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