Jessica Valenti On What It Will Take To Make A Woman President
Jessica Valenti, called one of the Top 100 Inspiring Women in the world by The Guardian, is the author of four books on feminism, politics, and culture. Valenti founded Feministing.com, which Columbia Journalism Review called “head and shoulders above almost any writing on women’s issues in mainstream media.” Her writing has appeared in Washington Post, The Nation, The Guardian (UK), The American Prospect, Ms. Magazine, Salon, and Bitch magazine. She has won a Choice USA Generation Award and the 2011 Hillman Journalism Prize for her work with Feministing.
MS: What qualities do you think women bring to positions of influence and leadership that the United States and the world most need now?
JV: I don’t want to generalize. I don’t know that women, as a broad category, have gender-specific leadership skills that men don’t. I do think that women would be better off having a woman leader, if not just for the symbolism of it and how important it is for young girls to be able to see women in powerful positions. Obviously, the research kind of bears out that the more women you have in leadership positions, the parity continues to go up and the better women’s issues do, so I think we have that to look forward to. But I don’t know that I would say that there is any specific leadership quality that I think women could bring to the table that men couldn’t. I mean, any woman who has to rise up in the ranks and get to the presidency has to experience a tremendous amount of sexism and hurdles and setbacks, and I imagine that is going to color the way she sees the world and the way sexism operates in the world, so I would hope that that influences the policy decisions, as well.
MS: In this last election we did hit some historic numbers, and yet it’s obviously far from parity, there being 18 percent of women in Congress. What specific challenges do you think there are that keep women from entering and advancing through the political pipeline? What do you think we could do to change that?
JV: I think that there are so many things. I think if there was one big thing, it would be easy to answer and we could just get over it, but because it’s kind of small oppressions along the way, it becomes more difficult to deal with. It starts with young girls are not taught to want to lead. Wanting to lead and wanting to be powerful and wanting to be in leadership positions are seen as negative qualities in women that are really crushed from an early age in our culture. Anyone you talk to in organizations that work to get more women into politics, they’ll tell you that women don’t run for office at the same levels that men do because they’re taught to think that they’re not qualified. So if a city council seat comes up and you ask a guy who has the same experience that a woman has, “Are you qualified?” he’ll say, “Absolutely!” You talk to the woman and she’ll say, “Well, no, I don’t think so. I don’t think I’m the right kind of person” or “I don’t have the right kind of experience.” So we have to start with building up confidence and just getting women to want to put their names in the hat, but there also needs to be a change in the media conversation, as well, around women leaders. If a woman runs for office, you can count how many times their outfits or their hair are mentioned or, as with Hillary Clinton, the way her voice sounds. The things that we focus on in this culture are completely different, so we also have to make sure that we’re holding media accountable in the way that they’re treating women leaders.
MS: I also think that sometimes the missing piece is talking about boys and men, because if men and boys are only seeing women in that stereotypical way or the way the media projects—or just focusing on how they look or not seeing them as leaders—we need to change gender pressures on men and boys, too, so they aren’t oriented that way.
JV: Also, this idea that I think is really interesting that seems to be culturally pervasive, that women or people of color are in those positions because they’re women or people of color. This is kind of back-lashing at affirmative action stuff where you constantly see people saying, “Oh, she’s only in that position because she’s a woman,” or “Women are only going to vote for her because they’re women,” or “Obama got the black vote because he’s black.” Yet we never talk about white males as an identity, as well; it’s considered the default. We have to find a way to make that more known and to introduce that into the conversation.
MS: With this last election, it feels like maybe things are starting to be more reflective, of both our electorate and our government, in terms of looking more like the face of America. What paradigms do you see emerging? Because it’s not just the whole idea of including women, it’s about diversity in general. So in terms of the conversation around intersectionality, how does that figure in to this larger picture?
JV: I think it factors in tremendously, and I think that’s why you’ll see so many feminists say it’s not just about gender. It’s not just about voting for someone because of their gender, either. It’s about finding feminist candidates who understand issues of gender, who understand issues of race and class and sexism and homophobia, and you can bring that to the table so that they can change the conversation somewhat. It is for representation, but it’s not just about representation, it’s about structural change, as well.
MS: Obviously there are women of different races and classes who face very different limitations and are trying to survive and put food on the table and maybe don’t see this conversation relating to their lives. Where do they fit into this conversation? How can this conversation be made to be more widely relevant?
JV: Well, you know, I think this conversation is important for everyone, because I think as much as we tend to focus on elite positions—like having Fortune 500 companies or the presidency or Congress—it’s about leadership in our own lives. All these kinds of skills, limitations, and hurdles we’re talking about are not just happening at the top levels, they’re happening in everyday workplaces, as well. They’re happening in schools. They’re happening in the PTA. So I think we can do a better job of making sure that we do talk about that, that it’s not just about elite positions and that it’s not about trickle-down ideas, but about the ways these hurdles affect all of it.
MS: I remember when I interviewed Anna Deavere Smith that she kept stressing this point that she felt like there needs to be more women who, when they do reach positions of power and influence, feel that they have a responsibility to then go back and uplift other women. Do you think that’s a message that’s sometimes missing in this conversation?
JV: I do. I think that mentorship and generosity in our careers and in our experiences is often missing from the conversation. And it’s not because women don’t want to help other women. I think often it’s because they have to do so much work to get where they are, that it’s almost impossible to think about adding another thing on the pile of things they already have to do. So I think that can be a difficult task, but if we incorporate it as a seamless part of your everyday leadership, it becomes a little bit easier. And I did like what Sheryl Sandberg had to say about mentorship, that’s it is not just approaching someone and saying, “Will you be my mentor?” and talking to them for an hour, once a week; it’s about helping people out along the way and recognizing good work when you see it.
MS: In terms of the overall picture, there’s always this misconception, and I never really quite understand where it comes from, that younger women are apathetic or they don’t identify with feminism. You and I started out as young feminists and now we’re both older, but you are still very much in touch with younger generations. What is your impression of younger women today?
JV: I think that more young women identify as feminists than probably ever before, largely because of the way that online activism operates. It used to be that if you called yourself a feminist in the seventies, it was because you sought out a feminist group; you came to it yourself. Now you’re seeing people who are doing a Google search and coming upon feminism accidentally. Largely when you hear people say that, it’s because they’re not online, because they’re not looking. Because they don’t see young women coming to their meetings, they assume that young women aren’t interested. And what I often tell them, they’re like, “Well, young feminists are not coming to our meetings; they’re not coming to our events,” I say, “Well, are you [going] to their blogs? Are you in their comments section?” So I think it’s a two-way street, and I think probably they would be very pleasantly surprised if they spent some time online.
MS: This is a conversation about leaders, so it’s been very interesting in terms of thinking about, for example, Gloria Steinem. When you think about a feminist leader, you automatically think of Gloria—and you also were kind of the feminist “it” girl. Some people say that the reason we don’t have more strength is because we don’t have more visible faces as leaders. Do you think that that’s true? Do you think that there is a need for more leaders in the feminist movement, or is that something that has become decentralized?
JV: I don’t think we need—I’m against feminist iconography. I think it’s only going to backfire, because feminism is such a nuanced thing, it’s such a complicated topic and it’s constantly moving and shifting and changing. I don’t think that one person or two people or five people can totally represent the diversity of thought there. It’s easy to fall into media traps like that, because the media loves to kind of coin someone like, “You are the feminist leader, and we want you in a magazine,” and I think that can be alienating for some people, especially people who are really tired of seeing white, straight, middle class women constantly called leaders of a movement that they’re working in, kind of anointed, out of nowhere. I just don’t think it’s useful anymore. I think what I really love about online feminism, and what we’re seeing, is that it’s become so democratized. And that it’s not about one person or one organization, it’s about all of us.
MS: There can often be a backlash that comes as a result of speaking out forcefully on an issue, which I know you have experienced. How do you deal with that when that happens? How do you brave through it and find your strength to speak out again?
JV: I feel like if I’m getting a lot of heat, especially misogynist hate or something like that, directed at me, it makes me feel like I’m probably doing something right. You know, if you’re making people feel uncomfortable it means that you’re shaking core beliefs, which is what we’re supposed to be doing, which is what we want to do. So I just remember that. And honestly, having a really wonderful community of feminists and feminist friends around me makes it all worthwhile. So when something bad happens, you can go to them and you have people that you trust and people that care about you, so I think that makes it a lot easier.
MS: Man or woman, what do you think are the ingredients to successful leadership or the type of leader we most need now?
JV: I would say empathy and compassion are really things that we need in a lot of levels of government—the ability to put yourself in other people’s shoes, no matter what their gender or identity.
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