The Empowerment Elite Claims Feminism
At first, I wasn’t sure why TEDWOMEN—the feminist-minded spin-off of TED Talks that launched in 2010—troubled me. The San Francisco conference held this past December featured incredible speakers and performers. Swimmer Diana Nyad inspired. Poet Sarah Kay received a standing ovation. And Jane Chen—co-founder of a company that invented an affordable, portable infant-warming system for communities in India without incubators—brought this mom of a preemie to tears. But the impressive participants weren’t enough to quell my uneasiness.
It might have been the homogeneity of the audience—mostly white women with coiffed hair—or the gift bag so voluminous that it required a “gift bag guide.” Maybe it was the ticket price: nearly $1,000. (Though TED’s general conference costs more than seven times that much. Maybe this was TEDWomen’s gender-wage-gap bargain?)
It wasn’t that the conference—filled with what one attendee called “the empowerment elite”—serves as a sort of Feminism 101 for the wealthy. After all, rich women need feminism too—even if they’re getting it at an event where badges with titles like “chief visionary” are as bountiful as the vegan ceviche.
My worries grew more concrete when I realized I hadn’t heard anyone mention abortion—an odd lapse in a conference on women’s rights. Soon after, I discovered that TED and TEDWomen have never featured a talk on abortion. (Two TEDx events have, but these local, independently organized conferences are not conducted under the auspices of TED.)
When I asked around, the consensus was that the omission was simply an oversight. But it turns out TED is deliberately keeping abortion off the agenda. When asked for comment, TED content director and TEDWomen co-host Kelly Stoetzel said that abortion did not fit into their focus on “wider issues of justice, inequality and human rights.” “Abortion is more of a topical issue we wouldn’t take a position on, any more than we’d take a position on a state tax bill,” Stoetzel explained. She pointed me to a few talks on women’s health and birth control, but this made the refusal to discuss abortion only more glaring. In the last three years, the United States has seen more abortion restrictions enacted than in the entire previous decade; the United Nations has classified the lack of access to abortion as torture; and Savita Halappanavar died in Ireland because a Catholic hospital refused to end her doomed pregnancy. Just how is abortion not an issue of “justice, inequality and human rights”?
Balancing potentially polarizing issues with popular appeal is not a new struggle for feminists. It’s the same conflict that surfaced when Sheryl Sandberg published Lean In, the bestselling book that encourages women to demand a seat at the boardroom table. Sales figures suggest that the idea of empowering themselves in the workplace resonated with tens of thousands of women. But some feminists responded that in dispensing advice on how women should behave to get ahead, the book gave short shrift to issues like workplace discrimination, unequal pay and the erosion of labor unions—issues that can’t be addressed by one woman’s decision to lean in.
I liked the book and even defended it against some of its detractors. But there is a big difference between a business leader’s advice to working women and conferences that seek to define the parameters of which feminist ideas are “worth spreading.” And when it comes to splashy women’s conferences, TEDWomen is hardly the only one on the circuit.
As part of her tenure at Newsweek/The Daily Beast, Tina Brown hosted “Women in the World” conferences with luminaries and celebrities like Hillary Clinton, Oprah Winfrey and Angelina Jolie in attendance. Politico now hosts “Women Rule” events. It makes sense that so many powerful people want in—feminism is enjoying a star moment. News outlets that once declared feminism dead now give top billing to sexual assault cases. Sexist comments from politicians and pundits are routinely criticized. You know your social movement is doing well when Beyoncé pens an article calling gender equality “a myth” and proudly samples Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie defining feminism in one of her hit songs.
If feminism is peaking again in terms of cultural relevance, it has an equal partner in TED, whose “thought leaders” have a global reach that can’t be beat. TED videos are viewed by millions, and the talks spark celebrity and book deals. (Lean In had its genesis in Sandberg’s 2010 TEDWomen talk.) Although TED doesn’t pay its speakers—while raking in more than $43 million a year—most feminists I know would find it hard to turn down an offer to speak there. It was a TED Talk by Adichie, after all, that Beyoncé sampled in “Flawless.”
But TEDWomen and feminism are not synonymous, and we’re in trouble if we start to think they are. The corporate interpretation of feminism has more to do with cheerleading all women’s accomplishments than ending patriarchy and pushing for equal rights. Sometimes it will even cheerlead for women when their accomplishments roll back other women’s rights.
Take another recent popularizer of feminism, MAKERS, billed as “a landmark digital and broadcast initiative from AOL and PBS.” The three-hour PBS documentary, which “tells the remarkable story of the most sweeping social revolution in American history,” featured the notorious anti-feminist Phyllis Schlafly as one of their “women who make America.” (Schlafly successfully lobbied against the Equal Rights Amendment and has argued that there is no such thing as marital rape.) And the Lean In Tumblr page was recently criticized for featuring Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Florida Republican who voted against the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act as well as funding for Planned Parenthood.
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