Circling Back to the Big F

Just as I was getting used to seeing daily announcements of high-level women stepping out of the companies and enterprises they had founded, I also came across an article about the #Girlboss mentality and how it might have met its end as people’s attitudes have dramatically shifted during the pandemic.

So what happened? Suddenly the champions of millennial pink were fleeing their own enterprises, leaving the rest of us bossladys slash girlbosses rather confused amidst our various hustles. Are we allowed to say things like “I feel” and “Sorry” again? Is it OK to scale back from a 130-hour work week (as the Yahoo exec, bosslady Marissa Mayer reportedly clocks in)?

I am, of course, a mere observer of millennial girlboss feminism from the distance of my own middle age, but I cannot say I haven’t felt the ripples of woke capitalism that dominated much of the white, Western media market from circa 2013 until about COVID-19. For profit feminism was the done thing, and there are surely more harmful things to have plastered across one’s T-shirts than a declaration of being a badass feminist.

I do not wish to point the finger or put the blame on those women (Sophie Amoruso, Emily Weiss et al) whose business achievements are, by any standards, gigantic. Their determination and drive and the example they have set has helped, and will hopefully continue to help many other women who fancy dipping their feet into the world of business. In short, this post is not about them. What interests me is how quickly the Pantone pink girlboss feminism became absolutely outdated. And why we are having this conversation.

The article above (by The Financial Diet) is by no means the only high-octane take on the (apparently now dead) girlboss phenomenon. I’ve read a couple of them now, and continue to feel a bit puzzled. Many authors seem to hold the original girlbosses to account for tarnishing feminism by their keenness to make a buck by touting their enterprises as advancers of the cause. I find this troubling.

First, no-one that I know owns feminism. Second, by the look of it, each one of the women mentioned in these articles has behaved exactly as a white, young male would have, and forever has. Are we not being a touch unfair?
A quick example: the much hyped, all-female coworking space The Wing charged its members $185 monthly for the use of its pink offices and Chanel toiletries. Wework (male-founded) coworking space cost its members $330 per month. The Wing was endlessly criticised in the press for being too exclusive and prohibitingly expensive for its own good. The same was never said about Wework.

I realise I’m floating two separate issues in parallel. First: are we giving women and men equal room of manoeuvre in business? This is the more easily measurable exercise. I do not think that the original girlbosses have always been judged fairly in comparison to their male counterparts. Accusations of imposing impossible working hours and attitudes (slay, kween!) must not be exclusively made about women.
Female entrepreneurs do not have the universal responsibility to give back to the community, do pro bono or generally be any more holier than thou than male business owners.

The second issue is related to the last point and a bit trickier: Once you market your business as being this big advancer of feminism while making a profit, I suppose it’s fair that you will be judged on whether your company did any good on its promise.

I’m reading a lot about young women whose careers got a flying start while working at the many women’s media enterprises branded as woke feminist, and then turned out to be something completely different. The current societal upheavals are rightly calling the bullshit on many such companies that were selling feminism as if it were a regular commodity, just because no-one could quite argue against it, either.

What these companies of course overlooked while being busy capitalising on women’s empowerment (This Candle Smells Like My Vagina) was that the mainstream millennial feminism ignored almost everybody who is not white and entitled. If I would have a Euro for every time a woman aged 30-35 has told me that she does not believe in feminism, because “you have to carve your own destiny, and because the equality of opportunities already exists, and it’s your fault really if you’re not succeeding”, I would have a hulking stack of reminders to get me all riled up again.

As a socio-economic political movement feminism will, of course, take varying shapes and forms. The first wave was very different from the current intersectional movement we are collectively attempting to accommodate today. Whichever wave and political sensitivity we are attaching to feminism at any given time, must not, however, ignore the very core of not just feminism, but any social justice movement:

Feminism is not about aspirations. It’s about action.

I’ll give an example of feminist action: campaigning to change legislation so that it benefits all women, including those who have no money, education or other seemingly obvious privilege. An example of such tireless activist: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (there are similar examples from around the world, I just happened to watch a documentary about her yesterday. Again.)

So yes, feminism is not about creating an all-female media space where interesting things are being discussed in exchange of advertising money. At the same time, our moral standards for male and female entrepreneurs cannot be different.

I do not wish to see the end of brave-to-the-level-of-obnoxious young women reaching for the (economic) top. Ideally they would all understand that feminism is not a commodity that can be sold for profit, or be used as a fig-leave to elevate the social approval of a business enterprise.

Photo credit: Economist Noreena Hertz is photographed by Albert Wiking for the Swedish Fotografiska-museum exhibition “We Have a Dream” in 2017. Hertz was my girlboss-hero before it was a thing.

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