Who Decides What’s Next For Feminism?

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Author Kate McGuinness asks: How do we as individual feminists decide where to focus our energy and financial support?

The Room for Debate section of The New York Times recently asked what was next for feminism. The featured columnists raised issues ranging from inclusivity to the mystique of superwomen. I found myself agreeing with each writer’s suggestion, but in my mind there are more pressing problems.   

Women around the world are consistently subjected to rape, violence, sex selective abortions, objectification, discrimination in education, pay and work opportunities, street harassment, sexual trafficking…the list is long.

How do we as individual feminists decide where to focus our energy and financial support? I once asked a similar question of a Buddhist monk after his stirring talk on compassion for all sentient beings. How do we decide who to help? His advice was to begin with those closest to our hearts. I took that recommendation to mean that by modeling compassion to our friends and family we could help those dear to us and inspire others, triggering rippling waves of kindness.

But how does that advice apply today to feminism’s next act?

Until recently, I believed quite strongly that women needed to unite behind one cause, achieve it, and then move on to the next and the next. We did that with Komen vs. Planned Parenthood and the re-election of President Barack Obama. Together, we succeeded.

However, an essay by Zoe Williams in The Guardian changed my mind. She wrote, “The women’s movement has a problem with ideological purism: In its discourse it demands not only that we all adhere to a central set of truths but also that we agree on their priority. This task is impossible—you cannot agree [on] a priority between the defense of a woman’s reproductive rights and the rights of women to be protected from violence.”

Williams argued that feminists shouldn’t proceed like synchronized swimmers but, rather, like individual players on a soccer team. Each woman should tackle what she cares about most deeply with the result that “we can burn more brightly in many places.”

Having suffered sexual harassment and discrimination, I labored for years over my legal thriller Terminal Ambition as a vehicle to educate women—hopefully in an entertaining fashion—about their right to be free of these violations. Now that the book has been published, other feminist causes stir me.

Umair Haque recently wrote in the Harvard Business Review: “Follow your passion, we’re often told. But how do you find your passion? Let me put it another way: What is it that breaks your heart about the world? It’s there that you begin to find what moves you. If you want to find your passion, surrender to your heartbreak.”

My heart breaks for young women in less developed countries who lack information about menstruation and sanitary supplies to deal with monthly bleeding. In India, menstruation is a taboo, and it is estimated that 23% of girls leave school when they start to menstruate. Three hundred million women and girls in that country lack access to safe menstrual hygiene products. Extreme poverty means even access to clean rags may be limited. Use of dirty rags including, in one case, rags infested with lizard eggs, result in severe health consequences such as hysterectomies. A woman who survives those hazards is then subject to another taboo—the person who first encounters a barren woman in the morning must take a bath to wash her stain away.  

Like many feminists in the United States, I have been outraged by the virulence of rape culture in India. I hope to use the social networks that I have developed as an author to fund-raise for an organization with boots on the ground in India to provide safe sanitary supplies to women and girls there. It will be a concrete step in providing access to education, a step toward defeating rape culture.       

What feminist cause makes your heart break? Will you give time and money to support it?

Kate McGuinness is a lawyer who spent 17 years at Biglaw before becoming the general counsel of a Fortune 500 corporation. After leaving that position, she studied creative writing and is the author of a legal suspense novel Terminal Ambition, which is available on Amazon.com. She is an advocate for women and tweets as @K8McGuinness.

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