The Atlantic Article, Trickle-Down Feminism, And My Twitter Mentions. God Help Us All.

By Guest Contributor Tressie McMillan Cottom, cross-posted from TressieMC

Courtesy: kveller.com

This is one of those posts that can go nowhere but down.

There are things you simply cannot do in this life and slaying unicorns is one of them.

What do I mean by “slaying unicorns”? It’s an old Livejournal term. It means providing evidence that one’s sacred emotional belief or object is either not a) universal b) all that great or c) grounded in reality or supported by empirical evidence.

I am really, really bad about this. I tend to slay unicorns even when I only mean to make an observation or intend to honor my own truth or even when I just mean to get through the day. I end up slaying unicorns way more than I’d like. My hands are filthy with their rainbow blood.

So, I wanted to leave alone The Atlantic article about women having it all.

An initial tentative reaction about not seeing my experience as a black woman in the article provoked such passionate responses that my mentions on Twitter took two days to recover. And, I don’t mean the responses that disagreed with me. I mean I got tweets that charged me with not being a feminist or not understanding because I don’t have children and one lovely message that seemed to intimate that I was just too stupid to “get it”.

I decided to leave that unicorn alone.

But that did not mean that I did not want to make sense of it myself. After a great deal of thinking I think I can finally articulate my reaction and I owe much of that process to this tweet:

I’m a Reagan baby. You can’t say “trickle-down” to me and not evoke a response.

I went back and re-read The Atlantic article. I’ll try to take my thought process step-by-step in an effort to do minimal damage to the unicorn.

First, I do not have an emotional connection to the piece. That cannot be overstated because a great deal of its value to some of the readers, as far as I can discern, is grounded in the fact that it evoked an emotional response. Much of that appears to be rooted in relief that someone is validating their experiences. I get that. It is valuable. However, if it is important to the article’s value to its many, many supporters then it is important to note that I did not have that experience.

It could be race, class, or experience (I’ll get to that later) but I don’t have fond memories of attending the Seven Sisters or an experience of being told that I should want or have “it all.” It truly never occurred to me that so many others did. Again, as someone pointed out, I may have been too poor to get it. I will own that.

In exchange, I ask others to consider that as much as it is about class status or race or background that one’s visceral reaction to the article is about his or her individual relationship with power. That’s not exactly about race or class; that’s about ideological orientation.

I do not aspire to power. I do aspire to do well and to do good, but I am somewhat ambivalent about power. That is a result of my upbringing, but it is also a result of the many small decisions I have made during my emotional and intellectual development about who I am in relation to power. I will also admit that is greatly shaped by social processes that limit the potential of my access to power. Whether I am accepting those or asserting my own agency is unclear but, either way, I know that fat, black, southern bodies that went to low-status schools and come from rural, formerly enslaved people have limited avenues into power.

The article seemed to not only take for granted that all women have been told that they should have it all but that all women have–if not intimate–then definitely not adversarial relationships with power. This could be because I am the daughter of a 70s revolutionary, but my feelings about those who possess or embody power are decidedly adversarial. More often than not, power has worked to undermine my reality and my existence. And I don’t mean that in some fuzzy theoretical sense. I mean that when power, for example, starts talking about reforming welfare it is usually meant to be an act made on people who look like me; people with whom I identify even if I do not share their economic status. This act, it should be noted, is irrespective of the political party or intent of the power structure enacting reform on said people. It is the same when the welfare reform is done by Reagan as when it is done by Clinton. It is aggressive–and it alienates people I care about in an intimate way–and so, I see power as being “other”.

So, I never expected to grow up and marry power. I surely did not expect to sleep with it or to court it or to fight others for it. That expectation of one’s own relationship with power and powerful people is probably why some people felt included in the sweep of the Atlantic article and others, like me…actually, I will only speak for me. That is why I did not feel included. That is not so much about money and wealth as it is about relational expectations.

Second, without the emotional connection it became easier, I think, to read the piece as just another op-ed, which is how I read it. That’s how I could get hung-up on the “trickle down” perspective mentioned above and later by Slate magazine. Ann-Marie Slaughter’s argument appears to be that when powerful women are in power, en masse, their relationships with their family demands will necessitate that certain accommodations be made. Those accommodations will, in turn, become organizational policies that will spur policy positions that will positively affect all women i.e. powerful feminism will trickle down to the rest of us.

Ok … look.

I’m going to take this as deliberately as I know how.

That could happen.

What has been known to happen, however, is that power makes allowances for power and the powerless continue to not be beneficiaries.

There are a lot of suppositions holding that trickle-down theory together.

First, it supposes that powerful women won’t, when at a critical enough mass, just change family-leave policies for other powerful, wealthy women. It happens all the time. It’s why a customer-service rep can be fired for taking a smoke break while the C-suite executives of the same company are rewarded for four-hour lunches. Policies are applied differentially all the time, and they are often applied to the benefit of the powerful.

Which leads us to the second supposition: that powerful women will behave differently than powerful men. I…mean…I guess that’s possible. My experience, however, is that power is all corrupting. And this may be a function of race. My experience of powerful white women is not vastly different than that of my experience of powerful white men. There is no reason to think that women will engage institutions of privilege and power significantly different than powerful men. Or, to be more specific, there is no reason to think they will do so differently in a way that positively impacts non-powerful women.

First Lady Michelle Obama. Courtesy: People Magazine.

As evidence of the diversity of powerful women included in Slaughter’s argument someone on Twitter reminded me that she names Condi Rice and Michelle Obama. That is as excellent an example for my third concern as I could have come up with. What, in God’s name, do Condi and Michelle have in common that suggests that a dozen more of each in high-power positions would result in a uniform change in public and social policy that would impact all women? The thought appears to be that just being women and being theoretically capable of having children (Condi does not and Michelle does) is enough to build a interpolitical coalition that will move forward policies that will somehow help poor, minority, middle class, working class, not powerful women. I think that is some dangerous essentialization.

Just this month we saw a unanimous Republican vote against the Equal Pay Act. That group included Sens. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and Susan Collins (R-ME). Sure, politics was at play but aren’t the outcomes we’re asking for in the name of all women–equal pay, affordable child care, anti-discrimination laws–inherently political acts? Do we think that 40 more Olympia Snowes and Susan Collinses will get us there just because there would be a statistical majority of women making the decision? Again, it is possible. But to revisit my earlier relationship with power, my experiences suggest that powerful people–be they men or women–will act in the interest of power, not in the interest of gender (or, race for that matter). It is also important to note that social and political history tends to be congruent with my experiences.

Finally, there was the inherent assumption that the less powerful should trust that powerful women will make decisions that are best for us. And, yes, I include myself in that group although I admit that these days I am not clear that if I am choosing to do so or if I am an authentic member of that group. Graduate school does that to you. But

I’m clear that my natural inclination is to identify with the plight of the powerless and struggling than that of the powerful. So, there’s that.

But I digress. There was a heavy does of paternalism in the piece that is not the exclusive domain of men. I will speak about my own milieu. It is not accidental that this piece spoke so strongly to academics, I think. The nature of what many of us do is to study powerless people (power does not allow itself to be studied) and to translate their experiences into a language sanctioned by the powerful to be sold to other powerful people ostensibly for the betterment of the powerless that we study. Yet, that rarely happens. What happens more often is that we, individually, accrue wealth, power, and status by studying those who have none of those. The research rarely impacts policy or is given back to the communities we study that they might make better use of it than we do. And, in so doing, the women among us do struggle to make it all work with children and families and sexist policies. But it is arrogant of us to forget that we struggle with those things while doing to others precisely what is done to us.

That does not mean that the struggles of powerful women do not matter. It does mean, to me, that it matters mostly to powerful women and we should be clear about that. Don’t talk about “women” when you really mean white women or powerful women or women who attended the Seven Sisters or Jack and Jill (Yes, Jack and Jill; black people have power paradigms, too). Because some of us do know what you mean and we know that even your very language is erasing us while supposedly doing so in our defense.

Trickle-down economics wasn’t the best experience for people like me. You will have to forgive me, then, if I have similar doubts about trickle-down feminism.

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  • craftosaurus

    What an insightful and interesting response to the Slaughter article. Thank you for writing and sharing it.

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  • RCHOUDH

    You’ve done a great job with providing a more nuanced position to Slaughter’s article, by rightfully pointing out the fallacy behind “trickle-down” feminism. Just the controversy behind “Bunheads” shows how privileged women’s access to more opportunities in a particular field (in this case show business) hasn’t resulted in more opportunities for all types of women. That can similarly apply to almost any career/profession out there. With that said I’m not completely against what Slaughter has to state about the state of modern women today; I totally agree with where she’s coming from regarding the myth behind work-life balance. And with the terrible state of the world economy today, where workers’ rights are increasingly coming under assault by oligarchic elites in business/finance/ government, Slaughter’s argument is especially relevant today. If the work-life balance has been out-of-sync before, just imagine how much more worse it will become today if the elites succeed in dismantling various workers’ rights and programs helping the most disadvantaged in society.

  • Anonymous

    I really enjoyed reading the original article and your analysis. I do think she could have emphasized more the fact that she was writing for her own demographic, as she mentioned, though just compared to how little anybody ever does that, I appreciated that she at least recognized her privilege in that way. But as I was reading, I was also struck by how, even though it tries to strike down on the second-wave feminist ideas that she says hinders women in my generation from knowing what to expect, it still very much operates in that same way. Her article needs an Alice Walker, like you, to appreciate it but also qualify and argue with it. That said, though, I hope that her article does inspire people to act in the way she suggests, because perhaps younger women who read her article but also grow into professional careers in a climate more like today, where social justice is a blog topic and cultural competency training is actually somewhat good at identifying issues of privilege, that maybe they will be able to begin to bridge the gap between Slaughter’s world(view) and yours. Does that make sense? I know it’s a minority, but I think of women like me, who are of color but also inhabit and benefit from being able to be a part of privileged America, and who are given opportunities sometimes based on “diversity” and sometimes just based on actual skills or qualifications, who might be able to read Slaughter’s piece, who are already positioned to move into well-off social and financial positions, and yet who will also be more attuned to the imbalance and might be able to at least try for a trickle-down…

    I’m a pretty wishful thinker. But I do want to believe in both Slaughter’s article and yours, even if they are somewhat at odds.

    • Anonymous

      One, mentioning me with Alice Walker has blown my mind for the day. Thank you. LOL

      Two, I am not sure exactly where I’d situate myself in that process you outline. And it’s not a wrong one or even a rare process to be suggested. And I have my optimistic side so I am not entirely immune to hoping for the potential of greater human understanding and the like. But…then there’s history and reality and the sociologist in me is acutely aware of the structural limitations that constrict just how much individuals can make sustained change in a system.

      What history does give us as a possible model is the unknown. The unknown, unplanned for variable has a way of changing ball games when the right kinds of people with the right type of critical relationships are in place. So, I guess I am most hopeful for the great unknown “X” at this point.

      Thank you for bringing out that line of thought!

      • Anonymous

        You deserved the comparison! This seems a very Mothers’ Gardens-esque reply. *raises right hand* And I pledge to at least try to be that X, okay? lol.

    • Diggitt McLaughlin

      Clarisse Thorn’s piece http://www.rolereboot.org/culture-and-politics/details/2012-06-where-are-the-role-models-for-not-having-it-alland-m steered me to yours, and then I finally read Slaughter’s original piece, which I had been avoiding. I was afraid Slaughter would be exactly as she is: white, privileged six ways from Sunday, and focused on her life and her privilege.

      Slaughter’s limited scope makes me wonder: is it even possible for a white, greatly privileged woman to have a clue? It is solid myopia that leads her to suggest that a Senateful of Hillarys and Condis and Michelles would make a difference for the rest of us–PURELY BECAUSE THEY WOULD BE WOMEN OF EVEN MORE PRIVILEGE THAN THEY NOW HAVE!

      Does Slaughter honestly believe that a fair world does not have to be focused on and worked for? Is this the lesson Princeton students got from her? If the rest of us are paying her salary, it’s time she got on the dole and learned a few hard truths.

  • joy

    I don’t know. This article spoke to me, and I am a black woman who wasn’t a member of jack & jill and didn’t go to one of the Seven Sisters. I did however like the writer, struggle for a few years to get pregnant, now find myself entering my later 30s starting a family and wondering how that will affect my career. I LOVED this article. I related to this as a professional woman who just so happens to be black. Yes, the writer is in a different demographic than me, but I still related on an emotional level.

  • Anonymous

    Do I agree with you that “trickle down feminism” is utter BS? YES AND YES! It’s patronising Reagon toss. Unexamined privilege.

    But your sentences “That does not mean that the struggles of powerful women do not matter.
    It does mean, to me, that it matters mostly to powerful women and we
    should be clear about that” are completely myopic. It matters to and SHOULD matter to any woman or girl who dreams of being influential, having the power to make the world a better place on a larger scale and in being wealthy enough to provide their children with great healthcare and education and yes, even luxuries.
    Why on earth do we have an entire blog dedicated to representation and e.g. socio-economic status and advancement of underprivileged minorities then if it doesn’t matter whether minorities reach positions of power ?!
    “Yo, I’ll sit over here and just say that I dislike power. Which is why I leave it to the corrupt Reaganites, who can then decide over my life.”

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  • RT

    “I’m clear that my natural inclination is to identify with the plight of the powerless and struggling than that of the powerful. So, there’s that.”

    In my opinion, you do a disservice to the powerless by equating the identification with the powerless and the experience of being powerless. This equivocation of the body that has inherited the aftermath of trauma and the body that actually experiences the trauma troubles me. Take, for instance, your example of welfare. The fact that people who were/are on welfare “look like you” does not erase the very important fact that you did not share their socioeconomic status.

    The first step in deconstructing power is to recognize the power that we ourselves embody. I think you committing the same sin you accuse the Atlantic article of making when you are so defensive about your “powerlessness” that you fail to recognize your own privilege.

    • Anonymous

      I’m not sure I understand how you know my socioeconomic status but thank you for reading!

      • RT

        ” I mean that when power, for example, starts talking about reforming welfare it is usually meant to be an act made on people who look like me; people with whom I identify even if I do not share their economic status.”

        • Anonymous

          Ah, this is a matter of clarity, I think. I have existed along the SES continuum throughout my life course and have no way of knowing where on it I’ll be next. In that line I was attempting to say that my identification with a community of non-privileged people is constant despite where I may be, personally, on the continuum.

          As the writer I always take responsibility for clarity. Thank you for pointing that out to me.

  • Mistinguette Smith

    This article was a keeper just for the phrase “slaying unicorns”.

    Thank you for writing this.  For all the buzz about this article, it did not speak to my condition or position. , and I was less well able to articulate why that were you.

    I would only add that this story: when I graduated from a Seven Sisters college in 2000, our commencement speaker was the feminist artist Judy Chicago.  She told the graduates that we could NOT have it all; that the nature of being women living under patriarchy means that, as women, we will be forced to make grave sacrifices, to choose between very necessary parts of our lives. She told us that the value of our fine education was to help us to make clear choices about what sacrifices we were willing to make by being able to understand their consequences.

    Young white women graduates and their parents rustled and grumbled at her remarks. We non-traditional aged, black and brown students (and our parents) burst into applause, grateful to have that unicorn slain.

    • Anonymous

      I really must do something for the unicorn community. :)

    • Elysia

      Thank you so much for writing this comment – I was in that audience in 2000 (I’m class of ’02) and was upset by the address. I realize now that I seem to have misunderstood Ms. Chicago’s message, and am really glad to have read your insight here.

      And thanks also to Dr. Cottom for this piece! Definite food for thought, and helps me think about issues of academic culture, race, class, SES, and activism that I’ve been struggling with recently.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Derek-Vandivere/650258206 Derek Vandivere

    Trickle down feminism will work precisely as well as trickle down economics.

    Just bookmarked the article, but my initial reaction: having women in top-level roles in government won’t have any impact on how women are treated in business. It doesn’t even have anything to do with women in the CxO suite. It has to do with large numbers of women in middle and upper management, because that’s where (in most large corporations) policies and expectations are set.

    I think there’s probably also a correlation with the wealth of societies – over here in Holland, almost everyone in the large bank I work at has a 4 day week, and expectations are set to work at home a day a week to look after kids. Apparently, there’s also been a trend recently of women leaving the workforce or taking 50% jobs.

  • Nirrti

    As they say here down South, Amen, Sister!

    • Anonymous

      I’m from the South so I say it, too. :) Thank you.

  • TeakLipstickFiend

    Thank you. Excellent article and a keeper.

  • http://profiles.google.com/annajcook Anna Cook

    Thank you so much for this piece. It helps clarify in my own mind why certain frames for mainstream feminist politics (e.g. feminism as access to power / a place higher up in the kyriarchy) don’t resonate with me. Because as the daughter of 70s hippies of modest means, I was never encouraged to be powerful. I was encouraged to, as you say, ”
    do well and to do good” good in small everyday ways and to be very suspicious of those who sought or consorted with power and the powerful. I think this was reinforced by the liberation/feminist theology I was exposed to also. Thus, a feminism that seeks to assimilate into places of power rather than dismantle them seems alien and suspicious to me. It doesn’t small of home!

    • Anonymous

       I grew up the same kind of daughter, so thanks for mentioning that! But don’t you think that dismantling things takes, if not power, at least backing and support, which often comes out of places of power? I’m not even directly trying to challenge you; this is just something I grapple with that you made me think of. My family has a strong social justice background, and I’ve decided on a career area (library science, literacy, service to young adults, youth development/empowerment) where I feel like I can enjoy myself, make at least enough money to feed myself and take care of general needs, and also where I really feel like not only will I generally be doing a really good thing but doing it in an area where I can be really talented at it, thereby increasing the potential good. But tons of people, from family members to strangers I meet at conferences, encourage me to seek out a corporate career, at least for a little while, because I can still enjoy myself, make money, and do work that challenges and interests me, and then have the money and clout to demand a career where I can do all of that same stuff+make a difference, and potentially with more support and attention. But it also feels very sell-out-y, not to mention I just don’t think my talents lie there. So it’s a confusing thing, but I don’t think it’s fair to say that assimilating into places of power doesn’t at least have the potential to dismantle them, even if it’s a lot of optimism to say that it will for sure.

  • Anonymous

    Beautiful analysis — thank you.

  • Anonymous

    Beautiful analysis — thank you.

  • Anonymous

    Wow. Just found this piece via a comment on my blog. A lot of great food for thought. I have been flipping the “trickle-down feminism” idea over and over in my mind and was not able to articulate why I found it so, well, unlikely to actually play out that way. The only example I could come up with was that just because the CEOs at Wal-Mart have great benefits doesn’t mean the hourly employees are any more likely to…probably just the opposite, in fact.

    You articulated all my doubts so much better than my little pea brain was able. Thank you!

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  • Jennifer Potter-Miller

    Fabulous analysis!

    • Anonymous

      Thank you for reading.

  • Jennifer Potter-Miller

    Fabulous analysis!

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  • Anonymous

    Trickle-down economics wasn’t the best experience for people like me.
    You will have to forgive me, then, if I have similar doubts about
    trickle-down feminism.

    Agreed, and I’ll go one better: if it’s trickle-down, it ain’t feminism at all. It’s just the same old white patriarchy with women behind the wheel.