“Having it all” without Feminism

The tired, old question, “Can women have it all?” that Anne-Marie Slaughter resurrected in The Atlantic last month isn’t going away now that Yahoo! tapped pregnant Google exec Marissa Mayer to be its CEO. Since the news broke this week, some writers have newly considered Mayer’s rise to the top in relation to Slaughter’s answer to the question (no, women can’t have it all).

I’ve read Slaughter’s cover story in The Atlantic and I’m happy she raised thoughtful, critical solutions to the problem, despite the fact that she doesn’t fully propose to fundamentally dismantle the male-centric, heterosexist models of what work and family means. And I’m happy to see Mayer take the helm of Yahoo! and increase the number of women-CEOs of Fortune 500 companies from 19 to 20.

What concerns me is the Mayer’s dismissive, narrow and mistaken views of what feminism is and who feminists are. In a short clip from the PBS-AOL series “Makers,” Mayer said this about her relationship to feminism:

I don’t think that 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, I think have, sort of, the militant drive and the sort of, the chip on the shoulder that sometimes comes with that. And I think it’s too bad, but I do think that feminism has become in many ways a more negative word. You know, there are amazing opportunities all over the world for women, and I think that there is more good that comes out of positive energy around that than comes out of negative energy.

Mayer doesn’t have to label herself a feminist, although it’s clear from her words that she believes in women’s equality and capabilities. Her unsettling and damaging message is the stereotypical image of the angry, militant feminist who walks around with an attitude and just can’t get over it. If only those angry feminists would stop being so negative and get out of their own way, they’d have so many opportunities!

What Mayer doesn’t realize is that it was those feminists with “the chip on the shoulder” and the “militant drive” who helped create those “amazing opportunities all over the world for women.” Whether she intended to or not, Mayer’s message in the video is that feminism is irrelevant to being a successful woman like her. Don’t agitate for change and equality, ladies – just take advantage of all the great opportunities out there!

This anti-feminist advice fits in perfectly with the conundrum that Fbomb.org editor Julie Zeilinger describes in her piece, “Why Millennial Women Do Not Want to Lead.” Zeilinger states that girls and young women face impossibly high achievement standards in all areas of their life (work, education, relationships) and a culture that simultaneously tells them they can do anything, but also that they’re not enough. Zeilinger believes that these unrealistic standards of perfection snuff out Millennial women’s desire to lead because young women don’t think they’re enough to lead.

Likewise, Mayer’s dismissive and disparaging remarks about the relationship between feminism and women’s leadership and what it really takes for women to lead buttresses this leadership gap among Millennial women. In Mayer’s view, if women take advantage of opportunities (setting even higher standards of achievement) and ignore feminism (which equips girls and women to fight against cultural messages that they’re not beautiful, smart or capable enough), then that’s all they need to achieve and “have it all.” Not exactly. A vibrant feminist movement, in all its variations, is needed to help propel and empower women and girls into leadership positions, sustain them and nurture the next generation of female leaders. There is already so much that is stacked against girls and women that feminism provides a confident voice that tells us we’re enough as we are and aims toward a more equitable future. Hearing remarks like Mayer’s is suicidal, counter productive and damaging to women’s already fragile sense of their leadership capabilities. You certainly don’t have to label yourself a feminist if you don’t want to. But please, please get a clue and give credit to where credit is due.

To hear Anne-Marie Slaughter speak recently about her cover story and the news about Marissa Mayer, check out her appearance on Meet the Press’ PRESS Pass

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