Feminists, Capitalism, and Power

I read an article on elle.com this morning and I felt the need to respond to it. It was entitled “Ambitious Women–Why powerful women don’t say they’re ambitious.” and written by Leslie Bennets. Here’s the link (http://www.elle.com/life-love/society-career/why-women-don-t-say-they-are-ambitious) I regularly find myself interested in themes of gender, sexuality, race, etc…and so when an article jumps out at me like this I like to think about it. I find that articulating a perspective  in these discussions is challenging. Not that I have some kind of clever masculine rejoinder, but rather that I am always hesitant to speak into a space where I could unintentionally affirm an oppressive status quo. Many men of my sort (seminarians, Christians, Hispanic males, the list goes on) are significant participants in the serious issues affecting women that are talked about in this article. This being said, I hope to say something different than them here.

I found the article to be insightful in many areas. Bennets pointed straightaway to a problem that plagues many women. More than any particular issue, there was a hesitancy in most (if not all) of the famous women she’d interviewed to acknowledge their own success, intelligence, desire to achieve, etc…Bennets connected this well with the socialization of children. She mentioned that girls are socialized to be reactive whereas boys are socialized to be askers. I think that this makes sense. I do note that more often than little girls the question directed to little boys is “what do you want to be when you grow up?” In my experience boys are encouraged to talk more in school, be louder, more confident. Women who do the same, often run the risk of receiving negative feedback. I had a friend in high school who used to ask me to ask questions for her because she didn’t want to seem stupid. AP Biology was hard for everyone…I don’t understand who would have thought that, but the world had a different landscape for her as a woman.

Furthermore, Bennets quoted an author called Catherine Catherine Orenstein who ran a study with people who were asked to discuss why they were the expert in a given area. Catherine noted that almost across the board hated the exercise. She said, “When women talk about the reasons, they almost always stem from virtues taken to excess: modesty, humility, responsibility, selflessness. But when you’re living in a culture where you don’t have a big voice, you start to internalize the external context, and you become part of your own marginalization.” This is a huge point. That women have internalized the majority view on who/how they should be. The socialization toward being reactive shows up in adulthood.

Despite the many reasonable and helpful points made throughout her article, I began to see Bennets’ thoughts as a sort of church potluck scenario. There are a few really good things on that table, but by God I cannot live on most of the food. I found that Bennets was barely scraping the surface of what might be some really fascinating themes and at the same time selling out the feminist enterprise to a misguidedly capitalist conception of power.

To start with when Bennets mentioned the virtues American women had seemed to internalize (modesty, humility, responsibility, selflessness), she was in effect echoing the Protestant reformers’ views of women.

A brief history of the reformation would take more time than I could spare and you’d be bored. Let’s just say that when the Protestants broke off of the Catholic church there was suddenly no place for a religious calling for women. No more Nuns for protestants. Now for some this was freedom (some were forced to be nuns), for others this was a return to patriarchy. The ideal protestant woman in the reformation era had 3 main characteristics. She was A) a wife and B) knew her bible and C) embodied the virtues mentioned above.  At some level these things had some scriptural arguments. Not that I agree with them, but there were attempts at arguments for why this was the case. Moving forward, we see that when the Eastern Seaboard of America was colonized the people who left landed were largely protestant, spoke English, and soon enough had slaves who were English speaking protestants. Fast forward roughly 300 years and we can see the influences still. The protestant reformation era view of women has become so deeply ingrained in the American psyche that we still socialize our little girls to be subordinate housewives.

This is fascinating because many people in America still think this is the ideal woman, but they’ve forgotten why they do. I feel that the roots of the issue Bennets describes go much deeper than women just not taking the opportunities granted them. There’s a scary method to the madness that she did not engage with. Furthermore, she made the problem strictly a white woman’s issue when she haphazardly quoted Anna Fels. Anna’s quote was regarding the issue raised about women in terms of ambition, and she stated that “That’s less true in the black community and in the lower-middle and lower classes; those women haven’t been brought up with the expectation that femininity is equated with a subordinate role. But for the white middle-class woman, it’s a major issue.”

I will leave many of the comments that might be said about this alone. Despite coming from a psychologist, this quote is as incorrect as it is racist. In my experience, women in the “minority” communities know far better the bleak oppression of damaging patriarchy than many middle-class white women. In one quote Bennets manages to make feminism a fight that is only needed to be fought by white privileged women. This is obviously not the case.

The themes of race and American psyche with regard to women are fascinating and broad and merit more than a few accurate sentences about socialization and an ignorant quote. Nonetheless, having found ignored this potential goldmine of worthwhile and interesting topics, Bennets left it aside and proceeded to ground her argument in a very unhelpful view of feminine power. It was at this point that I was deeply frustrated by Bennets’ approach.

Throughout her article her concern seems to be power. Women are in need of power and are implicitly less valuable without it. While this does reflect some of the issue she mentions, her discussion of power seems to be bound in terms of a capitalist driven worldview. To Bennets, power is jobs, success, and upward mobility. I am staggered at the shortsightedness of this view. For one thing, through Bennets’ lens the goal of humanity–especially feminine humanity–is bound to a capitalist model. Are we really to believe that power is measured in terms of a woman’s job and success therein? In terms of whether she has ambition for political office?  Is the feminist solution merely to arrive at the same “achievements” as men or is it to attempt to move towards a society in which everyone is held with equal value and given equal opportunities while acknowledging their race/gender?

Not to mention the idea that for a woman to have power of this sort an economy is required in which certain people are necessarily left behind. Free Market Capitalism and Social Darwinism go hand in hand as an economic game of “survival of the fittest” issues some power and value and others neither. Power for women then becomes largely bound in privileged circles where upward mobility is actually a realistic possibility without the joining the military or a personal miracle. For Bennets, power is ultimately a racially and socioeconomically limited category.

I submit that here the Feminist enterprise has been sold out to capitalism. Human worth has been construed in economic categories. Power has become the ability to move “upwards” in the eyes of a patriarchal society.

So, then what are we feminists to do otherwise? Yes. I include myself.

I think first of all, we will all be helped if we can learn to leave a capitalist mindset aside as the main lens through which we view the world. While Bennets isn’t a terrible person, she is a terrible model for a way for women (or anyone) to think of themselves. The problem isn’t so much that people shouldn’t want to do well in or have equal access to work. It’s more that if feminists start out with a concept of power that limits the size of the party to the privileged white people…we have issues.

Secondly, I think we’d all be helped if we thought a little bit more like the Greek Philosopher Aristotle. A life worth living is a life that embodies “human flourishing.” This means more than how much higher you can climb in your job or our “success.” The virtues mentioned before are not bad things. All people should learn about humility, modesty, responsibility, and self-sacrifice. The point isn’t forcing those things onto just women, but allowing all of humanity to be able to grow into flourishing life. I wonder if the above quote about virtues taken to excess has really thought about if that’s actually possible. I do think it’s more likely to have been a misrepresentation of these virtues taken to excess. This brings me back to my point about the Protestant reformation. These virtues mean and have meant things, but without a framework to understand them they get warped.

While for Aristotle human flourishing was about being a social animal, for Christians human flourishing is proclaimed to be growing into the life of Christ. A life where we are equally affirmed in our value and purpose before God, each other, and ourselves. This is real power. Power is not endless potential, but has an end. A goal. We’re empowered to be a part of the work of God in the world and are indeed equal in that. The power of God in this world was in dying on the cross to redeem humanity. This was success for Christ.

What should that mean for humanity?


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