Sisterhood Co-opted or Amplified: Are you Cheney, Stefanik, Peralte, or Emily?

Issue 167 — May 17, 2021

Every time I make a speech or do a leadership training, a woman inevitably asks, “What about women who don’t support other women? Why are women so hard on other women?” Or, “What do I do about a woman who is trying to sabotage me in my career?”

Fanning the flames of these questions comes the recent deposing of Liz Cheney from Republican leadership in the U.S. House of Representatives, only to be replaced by another woman, Elise Stefanik, who obviously had been complicit, willingly trampling on a female colleague in her own quest for power and position.

Rep. Elise Stefanik (right) replaced Rep. Liz Cheney (left) as House GOP Conference chair. Photos: Samuel Corum/Getty Images; Alex Wong/Getty Images.

At the other end of the spectrum, as I was hearing the Cheney-Stefanik episode incessantly reported by the media, I received my weekly newsletter of “The Traveling Diary: A Sisterhood of Stories Community,” started by author and tech founder Kyra Peralte, whose purpose is “creating belonging for women around the globe.”

And my email box is filled with solicitations from organizations of women that help women run for office, both partisan like Emily’s List and nonpartisan such as Vote Run Lead and the Yale Campaign School.

Then there are a plethora of organizations like Chief, Asian Women MEAN Business and The Cru — not to mention my own Take The Lead 50 Women Can Change the World cohort building programs — that rely on the principle I call “Sister Courage” to provide systems for women to help each other succeed in their careers. I created that term to describe the nexus between sisterhood or mutual support, individual courage, and the power of sisters working together in a movement.

The assumption is that there is power in the sisterhood, and women will inevitably know and choose to employ it. You might also recall the “amplification” strategy used by women in the Obama Administration to get their voices heard over the louder and more aggressive male voices in meetings.

There are also moments of heart-expanding meaning in visible expressions of sisterhood. Take this observation by Elisha Beach in the Scary Mommy Blog:

“Watching Kamala Harris and Michelle Obama share a double fist bump at the inauguration was truly a historical moment. It was impactful to see that single gesture between the first Black and Southeast Asian female Vice President and the first Black woman to hold the position of First Lady.”

Sisters, Competitors, Frenemies, or Enemies: Which Are You?

So what’s your answer to that question? Do women support other women or not? Should women automatically support other women? Is gender relevant or not relevant? What has your own experience been? Please feel free to discuss this in the chat.

Author of “The Woman Code,” Sophia A. Nelson, says in an article for NBC News that “gunning for another woman’s job when she is unfairly being attacked hurts all of us.”

Nelson says, “Let’s face it. It’s 2021, and women still need to stick together and stand up for each other. To know our own value, we must celebrate, defend, and respect the value of other women… We must fight for each other, not with each other. This coup against the last honest Republican woman in Congress was engineered by several powerful men…But it was endorsed and enabled by dozens of compliant women.”

And here is the part of what Nelson wrote that I found especially compelling: “Stefanik is clearly ambitious. And there is nothing wrong with that. But ambition should never take precedence over integrity.”

She points out that women will rise or fall together, and calls out boldly that Stefanik has been co-opted by the men in power who are using her for their own goals. After all, (my addition here) even the most conservative leaders now understand they need to have women on their team to succeed in garnering public support.

The dictionary definition of co-option is: to elect into a body by the votes of the existing members; to assimilate, take, or win over into a larger or established group; to appropriate as one’s own.”

That’s spot on what we witnessed in the case of Stefanik and Cheney.

It’s also what I described in a non-political version in my book No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Think About Power when I told the story of James Chartrand, a woman who used a fake male identity because she found she could get better-paying writing gigs with a man’s name than with her own. When she made the choice to perform a pantomime of masculinity, she had come out of a situation where she felt completely alone. She saw her identity as a female not as a possible source of solidarity and strength, but as a vulnerability that had to be cloaked. In so doing, she paradoxically increased her vulnerability — by making herself a target for the kind of “outing” that eventually led her to confess her “real” identity — and reinforced the unconscious and conscious patterns of discrimination that keep us from achieving full equality.

To quote the inimitable lawyer, feminist, and civil rights activist, Florynce Kennedy, “When a system of oppression has become institutionalized it is almost unnecessary for individuals to be oppressive.”

In other words, yes, we women sometimes do discriminate against ourselves and other women when we are coming from a place of fear, vulnerability, or belief in the traditional idea of power as a scarce resource — a finite pie our piece of which we must fight for tooth and nail.

To be sure, there will be times when a woman does not support another woman’s agenda. In politics that can certainly be the case, as it can in a business situation when two women don’t see eye to eye about a particular strategy.

Three classic books edited by Robin Morgan, that would lead you to think sisterhood is indeed an unbreakable bond among women. But is it?

Still, in the larger sense, I agree with Nelson who says there is plenty room for all powerful women to succeed. And I also agree with her when she says that in order for that to be true, we must do the following:

Be a woman other women can trust. Don’t participate in mean girl tribunals or the public and professional pummeling of other women.

Lift other women as you climb. Success is great. But success is even greater when you leave a lasting legacy of mentorship, sponsorship and sisterhood behind.

Build a bench of younger women. Men are good at keeping the boys’ club full. Women must do the same. We have to make sure that many more follow the first woman to break the glass ceiling.

Don’t think or act like a man. The old rule used to be “act like one of the guys and you will fit in.” But why would you ever want to act like a man? You are a woman, phenomenally, as Maya Angelou once said. Walk in that proudly.

From the poem Phenomenal Woman, by Maya Angelou.

Never cut what you can untie. You won’t like every woman, and she will not like you, but we all have value and worth. Don’t slam doors shut. Leave room to re-open the doors of sisterhood and friendship another day.

I especially resonate with that last point, and it is applicable regardless of gender. Best not to burn bridges that you might need to walk back over someday. And there is far more power in women supporting women than the misguided belief that there is greater safety in aligning with power that might not have your best interest at heart.

Let me know what you think.

GLORIA FELDT is the Cofounder and President of Take The Lead, a motivational speaker and expert women’s leadership developer for companies that want to build gender balance, and a bestselling author of four books, most recently No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Former President of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, she teaches “Women, Power, and Leadership” at Arizona State University and is a frequent media commentator. Learn more at www.gloriafeldt.com and www.taketheleadwomen.com. Tweet Gloria Feldt.

Gloria Feldt is a New York Times bestselling author and co-founder and president of Take The Lead, a nonprofit women’s leadership organization.

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