The Empowerment Elite Claims Feminism

The Empowerment Elite Claims Feminism

As the movement enjoys a star moment, “controversial” issues risk being left behind.


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.

* * *

But this wouldn’t be so disturbing—after all, what’s the relevance of one Tumblr entry or a single PBS interview?—if it didn’t bolster a recent move by the right to co-opt feminist language for anti-feminist purposes.

We saw it happen when Sarah Palin called herself a feminist. During and after the 2008 election, Palin—along with other conservative and anti-choice women like those at the Independent Women’s Forum and the Susan B. Anthony List—tried to use feminist language to push for a regressive agenda for women. The mainstream media went along, calling it “Sarah Palin Feminism” or “Palin’s ‘New Feminism.’” Suddenly, the simple fact of being a woman was bona fides enough for anyone to adopt the F-word, politics be damned.

Misappropriation so blatant was relatively easy to brush off—even though anti-choice and conservative women’s groups continue to claim feminism. Things get more complicated when powerful organizations or projects that generally support feminist values—like MAKERS, TED or Lean In—lay claim to the term. The surge in popularity is exciting, and the mainstream acceptance of feminist values means broader influence, but it also ensures that the movement’s message is vulnerable to dilution and misuse.

Late last year, for example, Elle UK drew fire when the magazine invited advertising agencies to “rebrand a term [‘feminism’] that many feel has become burdened with complications and negativity.” The same thing happened when Vitamin W Media and Miss Representation held a contest to rebrand feminism with a $2,000 prize attached. Feminist media maker Flavia Dzodan sees efforts to “rebrand” the movement as “an ongoing commodification of politics.” “Feminism as a brand then becomes another product we consume rather than a movement we build and a framework of political analysis,” she says. These efforts to repackage or make the movement more palatable, she notes, also ignore the fact that there is not one “feminism.”

Many feminisms exist, but it’s a singular feminism that’s on display at most mainstream women’s conferences. That one-note feminism epitomizes the tricky space the movement now occupies: one of historic popularity. And as feminist rhetoric has gained acceptance, what it means to be a feminist has become muddled.

Pop singer Miley Cyrus, for example, called herself “one of the biggest feminists in the world” just months after giving a performance at the MTV Video Music Awards in which she twerked in a skimpy body suit and slapped the behind of a black female dancer. As sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom noted at the time, although Cyrus was “performing sexual freedom,” she did so by “maintaining a hierarchy of female bodies from which white women benefit materially.”

Why would Cyrus call herself a feminist? Partly because feminism must have felt accessible to her—which was, after all, one of the key tenets of third-wave feminism, which was dedicated to making the movement as accessible as possible. This has been true of my own work: I founded a blog, Feministing, and wrote books with the goal of getting more young women to identify as feminists. And the surge of online feminism—from blogs and forums to Tumblr and Twitter—has meant that more young people, women especially, are coming to feminism every day.

But trying to mold feminism into an identity that anyone can claim, no matter what they believe about women’s rights, is a mistake. Whereas feminism used to be an active belief system that challenged patriarchy, it is now (at least in the public imagination) “anything a woman chooses to do”—even if those actions directly contradict feminist values.

Now, being pro-choice is not the sole qualification for feminists—but you can’t be a feminist without supporting abortion rights. (Sorry, I said it.)

The fact that organizations like TED want to identify with feminism is proof of the movement’s power. And, ironically, the push to “co-brand” with feminism is a sign that much of the hard work has already been done: powerful people couldn’t comfortably show up at the party until it was well under way.

Imani Gandy, senior legal analyst for RH Reality Check, says that she doesn’t have a problem with the idea of rebranding feminism if it’s in the bell hooks–ian spirit of spreading the word about what feminism is really about. “The problem,” Gandy says, “is that the current rebranding trend does what feminism has always done—exclude women of color and benefit privileged Western feminists.”

The truth is that these groups aren’t trying to make feminism popular; they’re trying to make it theirs. Attempts to “revive” a movement that’s alive and well is about wresting and keeping control away from the activists who made it what it is. This is especially true now, when the move to redefine and rebrand feminism coincides so closely with the increased power and influence of online activists and insurgent younger feminists, specifically women of color.

In the end, what I found so worrisome about TEDWomen was that I was seeing firsthand what happens when “feminism” isn’t defined by feminists. Instead of the messy, nuanced reality, we got a carefully curated package of what powerful people think feminism should be—or, at least, which feminism would be most appealing. Because while comedian Maysoon Zayid, whose hilarious TED talk about living with cerebral palsy, growing up Arab-American, and more was titled “I got 99 problems…palsy is just one,” and Dr. Paula Johnson explaining bias in medical diagnoses are absolutely feminist, their important work is part of an experience that is deliberately feel-good and controversy-free. It’s feminism without the fight.

* * *

Clearly, every “women’s conference” cannot be all things to all women. Expecting training in hard-core organizing at corporate conferences would be naïve. And the power and influence these platforms provide can be a real boon—feminists want more Americans to know about the movement; we want more support for issues like equal pay and representation in business. And I can’t think of any feminist who wouldn’t support the innovative work of the speakers I heard at TEDWomen. But this is an incomplete vision of feminist goals being presented as the most vital—and they will almost certainly be the best funded. Meanwhile, the more controversial issues like abortion will be stranded in their wake.

TEDWomen didn’t leave us with a call to action, but instead with a carefully cultivated feeling of “empowerment.” It’s not a bad feeling—but it is seductive, and that’s part of the point: being made to feel like you’re one of the powerful chosen few who are as innovative and enterprising as the speakers as if by osmosis.

We need urgent action, not feel-good platitudes. Since the curtains closed at TEDWomen, Mike Huckabee has said that women who use contraception can’t control their “libido,” anti-choice groups have boycotted the Girl Scouts, and Mississippi has proposed a ban on all abortions after twenty weeks.

Recently, MAKERS announced that it will be holding a two-day conference in California to “shine a light on innovative and ground-breaking individuals driving the advancement of women’s leadership and contributing to the evolution of the women’s movement today.” The speakers will include Martha Stewart, Phil Donahue, and executives from Coca-Cola and AOL headlining alongside feminists like Gloria Steinem, Geena Davis and PBS NewsHour’s Gwen Ifill; there will also be panel discussions on such topics as “Leading From Your Center” and “Living in Your Brand.” The invitation-only event requires attendees to pay for a ticket, but MAKERS declined to reveal just how much it costs.

In all this, it is unclear what price feminism will pay.

Take Action: Tell TED Talks That Abortion Is a Human Rights Issue

(Disclosure: The author’s sister, Vanessa Valenti, is an independent consultant who has worked with TED. She was not consulted in the writing of this article.)

Editor's Note: This article has been edited for clarity.

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