What’s Ahead at “Feminism for What?”

Kathleen GeierSeptember 10, 2014
Illustration by Susie Cagle

Illustration by Susie Cagle

This Saturday, September 13th, in New York City, The Baffler will be hosting an exciting event: an all-day conference devoted to the theme of feminism and work.  We’re calling it “Feminism for What? Equality in the Workplace After Lean In.” (Tickets are no longer available, but you can watch live from afar on Saturday via this livestream.)

The impetus for the conference was Susan Faludi’s attention-getting 2013 Baffler essay about the Sheryl Sandberg phenomenon. Like many feminists, Faludi was troubled by Sandberg’s message. In her best-selling book Lean In, not only does Sandberg unabashedly address herself mainly to professional class women, she focuses on women’s internal obstacles to advancement on the job, rather than any structural barriers. Sandberg seems to argue that what women need most are not better workplace public policies, but to change their own attitudes and behaviors.

Faludi strongly suggests otherwise, and presents an alternate vision of feminism she presents—skeptical of capitalism, deeply class conscious, grounded in the economic realities the overwhelming majority of workers face. The tension between Lean In and Faludi’s alternative view have served as the guiding inspiration for this conference. “Feminism for What?” is an effort to move the conversation about gender equity in the workplace well beyond the  mainstream media’s perennial obsession with elite women’s issues such as opting out and breaking glass ceilings. We’ve chosen to organize the conference by focusing on several major themes that might be said to be missing from Lean In.

Kicking off the day’s festivities will be a panel entitled “Self-Help: Does the World’s Best-Selling Nonfiction Genre Work at Work?” Speakers at this panel will critically examine the fundamental premise behind Lean In and a host of similar books: that the best way for women to address systemic gender inequality in the workplace is not through politics, but through individualistic efforts at self-improvement. This panel will moderated by E.J. Graff, an award-winning journalist who has frequently written about work and family issues. There will be three speakers. One will be feminist author Linda Hirshman, whose book Get To Work, like Lean In, argues that elite women need to remain career-focused. Joining Hirshman will be Fordham University sociologist Micki McGee, whose book, Self-Help, Inc., explored “how the increase in self-help culture in the prior thirty years paralleled declining economic circumstances for working Americans.” The third panelist will be SEIU’s Maureen Boyd, who will bring a labor activist’s perspective to the self-help question. In her work, Boyd supports childcare workers and state-wide advocacy for low income childcare subsidies through a grass roots coalition known as Raising California Together.

Our second panel, “Compounding the Problems: The Impact of Race, Immigration Status, and LGBTQ Identity on the Job,” will look at the way women’s other identities affect them in the workplace. A large body of research shows, for example, that just as men and women are perceived very differently at work, so are women of color are judged very differently than white women. These differences and mostly absent from Lean In. Moreover, different groups of women workers—immigrant women, lesbians, transgender and gender nonconforming women—may have very different workplace challenges and priorities. This panel will discuss these differences and how they play out in an employment context. It will be moderated by writer and political analyst Zerlina Maxwell. The members will be Imani Gandy, senior legal analyst for RHRealitycheck.org and co-host of This Week in Blackness Prime; Hayden Mora, a former labor activist and current director of strategic relations for the Human Rights Campaign; and Andrea Cristina Mercado, campaign director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance.

Following a break for lunch, Susan Faludi will deliver the conference’s illustrated keynote address, “From the Lowell ‘Mill Girls’ to Lean In: The Long Dance of Feminism and Capitalism,” building off of her Baffler piece. After that, there will be two more panels. The third panel of the day is called “Is Class Out? Gender Solidarity and the Class Divide in an Age of Economic Inequality.” This will examine the big economic picture of rising economic insecurity and flat or declining wages for most workers. It will look at the extent to which skyrocketing economic inequality—and especially economic inequality between women—has led to deepening divisions among women over what feminism’s priorities and goals should be. Sarah Leonard, senior editor of The Nation, will be the moderator. The panelists will include Heather Boushey, the economist who heads up the new D.C.-based think tank on economic inequality, the Washington Center for Equitable Growth; Tressie McMillan Cottom, Ph.D. candidate at Emory University, stratification scholar, and author of pieces such as this one about “trickle down feminism;” and finally, Liza Featherstone, journalist and author of Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Workers’ Rights at Wal-Mart.

Our final panel of the day is titled “Visions of the Future, Lessons from the Past: How to Achieve Economic Justice.” This discussion will tackle the biggest question of all: what is feminist economic justice, how has it been achieved in the past and how can we achieve more of it in the future? Irin Carmon, national reporter for MSNBC.com will moderate. There will be four panelists. Nancy Folbre, economist at UMass Amherst, former MacArthur “genius grant” winner, and author of such books as For Love and Money: Care Provision in the United States, will bring to the panel her perspective as a feminist economist who has spent her career studying the contributions of non-market-production and caring labor. Rhacel Parrenas, a USC sociologist who is a scholar of gender, migration, and the international division of reproductive labor, also known as the “care chain,” will bring a global focus. Sarita Gupta, executive director of the group Jobs with Justice, which fights for economic justice and workers’ rights, will contribute her insights from a lifetime of activism, Her organization has played a major role successful campaigns such as the 2010 passage of the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in New York state. Finally, there’s Kathi Weeks, a women’s studies professor at Duke University and author of The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries. Weeks’s acclaimed book asks bold questions about the way work has consumed our lives and calls for a radical “anti-work” politics that values the things we do in our off-hours.

Obviously, feminism and work is a vast subject, and this conference barely scratches the surface. We wish we had another day—even another week!—to explore these complex  and fascinating issues. Fortunately, this conference is far from an isolated event. After the passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act in 1993, women’s work issues spent two decades in the deep freeze. But in recent years, women’s economic issues have begun to take center stage once again. Campaigns for paid sick leavepaid family leave, and universal pre-K are afoot in a number of states. Last year, a national paid family leave bill was introduced in Congress. Earlier this year, the national “Make It Work” campaign, which pushes for economic security for women and families, was launched. We at The Baffler view the “Feminism for What?” conference as part of these efforts. With the conference, we aim to move our nation’s conversation about gender and workplace issues into the twenty-first century. We hope to see you there!

Kathleen Geier is a Chicago-based writer and researcher. She blogs at Inequality Matters and has written for The Washington Monthly, The Nation, Salon, and other publications. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee.