If there is one thing most feminists will agree on, it’s the right to choose—and that’s a problem. Though the “right to choose” is a slogan specific to the abortion debate, the language of choice pervades the feminist movement. Every woman is now allowed to choose what exactly feminism entails, and enact it any way she sees fit. Basically, feminism is now as inclusive as your friendly neighborhood Arby’s. My friend calls herself a feminist because she likes all the Jezebel articles on Facebook. Another friend claims feminism because he believes in equal rights for women, even though he thinks corporate initiatives for female leadership are unfair to men. Sarah Palin, the pariah of the Great White North whom Fox News has discarded, sporadically calls herself a feminist.
This April, I got the opportunity to hear trade secrets from the reigning female leaders at the Columbia University Women’s Leadership Conference. I mostly went because I wanted to see Gloria Steinem, the keynote speaker. Unfortunately, the discussion with Steinem was an underwhelming retrospective of Ms. magazine. No contemporary or hard-hitting questions were asked of her. Otherwise, the event felt overwhelmingly corporate.
The line-up of speakers in the first panel included Lynn Povich, a Newsweek journalist who was part of the first sex discrimination suit against the media; Susan Lyne, CEO of AOL and former executive at Martha Stewart’s companies, Disney and Gilt; and financier Therese Tucker, founder of Blackline. This panel was entitled “Breaking into Male-Dominated Fields.” Lyne spent her first ten minutes discussing how sex discrimination had almost entirely disappeared from high school and college campuses, which, she concluded, is why aspiring female CEOs are so shocked when they enter the business world and discover that they constantly get interrupted and ignored by male colleagues. I don’t know where she was educated, but my schooling has not been a haven of gender equality and respect, from the high school teacher whose idea of progressive pedagogy was to read us misogynist pick-up lines off the internet to my college roommate’s professor who learned the names of only his male students and ignored his female students’ raised hands—in a class of four. Povich also said she was so grateful Sheryl Sandberg had brought corporate women’s struggles to public attention— apparently, nobody was aware of the glass ceiling before Lean In.
The next panel, “the Importance of Confidence and Courage” included Kat Cole, the former vice president of Hooters and now president of Cinnabon. Cole reported that essential to her rise in these corporations was the importance she placed on her professional clothing, heels and make-up. The Barnard and Columbia students around me were perched on the edges of their chairs, eating it up. Donna Lagani, Chief Revenue Officer of Cosmopolitan magazine announced that she only hires “Cosmo girls” because they are vivacious and empowered. I wasn’t sure what she meant: reading Cosmo has never made me feel empowered; “inadequate” would be more accurate. A JP Morgan executive who spoke right before Gloria Steinem expressed how proud she was to work for a company that has a commitment to racial and gender diversity. She did not remark on the class action sex discrimination suit that JP Morgan lost a mere two months prior. The rest of her talk was an extended ode to her husband, who works from home and, get this, makes the kids’ breakfast! JP Morgan and IPREO reps loitered in the back of the room like vultures. The only semi-refreshing voice was Cameron Russell, who said that she finds it ridiculous that she has so many advantages because of her “pretty girl” status.
During the event, the question was raised: when will there be an Old Girls’ Club? I couldn’t help thinking, well, here it is. Every woman on the panel was gorgeous, thin, and white (excuse me, there was one Chinese-American), and wearing those expensive clothes, heels, and make-up that apparently helped get them to the top. The message seemed to be: corporate success is only accessible to those who’ve won the genetic lottery and have an exceptional breeding. The Barnard and Columbia girls seemed to be well on their way to this manicured ideal. I have to admit that in comparison, I felt rather like a frump.
By the end of the second panel, I felt sure of one thing: this is not feminism. It’s not feminism when you have to consume expensive clothes, make-up, and Cosmo to gain corporate success (apparently the only metric of feminist leadership). It’s not feminism when you seek power by shopping or running Hooters. Of course, we have the right to choose—so if these women choose to call their brand of leadership feminism, so be it. But, when everyone from Sarah Palin to Kat Cole gets to choose what feminism is, it becomes an empty label. And here’s the scariest part of the whole affair: this was a conference taking place at an Ivy League university and elite women’s college that is educating women who very well may become the next CEOs. This was the basic how-to-succeed type mentoring that men have had forever, just a “feminine” version. I suppose I just witnessed the passing down of the Swarovski-encrusted, Dolce feminist leadership baton.