studies. So I disagree that power does not let itself be studied. Media studies scholars study it all the time in the form of media corporations and institutions, media producers and media texts. Historians study it all the time. Some of our work may be reactive, but I can’t think of much scholarship that isn’t. As for influencing policy, well, that’s a tough one.

    But my point is, qualitative research is often disregarded by the quantitative folks as “not research” when our goal as qualitative, interpretive, critical scholars is to challenge the framework and assumptions of power that happens to also be inherent to so much of (okay, ALL of) quantitative, social scientific research. Your post suggests so much of the social scientific versus interpretive “argument” that was beaten into us even in a historically critical-cultural media studies program…it just reminds me that social science would benefit from standpoint theory.

    As for a more substantive response re: Slaughter’s piece and the potential for workplace change…still working on that. After a shower and a fresh pitcher of iced tea, I’ll get back to it…if and when my kids let me. Be back in a bit.

    • tressiemc22
      June 24, 2012

      No potential for change from my adversarial position with power? Gosh. I think that would be a surprise to grass roots organizers the world over. I am not saying that power is not a part of effecting change but rarely does power initiate that change for the benefit of anything else but power. I would probably point to the civil rights movement or the entire history of black movements in the U.S. period as examples of that working.

      I do not think that studying the content of power through critical analysis constitutes the “studying up” I had in mind, which, I might add is actually more concerned with qualitative inquiry than quantitative. So, I’m not sure I understand that part of the response. It is possible I’m missing a wealth of qualitative inquiry, especially ethnographic, that examines power from within power but I know of very few ethnographies of CEOs or heads of state, for example.

      • soonerhawkeye
        June 24, 2012

        I do think you’re missing a wealth of qualitative work, quite frankly. If I may, I would say you’re also putting a fine point on my remark about the quantitative/qualitative divide by dismissing “critical analysis.” And I wish I had better knowledge of the work you do in sociology before I speak, but is it possible your conceptualization of power is rather one-dimensional and unilateral? If I’m understanding your piece (and I may not be and need to revisit), what you’ve discussed here ignores the relational and situated nature of power. For example: are heads of state and CEOs the only ones who hold power? I don’t think so. Do they hold outsize influence in daily discourse? Sure. And do their actions and decisions have material consequences? Absolutely. But even their power is mitigated by other influences and challenged and resisted on the local level ALL THE TIME. In other words, if this is how you conceptualize power, it’s quite disempowering to those exercising agency and power in their daily lives, as miniature as it may be in the day-to-day. To relate it back to Slaughter’s essay, I assure you that work-life issues do, in fact, change and attitudes such as hers in her workplace do *trickle down.* Once upon a time, when I was still a PhD student, attitudes like Slaughter’s benefitted even me on the lowest rung on the departmental ladder. My husband works for a company that has made waves by instituting family-friendly measures that were instituted from the top in a high-pressure industry. When he’s home for dinner and feeding our kids breakfast in the morning, trust me- it has trickled down to us. I am grateful that his company insists he has a family life. Has this seeped in to the service and hourly-wage sector? The work continues, doesn’t it?

        • tressiemc22
          June 24, 2012

          Then you would need to point me to work that effectively studies up as I mean it (in the sense of studying the culture that produces power:

          I do not devalue individual agency. I just don’t worship the individual agency of powerful people. I also labor under the concept that societal constructs limit and shape, greatly, the individual agency of people and it does so disproportionately for powerless people. Ignoring that tends to produce things that inaccurately blame individual moral failures for what are largely failures of the system, e.g. Moyihan reports and the like.

          I am happy that you have had great experiences of power trickling down on you. I can likely name a personal experience or example of a different lived example for every one you proffer.

          We simply disagree. It happens. In fact, I suggest that it happening is evidence of why it is unlikely that more women will think similarly enough about the issues that impact women like me often enough to enact social policy to our benefit. If, for instance, Condi and Michelle and Hillary decide that women like me simply do not understand power properly it is unlikely they’ll hear any evidence about my experience that runs counter to their own, greatly inhibiting their ability to create policies that benefit me. I mean, I can’t even get POWER right, for God’s sake. There’d be no reason to consider my authority or agency in their decision-making, now would there?

          • jillinabox
            November 1, 2012

            Well, this is a ragingly good discussion! I ended up here from the Mamafesto blog carnival, where I also have a post. I’m very interested in your comment above saying you can’t even get power – am I misunderstanding you, or you really saying that you don’t want the sort of power you see as possibly available to you? The only sort of power you see is that which further serves the already powerful? I’m not an academic, or a sociologist, but I did study ideas of power at university, and there’s one thing I know – I want it! I want it so I don’t have the life my parents had – no education, limited choice of employment and basically, not many choices about anything much. For me, power is mainly about having choices – of any kind. If I feel I have no choice, I feel powerless. Slaughter’s article did not speak to me particularly. I do agree that a whole lot of people with power are part of industry of studying, examining or “helping” the powerless, but they really don’t give a damn about them.It’s a way to make a buck. I see this almost every day.

        • tressiemc22
          June 24, 2012

          Also, I’m not sure you know how condescending you sound. I am going to assume that you do not. Is there a reason that you “assuring me” that these things DO trickle down should be considering as evidence? It assumes that your experience is authoritative in a way that my own is not and that I just need to listen to you and rest my wittle mind. If a man had said it, in fact, it would be mansplaining. From telling me I do not understand power to offering your lived experience as superior to mind, it all exemplifies the many problems I have within certain feminist circles when it comes to debating issues. Just in case, again, it had escaped your notice.

          • soonerhawkeye
            June 24, 2012

            Okay. Wait. You have the right to rely upon and refer to your authority based on your experience with power, but I don’t? Why not??? I have experience in balancing family and work. Do you? And I did it while getting the degree you’re still working on. You have the right to wave around your experience with all the differing texts and points of view “proffered” by people commenting, but I don’t? And do you think your responses have been any less patronizing? Jesus. There may be an area (areas!) of scholarship you aren’t familiar with that may AUGMENT or help your position, and you get defensive. You’ve been “mansplaining” to everyone responding to you. “I’ve bought and given out more copies of Greene’s book…” Uh…You were right about this post. God help us all. You’re not looking for a discussion. You’re not looking for discourse or consensus. You’re looking for agreement.

          • tressiemc22
            June 24, 2012

            I re-read to be sure but I only use personal evidence to explain my position to the article. I do not derive my argument entirely from that experience. For example, I point to the recent voting patters of powerful women that did not favor the interests of non-powerful women. I could also point to the very sad history feminist organizations have in representing the interests of poor women, black women, immigrant women, working class women, etc.

            You suggest that I am missing a whole field of literature that includes ethnographic studies that emerge from within power cultures yet you do not offer them up, specifically. You also say that I do not understand work-life balance because I, unlike you, have not managed a family while working. I suggest that’s alot of supposition about my family life on your part. I have certainly worked and managed a household that included a spouse and an infant. I am not sure where you derived your opinion that I have not. I can only assume you are projecting your biases about who does a degree program or something from my writing onto me. Whatever the cause, there’s no nice way to say this: you’re simply wrong.

            But, I think that is a distraction.

            You tell me I misunderstand power. It is just as likely that I simply understand it differently from you because of the evidence I”ve provided that influences my thinking on the matter. Resorting to insulting my family status is…another matter.

            And, yes, I do point out to someone else that I have read Greene’s book. I point that out because they suggest it as an answer to my “misunderstanding” power. That keeps coming up, btw. Like you, that commenter assumes that the issue they have with my argument is a failure of my faculties or knowledge, and not the argument as I present. If I take that person it is because it is a personal thing to assume. But, I referenced that I have bought, read, and shared that book to show that I do not think it a bad book (I share it with others), that I know it (I’ve bought it), that I have read it closely and thus my feelings about it are not superficial (the reference to how many times). If you read it as mansplaining that is unfortunate.

            Again, we disagree. I am actually OK with that and do not feel the need to insult your work-life positionality to be OK with it. I wish you felt similarly.

          • soonerhawkeye
            June 24, 2012

            We are reading other commenters differently. I’m guessing you’re going to get pissed I wrote that because it seems if someone says, “Maybe you can look at it this way,” you take it as a knock on your abilities rather than constructive criticism. And I wasn’t insulting your abilities, either. But I do take issue with your conceptualization of the function of power in society that does not take relationality or situatedness into consideration. I conceptualize power as a constellation and web-like, not top-down, stratified, or static. If you need citations about my approach to conceptualizing power: Foucault, “The History of Sexuality” or “Discipline and Punish,” to begin. Other citations: anything by Stuart Hall, works on the political economy of the media, international communication, feminist media studies, audience studies…

            And while we’re being sensitive: I don’t mind disagreement. I welcome it. But because I disagree with you and suggest other ways to approach your argument, I am not discounting your perspective or questioning your legitimacy or your knowledge. What a great way to close down discussion. It looks like we’re continuing this on twitter though, so here goes…

        • Claudia Putnam
          June 24, 2012

          We can trade personal experience anecdotes all day long. Most professionals I know work 70-hour weeks and are asked not to take more than a few days at a time for vacations. The economy is so sketchy they are afraid to speak up and demand anything different. I think it’s still true that society in general feels that the higher the level of professionalism, the more benefits/vacation, etc, the person should receive. This prejudice dates back at least to Victorian times (I was just reading a book on the Victorian era giving the results of a survey on how much vacation time various professions should get–bankers, lawyers, businessmen should get a couple of months, people thought, while miners and similar laborers should *none*). IE, it’s not just the powerful who think that the best treatment should be reserved for the powerful. Change in this area has been enormously slow and gender has been only one element. I doubt the powerful, of whatever race or gender, will be giving away a lot of benefits, which is what we’re talking about, to anyone, and I don’t think fellow-feeling, to race, gender, or laboring type, is really what drives this kind of thing. You have to organize. And when you do there is backlash, often violent.

  4. I posted this on my facebook account and got some push-back. I responded by summarizing what I thought you were saying and added a specific example that came to my mind, which I thought I’d post here:

    A concrete example of how this can play out is that upper-middle-class people often hope to solve these problems with greater workplace “flexibility.” Slaughter herself gives many examples of that. But working-class and poor people–basically, wage workers–have been *devastated* by flexibility since the 70s. It means a paycheck they just don’t get. So a political program that’s focused on powerful women devising solutions that fit their lives and then that will trickle down to everyone else isn’t just limited–it could actually end up *hurting* those getting trickled upon.

    • tressiemc22
      June 25, 2012

      I think your response summed it up beautifully. Moreso than any of my summations, apparently. I think I’ll borrow your example.

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  6. VivianStCloud
    June 25, 2012

    I’m not an academic, but your post really spoke to me. I think you really have something there with the mention of “relational expectations”. It, in fact, gave me chills and may explain much of why I do what I do, despite being an Ivy grad 2x over and holding a JD. Yours is a timely and honest response, and I appreciate that. But you are too kind; trickle-down leaves a decidedly sour taste in my mouth.

  7. Christopher Fung
    June 28, 2012

    I’d like to respond to one part of what soonerhawkeye said in her/his original response. Qualitative research takes many different forms. Maybe media studies has been successful in translating studies of the powerful into meaningful change. One example might be the media literacy programs that are now taught albeit predominantly in the K-12 schools of the elite.

    OTOH, my own experience as a cultural anthropologist basically agrees with Tressie’s points. As a discipline we have had woefully little impact when we attempt to study “up”. Pierre Bourdieu might have produced a wonderful analysis of bourgeois French society, but last time I looked, 98% of the possessors of symbolic capital were still lording it over the peasants and the proletariat.

    Some of us strive to do the right thing, we try to give our working-class students the tools they need to make it in a world which only regards them as worthy of respect if they can leverage their experiences into forms that the bourgeoisie take seriously (e.g. Majora Carter) but even Majora doesn’t get the kind of traction that it takes to make real change in the South Bronx, because her victories are all at the tactical level so far. Paul Farmer has been working away in Haiti for decades, and if we are to take his own analysis seriously, the suits and do-gooders have STILL willfully and persistently refused to take the very simple steps that would seriously help poor Haitians make their own way back into rudimentary forms of material well-being.

    Media studies and anthropology can be very satisfying to those of us who are practitioners, but let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that we have anywhere near the level of “seriousness” or real power that economists, political scientists, and “development” bureaucrats have.

    • soonerhawkeye
      June 28, 2012

      Thank you, Mr. Fung, for your response particularly regarding media literacy programs. My point was that power does get studied, scholars study power all the time, albeit perhaps not *exactly* as she would like. It may be reactive, but it happens and I don’t think the work that gets done should be discounted. And I never said that work in media studies or other fields was on the same level of heads of state. You are right, of course. But I still disagree with her general conceptualization of the nature of power, which, as I understand it, is stratified and static. I would argue that it is, instead, dynamic and relational. You don’t have to only hold an adversarial relationship with power to change it or unsettle it.

  8. Ari
    June 29, 2012

    meant to leave that other comment on this thread, not “How Will I Know How To (Mis)Treat You If I Don’t Know What You Are?” sorry ’bout that.

  9. Hi Tressie, I’m a recent reader and read this post last week before I had time to read the Slaughter article — didn’t read that until today and for some reason didn’t connect it with your post until I saw a reference to it in the comments on today’s post at I wish I’d reviewed your post again before reading the Slaughter piece though as it would have profoundly changed my understanding of it. I assumed she was speaking on behalf of all women in advocating for supports for working parents but you’re right, she’s not speaking for all women. Thank you for the reminder.

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  12. tressiemc22
    July 10, 2012

    Reblogged this on tressiemc.

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  18. Scott Lipscomb
    March 25, 2013

    This is an absolutely wonderful article. After recently reading about the Sandberg/Slaughter debacle, I found myself intensely frustrated that this sort of capitalist-apologism was being passed as feminism in the 21st century. I was working myself up to post about it myself, but I think you really hit the nail on the head–by focusing on what racism, sexism, classism, etc. etc. are all methods for achieving: power. The problem with opposition movements–reformist or revolutionary–is that once individuals or institutions actually acquire power, they are unlikely to want to give it up, whatever their ideologies. This is perhaps even truer for the sorts of people who get involved in politics and even organizing in the first place. But instead of focusing on a critique of the fundamental issue at hand–how we humans manage the possession and application of power in societies, mainstream feminist discourse is instead begging the question, assuming that of course power will be vested in the hands of a very few–so lets at least make sure a few of them are women.

    As per the heated debate between tressiemc and soonerhawkeye: sooner’s assertion that she sees power differently, “as a constellation and web-like, not top-down, stratified, or static”–I don’t think this is the relevant issue at all. The web image is just a different way of presenting data; there’s nothing about it that conflicts with, say, the pyramid as an image of power. The web image does capture the more complicated nature of power relationships, but it should be obvious that if we represented each person in the web as a dot, connected with other dots via relationships of power and patronage, some dots would be much larger–representing more power–than others, and these people would arrange and re-arrange their position in the web to maximize their power. The pyramid is simpler, but communicates this concentration-of-power reality more clearly. Neither image is better than the other; they both capture different aspects of the reality being portrayed.

    So the fundamental question is whether we actually trust powerful women like Sandberg to fight the good fight and advance the cause of real racial, class, and sex equality. Who with a straight face can actually answer in the affirmative? Women are just as capable of cynical, self-serving power-wrangling as anyone else. Cleopatra, Queen Elizabeth, Indira Ghandi–did any of these women usher in some era of grand liberation? I don’t raise this example to suggest that any of these women was particularly evil or a failure, but rather to suggest that women in power are not intrinsically different than men in power. And I do think that here we run into a rough spot with feminist analysis; the reality of patriarchy is de facto: it doesn’t mean that men in power sit in their oak-lined offices all day thinking, “how can I help my fellow men get *even more* power over women?” Power is, I think, assigned to men because that structure is the most efficient way for men at the top to maximize their own power and for a host of economic and social reasons.

    Likewise, I don’t think that most women in power sit in *their* oak-lined offices wondering how they can advance the cause of women. I’m sure some genuinely do, but I think the vast majority sit in their leather-upholstered chair wondering how they can maximize their *own* power, wealth, influence, and prestige. If helping some women, or all women, will serve those ends, then, sure they will. If, on the other hand, blocking paid-sick leave for female workers will help their chances in the next election, then…guess what? That’s what 99% of women will do, because they are just as human as male leaders.

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This entry was posted on June 23, 2012 by in Essays, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , .