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Why Feminism Isn’t Going Backwards, But Can’t Seem To Move Forward

Can we lay something to rest real quick?

I’m hearing a lot of folks lament feminism going backward, citing how the majority of the domestic labor right now is falling on women. We’re taking care of the children, giving up our careers, and managing the household cooking, cleaning, and allthethings.

I hear this. I feel it. I’ve made no secret of my own strange circumstances thanks to Coronavirus (I now spend 13 hours a day with a tiny (adorable) human performing the Sisyphean task of pushing a boulder up a hill all day, only to watch it fall back down around 8 PM so I can start again tomorrow).

Here’s the deal though: We’re not going backward.

But the reason you think we are is why we can’t seem to move forward.

If you think domestic labor is a demotion, instead of a promotion, then therein lies the problem.

And it’s not because of Coronavirus. It happened way before that. And now, thanks to Coronavirus, we can start to course correct.

How Second-Wave Feminism Sent Feminism Backwards

To answer this question of why we can’t seem to move forward, we need to understand how to got to here. The TL;DR is that second-wave feminists (70s-80s) made a feeble attempt at getting “taken seriously” in a work context. They said, “Women can do all the things men can do. We’re strong and capable and deserve to be treated equally.”

We got the “strong, capable, and deserving of equality” part correct. But the part we messed up was trying to be like men. We became obsessed with proving ourselves in a game that was literally not built for us. Not built for our biology or social conditioning.

Before I can go down this rabbit hole with you, I need to get us clear on some nomenclature:

  • Male + Female = Sex.
  • Men + Women + Boy + Girl = Gender.

Sex is biological. You’re born male or female. Gender is socially and culturally constructed and exists on a spectrum.

To recap:

  • Male + Female = Sex = BIOLOGICAL.
  • Men + Women + Boy + Girl = Gender = CULTURAL.

The gender piece is what most of the world is losing its shit over right now, despite it being literally not a big deal. But it feeling like a big deal sort of proves the point. If you’re someone who’s uncomfortable with seeing a man in a dress or a woman presenting as masculine, you are proof that these norms exist.

There’s nothing in your biology determining that men wear any particular style of clothing. In fact, for most of human history men wore dresses. So your discomfort with them (ok not your, I know you’re cool) is a manufactured discomfort based on how you were raised and what you believe “masculinity” means and stands for (same for femininity).

Ok, cool, so we’re caught up and now I can explain what second-wave feminism did that fucked everything up.

The First Problem Is Inclusion, The Second Problem Is Lois’s Book

White women have run the show and diminished any and all POC and we need to own that, apologize, and fix it. If you’re a white woman who fancies herself a feminist, take some inventory of how many non-white feminists you quote or cite. And then make some fucking effort to take initiative and learn. Myself included.

I’m acutely aware of my own fault here. I’d never heard of Frances Harper or Shirley Chisholm or Mary Church Terrell or Jovita Idar or Sylvia Rivera or countless other women left out of my textbooks.

These aren’t obscure “if you’re into women’s studies” people either. These are women blatantly left out of the narrative. We can’t move forward until we start telling the whole story.

Second, Lois Frankel wrote what I believe to be the most destructive book of the movement, second perhaps only to Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, setting us so far back we still haven’t recovered.

How Second Wave Feminism Set Feminism Backwards, Not Coronavirus

If you’re a woman who is alive, you were probably told to read the book, “Nice Girls Don’t Get The Corner Office,” by Lois Frankel. It’s a 300-page declaration of how women who want to move up in the corporate world should behave. Or as Frankel puts it, “Unconscious mistakes women make that sabotage their careers.” 101 mistakes, to be precise.

“You can disagree without being disagreeable,” she says on page 47. (You can but you shouldn’t. Malcolm Gladwell gave an excellent talk on how disagreeableness is one of the primary traits of innovators). Let’s not forget Mistake  #77 failure to tip your head appropriately or Mistake #99, “Playing the gender card.”

Aside from gaslighting women into believing they, not the system, are the problem, Frankel’s book is the reason you think, “You just need to negotiate better! Have more confidence!” And that that would fix the gender pay gap. This, of course, is bullpoop. The gender pay gap exists because women literally fall out of the workforce to have children (that pesky biological difference!) and their earning potential is tanked when they come back on account of “not having enough experience.”

The pay gap literally disappears in fields where women can work from home or have flexible schedules.

Ok so the first thing to understand about what Frankel and other second-wave feminists did is this:

By attempting to “prop women up to the level of men,” we inadvertently pushed women and everything “traditionally female” down. 

Empathy, a focus on others, thinking of the group over the individual, sensitivity, listening, communication, expressiveness, and patience were branded “weak.” You probably know them by their more popular nickname, soft.

This led to the second no-good-very-bad thing that sent us backward: reinforcing destructive male stereotypes. Second-wave feminism pushed toxic masculinity up. It linked men’s worth to their earning potential when it said, “Oooo, us too, us too!!!”

Which was the opposite of what we (should have been) trying to do.

Until we start elevating the domestic sphere to the level of CEO we will make no progress.

[Read: How Serfdom Saved The Women’s Movement ]

Until Bezos is as impressive to you as my friend Adrienne who stayed home to raise her 3 kids, then we will not move forward.

Until we can respect the invisible labor we take for granted and not assign it a value judgment lower than the labor that provides economic output – we’re screwed.

This culture only allots status and power to wealth. I believe we can live in a capitalist country that also values other things. I think that part is cultural. I think we can start putting things like intellect back on a pedestal (along with people and integrity). I think we can devalue the traits we so love on reality TV and media, like pettiness and racism. And instead of rewarding that garbage with attention, we can ignore it the way you ignore CSPAN.

You want feminism to move forward you need to dethrone Sheryl (I’m sure she’s lovely, but her ideas are wrong). Which reminds me: quit attacking women. Attack their ideas but FFS leave them alone.

Anne Marie Slaughter said all this  far more articulately back in 2013:

“I suggest that real equality, full equality, does not just mean valuing women on male terms. It means creating a much wider range of equally respected choices for women and for men. And to get there, we have to change our workplaces, our policies, and our culture.”

If Family Comes First, Work Does Not Come Second – Life Comes Together

That’s a quote from Anne Marie. I like how it sounds and haven’t a clue what it looks like IRL, but I have some ideas.

You can Venmo me if you’d like to hear them.


Starting with this: We have to stop acting like a family is a liability to the workforce, without denying the reality that it is a liability. To care about anything other than economic output is a liability to the current structure of American capitalism.

There’s a reason people are in a rush to open the economy despite the requisite cost in human lives. It’s not because they’re stupid. It’s because they still need to pay rent and buy food. We can pay lip service to valuing things beyond money, but those things aren’t going to cover textbooks or gas or electricity or feed our children.

It doesn’t matter how much data we provide on how paid family leave helps EVERYONE in the long run. In the short run, business owners see it like this: “f$*# that’s expensive! I pay you not to work for me? No thanks.”

Of course, they’re going to discriminate against women, who wants to hire someone with the risk they might have to leave for 6-months and you have to cover it and then they might not come back (of course, this framing is wrong, but that’s how it’s being framed).

Until THAT is gone, we’re going nowhere.

Even Andreessen, who’s viral article makes a lot of good points, conveniently leaves out how the “building” he’s advocating for requires you to be part of that single-unattached-male variety so you can get that hockey-stick-growth that gets funded.

I love YC and so much of what it stands for, but the conditions of those 6-weeks prior to demo day are fucking stupid sexist. If you want a family and a startup, you need to have a wife or you need to forgo children. Don’t @ me bro if you’re thinking what I know you’re thinking because:

WORK HARDER is not the answer. It’s never been the answer.

The answer is for us to expand what it means to work. And start up-leveling the value-judgment we place on things outside of economic output.

If you want to move feminism forwards: quit diminishing the value of invisible domestic labor or pretending it doesn’t exist or should be outsourced to underpaid immigrant labor.

You can’t claim “feminist” and then not pay women of color (or any person) a fair wage for doing the hard SKILLED labor of raising your children and cleaning your home. You can’t believe you’re better than other women. White women especially need to stop believing they’re better than the women they employ.

[ Read: How Serfdom Saved The Women’s Movement ]

You also can’t keep assuming “women’s work” is not for men.

Which brings me to how we fix this shit. We change how we socialize our boys (and…we’re back to gender. OF COURSE WE ARE).

I’ll let Anne Marie close us out because she said it best:

“We’re not going to get equally valued choices unless we change our culture, and the kind of cultural change required means re-socializing men.

Increasingly in developed countries, women are socialized to believe that our place is no longer only in the home, but men are actually still where they always were.

Men are still socialized to believe that they have to be breadwinners, that to derive their self-worth from how high they can climb over other men on a career ladder. The feminist revolution still has a long way to go. It’s certainly not complete.

But 60 years after “The Feminine Mystique” was published, many women actually have more choices than men do. We can decide to be a breadwinner, a caregiver, or any combination of the two.

When a man, on the other hand, decides to be a caregiver, he puts his manhood on the line. His friends may praise his decision, but underneath, they’re scratching their heads. Isn’t the measure of a man his willingness to compete with other men for power and prestige?

And as many women hold that view as men do. We know that lots of women still judge the attractiveness of a man based in large part on how successful he is in his career. A woman can drop out of the workforce and still be an attractive partner. For a man, that’s a risky proposition.

So as parents and partners, we should be socializing our sons and our husbands to be whatever they want to be, either caregivers or breadwinners. We should be socializing them to make caregiving cool for guys.”

You wanna move forward, feminists?

Raise your boys to value caregiving.

If ANYTHING is going to come out of this crisis, let it be this y’all. LET IT BE THIS.