At a talk about her new book, Wayward lives, Beautiful Experiments. Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval, author Saiyida Hartman was asked about the current state of feminism. “There are two versions of feminism that can be in conflict,” she replied, “The first is we want this world and more power in it, and the second is we want a different world.”

As the centennial of women’s right to vote in the U.S. approaches, African-Americans have pointed out that they were not just omitted from the suffragist movement, they were actively denied participation, or asked to “march in the back.”  This is a perfect example of seeking power without changing the world.  Fighting for more power for women in a world that is dominated by racism improves the lives of some women, but only perpetuates the status quo for others.

Shortly after Hartman’s talk I read an article about women’s access to venture capital that described an effort that also appeared to represent feminism in an unchanged world. Female entrepreneurs described their difficulties in obtaining funding, or even being treated seriously, by male investors. They reported being asked out, advised to send samples to the investors’ wives, and told that being attractive made them appear less intelligent. To change that, a group of female investors has developed a new model, asking “What would VC-funded industries look like if more women controlled the money?” The VC fund, Able, was founded by women to fund early-stage companies led by women. Their event, “Wingable,” was an opportunity for 10 start-ups to attract additional funding. Prior to the event they spent six weeks in an Able incubator “honing their business models and pitch decks.”  “We’re calling it the anti - ‘Shark Tank’ because everyone is already a winner,” said founder Lisa Blau. “They’re getting funding from Able, and we’re just trying to bring more female investors to the cap table.”   

Noting that successful men already help other men start new companies, does this new “ecosystem” represent more than sharing financial power among women (including women of color, who were clearly represented in the pictures of the event)? What will change when these women get funding?  If the “old girl’s network” doesn’t also represent a change in the values that govern how money is used, then its achievement is fundamentally more of the same.  

The conflict between young women who want to change the world and older feminists who may be no less committed but have moved more cautiously, is nowhere more evident than in Congress. The newly elected younger women are not content with having power in an unjust world. They want to use that power to change the world, quickly. The “Green New Deal,” proposed in the House by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, is an example of a new generation’s unwillingness to acquiesce to a form of feminism that does not have that as its goal.

Barbara ViniarComment