For the amount of lip service paid to “sisterhood” in feminist circles, one begins to wonder: What does it actually mean? What does it mean to belong to a feminist sisterhood? What is sisterhood? Sisterhood is solidarity, an active practice of engaging with and supporting women from a non-competitive, encouraging stance. But when “sisterhood” becomes a means to silence dissent, a blanket term thrown back in the face of marginalized women in feminist spaces for their criticisms, it is not sisterhood at work. It is oppression.
Feminist writer Jill Filipovic wrote in the Guardian about the recent online feminist kerfuffles surrounding Sheryl Sandberg’s new book Lean In and the new think tank project “#FemFuture” launched by Vanessa Valenti and Courtney Martin. She dismissed the varied and often incredibly nuanced critiques as “criticism for criticism’s sake” and a means of “attack[ing] the women who do succeed or stand out.” Filipovic posits that the problem with feminism is that we are too busy trash-talking each other to truly coalesce around sisterhood and solidarity. Sisterhood has been sidelined by our desperate search for scraps of success, she purports.
But Filipovic is avoiding an incredibly inconvenient reality. The bulk of the criticisms coming from feminists regarding Sandberg and #FemFuture are not petty squabbles about a need for attention, but rather are thoughtful, cogent responses from women who are often marginalized within mainstream feminism. Advocates for low-income women, feminists in the flyover states, and many women of color have led the charge in critiquing both the narrow corporate power structures that Sandberg represents and perpetuates and the ways in which #FemFuture may serve to reify racial, class, and regional biases. These critiques are not whining. They are desperately needed insightful interrogations from the varied perspectives that mainstream feminism so often ignores.
Filipovic implores her readers to fight inequality from a non-competitive stance “with the shared goal of improving the movement and the world. We need to do it with the recognition that no perspective or solution will be universal, and no single woman will be anywhere near a perfect feminist,” she writes.
And yet, while she does acknowledge some of the criticism of #FemFuture is useful, she so easily dismisses the rest as “criticism for criticism’s sake.” What exactly does that mean? Criticism that you didn’t like to hear? Criticism that was inconvenient? Criticism that challenged your brand of feminism?
Criticism within the realm of sisterhood is not hatred; it is a desire for improvement, a demand to do better. Criticism can actually serve as a way of showing solidarity, a means of challenging our sisters to rethink, to check their privilege (whatever that privilege may be), to listen and adopt a new perspective. Criticism is not whining. And criticism is not anti-sisterhood.
Filipovic posits that many feminist criticisms are rooted in the fear of being labeled a “bad feminist” and the assumption that is is “better to join the chorus of critics, and position oneself as a ‘good’ feminist, in opposition to those other, ‘bad’ feminists.” And she is right; there is a fear of being a “bad feminist.” But that is part of being a feminist, of being a progressive; you know that at some point, you will fail to check your privilege. You know that you will mess up. You know that you will omit someone, erase someone, silence someone. And yes, this fear can be paralyzing. But this fear can also be an impetus to do better, to apologize for our mistakes, commit to a new perspective, and move on.
Sisterhood cannot be a means to silence dissent, to stifle valid and important criticism, for the sake of unity. Mainstream feminism has sidelined and silenced many women in its tenure; women of color, lesbians, low-income women, trans women; the list goes on. When these women, our sisters, come forward with a complaint of feeling ostracized, sidelined, and omitted from our work, we cannot dismiss them with a wave of our hand in the name of unity. We must actively listen to our dissenting sisters. We must give them space to be heard. We must engage with their thoughts, perspectives, and experiences. We must allow them their rightful space in sisterhood.
Otherwise, sisterhood isn’t about solidarity at all, but about silencing.