Do Women Always Help Women?

Forget bras; let’s burn our blazers.

If I want to be a serious lady power player, I’m going to need to purchase a blazer. It’s going to be black or navy blue, it’s going to cinch at the waist and flair at the hips, and, damnit, it’s going to get me taken seriously. This, at least, was my first takeaway from last week’s Harvard Political Union discussion on “the future of feminism.” My second was that it might be more effective to ditch the blazers entirely.

The debate, between leaders of the campus chapter of “Lean In” and from two of the College’s feminist collectives, was an important one for all of us here at Harvard. I’m not a huge fan of Sheryl Sandberg’s: I don’t think she’s evil or the downfall of feminism, but I do think her top-down approach, with its attendant focus on individual achievement, is not nearly as effective and important as systemic change. Lots of smart people have made great critiques of Sandberg’s stances, and in some ways, the furor around Sandberg steals airtime from less privileged voices saying more important things. Yet there’s at least one point that comes up frequently in Sandberg’s work that merits more discussion: the argument that women at the top will help other women. It’s a notion fundamental to a lot of feminism, including Sandberg’s, and it’s one that doesn’t always hold up.

It’s rhetoric familiar to anyone who’s ever fantasized about a matriarchal takeover: put women in charge, and the world will be a better place. And maybe it would be. The United Nations, for one, seems to think so: not only do various UN actors portray investment in women as vital for economies, they also posit that women can play a special role as peacekeepers. It’s rhetoric that can be problematic in its recourse to gender essentialist notions of women’s intrinsic peacefulness and thrift, and it can reaffirm sometimes-harmful development practices. Yet it’s an appealing and intuitive idea, and one that ultimately—in organizing efforts led by folks advocating for their communities—is the opposite of the top-down approach with which Sandberg has paired it.

At the leadership level, there’s a lot of evidence on Sandberg’s side. No woman or group of women can speak for all, but when the GOP hosts hearings on contraception without one female-bodied person to testify, the importance of representation seems clear enough. And more in line with Sandberg’s argument is the role of female leaders in changing perceptions around gender norms. Harvard Kennedy School researcher Rohini Pande, for example, has found that exposure to female leaders can help alter male voters’ perceptions of women’s roles in society. Sandberg gets this much correct: Representation is powerful. Role models are important.

But one woman’s role model is another’s oppressor. In an article critiquing Hana Rosin’s The End of Men, Notheastern University Law Professor Aziza Ahmed points to just this. While Rosin lauds powerful women like Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush, and Madeline Albright in her book, she also presents a chapter on female violence in which stereotyped black, Muslim, and working class white women are portrayed as perpetrators of violence. Against the grain, Ahmed argues that the women responsible for the most violence in this world are often precisely those with the most power. Madeline Albright’s defense of anti-Iraq sanctions in 1996, Aziz argues, “justified the death of approximately 500,000 children,” while Laura Bush, in urging the country to go to war in Afghanistan out of “devotion to women’s rights,” promoted a conflict that killed and displaced thousands of women, not to mention reinforced dehumanizing conceptions of Muslim women as perpetually in need of rescue—results antithetical to the aim of female empowerment.


The numerous women in Congress who don’t support the social or economic policies that would help working class women keep afloat point to the same phenomenon: having women in leadership roles (to be sure, a goal in and of itself) is not a panacea—and plenty of women leaders do more harm than good.

There are 200 people on the Harvard “Lean In” listserv. That’s around one in 30 people at the College. That’s a lot of folks, with a lot of potential power, who believe that all other things being equal, women still get the short end of the stick—an idea that appears radical to a few of our fellow Harvardians. But for many women at Harvard, who have substantial educational privilege—and particularly those who come from backgrounds of socioeconomic and racial advantage, too-—it’s important to remember that leaning in for ourselves is not exactly fighting for the liberation of all womankind. The identities, struggles, and backgrounds of some render their very presence in the halls of power a radical gesture. But for many on this campus, leaning in isn’t enough. We need to start listening up.


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