Donna Karan is still kicking herself.
Almost two weeks ago, in a speech that could’ve been straight out of the Jihadist’s Guide to the Hijab, Karan gave a bizarre defense of her good friend, Harvey Weinstein. In between grinning broadly like the Cheshire Cat on Ritalin, the designer rambled on about how women could be asking for sexual harassment and groping because of how they dress.
“How do we display ourselves, how do we present ourselves as women, what are we asking? Are we asking for it, you know, by presenting all the sensuality and all the sexuality?” she wondered.
“It’s not Harvey Weinstein. You look at everything all over the world today and how women are dressing and, you know, what they’re asking by just presenting themselves the way they do. What are they asking for? Trouble.”
(A few days later, alarmed by the backlash her outrageous comments caused, the designer told WWD, “I made a horrible mistake. I regret it from the bottom of my heart.”)
Kudos for the apology, but one does wonder — was the self-avowed feminist sorry she said it or that she got caught saying it? Because it’s going to be really hard to sell Urban Zen $1,995 scarf-wrap dresses or get an invite to Oprah’s house if people truly believe it’s the latter.
The silver lining in the porcine, hairy cloud of Harveygate is the ongoing public look at how women are treated, what we have to go through to make it in our careers and how we are overlooked. It sparked a discussion of what actual feminism is (establishing and achieving political, economic, personal and social equality of the sexes) and maybe — just maybe — some real changes in the work environment.
On the flip side, the scandal also shed light on a few women who use the mantle of feminism not as way to fight for all women, but to personally reap the benefits of the media spotlight. It leaves one with the sinking suspicion that some of the most high-profile, self-proclaimed feminists out there are taking up the cause not to raise awareness of the inequality of women, but to raise awareness of their personal brand, which only benefits their bank account.
The most craven, obvious case is Lisa Bloom.
The Hollywood lawyer had the audacity to claim to be the voice of voiceless women but, it turns out, allegedly played a role in silencing them. Not only did she work with Harvey Weinstein (enriching herself not just off her legal fees but from a movie deal he gave her), she also represented Amazon Studios head Roy Price, who was just fired for sexual harassment. While working with Price, she reportedly spread false rumors about journalist Kim Masters, who wrote a piece for the Columbia Journalism Review. “One of Bloom’s tactics was to try to kill the story by telling multiple outlets that I had approached Price and Amazon for money to support my radio show,” Masters wrote. “There was no truth to this.” (Bloom did not comment on the story.)
All too often these chosen women are content to soak up the spotlight on their own, accepting and brandishing the accolades of feminism while not privately practicing them
Moving past Harvey, the truth is in most industries there isn’t a glass ceiling — it’s more like a 50-meter thick Lucite cap that an asteroid can’t scratch. Every now and then, one woman will be plucked out and held up as an example as if to say, “See? We like women! Look, we have one!”
But all too often these chosen women are content to soak up the spotlight on their own, accepting and brandishing the accolades of feminism while not privately practicing them.
Let’s take the sacred cow of branded feminists, Sheryl Sandberg, who wrote the 2013 handbook for privileged women, “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead” — which sent most women I know who weren’t raised in a white, upper-class, two-parent household into apoplectic fits.
While the media slathers over her, few look beyond what she says to what she actually does. While Sandberg may talk about closing the gender gap, her own company isn’t even leading the fight against it. According to Business Insider, Facebook’s female workforce is just 33 percent, with women holding just 17 percent of technical roles and 27 percent of leadership positions. Women hold just two out of eight seats on Facebook’s board of directors. In gender (and race), Facebook lags behind other Silicon Valley giants like Apple, Twitter and even Uber. Meanwhile, Sandberg’s Lean In organization is about amorphous “circles,” according to its website, described as “small groups who meet regularly to learn and grow together, and they’re changing lives. Women are asking for more, stepping outside their comfort zones, and leaning in.”
In contrast, there are women who actually put their money where their mouth is and lead by example. Like General Motors chairman and CEO Mary Barra. Not only is there a 50/50 gender split on the GM board, but in January, GM gave a $250,000 grant to Girls Who Code, the national nonprofit aiming to close the gender gap in technology, and in April announced a partnership with four more female-led STEM programs, including Black Girls Code. PS: Barra’s strategy of implementing equality in the office works. GM stock is at a five-year high.
So let’s stop celebrating the pocketbook feminists. And start considering Barra and the many other real feminists like her who have earned the right to hold up the Lady Power banner.
Paula Froelich is a journalist and the creator of abroadabroad.com.