Marissa Mayer's Easy, Breezy Climb

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In the PBS Documentary that premiered this week called, Makers: Women Who Make America (about the history of feminism in this country), Marissa Mayer, President and CEO of Yahoo! and the 14th most powerful business woman in the world (according to Forbes) said that she does not consider herself a feminist.  In her brief interview, she went on to associate feminism with a “militant drive,” a “chip on the shoulder,” and with a perception of negativity.  You can watch exactly what she said here: Her comments came to my attention because my husband’s Twitter feed was all aflutter (also, aTwitter) with varied responses to her statements.  I had intended to see the documentary the night before, but ultimately decided to save it for the weekend, so I hadn’t seen the clip.  He asked me if I had heard what she said and wasn’t I outraged?  My initial response was tepid — after all, I have heard women (and men) talking about feminism this way my whole life.  I totally understood and in some way related to her desire to dissociate herself from the more “outlandish” or “angry” version of feminism, so dismissed by the mainstream.  After all, this version of feminism is threatening and flips the script on men in traditional positions of power.  The more we discussed it, the more I wondered if it was that Ms. Mayer had been so privileged in her career and social trajectory that she had truly never experienced barriers or that she had so internalized the narrative that women should “go along to get along” that she sincerely couldn’t empathize with “radicals.”

Marissa Mayer, you stand on the shoulders of the women throughout our history who acted out in a way that you might consider ugly.  By all accounts, you earned the daylights out of the position in which you find yourself today.  You are eminently qualified for your job in terms of your education and experience.  You have a reputation for being an unapologetic workaholic.  And yet, you don’t seem to realize that the reason you had access to your education, any of the jobs you have held or the resources and social sanctions to work as hard as you have is because of feminism … the bra-burning kind.  Or, even worse, you are so disconnected from that struggle and have no sense of why women have been forced to be so reactive, that you don’t want to affiliate with that identity.

I want to say here quite clearly that I obviously don’t know Marissa Mayer at all.  I don’t have true insight into what she was thinking when she said those words (that I now can’t stop watching on YouTube).  I also haven’t seen the entire context of the interview, which might soften the seemingly cut-and-dried indictment of her sisters in arms.  I do know that when you have achieved that kind of status (breezily climbing the ladder, she seems to believe), the public has a tendency to hang on your every word, particularly in the context of being interviewed about your extraordinary accomplishments in a documentary about FEMINISM.

This also comes on the heels of her establishing a company-wide ban on working from home.  Flexible scheduling and telecommuting have been cornerstone achievements in establishing equality in the workplace.  Introducing the idea that the work environments could and should be more flexible has boosted the careers of both women AND men in recent decades and allowed both parties to be more available for childcare, among other things.  Many studies, including this 2009 study by major corporate employer Cisco found that people are actually more productive and satisfied with their jobs when they have this flexibility.  This is particularly salient for women, for whom the traditional work structure is still punitive when they have children and prevents them from keeping pace with their male counterparts in terms of advancement.

And what about Marissa Mayer and her own, personal, work-life balance?  She made history when she was hired by Yahoo! as the youngest CEO of a Fortune 500 company ever and immediately announced that she was also five months pregnant.  Working mothers everywhere glommed on to her story, waiting with bated breath to see how this would all play out.  She ended up working from home during the end of her pregnancy, took only two weeks of maternity leave and had a special nursery built next to her office at Yahoo! so she could be close to her newborn after her lightning fast return to work.  I don’t have to tell you what a poor model this is for working women and how nobody else on planet earth has the money or power to build a nursery next to their office and bring their infant to work.  Maybe Oprah or Martha.  Maybe.

I write this on a day when Congress has finally voted to re-authorize the Violence Against Women Act.  Shockingly, despite the description of what the act aims to prevent being right in the title, this wasn’t remotely a done deal.  In fact, it was kind of a squeaker.  138 Members of Congress (Republicans, all) ultimately voted against it.  It sort of makes me wonder where we might rustle up a bunch of feminists to demonstrate the appropriate level of fury?

I hope that as Marissa Mayer evolves in her career, she might reconsider her notion of feminism as negative.  It is, rather simply, the entire reason she has a career.  I get that she pictures feminists only as wearing combat boots and reading poetry about their vaginas.  But, she is in a position of vast power and has great wealth and we could use her in the trenches.  We could use another woman who fits all the classical norms of beauty and prominence to publicly recognize that there is still so much work to be done.