21st-century feminism

Cynthia Ruccia Contributor
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I want to propose what feminism is at this juncture in history. We have seen people argue over the meaning of the word. We’ve seen people be embarrassed by the word. We’ve seen people attempt to find a new word. We’ve seen people accuse one another of co-opting the meaning of the word.

But what exactly is feminism after the first decade of the 21st century? I think that in order to redefine the term for a new age, we need to talk a little bit about what it isn’t. Feminism isn’t what either the Republicans or Democrats define it to be. It isn’t what right-leaning or left-leaning groups want it to mean. It isn’t about bra-burning, sexual mores, or whether women (or men) want to work or stay at home. Nor is it about whether women should work at all. It isn’t about small, all-exclusive thought enclaves that require certain brainwashing to join, nor is it about mean girls.

I propose a feminism for the beginning of the second decade of the 21st century that is inclusive. I propose a feminism that makes another large leap forward for American women and men that will reflect the true meaning of a democracy — equal representation. I do not support a government solution for the problem. What I propose is a new wave of thinking about what equality for women means.

I do not propose a solution that will solve all problems for women. I only want to offer a solution for one of our country’s most intractable problems: that women don’t really run much of anything. In fact, as 51% of the population, women run about 4% of our enterprises. We hold barely 18% of elected positions and are represented just as sparsely at the top of academia. People often try to explain this problem, but few venture forth with a solution. Some say that the problem will solve itself. While there may be some truth to that notion, I think we can nudge the process along.

This phase of feminism will be an interim step, one that will achieve our goals of equal placement at the top, and also help solve some of our other seemingly intractable problems. My solution is for most people, women and men, to vote for most women candidates most of the time. I call it the “Three M Strategy” (the word “most” three times — get it?). I include men because I know men who are very supportive of the goal of women’s proportional representation at the top, and I know women who are against this idea. Anyone who goes along with it is a 21st-century feminist because they see the utility of getting women in large enough numbers to the top so that as a society we can become accustomed to seeing women running things. Our society needs to be convinced at a deeper level that women are as capable leaders as men.

So why is such a simple solution so difficult for us to achieve? People often pay lip service to this idea; however, we keep running into the same problems over and over again. I divide these problems into three categories: stereotypes, sister snark, and schizophrenic systems.


Female stereotypes are both obvious and subtle. Women are stereotyped as being too dumb, too crazy, too mean, too inexperienced, too weak, too strong, too sexy, not sexy enough, castrating, and imperfect. Women are also stereotyped based on their marital status and whether they have children. It is difficult for a woman to get ahead in such an environment, because no matter what she does, she’ll fail to live up to expectations. Just look at Hillary Clinton’s presidential candidacy, or Sarah Palin’s vice presidential candidacy, or any of the candidacies of women who ran for Senate seats, House seats, or governorships in the 2010 midterm elections.

These stereotypes reinforce the image that women just aren’t up to the task of leading. How many times have we heard the idea that yes, we support women, just not that woman. To end this stereotyping, we must change the language we use to describe female candidates. Polls have shown that if you attack a woman as a “whore,” her poll numbers will drop 10 points. Words like “whore” are tools to keep women in their place.

I believe that if you can’t overcome these stereotypes, you aren’t serious about women being leaders, and you need to look within yourself at your own prejudices. I propose that we put all of this stereotyping nonsense away and just vote for women. Lord knows that we have certainly voted less than perfect men into office without a single qualm. It’s as if because they’re men their flaws don’t matter. Well, if men’s flaws are minimized, why not minimize women’s flaws as well? None of us are perfect, men or women. But all of us are Americans who believe in democracy and its promise of equality. If you can’t vote for one specific woman, vote for all of the rest of them. We will progress if we proceed in this fashion.

Sister snark

The second reason we aren’t finding more women at the top is that women have a lot of animus toward one another and many times just can’t support each other and be happy for our progress. This problem — sister snark — has been discussed at length, most recently by Phyllis Chesler and Kelly Valen in a New York Times essay that was expanded into a book, “The Twisted Sisterhood.” We are our own worst enemies.

As I see it, there are two main problems among women. One is that since we are a disempowered group, we only posses a smallish piece of the societal pie. As such, we have to fight each other for a diminishing slice of our small power. When we have tens of thousands of positions to compete for instead of a token few, we will be able to celebrate each other’s success more and stop being prisoners of our own jealousies.

Our lack of leadership positions has played into the stereotype that women are catty. Because we have nothing else to run, we create our own gangs and fight each other. It’s an old story not limited to women, but it is a story that will run its course when women have more opportunities. But to get there, we need to get over our animus toward one another and vote for women.

Another aspect of sister snark is what I like to call “Stockholm Syndrome.” Stockholm Syndrome is a condition in which captives begin to grow sympathetic to their captors. It’s not that women are “captives” of men. Not at all. However, we are captives in a society that holds men in much higher regard as leaders. As such, if women aspire to anything — leadership or comfort or even any job where men run the show, we are totally dependent on the good will of the men who run things. As a result, our behavior becomes distorted and stunted. We often have to suck up in order to achieve our ends and differentiate ourselves from other aspiring women. We begin to internalize the techniques we need in order to gain enough favor to succeed, and it causes us to develop an antagonistic relationship with other women.

I have certainly simplified the problems that women have with one another. But, women, we need to clean our own house in order to make the gains we need for future generations of girls and women to succeed. Wouldn’t it be fantastic for our girls to know that they can truly be anything because they actually see women being everything? Our vision of telling our daughters that is still a fantasy. We can make it a reality, a priceless gift to future generations, if we just go ahead and vote for women candidates — if not all of them, most of them. We just need to swallow our tendency to feel jealous and spiteful and vote for them anyways, for the sake of our daughters and granddaughters. Really.

Schizophrenic Systems

Politics is the pursuit of power. People and parties who want power have to get elected to obtain that power. Women are the largest group of voters, and the smart politicians have succeeded in the Machiavellian approach of making sure that our voting bloc is completely divided against itself. And we women have fallen right into that trap. We have allowed ourselves to be convinced that certain “slates of issues” are the real women-friendly issues. And as such, our power as a voting bloc has been divided and completely conquered. We have been so susceptible to these dividing messages that we have forgotten to really think for ourselves and check out whether these agendas have anything at all to do with women.

If women look a little closer, they will see that, for the most part, the parties are not only engaged in power grabs, but they continue to debate the exact same philosophical views that we’ve been debating for over 200 years. That debate is all about the role of government, and it has nothing to do with women’s equality. We will seemingly always have this intransigent debate and this quest for party-power politics. Wouldn’t it make more sense to keep on voting for women of any party so that we have women represented in equal numbers on both sides of the aisle? I imagine that the nature of the debate will differ when women play an equal role. I, for one, would love to see empowered women in equal numbers as men fighting the good fight. All of us would feel empowered by this example — men and women.

The problem is that since women don’t run much of anything, we continue to reinforce the notion that women don’t run much because we can’t run much or because we shouldn’t run much. The solution — which we all can participate in and will make a huge difference — is my Three M Strategy. The Three M Strategy is that if Most of the women vote for Most of the women candidates Most of the time, and the men who support us vote for most of the women most of the time, we will be able to make the progress we long for. Women at the top, equal representation at the top. That is 21st-century American feminism.

Cynthia Ruccia, a businesswoman and former Congressional candidate, resides in Columbus, Ohio, and blogs on women’s and political issues at www.toocynthia.blogspot.com.