Editor’s Note: Marie Solis is a reporter based in New York. Her work has appeared in VICE, The Nation, Newsweek, and others. The views expressed in this commentary belong to the author. View more opinion at CNN.
Last month several female founders stepped down after they were accused of creating toxic workplaces for the people of color they employed.
Refinery29 cofounder and editor-in-chief Christene Barberich, who helmed the women’s news and culture site for 15 years, was the first to resign after the police killing of George Floyd sparked a reckoning with racial inequality in the workplace.
Former employees described the company as one where “White women’s egos ruled” and Black women were diminished. One employee alleged she was paid $15,000 less than two White coworkers who were doing the same job, while another said Barberich repeatedly confused one Black woman with another.
Barberich said she cofounded Refinery29 to “amplify and build community around women rarely seen or heard in media” and acknowledged a personal failure to do that “to the detriment of Black women and women of color in particular.”
Other businesswomen, facing similar accusations, stepped down in quick succession. Leandra Medine Cohen, who founded the women’s fashion blog Man Repeller in 2010, was criticized for the site’s lack of diverse content and the company’s failure to retain employees of color. Jen Gotch, cofounder of Ban.do, a clothing and lifestyle brand, was accused of racism; and Audrey Gelman, cofounder and CEO of the millennial pink-suffused coworking space The Wing, came under fire for the company’s treatment of Black and brown employees.
Medine Cohen said she admitted to having “failed to deliver” on the mission of Man Repeller, which was to “celebrate self-expression in all of its forms.” Gotch, who acknowledged she had been racist, said she was “guilty” of “building a brand that espouses inclusivity but doesn’t consistently reflect that.” She added, “Not only am I guilty, I have been so ignorant and so insulated by the ease and comfort of my white privilege, that up until just a few days ago, I would have passionately and sincerely denied negatively impacting others.” And in an internal email to staff, Gelman wrote that leaving her post was the “the best way to bring The Wing along into a long overdue era of change.”
Their resignations suggest that the empowerment they so often spoke of, which helped promote their companies and their bottom lines, was not for the benefit of all the women they employed. Evacuated of any meaningful politics, their feminism could be used as a savvy marketing tactic, a trend that has been fiercely debated and criticized over the years by leftist feminists such as Barbara Ehrenreich, Nancy Fraser and bell hooks.
It was unsurprising that these startups and brands did not create the conditions for a more equitable workplace. What this appropriation of feminism has done, revealed now in all its contradiction and hypocrisy, is bring to light the enduring need for a more inclusive, intersectional feminist movement that works to improve the lives of all women, not just those few at the top. The Black women who have come forward in recent weeks only make a more urgent case for it.
The promise of a new order
The tech sector, founded on notions of meritocracy, was fertile ground for a version of feminism that told women to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. In 2013, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg published the book “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead,” which offered practical advice to women who aspired to C-suite positions. In doing so, she became the most prominent advocate of the idea that feminism was primarily an individual enterprise — that if women spoke up and advocated for themselves they could largely overcome the barriers of systemic sexism on their own.
The following year, Sophia Amoruso, founder of the women’s clothing retailer Nasty Gal, took Sandberg’s message, gave it a millennial spin and distilled the ethos of Lean In in the figure of the “girlboss.” The term was widely picked up in popular culture and used to celebrate a certain kind of businesswoman – usually an entrepreneur, and almost always white – whose dogged pursuit of her own ambitions was thought to be a subversive act.
In an interview with Elle, Amoruso mused, “Maybe girlboss is a new word for feminism.”
For professional women, the girlboss represented the promise of a new order. With the world still awash in male-dominated startups, many hoped that female founders and CEOs would create friendlier work environments for women, especially in the wake of the #MeToo movement. It was assumed that the success of these individual women was a de facto good for all women.
But over time, many of the same power dynamics and problems of inequity – from allegations of sexual harassment to racism – emerged at companies helmed by women.
In 2015, a former employee sued Nasty Gal, alleging the company illegally fired her, along with two other pregnant women, before they were set to go on maternity leave (Nasty Gal issued a statement at the time saying the employees were fired as part of a wider restructuring, and called the lawsuit “frivolous and without merit.” The suit was later settled in private arbitration proceedings.)
In 2017, Miki Agrawal, the self-styled “She-E-O” of underwear brand Thinx, faced a sexual harassment complaint from an employee who accused her of touching her breasts and undressing in front of Thinx staff. Agrawal settled the suit on confidential terms and publicly called the complaint an “inflamed allegation.”
It seems tuning out detractors – a vital part of being a girlboss – had apparently resulted in credible criticisms of toxic workplaces being tossed out with sexist ones.
Feminism amid the dying embers of the girlboss trend
Over the past few years, skepticism of the girlboss – and the idea that women can single-handedly change the systems of power from within – has intensified alongside the resurgence of anti-capitalist politics. With it, a feminism animated by the principles of the labor movement, which has a rich history in the US dating back more than a century, has reemerged.
In 2017, a group of activists organized the International Women’s Strike, a labor strike that took place on the same day as International Women’s Day (and has for every year since). Drawing on the feminist strike movements abroad, the organizers used the event as a launchpad for “repoliticizing” a feminism that had been co-opted by brands to sell products and services. They called it a “feminism for the 99%.”
They saw an appetite for this feminism all around them, most of all amid the dying embers of the girlboss trend. “We have no interest in breaking the glass ceiling while leaving the vast majority [of women] to clean up the shards,” the activists wrote in their manifesto. “Far from celebrating women CEOs who occupy corner offices, we want to get rid of CEOs and corner offices.”
We may still be far from a world where CEOs and corner offices do not exist, but the very audiences and customers these girlbosses once courted have begun to develop a class critique of the feminism that had been sold to them. When Forbes said Kylie Jenner was set to become “the youngest-ever self-made billionaire” in 2018, the accolade was met with outrage from those who pointed out that “self-made” was a clear misnomer.
Not only had Jenner inherited an enormous amount of wealth and fame from her family, but no billionaire made their fortune without the labor of working people. (Forbes later removed Jenner from its billionaires list in 2020 and accused her of inflating the value of her business). The instructive part of the term “girlboss,” many came to realize, is not that she is a woman but that she is a boss.
The girlboss, who many believed would bring about positive social change, can now be seen as a symbol of regressive politics: out of touch and unfit to lead companies into a new, more inclusive future.
The collapse of that archetype is likely to cause more people to coalesce around the feminist politics that the International Women’s Strike organizers – and others who share their philosophy – have defined. This feminism isn’t about marketing something; it centers not solely on so-called “women’s issues,” but takes up the struggles of immigrant rights, labor rights, environmental justice and anti-racist movements as well.
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When current and former staffers spoke out about their experiences at Refinery29, (many under the hashtag #BlackatR29), the staff union stood in solidarity with them, and pledged to hold leadership accountable to their vow to create a more diverse and inclusive newsroom. Feminism, they understood, is no individual endeavor. Collective action is the only way forward.