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Recently, Katherine watched the three-part PBS series MAKERS in one sitting. (If you haven’t seen it yet, we highly recommend and encourage you to watch it online here).

While some argue that the documentary misses the mark on feminism today, Katherine appreciated the film’s ability to move seamlessly between the different issues confronting women (sexual assault, sexual harassment, the glass ceiling, abortion, childcare, marriage, sexuality, work-life balance) and its abundance of amazing historical factoids. (Did you know that the lawyer who argued Roe v. Wade was 26 years old?).

What struck Katherine most of all is the documentary’s candid approach to the historical conflicts that erupted between feminists and between women. Betty Friedan vs. lesbians, whom she not so kindly referred to as the “lavender menace.” Betty Freidan vs. Gloria Steinem. Women of color feminists vs. white feminists. Phyllis Schlafly vs. feminists everywhere. Feminists everywhere vs. homemakers. There was even a subtle, though loving, conflict between Ms. Magazine co-founder Letty Cottin Pogrebin and her daughter, Abigail Pogrebin, who didn’t feel “prepared for the ambivalence of motherhood and career” and ultimately left an all-consuming job for a more flexible one that placed her husband in a quasi-traditional provider role. “If my mother was honest, she wasn’t thrilled with that choice when I made it,” Abigail explained.

Women have not left these conflicts behind. Marissa Mayer’s decision to ban telecommuting at Yahoo! created one such stir. Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In has created another.

Mayer, heralded by some feminists for her place in history as the first pregnant CEO of a Fortune 500 company, has also had her fair share of criticism, for her negative views of feminism and her actions as a CEO which many argue will negatively impact female employees.

And while some think Mayer is bad news for women, other women are critical of the public’s reaction to her, framing Mayer’s controversial decisions and sound bites as exactly what feminism fought her to be able to say and do.

Sheryl Sandberg, who unlike Mayer fully embraces feminism and is an outspoken advocate for gender equality at work and at home, also is a controversial figure.  Her public speeches, upcoming book, and related foundation have all been criticized for being elitist, self-interested, domineering, and woman-blaming.  Her views have been heavily contrasted to Anne-Marie Slaughter, author of the viral Atlantic article “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” so much so that a New York Times journalist argued  that their distinctions amounted to a Freidan-Steinem row. (Slaughter quashed this rumor on Twitter a day after The New York Times article was released).

And yet others cite the backlash against Sandberg itself as an indication of sexism, and see her as the poster woman (or pom-pom girl) for feminism in the 21st century.

Sandberg, Slaughter, and perhaps even (unwittingly) Mayer have sparked a new energy into feminism—for which we are grateful. The question is this: How can we avoid the conflicts that sapped the energy from feminism the last time around? Five simple lessons will help.

Two lessons feminists have recognized, and already acted upon.

1)     No one today would say what Friedan said about LGBTQ women. The need to be inclusive, including of women of color, is a given, and widely understood. (The question has moved from “Should we be inclusive?” to “How can we be inclusive?” and “Are we being inclusive?”)

 

2)     Most feminists today are careful not to make blanket judgments about whether or not women should stay home or continue to work after they have children. Neither choice is perfect: the point is that both women and men need better choices. Judging other women for painful trade-offs in the meantime just saps away energy we need to work for change.

To those lessons, we need to add three more:

3)     Some women feel comfortable assimilating into masculine traditions. Others remain loyal to the traditions of femininity. Both are legitimate ways to be a woman.  Moreover, most of us mix masculinity with femininity, so if we begin to judge each other as too tomboy or too femme, pretty soon all our energy will be used policing the right way to be a woman.

 

4)     Environments shaped by gender bias often pit women against each other, notably when women receive the message that there’s room for only one woman at the top. When this happens it’s important to understand that the environment is to blame. This is a symptom of gender bias—not a personality problem of the so-called “queen bee”.

 

5)     Some feminists focus on individual strategies to help women to navigate the workplace as it is, while others focus on institutional solutions to level the playing field. We need both.

MAKERS showed in detail how these conflicts sapped energy from the women’s movement the last time around.

Avoiding these types of conflict does not require us to disagree in silence. But it does require us to avoid judgments about the right way to be a woman and the right way to be a feminist.

Here’s the challenge: Feminism is not only about empowering women as a group. It’s also about bringing one’s own experience as a woman to light. (Remember? The personal is political.)

So how do these two parts of feminism fit together?

We don’t know the answers, and would love to hear your take. Share your thoughts in the comments below (keep it respectful) or let us know on Twitter (here and here) or at The New Girls’ Network website.


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