Short Takes: Provocations on Public Feminism, an open-access feature of Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, offers brief comments from prominent feminists about a book that has shaped popular conversations about feminist issues. Short Takes is part of the Feminist Public Intellectuals Project.
Feminist Fight Club was published in 2016 by HarperCollins.
Jessica Bennett's Feminist Fight Club
The Cost of Fight Club Membership Too High for Some Women
Creating Points of Entry for Contemporary Feminism
Shuffling the Stacked Deck
Breaking the First Two Rules of Fight Club: Women Sharing Strategies for Professional Advancement
Adia Harvey Wingfield
The Cost of Fight Club Membership Too High for Some Women
Feminist Fight Club strives for accessibility and relatability, largely through use of what I’d call “internet speak”—an embrace of the style, vernacular, and meme-able moments that dominate social media venues like Twitter, Snapchat, and Tumblr. (Love for Beyoncé, one of the strongest and most widespread pop cultural currencies of the moment, appears no less than a half dozen times in the text.) Adopting the lingua franca of social media makes sense—Jessica Bennett worked at Tumblr before the Yahoo buyout, and her freelance work has largely centered on the intersections of gender and pop culture.
This approach is ultimately both a strength and a weakness of the book. It makes the topic engaging and approachable, particularly for people who share the same cultural references. It tackles an often overwhelming and anxiety-provoking topic with a verve that will set many readers at ease. At the same time, though, I wondered if the linguistic style will curtail the book’s staying power as a useful guide—the speed with which memes and pop culture references go from “au courant!” to “so passé!” might mean this book will feel out of date long before its central message loses relevance.
It also felt, at times, as though the tone was out of step with the recommendations of the book. There’s a certain cutesiness to the writing and illustrations that clashes with the book’s advice about avoiding workplace self-sabotaging behaviors that could be collectively described as classic maneuvers of cuteness—being demure, making self-effacing comments or bodily postures, upspeaking or talking like a “sexy baby,” for example. There are a couple moments where the author grapples with these contradictions—the discussion about upspeak and vocal fry is notable for balancing respect for feminine styles of speech with the fact that such ways of speaking can be turned against women to discredit them. I appreciated these moments, but they didn’t entirely resolve the tension between the stylistic cuteness and the book’s recommendations for combating sexism in the workplace.
Even more dismaying, though, was the heavy reliance on vagina-adjacent wordplay throughout the text, which was similar to the use of “pussyhats” and slogans like “Pussy Grabs Back” in the recent Women’s March. Clever phrases like “clitoral mass,” “vagfirmative action,” and “vag cronyism” are peppered throughout the book, and I do appreciate the political power of speaking frankly about anatomy and women’s bodies. Yet I couldn’t help cringing at the repeated return to the vagina as shorthand for womanhood. The cisnormativity of this move is acknowledged in a very small print footnote on page 88, where Bennett’s endorsement of a “vagina-first policy” is noted as “also applicable to those who do not possess a vagina but identify as female.” Other than this brief aside, the book ignores the fact that not all women have vaginas, when in fact, transgender women face significant workplace harassment and discrimination as a result of their status as women, as trans people, and as trans women in particular. Why alienate these and other women from the book’s potential audience by symbolizing womanhood via the vagina?
The enthusiasm for reclaiming the vagina is also disconcerting because not all women have equal access to such practices of reclamation. Women of color in the United States have always had to contend with the hypersexualization and fetishization of their bodies in ways that white women have not. The pedestal of femininity that made white middle- and upper-class women’s sexualities and bodies taboo was never extended to women of color in the same way, regardless of class. While women of color do participate in the practices of reclaiming sexist language and being unapologetically frank about sex and their bodies, they face heightened risk and scrutiny when they do so. In this vein, it’s worth noting that, overall, the book has similar limitations to those so aptly outlined in Tressie McMillan Cottom’s Short Take on Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Unfinished Business. Bennett does not ignore race—she does include the additional wage penalties and discriminatory burdens that women of color face compared to their white counterparts—but she does not incorporate it in a manner that thoroughly informs the book’s major take-homes.
Despite the limitations, the book has its strengths. It is a great primer for young women in high school and college who are conversant in pop cultural references and who need preparation and advice for entering a sexist workplace environment. The book offers a wealth of practical and contextualized strategies for combatting workplace sexism. Many (often white and class-privileged) young women—myself included, once upon a time—are convinced by postfeminist discourses that tell them such problems are a thing of the past. Feminist Fight Club, which paints a well-researched picture of gender inequality at work with conversational flair, has the ability to appeal to young women who might not know that they will—or already do—sorely need it.
Catherine Connell is an assistant professor of Sociology and director of the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program at Boston University. Her publications include articles in the journals Signs, Gender & Society, Sexualities, and Women’s Studies Quarterly, among others. Her book School’s Out: Gay and Lesbian Teachers in the Classroom was published by the University of California Press in 2015. Connell’s most recent research considers the legal and cultural ramifications of recent gender and sexual policy changes in the US military, from the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell to the gender integration of the combat arms.
Creating Points of Entry for Contemporary Feminism
Feminism has always been necessary, but it hasn’t always been accessible. Once in a while a book comes along that disrupts the stereotype that feminism can’t be engaging or funny, and Feminist Fight Club does exactly just that. Without sacrificing levity for substance, the book takes a sharp look at one of the most trending topics of conversation for the modern woman: navigating the workplace. It comes up with fun games, quizzes, and beautiful illustrations of complex topics, a truly gorgeous piece of feminist literary art.
We can argue about the true meaning of the Sheryl Sandberg effect on feminism until the cows come home, but one of its most significant contributions was creating a tangible point of entry into feminism for women who would have never engaged with these ideas before. Feminist Fight Club is sort of like Lean In’s cool younger sister. It makes a topical conversation even more engaging for a young audience of women entering the workplace. It’s a book that this often-ignored demographic will want to pick up and that they can truly relate to because it’s written for them.
Albeit useful, the advice in Bennett’s book is at times painfully obvious: don’t let people interrupt you, take credit for your work, don’t become your male coworker’s personal secretary. Sadly, this still needs to be said because these microaggressions still exist and create a hostile environment for many women. The book helps women diagnose the implicit sexism they experience and offers them the right tools to remedy it. The tips aren’t just practical, they’re also easily implementable, even fun, because of Bennett’s unique writing style and her ability to add color and image to the concepts she's bringing up.
But how much longer will women have to carry the burden of fixing men? Feminist fight clubs can help create much-needed alliances between women, but when does the education of men start being the job of men instead of women? The next step for feminist literature is figuring out a way to make it not just accessible but attractive to men. Making the case that sexism is bad for men is admittedly annoying, but it is perhaps the missing piece to the complicated puzzle of persisting inequality in the workplace. It’s unfortunate, but I believe we need to give men a reason to care, a point previously made by Sandberg and Adam Grant in an op-ed for the New York Times. They need an incentive to make the workplace more female friendly because many still believe equality is a zero-sum game (spoiler: it isn’t). We need more women like Jessica Bennett to champion these issues, but we also need men to feel the urgency of fixing them too.
Liz Plank is a senior producer and correspondent at Vox.com, where she is currently developing TV projects under the Vox entertainment division. She is also the host of an award-winning series about the presidential election called 2016ish, where she interviewed important figures such as Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Michael Moore, Hope Solo, and Senator Murphy. Liz is amongst Mediaite's 2016 Most Influential in News Media, and presented a TedxTalk, How to Be a Man: A Woman's Guide. Prior to Vox, she was a Senior Correspondent at Mic and co-creator of Flip The Script, an award-winning weekly video series confronting social issues. She has also built a following on social media where she engages with news and culture on Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Before working as a journalist, she was a research assistant and behavioral science consultant at the London School of Economics, from which she holds a master's degree in policy with an emphasis in global gender politics.
Shuffling the Stacked Deck
When I wasn’t laughing out loud, nodding vigorously, or thinking “right on!” as Jessica Bennett laid out the familiar traps, verbal tripwires, and some accessible hacks and smart “fight moves” in this wonderful, sadly hilarious, and energetically on-point book, I honestly had to put the book down and take some deep breaths.
Wave after wave of long-forgotten indignities from my more than twenty-five years of working in corporate America knocked me flat. I began to scribble them down in the back cover of the book as they came to me:
A top editor in the Knight Ridder Washington bureau, where I was a national correspondent for one of the largest newspaper chains in the country at the time, pinched my cheek and gave it a playful tug in front of the publisher, Tony Ridder, and said, “We love reporters like you. You’re so insecure, you’ll do anything we tell you.” He chuckled avuncularly. This was the mid-1990s. This was also the place where women reporters were called “the skirts” and that, when I was promoted to national correspondent over a bunch of older guys, said guys grumbled that I’d only gotten the job because I was pretty. Which, as someone whose identity was shaped in high school and college around being the fat “smart” girl, felt weirdly like the embodiment of cognitive dissonance.
There was the county official I covered in South Carolina who called me “sugar.” And the other who grabbed my boob in the middle of an interview.
There was the editor at a Washington, DC, news service who told me my male colleague needed to make more money than I did because he had a family. He had a wife. I had a husband.
There was the sinking feeling when an editor at the Washington Post proudly said in a meeting that the place was a real meritocracy, that people were promoted solely on the basis of talent. My female colleagues and I rolled our eyes that the practically all-male-led newspaper, like all newspapers, didn’t see what we clearly could—we called it the “young white male escalator to success.”
I could go on.
But what struck me most as I read this book was how alone I felt during all those years of striving and struggle. I came into the American workplace in the late 1980s, when we were all duped into thinking that sexism was a thing of the past, when we blindly believed that women really could have it all, not realizing that that meant trying to squeeze two lives into one exhausting day. We were expected to outwork, outshine, outdo men. A good Catholic girl, I was determined to be the go-to Girl Friday, the good girl who always came through, who would (eventually) be recognized and praised if I just kept my head down (good girls didn’t boast and it was unseemly to brag), pleased the bosses, didn’t make waves, and did good work. (I’ve since come to learn that that ridiculous strategy is called the “Tiara Syndrome”—as in you’re waiting for someone else to crown you.) We were also tacitly taught that competing with men in sexist work environments meant distancing ourselves from each other, not being one of “those” women but rather more like one of the guys. Which we weren’t.
Anything resembling what would today be called a Lean In Circle, many of us were led to think, was for wusses. And though there were friendships, we faced our disappointments in isolation, believing that the setbacks and roadblocks we encountered had more to do with our own personal failings, doubts, and inadequacies than that the whole system—the whole culture, really—was rigged against us from the start.
Looking back, how I wish I’d had these battle tactics, fight moves, and a feminist fight club of my own, not just to wallow and complain—which is what often happened when a group of us got together—but to see more clearly, to learn strategies, get support, and, probably most importantly, to also note and celebrate victories.
It is long past time that we realized, as Bennett so clearly shows, that the workplace deck is still stacked against women but also against everyone, really—everyone who doesn’t fit the still-powerful 1950s corporate culture of the man in the gray flannel suit. The ideal worker is not only expected to be always on and always available, with no caregiving responsibilities, he is still expected to be a white guy on his way up. The breadwinner who, as economics research shows, earns more money and wins more respect than single men, white women, and men and women of color.
Men who want to be involved in caregiving lose out—research shows they’re seen as wimps. People of color lose, as unconscious and affinity biases mean that those in power groom as the next generation of leaders people who look and act just like them. And women lose. Still expected to be the primary caregiver, women aren’t seen as committed at work. Or, if they work like an ideal worker, they’re judged as less likeable and lacking as a woman.
Despite definite progress, corporate culture is stuck. Only now, with the advent of technology, and rapacious greed, the work week has intensified from forty hours to never-ending for most knowledge workers. Not only do American workers now work among the longest hours of any advanced economy, and work the most night and weekend hours, but professional workers work among the most extreme hours, regularly putting in more than fifty hours a week. Even though study after study shows that working those long hours actually burns you out, fogs your mind, does not lead to greater productivity, and costs businesses a bundle in lost productivity and high health care expenses, and costs workers years off their lives. In short, the way we’re working that so disadvantages women isn’t working for anyone.
Here’s what’s hopeful: young women are ambitious, according to Pew Research Center polls. But, like most millennials, they don’t want a life of slaving away at work at the expense of having a life. They want both. More importantly, both young men and women want both. And it will take both men and women in what’s now the largest generation currently in the workforce to really transform the way we work and work culture, from thinking that flexible work means working less (it doesn’t; it can actually mean working more), or that it’s only an accommodation, a perk for women with caregiving responsibilities, and a detour to the mommy track. (As it was for me.)
But here’s what’s not so hopeful: Women began graduating from college in greater numbers than men in 1982. They began getting more master’s degrees in 1987 and more PhDs in 2006. Yet in every industry, in every profession, in virtually every field, women are stuck in the bottom and middle layers. Women’s labor-force participation peaked in the United States in 1999 and now has fallen below other advanced economies.
And while caregiving responsibilities no doubt play a big role—women spent about twice as much time doing housework and child care than men do—that’s not the only thing that’s keeping women back. It’s unconscious bias. It’s the stacked ideal-worker deck. A few years ago, women at one of the top stockbrokerage firms in the country continually received lower bonuses than their high-flying male counterparts. The view from the masculine top was that the women just didn’t have the smarts, the guts, the commitment or dedication to make it big. It took a class action lawsuit to uncover that the women got the crummy accounts to start with. The deck was stacked against them from the outset, Iris Bohnet writes in her book, What Works: Gender Equality by Design. And it took a gender-neutral design to fix the problem and bring equal opportunity to all. Once accounts were distributed fairly, women performed as well as or better than men.
Indeed, a host of studies, as Bennett points out in her book, have shown that companies with more women in leadership are smarter, more successful, more collaborative, and more profitable. A 2014 Gallup study of 800 business units in two companies found that units with more gender diversity outperformed other units by 14 to 19 percent.
And it’s the lack of any real public policy to support all people living whole lives that keeps us stuck. The fastest way to reinforce traditional gender roles? Offer maternity-only leave policies, which is what then-candidate Donald J. Trump proposed on the campaign trail. You really want to set the stage for equality at work and at home? Just look at the experience in Iceland and Quebec—two places that began to require fathers to take paid parental leave. Now, the vast majority of couples are equally sharing caregiving responsibilities and putting in equal hours at work.
So it’s time to blow up the workplace and completely redesign it—to recognize that men and women work, and men and women want time for life, for themselves, for home, and for family. Men and women need paid family leave, high-quality affordable child care, and flexible, adaptable, sustainable work structures and cultures that enable them at every socioeconomic level, to do excellent, meaningful work on a reasonable, predictable schedule, earn a fair wage, be evaluated fairly, and still have time to live. Until then, Feminist Fight Club should be on everyone’s desk—male and female alike—to help us all survive.
Brigid Schulte is a journalist and writer. Her book on time pressure, Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, was a New York Times bestseller and named a notable books of the year by the Washington Post and NPR. She is the director of the Better Life Lab at New America. She is on Facebook and her Twitter is @BrigidSchulte.
Breaking the First Two Rules of Fight Club: Women Sharing Strategies for Professional Advancement
Adia Harvey Wingfield
The 2017 Women’s March on Washington shattered expectations to become the largest march in this nation’s history. It included women who objected to Donald Trump’s policies, positions, and statements about and actions towards women. And it drew crowds that dwarfed the attendance at his presidential inauguration.
Many issues and topics were raised at the march, but issues related to gender and work were, as they have often been, central. Discussions about the gender wage gap, ways to ensure more gender parity in the workplace, and policies that can make work better for women (and men) are feminist issues that have long been subject of extensive research. It is in this context that Jessica Bennett’s Feminist Fight Club emerges and, if you will pardon the pun, packs a welcome punch.
Bennett’s book draws largely from her personal experiences with other women, mostly journalists, attempting to develop and share strategies for navigating male-dominated workplaces and the challenges that are present within them. She cites many themes that will be familiar to researchers who study gender at work: men’s behavioral patterns that can undermine women’s success (“manterrupters” who talk over women, “bropriators” who co-opt women’s ideas as their own); the ways women engage in behaviors that sabotage their own advancement (becoming the office mom or the doormat); and the importance of developing negotiating strategies that allow women to navigate the minefield of being simultaneously nice and assertive. Bennett acknowledges that women of color face some of these challenges in a more pronounced fashion, reflecting the ways in which intersectional approaches have begun to become more widely integrated into feminist scholarship. Her work is also written in an easily accessible style that will likely appeal to millennials and those outside of the academy.
What does the publication of Feminist Fight Club say about the feminist zeitgeist? It speaks to the ways that issues of work, economics, and gender remain persistently intertwined. In many ways, the problems that Bennett raises have, unfortunately, been present for decades. Women of all races continue to struggle with succeeding in workplaces that, to use the late sociologist Joan Acker’s terminology, are gendered organizations that implicitly favor men. These challenges are particularly pronounced for women of color, for whom racial stereotypes complicate the impossible pressures of being competent but likable and breaking glass ceilings while also facing difficulty accessing mentors. Bennett’s book indicates that despite progress, many of the same feminist issues surrounding gender and work, sadly, still remain.
Adia Harvey Wingfield is professor of sociology at Washington University in St. Louis. Her research examines the social processes that maintain racial and gender inequality in the workplace and has been published in numerous peer-reviewed journals, including Social Problems, Gender & Society, and American Behavioral Scientist. Wingfield is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and the author of several books, most recently the award-winning No More Invisible Man: Race and Gender in Men's Work (Temple University Press, 2012).
It’s an honor to have Feminist Fight Club reviewed and critiqued by these writers, each of whose work I have long read and admired. The timing in fact couldn’t be better, as I’m in the process of updating the book for a new paperback edition. It’s been eight months since the hardcover format came out, and my how the world has changed.
There were a number of reasons I wanted to write this book, but there are a few common threads that may add some texture to the illustrated, manual-style approach, discussed in each review.
The first was the market. I saw a void in the literature, a space somewhere between traditional business book and theoretical feminist text, that a more playful take on battling workplace sexism could fill. I wanted something that was as rooted in data as the best of those business books and had the respect for history provided by many of those feminist texts but was delivered in a way that was easy to read, that could be utilized in the moment, and that might actually be fun to think about. Could a feminist text about battling patriarchy be a beach read? I wasn’t sure—but I was going to do my damnedest to try.
My second line of thinking was agency. I am a feminist who believes strongly in fighting for structural change. I believe in things like equal pay and paid family leave and that our governments have a huge role to play in attaining that. But I am also impatient. Haven’t we been talking about these same problems for years? Didn’t Ellen Pao show us that some of the more subtle forms of workplace sexism can’t be legislated in court? How is it possible, when we have technological solutions for seemingly everything, that we have to sit around and wait for institutions to solve these problems? I don’t want to wait—and frankly, I don’t trust our institutions to move as swiftly as they need to. So while I will continue to advocate for structural change, I will also be armed with tools in the present. And I wanted to share those tools with my fellow feminists.
The third was playfulness, and my greatest inspiration in this realm came from the women of my real-life fight club. When we get together each month—and we still do—there is indeed a good amount of talking that goes on. But there is also laughing. And it’s the laughing that has made fighting what at times seems like a never-ending battle more manageable. As Brigid Schulte notes in her review, there were times she had to stop reading to take a deep breath. Me too. Inequality is angering. Battling it can feel overwhelming. But there are also times when the absurdity of it all can be hilarious. It was my hope that in lightening the tone – with language, with (admittedly sometimes very bad) puns, with illustrations—that we could use laughter as a way to let out some of that tension (or at least not cry).
Lastly, I want to talk for a moment about distribution strategy—possibly the two most boring words you will ever read in a Signs Short Take (apologies in advance!). As a journalist who came of age in the era of collapsing print—I was a staff writer at Newsweek when we were put up for sale, purchased for $1, merged with a website, taken out of print, and put back into print, only to be put up for sale again—I learned quickly that to be successful in the current landscape I had to become a jack of all trades. And so I approached Feminist Fight Club like a multimedia endeavor, with subchapters that could be sectioned off and distributed via an app or website, with pages that could be torn out and photocopied if you so pleased (see the negotiation cheat sheet or the PSA for men); with visual components that could be extracted for social media; with video, a newsletter, a podcast and half a dozen other distribution models that will (hopefully) reach those who may not have the means—or the desire—to spend $24.99 on a hardback book. (Because, let’s be honest, I am often one of those people.)
None of this is to say that I accomplished all of these things without a hitch—and points like Catherine Connell’s about fleeting pop-culture references and one-too-many mentions of anatomical parts are well taken. But I do hope I’ve managed to provide some practical strategies for women starting out—and maybe made them crack a smile in the process.
Jessica Bennett is an award-winning journalist and critic who writes on gender, sexuality and culture. She is a contributing writer at the New York Times, where she has covered sexual assault on campus, spent time with Hillary Clinton’s childhood friends, and was the first journalist to profile Monica Lewinsky in a decade. Feminist Fight Club: A Survival Manual for a Sexist Workplace is her first book.