There are times in every woman’s life, in either academic or professional careers, when she is in direct competition with another woman. Sometimes the situation is forced upon her by circumstance, but it’s not unnatural to actively seek it out. A few days ago, I donned a shirt with the slogan, ’empowered women empower women’. In my job and personal life, I work with a lot of strong and powerful women of all ages, women for whom I have the deepest respect. I understand the shared experiences all women have, and I understand how difficult the challenges of womanhood can be to overcome. But despite my underlying respect, I compete with them. I question their judgement and often feel I would have made a better call. I consider myself to be an empowered woman. But do I empower other women?
For those with ambition and a competitive streak (and even those without it), going head-to-head with another woman in some capacity is almost inevitable. I have a naturally competitive personality, and while I do not presume to speak for all women, I can comfortably say that when experiencing a loss, the feelings toward the winning party are usually somewhere between annoyance and anger (with perhaps a small amount of grudging respect). I live with the knowledge that sometimes I will be beaten and I accept that; I do not generally consider myself a sore loser. But my natural inclination is not to cheer for my opponent; my goal is to win.
Recently, up-and-coming New York politician Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez campaigned in Kansas with U.S Senator and far-left presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders. She backed progressive candidate Brent Welder against a young and equally progressive Sharice Davids. While there were complex reasons behind her and Sanders’ support for Welder, Twitter was quick to call her out for the hypocrisy of stating that ‘there are candidates like me everywhere’ while not supporting a candidate that was, in fact, very much like her. Ocasio-Cortez is a working class, Bronx-raised woman of Puerto Rican descent. Davids is a young, openly gay, Native American woman who would be the first indigenous woman to serve in Congress. Both women represent a tide of change that is encouraging for marginalised women. But Ocasio-Cortez supported Davids’ primary opponent, a white man. Twitter user, Jill Kaiser Adams, tweeted at Ocasio-Cortez: ‘I was inspired by you, until I see you are actively working against Sharice Davids. This is NOT progressive’.
But Ocasio-Cortez is undeniably progressive. Her win was a historic upset, ousting an out of touch incumbent with her new and radical way of thinking. Her choosing to support Brent Welder in Kansas does not undermine her achievements as an empowered woman, activist, and politician. The response on Twitter vilifying her for her choice in candidate, however, is curious and perhaps revealing about the direction the fourth-wave feminist movement is taking. It would seem that the ‘women support other women’ idea is so ingrained in feminist ideology that it has become nearly impossible for two women to compete. Even in my personal experiences, I find myself immediately feeling guilty for exercising my own will against another woman, especially if she holds similar beliefs to mine. Going against another woman feels like a red mark on my feminist card, and so I have learned to stifle my frustration with other women in the name of empowerment.
When considering the feminist movement (or any movement), it is useful to examine two things: the goals of the movement, and the means of achieving those goals. From my perspective, the feminist movement appears uniquely divided; the aim of the movement is freedom for women to act in a way that is equal to men. However, the means of achieving that aim is the creation of one large homogeneous movement to face off against those who oppose the objectives of feminists altogether. An equal society would be one in which women would be free to question and compete with each other; they would not be fighting for the only spot in the room, and they would not need to appear united against a common enemy. The common enemy would no longer exist. But unfortunately, there is a front that feminists must display because for every feminist, there is an equally vocal misogynist. If women were to openly compete with each other and tear each other down, the integrity of the feminist movement would be jeopardised. Holes in the battle formation demonstrate weakness that cannot be revealed if the movement wants to continue with any momentum.
But it’s also unrealistic to expect everyone to fall in line for the greater good. Studies have shown that women compete with other women because they feel insecure and understand that in our current society, the number of opportunities for women is limited. Some may be comfortable with adopting the ‘don’t compete with other women’ mentality, but not everyone is. And perhaps not everyone should be. Competition is natural, and there are many women who do not identify as feminists for the very reason that the movement is too broad and leaves too little room for debate. Perhaps if healthy conflict and reasonable competition were encouraged (not the stereotypical catty girl-fight type, the mature and sensible kind), the movement would attract more members to its cause.
In my research for this article I found myself returning again and again to the phrase, ‘empowered women empower women.’ But what does it mean to be an empowered woman? It could be someone devoted to the feminist cause, willing to compromise or back down to lift other women up. But it could also be someone who is confident and willing to stand up for what she believes in, even if that means challenging another woman. The act of being empowered could be enough to inspire another woman to act in the same way. It’s a delicate scenario: the feminist movement seeks to empower women, but not every empowered woman advances the blanket feminist cause. In the end, it is reasonable to conclude that the decision must be made on a personal level. There is no one way to be empowered, nor is there one way to empower. Sometimes the most feminist thing a woman can do is to simply exist in the way she wants to exist, regardless of the outside forces acting on her.