Women's Conferences, Snake Oil and a Plea to Jezebel

When the New York Times suggests that the burgeoning women's conference industry might not be, well, feminist, and does so while treading on egg shells, it's time for those of us who speak at and attend them to ask ourselves just what we think we're selling and to whom.

Are we, as author and historian Barbara Berg (Sexism in America) asserted, just yearning to be part of something?  

If so, who is "we" and is the satisfaction of that yearning by "us" calculated or likely to result in the type of structural changes necessary to address the the existential threats to women's economic well-being - the loss of control over our reproductive lives, the persistence of wage and leadership gaps across all industries in all sectors, the absence of affordable child care services at a time when 40% of America's children are born to single mothers, and the over-representation of women in minimum wage jobs.

If women's conferences are comforting the comfortable and ignoring or ill-serving the afflicted, then satisfying a psychological yearning to be among our own gender is not simply unhelpful, it is positively harmful.

Six Years of Suffering 

Listen, we're all still stumbling around in the dark of the Great Jobless Recovery that plunged millions of families deeper into poverty while simultaneously enriching the institutions and people responsible for the global economic melt-down of 2008.

That's six years of suffering, my friends. Six years of joblessness. Six years of panic. Six years when unemployment benefits ran out. Six years of foreclosures and bankruptcies. Six years of a government so dysfunctional it couldn't even keep an "open" sign hanging in its window. Six years of stagnant wages. Six years of shuttered libraries and closed after-school programs. Six years of homelessness or job insecurity. Six years of food pantries. Six years in the life of one in five children living below the poverty line.

If our women's conferences are not addressing these issues, what is it that we think we're doing for one another?

No Advice is Better Than Bad Advice

I've been in the women's "space" now since 2010, teaching and consulting with women in an effort to close wage and leadership gaps arising from persistent gender biases and social sanctions applied to women in the workplace. 

We're providing a service to the upper ten to twenty percent of the nation's women. We wouldn't be doing this if we didn't firmly believe that when we have a critical mass of women in business, the professions, and government, women's unique challenges - child care, reproductive justice, a living wage, and the shocking but still growing inequities in the distribution of national resources - will be robustly addressed and resolved.

But that's not going to happen if we continue throwing women's conferences at which rich white men on the main stage tell us to be our authentic selves, take responsibility for our own lives, follow our dreams and "don't blame sexism for our problems."

That would be Jack Canfield, a keynote speaker at the recent California Women's Conference, who also "shared" the story of an unidentified "black man" who told other "black men" to stop blaming "white men" for their problems. 

There was so much wrong with this I could barely breathe. 

First. I do not know any woman who spends her time blaming sexism for the challenges of her life. I do know some women who acknowledge and are attempting to address the pernicious effects of  bias on the lives of all women, the absence of basic health care and educational opportunities for their children, and the persistence of wage and leadership gaps, all of which  makes the United States an outlier among first world countries.

But I do not know any women sitting around eating bon bons and blaming their diminished economic circumstances on sexism.

This is not a problem that needs addressing.

Second. A representative of a favored group does not come to a Conference attended by people in the disfavored group to tell them that the very real and repeatedly proven challenges they face due to the gender or race do not exist or shouldn't trouble them.

Frankly, members of the disfavored group should not be telling other members of the disfavored group that challenges based on identity, the socio-economic status to which they were born, and the unfair distribution of resources are all in their heads. Nor is is helpful, or useful or seemly, to tell them that all they need to do is believe in themselves, live in the moment, be authentic, and go for it!

This may be a balm to the conscience of the well-heeled but when it walks, talks and squawks like snake oil, snake oil is invariably what it is.

Where is Jezebel When You Need it?

It would be similarly unseemly of me - an old, well-heeled white woman born in mid-Century America when upward mobility was a fact rather than a tarnished dream - to pretend that I am not a part of the problem in women's conferences.

When I tell my Gen-Y colleague that there were too many women my age pitching their solutions to women's challenges at the California Women's Conference she tells me how valuable my experiences are to her generation. And that is kind of her. But my generation is looking backward on what worked for us in a completely different country in a completely different economy. My generation is going to be in an assisted living facility, a nursing home or a grave when this country faces the greatest challenge the world has ever faced - cataclysmic climate change and species extinction. 

If at least half the speakers and participants at  any women's conference are not women under 30, we're just amusing ourselves in our early or pre-retirement.

Here's what I want to see.

I want to see a woman's conference sponsored by Jezebel. I want to see Slut-Cake-Walks and Intersectional Twister. I want to hear a lot more outrage. I want to see someone talking about rape culture from the main stage. And I want to hear a lot more cursing in the hallways and break-out sessions.

How about it, Jezebel? Isn't it time that your generation takes over for ours and stirs up the kind of trouble necessary to bring a generation of women into a political movement that creates genuine change?