By Write(H)ers participant Lillie Reed, T'14
In fourth grade, I did a lot of things I’m not proud of. I wore pants to school that were fully ripped up the butt, and not just one time. I let my mom give me a bowl cut – again. I allowed my classmates to nickname me “Beaner”, which neither they nor I realized was a racial slur (made especially inappropriate by its application to the only mildly Hispanic person in the class). Exercising a complete lack of oversight, my mom then let me sew this name on a backpack. This is, perhaps, the most embarrassing thing I have ever worn on my body for two straight years.
Yet what I am least proud of is that for about a month at age 9, I was a bully. I was always the smart kid in a very small class, but in 4th grade, Jane showed up on the scene – and she was smart, too. AND, on top of THAT, she also liked the same boy as I did. So my friends and I decided that we would dislike her. We would make mean jokes about her, behind her back and to her face. Personally, my job was to walk on the back of her ankles in line. I finally got reprimanded when I made a photo scrapbook for a project and put stickers on top of her face whenever she was in a picture. Although I wasn’t the sole perpetrator, I was the only one reprimanded – which was probably just, because I certainly incited the bullying. When I think about 4th grade with Jane, I can still feel a twinge of regret in my stomach - and I deserve to.
This was my first experience with woman-on-woman combat. I would like to say that this sort of self-centered disregard for the feelings and thoughts of others ends when we’re all juniors in high school, as was the expectation created by the movie Mean Girls. Yet there are certainly fully-grown adults (or college student equivalents) that practice their own form of bullying – exclusion, silent treatments, baseless shit-talking, or purposeless spite.
Although it is frequently referred to as such, I think that it is overly simplistic to call this a problem of “women holding other women back.” Something that is often forgotten (by feminists and non-feminists alike) is that women are people, and might not identify first and foremost with their gender above all else. Women are not “holding other women back” in the sense that the terminology implies when female Republicans and Democrats compete, or when two women with different ideas on gay marriage advocate for different sides of the issue, or in most circumstances where women disagree with and critique one another. Women debating is necessarily defined by their womanhood, and no one is holding anyone anywhere simply because women disagree or compete. What I think is more constructive phrasing is to talk about is feminists holding other feminists back through unwarranted or unnecessary criticism.
Now, I’m not saying that feminists should not be constantly critiquing one another. As a group that is, itself, critiqued constantly, advocates for equality should constantly seek to perfect their message. This requires the ability to take criticism, especially from people who are striving for your same goals. It is almost never helpful to silence yourself or others for the sake of sparing someone’s feelings. However, there is a huge difference between critiquing someone’s ideas or actions for a greater good and criticizing for personal gain.
An example of this recently brought to my attention was the story of Sheryl Sandberg – the COO of Facebook – who published a book, Lean In, made up of stories and advice for ambitious women. Yet before the book was even published, feminist authors who had not read it began tearing it to shreds, calling Sandberg’s book “pontification” to women too poor to follow her advice. They called her a pseudo-feminist who was exploiting women’s rights to make money and foster power. Now, I have read this book, and although there are some marks of a very rich woman, Sandberg actually presents a rather clear and inspiring message to ambitious women, in all types of work (not excluding housework). Stories of Sandberg’s life and her own depiction of it in her book do not reek of fake feminism, but reflect a successful, intelligent, feminist woman who I am more than happy to take advice from. Yet women’s rights advocates jumped at the chance to denigrate Sandberg as a fraud of a feminist and her book as a detriment to the feminist cause – although they had little to no knowledge of what the book was actually about. As they themselves were feminists, their opinions were widely accepted and they were literally paid to lay them out in essay format for highly-esteemed newspapers and magazines. When the book came out, there was a backlash to the backlash (albeit smaller in its second wave). This kind of behavior is not only unhelpful to pretty much anyone, but also this type of publicly displayed closed-mindedness and thoughtless, self-indulgent criticism exhibited by some well-known feminist authors could dissuade young women and men from wanting to ally themselves with what, from the outside, looks to be incredibly hypocritical group of people.
This kind of behavior is not unique to the world of literature or the public sphere. It also occurs right here at Duke. DSG elections, Chronicle articles and comment boards, discussion panels on equality issues, and even just everyday conversations can become competitions of who is the better advocate for equal rights. These arguments can range from helpful to downright dirty, with everything from constructive criticism to snide disapproval to outright personal attack. Often, these debates come not from an intellectual level and are not meant to help discussion or others, but are meant to uplift one person by denigrating another. They most often come out of competing personal interests to be right – to be the better egalitarian. Whether it be social approval, respect for oneself or one’s activities, or simply superiority that is desired out of this criticism, it is not necessarily a productive critique that adds to Duke’s culture and conversation. Although focusing on how a message is delivered is important and necessary, it seems that at Duke, we are stuck in our typical competitive nature and are overly concerned with being the best. However, we must be aware that this comes with a price. More often than not, a message’s worth and many of its non-feminist listeners are lost in overly meticulous discussion.
You cannot censor criticism. It is crucial and necessary for critique to be given and taken. However, equal rights advocates need to be especially careful when critiquing others, because their position gives them power. Bigoted and baseless critique can be accepted blindly as correct if it comes from someone who claims themselves an egalitarian. When criticizing others who share your pro-equality views, therefore, it is absolutely imperative to keep in mind whether your critique will further the debate or quash it. We must be mindful to not count our own individual feminism as the only good way to do it. And, perhaps most importantly, we must keep in mind our own personal investments, and be sure that we are critiquing out of intellectuality and not self-interest. Because if there is something the feminist movement cannot become, if for no other reason than to avoid confirming untrue stereotypes, it is a group of self-promoting, pseudo-benevolent bullies.For more info on the Sheryl Sandberg story, check out these stories:http://www.latimes.com/features/books/jacketcopy/la-ca-jc-sheryl-sandberg-20130310,0,818617.storyhttp://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2013/03/maybe-you-should-read-the-book-the-sheryl-sandberg-backlash.html