Adapting the 'F' Word
Postcard from New York
I haven’t always been a Feminist. Truthfully, until I took “Introduction to Women’s Studies” spring semester, the word “feminist” made me think of the bra-burning protests of the 1960s—not an image I was going for. Over the course of the semester, however, I learned that feminism, like any political ideology, runs the gamut from moderate (only legal equality) to extremist (men’s castration), and I realized that my views fit in the middle of the spectrum.
Just calling myself a feminist felt cheap, though. Having never experienced acute discrimination for being a woman, I didn’t have a context for my budding feminism. While the suffragists of the First Wave marched for the vote, and the Second Wave feminists cried out against legal gender discrimination, there was no tangible Third Wave I could join. And too cash-strapped to burn my bras, I didn’t know how to wage my fight.
Enter Wall Street: the most unlikely incubator of anything remotely feminist. During the first few days of my internship at The White House Project, an organization that promotes women’s leadership, the status of women ironically was the last thing on my mind. Instead, I was captivated by the view outside the office—the avenue where the aromas of success and Starbucks mingled and men in power suits traveled in flocks. With coffee in hand and newspaper solidly tucked under my arm, I tried to look like I belonged.
Yet after a few days of walking down Wall Street, I realized that I had no hope of blending in. Quickly, it became clear to me that the street where the Great White Men—George Washington and Alexander Hamilton—were inaugurated and buried, respectively, was still the domain of white men of questionable greatness. In New York’s financial district, I was a woman in a place run by men and for men: the cigar-smoking, Wall Street Journal-toting men who think green and carry themselves with a self-importance that makes the Harvard man look, well, modest.
And the women? Sure, they’re around, and some I noticed had even adopted the WSJ and cigars. But the fact that Wall Street’s packed New York Sports Club can’t fill its aerobics classes suggests that there are fewer women—at least those who could afford pricey NYSC memberships. And actually, while Wall Street women may think green like their male counterparts, they make 80 cents for every dollar paid to men. The sad reality is that women are only 15.7 percent of corporate officers of Fortune 500 companies and 5.2 percent of executives who earn the top five salaries of their companies.
And as I soon learned at the WHP, women involved in politics fare even worse. With women comprising just 14 percent of Congress, the United States ranks 57th out of 176 countries in the number of women holding elected office—right up there with Estonia and Slovakia.
At first, I questioned these statistics. Women’s family commitments, I initially thought, makes it harder for them to take the helm of companies and states. But I soon found that the tug-of-war between work and home no longer tells the full story: Women today are entering the business and political spheres in droves.
Feeling like an outsider on Wall Street and realizing that other women were worse off gave me the feminist context I sought but didn’t actually want to find. With a new sense of mission, I began to compile theories explaining why women are still on the sidelines.
There’s the Mommy Complex Theory. People can’t seem to shake their perception of women as mothers. Even though more women than ever are governors and CEOs, the media insists on showing women in domestic settings. According to a WHP report, women represent just 11 percent of the guests on Sunday morning political talk shows and are rarely asked to speak on serious issues.
This leads to the Where’s Superwoman Theory. Without seeing women as leaders, society is hard-pressed to accept women’s leadership and young girls are left without heroines to emulate.
Finally, we have the Ol’ Boys’ Club Theory. Wall Street and Washington continue to focus on women’s gender instead of their agendas, workplaces neglect the needs of working mothers and discrimination is all too common.
The status quo needs to change and men and women need to work side-by-side to change it. It’s a matter of fairness, but more than that, it’s a matter of self-interest. Bringing more women to the table will add fresh perspectives and facilitate better decision. And including more women sure beats paying out multi-million-dollar sex discrimination suits.
It would be great if eventually we could all get comfortable calling ourselves feminists. For now, however, we can take part in something bigger. By encouraging women to knock on the doors of power and opening the doors when they knock, we can advance the “F” word’s ideals.
Asya Troychansky ’07 is a social studies concentrator in Quincy House. She gets a kick out of interning at a feminist non-profit in an area of very-for-profits, and reserves the other “F” word for special occasions.