Glass Ceilings, Grassroots, and Such: Why Top-Down Feminisms Don’t Work

When you shatter glass ceilings, does that mean you shower the grassroots with glass shards?

I tweeted that in a decidedly bold moment. In all of the hoopla, and the rush to ascribe a feminist ethos to the recently-deceased Margaret Thatcher (who famously stated, “I owe nothing to women’s lib. The feminists hate me, don’t they? & I don’t blame them. For I hate feminism. It is poison.”), I found myself inordinately annoyed with the tendency to apply “feminist icon” status to women in political office.

Women in political office are a self-selected group with privilege and access to institutions which have historically policed and legislated women and gender minority bodies. To some degree, a politician’s success depends on how well they follow the rules of the institution- and this is no different for women in political office.

“When “equality” is the goal, feminism becomes about the glass ceiling, not the grassroots. Trickle-down feminism doesn’t water the grassroots.

Women in political office can be termed a part of a broader fight for gender equality, where quotas and diversity, rather than actual, improved lived realities are a measure of progress. Merely fighting for “equality” makes the privilege the benchmark, neglecting to dig at the roots of inequality & oppressions. In other words, it centers typically white/cisgender*/able-bodied/neuro-typical/etc men.

Furthermore, there are many cases of women in political office furthering rhetoric and legislation that is harmful to women (and gender minorities) who do not benefit from class privilege. Access to healthcare (especially reproductive), affordable housing, fair, equal, living wages, and other key issues affecting women and gender minorities are often swept under the rug or de-prioritized for measures that ensure a politician’s longevity in office.

Part of the insistence to see women in political office as “progress” stems from a persistent belief in gender essentialism.

“If women ran the world, there would be fewer wars.”

“If women ran the world, no one would go hungry.”

“If women ran the world, no child would miss school”

and so on.

Even research on gender and corruption has been inconclusive. There is little support for the belief that women in political office have more integrity or are less corrupt than their male counterparts. This can be attributed to what I pointed out earlier- that women in political office are a self-selected group who possess traits necessary for success in traditionally male-dominant institutions.

What’s more, the success and ascendance of these top-down ‘feminists’ is attributable in part, to the growth of the global pink-collar industry. After all, they are the ones who clean up the glass shards when the glass ceiling is shattered (hat tip to @LatinoSexuality). They are the ones who act as other-mothers to the children that these women birth or adopt. They are the ones who cross borders (national or neighborhood) to be paid wages under the table- wages that enable them to better the lives of their loved ones. There is no white collar, top-down feminism without the pink-collar, working-class caretakers and other-mothers who allow the latter to “lean in.”

So tell me, what do women in political office change for women and gender minorities at the grassroots? After all, the institutions remain intact. At best, top-down feminisms are reformist. At most, they flip relations of power in a facile sort of “girl power” sense, without questioning constructions of essential, binary gender. What changes when the women who are best able to occupy spaces in the upper echelons of traditionally male-dominated institutions are also the women whose livelihoods depend on the reproduction and maintenance of racial and class hierarchies?

What happens when the shards of the glass ceiling shower the grassroots? What happens when women in political office proffer symbolic gestures of equality for which others outside of their station would be penalized? Does anything really change? Trans women and gender variant persons are still being arrested and harassed on the streets of New York. Laws are being passed that tie access to food stamps to a child’s academic success in public schools. There is a general movement toward contractualizing and privatizing citizenship, when women, gender minorities, persons with low-incomes, etc have typically had tenuous citizenship claims and ties to the state, even as native-born persons.

We don’t need more “girl power” feminist icons. We need more substantive work that benefits more than the exceptional individual endowed with the resources and access to succeed in exclusionary spaces that are also loci of power. We do not need more “trickle-down feminists.”

A Last Thought

Not every “conventionally successful” woman is a feminist. Stop applying labels willy-nilly. When we make feminism about labels, rather than praxis, we’ve retreated to a facile nominalism. It is a distraction from the work that needs to be done to rectify injustices and ensure the survival and thriving of marginalized communities.

*cisgender: a term to describe one whose lived and deeply felt gender identity is congruent with one’s sex assigned at birth.

Further Reading:

  1. Saskia Sassin’s (2002) “Global Cities and Survival Circuits.” in Global Woman: Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers in the New Economy.  eds. Ehrenreich, Barbara and Hochschild, Alie Russell. New York: Henry Holt and Company. pp 254-31 (link)
  2. Somers, Margaret. (2008) Genealogies of Citizenship: Markets, Statelessness, and the Right to Have Rights. Cambridge University Press

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