Is Marissa Mayer, Yahoo's new (and six months pregnant!) CEO, a feminist trailblazer if she doesn't want to be one?
Just when we'd finally determined that women can't have it all, 37-year-old Mayer announced her new role as President and CEO of Yahoo — and soon-to-be mother. A pregnant CEO of a Fortune 500 company? That would have seemed unfathomable a generation ago. (And, unsurprisingly, still seems impossible for some.)
But although Mayer, who was Google's first female engineer, is only the 20th female CEO of a Fortune 500 company, she doesn't think the feminist movement contributed to her rise to the top of the tech world. In fact, she doesn't even consider herself a feminist. As she told the PBS-AOL series "Makers":
I don't think that I would consider myself a feminist. I think that I certainly believe in equal rights, I believe that women are just as capable, if not more so in a lot of different dimensions, but I don't, I think have, sort of, the militant drive and the sort of, the chip on the shoulder that sometimes comes with that. And I think it's too bad, but I do think that feminism has become in many ways a more negative word. You know, there are amazing opportunities all over the world for women, and I think that there is more good that comes out of positive energy around that than comes out of negative energy.
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Many writers who do consider themselves feminists are understandably disappointed and angry that Mayer could be so ignorant about the movement unarguably responsible for her success. "In a world where a hiring decision like this one is momentous, groundbreaking, trailblazing news, being a feminist is not having a chip on your shoulder. It is simply an awareness of reality," wrote Feministing's Chloe Angyal. "Marissa, it is too bad that feminism has become a negative word. You know what's also too bad? Your failure to acknowledge that without feminism, you could never have become the CEO of Yahoo."
Over at Salon, Joan Walsh noted that, while Ann-Marie Slaughter blamed feminism for being too "positive" and thus dishonest about the struggle between career and family life, "Mayer, who takes that right for granted, blames feminism for being too negative. Where is this feminist Borg they speak of? There are as many versions of feminism as there are women. Leave feminism alone!"
At first I felt like Mayer's dismissal of feminism was disappointing but not the biggest deal; after all, 71% of American women don't identify as feminist, a statistic Caitlin Moran touches upon in How To Be a Woman, her UK bestseller which just came out in the US. "What part of ‘liberation for women' is not for you?" she asks. "Is it freedom to vote? The right not to be owned by the man you marry? ‘Vogue' by Madonna? Jeans? Did all that good shit GET ON YOUR NERVES? Or were you just DRUNK AT THE TIME OF THE SURVEY?"
So what part of the feminist movement isn't for Mayer? Is she loath to call herself a feminist because she wants to be taken seriously by her mostly male peers? (Who, it should be noted, are never asked by journalists if they are feminists.) It's frustrating that Mayer doesn't want to proudly proclaim herself a feminist, but getting riled up about her unwillingness to "thank" her foremothers kind of proves her "chip on their shoulder" point. As Susan B. Anthony once said, "Our job is not to make young women grateful. It's to make them ungrateful."
However, the Makers' interview wasn't the first time Mayer distanced herself from feminism; she once told Slate that she was "much less worried about adjusting the percentage [of women in the industry] than about growing the overall pie.… We are not producing enough men or women who know how to program." This, to me, is shittier than propagating hurtful feminist stereotypes — and that's what we should be angry about, instead of getting all butt-hurt that she doesn't want to be one of us. We can't force Mayer to identify with the feminist movement, but it's irresponsible for her to pretend that equality for women in tech isn't still a huge issue.
The goal of the movement is equal opportunity, not gratitude, and actions speak louder than words. There are tons of female anti-choice leaders like Sarah Palin who love calling themselves feminists, which bothers me way more than women like Mayer who shun the term; I'd pick a "non-feminist" Marissa Mayer over Palin as a role model any day. But I think that now's the time for Mayer to accept that she's a role model for women whether she likes it or not, and her words have real power to make a difference in terms of the women who want to follow in her footsteps, self-described feminists or otherwise.
The New York Times' Claire Cain Miller wrote that it "was a good day for women in Silicon Valley — and women in business everywhere" when Marissa Mayer became Yahoo's CEO and announced her pregnancy, but that the news is a "blip" since:
There remain distressingly few women among Silicon Valley engineers, start-up entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and computer science and engineering majors, for reasons including the technology industry's girl-repelling image problem, the tiny number of powerful women role models and the insular Silicon Valley deal-making boys' club.
Miller believes that Mayer's two new roles "mean that Silicon Valley, the heart of American innovation, could become the place where a more progressive attitude toward women and work takes root" and that "whether or not it's fair to talk about her pregnancy in the same breath as her new job, it's a chance to figure out how Yahoo and other Silicon Valley companies can make sure that women at every level have the same chance to prosper both professionally and personally." She concludes that "This is an opportunity."
She's right; it's a huge opportunity. But Mayer needs to accept that she's not just one of the boys and therefore has a responsibility to acknowledge that her rise to the top is noteworthy. You can choose whether to use the word "feminist," but you don't get to choose whether to be a feminist role model.