A Woman Can Be a Smart and Beautiful Feminist. Right?

Recently, a female writer publicly questioned the validity of my writing, apparently because she thought I was too attractive to form a logical argument.

In her words: “In the bigger picture of doing her part to create and nurture media myths by means of fact avoidance, hearsay, and transparently false conclusions, no one in my opinion does it better [than Ruchika Tulshyan]. But how can we fault a woman working for Forbes who looks like a gorgeous international model?”

She then went on to dismiss the small – but growing – legion of writers like me that focus on covering gender inequality: “…there exists a new generation of feminist media type who is hungry, narcissistic, and looking to make waves, hoping for that shot at MSNBC or CNN…”

I refuse to link to the piece, but I found her tirade deeply troubling for two reasons. 

First, it’s disappointing to have one woman question the intelligence of another because of her perceived attractiveness. In Latin, it’s known as ad hominem – using an irrelevant (usually personal) attack to refute someone’s argument.

It strikes me as quite juvenile, if not downright nasty, to insinuate a lack of intelligence just because a woman is beautiful. I’m secure in my talent and credentials, but I fear in general, that we still live in a society quick to write off attractive women as “stupid.” With this attitude, women continue to be damned either way: Should they cover up their attractiveness, so others perceive them as intelligent? A good-looking man would never think this way. Or should women feel comfortable with their beauty, but risk being written off for being dumb? It’s doubly disappointing when it’s women who propagate this age-old myth.

Second, I’m sad that there are women out there who believe the “feminist media types” are publicity-hungry and lacking substance.

Indeed, it can be hard to understand my motivation, for women who perhaps were never told their sole purpose in life was to get married and have children, as I was, growing up in Asia. Or those who never saw smart, successful girls being repeatedly told they “couldn’t” just because of how society and culture perceived their gender. Surely, not every feminist writer grew up in a part of the world where the word “feminism” didn’t even exist. (I hadn’t heard of Gloria Steinem until I was well into my 20s.) I just knew that every time I was told that my role was to “be seen and not heard,” I felt that I was part of a fundamentally flawed system.

But this isn’t about my feelings. Even the numbers are hard to contest. Out West too, at innovative companies like Google, only 30% of women make up its global workforce. Around America, dive deeper into the statistics of pay inequality for women of color, and the numbers don’t look good. African-American women are paid only 64 cents, and Hispanic women only 54 cents, for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men. As someone who is usually the only woman of color in many scenarios, I can attest that the world is not equal for all.

Cynics may question the agenda of white men (Nick Kristof, for example) who promote gender equality. But the truth is, feminism was never about gender equality or male vs female agendas. Feminism was and continues to be a human rights issue. It’s knowing that women have just as much to offer as men, and should be recognized and rewarded for speaking up. It’s about championing for a cause that’s bigger than you and I. It’s about working for the day when girls will be equally inclined as boys to pursue a degree and career in Science or Mathematics. And that they won’t need books to tell them to “lean in” or “dare”…that will come as naturally to them as breathing. But until that day is here, our work is not done.

In my life, I was given an incredible opportunity to break out of a cycle where women were defined solely by who they married. My own mother – among the most intelligent woman I know – dropped out of the workforce after getting married at 21. She regretted it all her life, but Asian society dictated her fate without recourse.  She fought hard to make sure mine would be different.

My “feminism” is the only gift I can give her for her sacrifice of giving up on her dreams to make mine come true. Trying to work towards an equal world is my only ‘thank you’ for the opportunity I was given to create my own life — one many girls and women still lack globally. I couldn’t live with myself if I gave up now. And while I’m at it, why shouldn’t I look beautiful doing it too?

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