SPINKS: Feminism is more than leaning in

In the conversations about Jessica Williams, many feminists are forgetting big-picture issues

Like many others, I was devastated to hear that Jon Stewart will be stepping down as the host of The Daily Show. But I knew immediately who I wanted to replace him — the charismatic and bitingly witty Jessica R. Williams. In my eyes, there is no one more qualified and I’ll admit I was very attached to the message her hire would send about the importance of different representation. My motivations for quickly and wholeheartedly supporting Williams' potential campaign were feminist in nature. She is a woman, a person of color and most importantly, she seems immensely well-suited to the position.

But then, in response to an outpouring of demands that she replace Stewart, Williams took to Twitter to announce she wasn't going to host — because she didn't want the job, nor did she feel qualified to do it. That insistence should have been the end of the story. Okay, Williams won't host, Daily Show fans and feminists alike should have said; let's look for someone new. But in the name of feminism, many people refused to quit pressuring Williams to take the job, and this is where they failed the feminist cause as well as failing as true fans of Williams' work.

Using the neoliberal "lean-in" variety of feminism and Williams' possible “imposter syndrome” as justifications, one particularly egregious writer from The Billfold criticized Williams for refusing to consider taking Stewart's post, arguing she was displaying "a total lack of understanding of her own self-worth." Lean-in feminism has its roots in Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg's 2013 book “Lean-In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.” Sandberg’s philosophy holds that "personal career success is not entirely reliant on waiting for the system to change [and] it empowers women to begin changing their own lives right now," according to Ms. Magazine writer Nisha Chittal. This sounds relatively innocuous, and to be sure, many modern women have found inspiration within the pages of Sandberg's book. Other notable feminists such as bell hooks, though, have criticized the concept of lean-in feminism, maintaining that "Sandberg’s definition of feminism begins and ends with the notion that it’s all about gender equality within the existing social system. . . It almost seems as if Sandberg sees women’s lack of perseverance as more the problem than systemic inequality.”

Yes, it is important for women to recognize their own self-worth and it is critical that women be allowed to display self-confidence, ambition and strength of will without being stigmatized as "bossy" or "aggressive." But we cannot put the burden of dismantling systemic sexism and oppression on individual women, especially when doing so requires them to make choices they are uncomfortable or unwilling to make.

I have written in the past about the importance of diverse representation in both academic and professional settings and I do think it would have a tremendous influence on young girls and people of color to see someone as talented as Williams on late-night television every night. But if Williams fails to "lean in" in the way many are demanding, it does not follow that the continued oppression of women in society is her fault or the fault of women who make similar decisions.

Women should have the ability to make career moves that they want or deserve — but not the obligation to do so. The problem with accusing Williams of suffering from "imposter syndrome" is it assumes that, as a woman, Williams is simply unaware of her own talents. This kind of woman-on-woman criticism is exactly what hurts the feminist movement, rather than propelling it forward. If women cannot even remain unified, how can we expect others to stand with us and fight for our rights? True feminism means respecting the independent choices of each individual woman, whose circumstances, preferences and aspirations may be different from your own.

Lean-in feminism is not only harmful because it calls on women to gain rights, opportunities and respect unilaterally within a society that is hostile to those goals, but also because it expects women to prioritize “feminism” and the struggle of all women over their own fulfillment and happiness. To be clear, I'm not arguing women have the right to be unconcerned about the plight of their fellow women — the collective work of all women to restructure society in a way that is amenable to their success is vital, and will only produce results if all women (and people) buy in to the cause. But when a woman explicitly states she is unprepared and unwilling to do something (as Williams did), it is in alignment with the feminist cause to take her at her word and not question her choices or the motivations for them.

Rather than asking, “Why won’t Williams do this job?” we should be concerned with why we don’t have more options — why are there not several more black, female or otherwise demographically underrepresented candidates we could call from the bench? Why do we always seem to select white male replacements for talk show hosts to the extent that it causes a media stir when we consider an alternative? We do need better representation on television and elsewhere — but this mission will not succeed if we ask individual women to shoulder that burden and then criticize them when they exercise free choice and refuse.

Ashley Spinks is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at a.spinks@cavalierdaily.com.

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