Are Women's Leadership Trainings Inherently Feminist?

BlogHer Original Post

When Nellie B. of The F-Bomb attended a pre-college leadership program for young women this summer, she "anticipated a group of smart, articulate young feminists, eager to share their knowledge, skills and connect with like-minded girls." She was surprised to find that, despite writing several essays about feminism, slightly more than ten percent of the attendees identified as feminists. Nellie wrote:

Why were young women who had to write essays on what feminism meant to them so reluctant to wear that term with pride?

I’ve heard similar anecdotes about most women in the real world: they don’t identify as feminists because of the alienating stereotypes attached. But even at a leadership institute, comments in the Women’s History 101 class were prefaced with an “I’m not a feminist, but…” Every time feminism was mentioned, someone would drag out the tired trope of “hairy man-hating harridans.” This term, I’ve found, is added only as a disclaimer to an identity, not as a descriptor of real people. I challenge anyone who uses that phrase, or any variation thereof, to come up with a moderately famous person who fits that stereotype.

While I'm sad to hear that feminism is only semi-alive and well in spirit, if not name, with my younger sisters, Nellie's experience actually provoked Maurice, the hamster who runs on the wheel that powers my brain, into a thinking session about the larger role of women's leadership conferences and forums and feminism in general. (But before I digress, I do want to say that I am psyched by not only by the feminist youth behind the The F-Bomb, but also by the "nerdy, foul-mouthed" young feminists at Women's Glib. Yay! You give me hope for the future!)

Like Nellie, I always thought women's leadership events were inherently feminist, which would of course attract awesome feminists that I would want to hang out with. As a follower of the much despised "hairy man-hating harridan" (although, as an equal opportunity misanthrope, I also hate women; women are people too, ya know!) school of thought/activism, I was shocked - shocked! - to discover that women who attend these events have all sorts of views on what "women's leadership" is. Upon further reflection, it occurred to me that some conferences, forums, institutes, and events designed to support women's leadership were actually training women to be conservative leaders. Then I had to think about whether it is possible to be conservative and a feminist. It was enough to make Maurice fall off his wheel in a furry heap of exhaustion.

Once Maurice was back up and running, I realized that while I always thought of "women's leadership" as something political, there are tons of types of women's leadership training, too. For example, the Women's Leadership Exchange "is a social entrepreneurship organization founded by and for successful businesswomen." One of WLE's most important offerings is conferences "featuring leading experts, accredited business coaches and interactive programming." Wait. That sounds familiar, doesn't it?

It sounds a lot like the BlogHer conference, in fact. At the BlogHer '09 conference in July, I heard a lot of the participants talking about how the event facilitated "women's leadership." I also think it is fair to say that some of these women would not self-identify as feminists. (Certainly, the conference is not billed as a feminist conference, the way Fem2.0 did back in February. And damn if I am not still kicking myself over missing that conference! Stupid work and school schedules!!! Anyway, I'm curious if any of those attendees did not think of themselves as feminists.) But there were also plenty of proud feminist-label wearers, as well as people who espouse core feminist values while not identifying as feminists, who attended.

What I'm rambling my way to is this: if the goal of a conference, event, forum, whatever is to build leadership skills in women, is that not an inherently feminist value, regardless of whether or not the participants identify as feminists? For conferences, events, fora, whatevers that seek to use some women to oppress others, I'd say no. But for those that want to create a platform for women to share their voices and the ability to make decisions - whether in politics, business, school, blogging, or other worlds - I think they might be inherently feminist. Maybe it doesn't matter so much if people call it "feminism" as long as the values are promoted, and the people who attend are interested in engaging in dialog to do some good in the world.

Suzanne also blogs at Campaign for Unshaved Snatch (CUSS) & Other Rants. Her first book, Off the Beaten (Subway) Track, is about unusual things to see and do in NYC.