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Op-Ed: Living Feminism: Leading with our Values
Sarah Ghiorse and Fatima van Hattum
During the month of March, when International Women’s Day is celebrated, we at NewMexicoWomen.Org, a program of the New Mexico Community Foundation, often pause to reflect on our commitment to gender equity and the rights of women and girls. We find ourselves discussing how to balance work, life and families; that is, how to do it all. This broader conversation then moves into self-reflection about how do we, as a women’s fund and program, embody our feminist values? Does our organization provide paid parental leave? Do we enable flexible and fair working practices that promote family well-being? Is childcare available at our events? We know that many women across the country and even across the world are having this same conversation every day.
In fact, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) recently wrote: “Let’s stop talking about ‘having it all’ and start talking about the very real challenges of ‘doing it all.’ We need our economy and our workplaces to support our working families. We need equal pay for equal work. We need quality daycare that doesn’t bankrupt a family. We need gender-neutral paid leave in this country because, eventually, all of us are going to have those moments when we need to miss work to take care of our families—or those moments when we need them to take care of us.”
Do these kinds of spaces exist in the American workplace? If so, where? In a societal context where the term feminism is embraced, reviled and variously paired with presidential candidates and pop stars alike, what does it really mean to lead with feminist values? And how do we best uphold those values in our lives, workplaces and ways of being? Here, we would like to propose two core themes—of many—that are essential to leading with feminist values.
Speak uncomfortable truths
Speaking truth to power can be difficult and uncomfortable. To challenge institutional structures, gender norms or the status quo is rarely an easy thing to do, in the workplace or anywhere, for that matter. Many women, even those in positions of leadership and significant power, have to navigate deeply held notions of internalized sexism that can keep them from speaking out. When women do articulate dissent or critique, whether in a manner that is gentle, unapologetic or even aggressive, they have historically and often continue to be relegated to the position of the witch, the hysteric and, more recently, the bitch. This unfortunate default often undermines important conversations that have the potential to lead to real change.
For example, when is it the right time to bring up paid parental leave in your workplace or to speak out against violence against women? Never and always. When you hear a pop song in exercise class with lyrics promoting violence against women, how do you respond? One strong woman we know brings it up with the instructor and management every time; to date she has brought it up more than four times. And it’s always uncomfortable. Not nearly as uncomfortable as it is, however, for the one-in-three New Mexican women who will be victims of domestic violence at some point in their lives and the 21 percent of New Mexican women who will be raped at some point in their lives. How do we change culture if we don’t first articulate what the problems are and speak out?
Similarly, raising questions around paid parental leave or equal pay in the workplace is generally not an easy task. The oft-quoted statistic remains true: the United States is the only developed country that doesn’t guarantee paid parental leave to employees. In the United States, the “job-protected” unpaid leave via the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is only for mothers and fathers who have been full-time employees for at least 12 months at a company with more than 50 employees. Here in New Mexico and across the country, this is little help to the many families who can’t afford to take time off without pay or who do not fit within those narrow stipulations. Coupled with the reality that women in New Mexico are paid 79 cents for every dollar paid to men, amounting to an average yearly income gap of $8,789 between full-time working women and men in the state, the result is an untenable burden —one that is further compounded for women of color. For example, Native American women have to work nine extra months to make the same salary that white men made last year and then, on top of that, potentially have to take unpaid pregnancy leave or no leave at all.
The Make it Work Campaign reminds us to “Stop being polite. Start asking questions.” And use unapologetic hash tags such as #PAYGAPWTF. Yet, it is important to note that the context and implications vary for different communities and individuals speaking truths to power. For an undocumented or low-income woman of color, questioning management around pay levels involves very different stakes and power dynamics than for a middle-class, white-collar woman working in an office. To fully acknowledge these important differences, an intersectional feminist analysis is critical.
Adopt an intersectional analysis
An intersectional analysis contends that people, and particularly women, experience oppression in different configurations and with varying degrees of intensity. An intersectional feminist analysis extends beyond gender to include race, class, ability and environment. It recognizes that systemic structures, patterns of oppression and identities are not only interrelated; they are bound together and influenced by each other.
This intersectional approach acknowledges that for some, such as our partners at Tewa Women United, their work to improve the lives of women is inextricably connected to working for environmental justice and community health. Similarly, Sexual Assault Services of Northwest New Mexico believes they must integrate healing historical and intergenerational traumas in their work to address sexual assault and gender-based violence. For our partners at SPIRIT of Hidalgo, in rural Lordsburg, women’s empowerment means creating viable economic opportunities such as cooperatives or farmers’ markets. Finally, for Respect New Mexico Women, improving women’s lives is fundamentally tied to reproductive justice and respecting a woman’s right to keep decisions about reproductive health care between the woman, her family and her medical provider.
Ultimately, an intersectional feminist analysis allows communities and individuals to articulate the multiple aspects of identity and experience that both enrich their lives and potentially compound and complicate them.
Keep it up, keep it up
To lead with feminist values can be uncomfortable. It can also make those around us uncomfortable. It means being nuanced and requires asking questions such as whose voices are missing from the table. It means reflecting upon how we can do better and tangibly working to get there. It also means acknowledging that we will sometimes be wrong or might disagree with colleagues and friends—and knowing that is OK. Discomfort is and has always been a part of any effective movement building or culture change.
Finally, leading with feminist and social-justice values ultimately demands a commitment to stay the course. As Teresa Younger, president and CEO of the Ms. Foundation, recently said at our legislative reception, “Tonight, I remind you that no battle has ever just been won and walked away. I know that’s what the history books have us believing. We have to remain vigilant to the issues that are most important to us on a daily basis. We do not get to get tired, we do not get to say, ‘I fought that battle, now you fight it for me.’ No, we are in this together, we are in this for what is happening in New Mexico, in every part of the rest of this country.” At NewMexicoWomen.Org, we do get tired. Still, we keep having the conversation all year long because we are committed to “remaining vigilant” and to holding our leaders and ourselves accountable to our values, even when it cuts close to the bone.
Sarah Ghiorse is program director of NewMexicoWomen.Org, a program of the New Mexico Community Foundation. Her background is in post-colonial anthropology, philanthropy and social change. Fatima van Hattum is program manager of NewMexicoWomen.Org. She has a background in gender studies, international development and food justice.
NewMexicoWomen.Org (NMW.O), a program of the New Mexico Community Foundation is the only fund of its kind in the state. It is an initiative that advances opportunities for women and girls statewide, so that they can lead self-sufficient, healthy and empowered lives. NMW.O works to fulfill its mission via a three-pronged strategy to educate, lead and invest. NMW.O educates through research and communications, seeking to bring public attention to issues affecting women and girls, with a goal of influencing policy. NMW.O leads through facilitating alliances among nonprofits, funders and other sectors in order to concentrate resources, foster collaboration and build capacity. NMW.O provides philanthropic investments to programs serving women and girls through donor education and strategic grant making. NMW.O’s ongoing Take a Stand for New Mexico Women and Girls campaign aims to raise one dollar for each of the 1.04 million New Mexican women and girls.
 Caponera, Betty. Incidence and Nature of Domestic Violence in NM XI, August 2012.
 Make It Work is a three-year education campaign uniting a community of people who believe that Americans shouldn’t have to choose between being there for family and earning a living. http://www.makeitworkcampaign.org/about/make-it-work/
About the author
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