By Judy Hinshaw Singleton
The subject here is women supporting women, or not. I’ve heard complaints that women don’t support women. When I hear that from women it is usually said with disappointment. When I hear it from men in the workplace, it usually sounds like “told you so - women can’t get along.”
When someone says women don’t support women, I wonder what they really mean. Were they expecting that just any woman would support another woman’s quest or request? Or do they think every other woman should agree with them. Well, that’s just not realistic. It’s no more possible for all women to agree with each other or to support one another than it is for all men to agree with each other or support one another. I get bothered when I hear all of this because I know it’s not true.
Women can get along and support one another in friendship, in the community, and in the workplace when they have similar agendas. We are not bound only by our gender in these relationships. Life is much deeper than that.
I have been supported and helped by women my whole life – no matter what stage I’m in. Plus, I see examples everyday of women selflessly helping other women. The Startup Ladies’ Kristen Cooper is a perfect example. She has helped so many women in the start-up world in so many ways - with a kind word or gentle encouragement, with training opportunities, and with introductions to the right people. Consequently, she is surrounded by women who share her agenda of creating more successful women-led startups.
I’m writing about this because I overheard an entrepreneur say her request for startup funds was turned down by a woman who said she supported women-led startups. The entrepreneur rolled her eyes and brought into question if the investor really meant it.
I’m a woman investor and I am interested in supporting women-led start-ups. But I don’t invest in every pitch from every woman. And it’s not about gender! It’s about whether or not I think her idea can be successful and her leadership can deliver. I would be miffed if my support of women came into question because I turned someone down.
It just isn’t cool to make sweeping negative generalizations about women’s support of each other. It gives every woman a black eye. I’ve thought about this a lot because so many women still believe that support is earned by gender alone, and they continue to be disappointed when it doesn’t work that way. There was a time, however, when it did kind of work that way and I believed women “should” support women.
The whole notion of women supporting women came from the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1960s and 70s. I lived around New York City in the early 1970s in the heart of Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan and NOW country. I was, as were many others, strongly influenced by their message that women (of the movement) had to hang together to be successful in the fight for equality. As a very involved member of the movement (and a bra burner, too) I proudly say we generally joined hands, hung together, and kicked a little glass.
With our nationwide grassroots activism – and yes, all based on gender – affirmative action, consciousness-raising groups, and class-action lawsuits were added to our vocabulary. We brought about Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibiting discrimination based on sex by private employers and the formation of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 1965. Also, in 1965 birth control (the pill) became legal in all 50 states. In 1972 we saw the enactment of Title IX of the education reform act requiring any school receiving federal funding to provide gender equity in the classroom and in sports, and in 1974 the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (before that a woman had to have a male co-signer to get a credit card). And on and on.
Here are a couple of examples of our local level activism in the 1980s. The Senior Executive Group of the Indy Network of Women in Business met once a month for dinner to support one another because many of us were tokens in all-male organizations. We met at a very nice hotel in a private dining room. We were served by male waiters until one of the women working in the kitchen overheard us talking and informed us that management thought women didn’t have the right demeanor to serve in their fine dining restaurant or for private groups. Say no more. We understood that kitchen help made far less money than wait staff. The next day we called the restaurant manager and explained that for us to continue meeting there we would require women waiters. That call changed the wait staff policy at the former Canterbury Hotel moving forward. We were women helping women.
On another occasion, when looking for a banking relationship for a women’s political leadership organization, I called four bank presidents and asked if they had any women on their boards. Politically and socially, it was heating up for corporations to have “a (token) woman.” They cautiously inquired why I was asking. I said we wanted to work with a bank who recognized women’s leadership. All answered no. So, then I asked, “Has there ever been a woman on your board?” The former People’s Bank was able to say a woman co-founded the bank and served on their board. We signed up with them. I noticed they later started using the fact they were the first bank in Indiana to have a woman on its board as part of its marketing.
That’s not to say every woman in America thought any of this was a good idea. There was, and still is, a large group of women who wouldn’t have anything to do with feminist rhetoric and who vigorously protected their traditional roles. So not even in the height of the feminist movement and great social change did all women support all other women’s ideas or efforts.
The two groups had very different agendas. Helen Reddy captured the mood of feminists best in her 1971 song I am Woman, Hear me Roar. It was our battle cry. The traditionalists were singing a different tune. Their message was No change. We like our lives the way they are!
Once our feminist roar. . . was too big to ignore. . . we began developing our own secondary agendas to gender equality, which eventually became our primary agendas as individuals. The first was political and the National Women’s Political Caucus was formed in 1971. We naturally split into democrats and republicans. That wasn’t a problem for the movement at the time because we needed women on both sides of the aisle casting votes to improve the lives of women. However, with time, women who had once agreed on gender equality found themselves not agreeing on other political issues. As each of our political philosophies developed, we found ourselves even voting against one another. But that was truly a sign of evolution, not devolution. And it had nothing to do with one woman not supporting another. In fact, it had nothing to do with gender at all. It had everything to do with differing political agendas.
We women have evolved into being our own persons. We’re not just women looking for equality, we’re looking for individual opportunity.
However, I was gobsmacked when former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said near the end of the 2016 presidential election, “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t vote for Hilary Clinton.” I wondered how such an accomplished woman and a committed feminist could suggest such a thing. We aren’t all the same anymore. We are entitled to our own opinions and our own voices. Her statement hurt the women’s cause.
I love the idea of a woman president. Because of the strides feminists and other activists have made I can imagine a woman president in my lifetime. She will be elected on her agenda though and not her gender.
Bottom line, next time you are disappointed in another woman, ask yourself, “Was it because of gender or was it her agenda?” Cheers!