Featured Image: Kelly Caminero
Every few years, a handful of women emerge that become emblematic of whichever wave of feminism we find ourselves in. They might be politicians, business founders or just have a huge social media following, but whatever space they occupy, they are acknowledged by many as the ones who are doing feminism ‘right.’ Much of the discourse surrounding women who are public figures is laced with misogyny and they are held to a standard which their male counterparts very rarely experience. Nonetheless, it is still worth looking critically at some of the women our culture promotes as feminist heroines and acknowledging the damage a lot of them have caused.
Margaret Thatcher feels like a good place to start — the UK’s first female Prime Minister lauded by many as a feminist trailblazer. But while Thatcher was a greengrocer’s daughter who dealt with her fair share of misogyny to get to the top, she did nothing to raise up other women and marginalised groups once she got there. Not only was she openly against having women as political colleagues, but she was responsible for Section 28, a series of laws implemented in Britain stating that schools and local authorities could not be seen to promote homosexuality. Thatcher gained the acceptance of the male politicians around her by liking the same things they did, namely neoliberal competition and individualism. She was only interested in gaining a seat at the white, patriarchal table rather than getting a new, shiny table where more women could have a place.
A few years ago, the world realised that the “girlboss” archetype that had dominated the 2010s was not aspirational. This was capitalism-approved feminism, a way to gesture to female empowerment while firmly sticking to the rhetoric that the more money you earned, the more successful you were. Elizabeth Holmes, the former CEO of Theranos, carved out a space for herself as one of the few female leaders in Silicon Valley, where just 2% of venture capital dollars go to start-ups spearheaded by women. Holmes cited Margaret Thatcher as one of her inspirations, which gives you a pretty good idea of her values when it came to feminism. Her rarity in terms of her gender was a massive part of her appeal, and one of the reasons her company operated for as long as it did despite its faulty technology was because she charmed a lot of older, powerful men onto Theranos’s board.
Compared to Thatcher and Holmes, author and motivational speaker Rachel Hollis might seem innocuous. But she, and countless other influencers like her, are still harmful. The whole argument of her best-selling books, including ‘Girl, wash your face’ and ‘Girl, Stop Apologising’, is that we are responsible for what happens to us. If we are not the best version of ourselves, it’s up to us to change things. She doesn’t mention tiny factors like systemic oppression, privilege, or social class that might get in the way. Hollis, whose target audience is white, Christian women, epitomises a certain kind of influencer: one who goes to great efforts to appear relatable, puts the onus on the individual to change their situation and preaches basic self-help rhetoric, making a lot of money from doing so.
Having ambition or drive are not pitfalls that women should look out for — the hundreds of women who are working to make life easier for other women have both things. But they are motivated by a desire to improve everyone’s lives, not just their own, and want to dismantle and rebuild society’s seemingly impenetrable institutions rather than playing by their outdated rules.