A Neatly Packaged Double-Edged Sword: On Working Feminism and OWN getting Owned

by:  Khai Devon

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Oprah Winfrey is often lauded as a feminist pioneer, breaking the glass ceiling as quickly as she breaks down the fourth wall. She has built an empire based on name recognition and skillful marketing, and is commonly referred to as “the most powerful woman in America,” simply because her audience follows her recommendations on everything from household cleaning products, to books, to who to elect as President of The United States of America.  She is held up as a shining example of entreprenuerial spirit and The American Dream, being a self-made woman who has “made it”—big time.

And yet, Oprah has given up many things in pursuit of this position of power and prestige. While feminist writers right and left will argue that it is possible for a woman in modern day America to have a successful professional career, a happy and well-adjusted family they are solely responsible for raising (because men are clueless when it comes to children, amirite??) and enough time to have a day to themselves every once in a while, the truth is that Oprah—along with other powerful women commonly used as empirical evidence of the rising status of the American woman—has chosen to pursue a career instead of docile domesticity. And while that’s a valid choice, it’s not correct to say that it wasn’t a choice, or that it didn’t have to be made at some point.

Furthermore, Oprah sells the idea of “having it all” to women everywhere. The Oprah Winfrey Network, or OWN, has a magazine, a tv channel, and a website all dedicated to selling the idea of peaceful housewifery as the height of the female experience, while also encouraging women to get ahead in the workplace and pursue their professional callings without giving up the right to call themselves a domestic goddess. Right now, on OWN’s website, is an article entitled “Saying No At Work—How to Keep Your Job,” which is an article about setting boundaries at work and carving time out for yourself and your family. This is ironic, as The Oprah Winfrey Network, Oprah herself, and an employee of hers named Michael Garner are being sued by former OWN employee Carolyn Hommel for allegedly ousting her from the organization because she got pregnant. Now, I will never argue that this kind of discrimination doesn’t happen. And given Oprah’s singleminded dedication to empire-building, it is completely possible that Hommel is correct and she is facing discrimination for trying to claim the promise of neatly packaged double-edged sword modern day feminism, and have it all. On the other hand, pretty much everywhere on the internet is crowing about that—so let’s talk about the devil’s advocate position for a minute.

Perhaps Hommel is wrong. Perhaps she is not facing discrimination—perhaps she just got outed from her job because a more qualified employee took her place.  After all, the facts are these: just before Hommel left for a pregnancy-related medical leave of absence, she was given an unfavorable performance review by her direct superior. While she was gone, a temporary employee was hired to take her place. When she came back, more and more of her workload was shifted to that temporary employee, who is no longer temporary. What if, in fact, Hommel just… wasn’t as good at her job as the temporary employee? What if she could have had it all, but chose not to—choosing instead to spend more time focusing on raising her family rather than putting in long hours at work? What if the unfavorable performance review was actually because she had unfavorable performance, and not because she also happened to be pregnant?  That is a choice that is equally valid, but again it is incorrect to say that it is not a choice that has to be made. Quite simply, having it all in the way that people want to pretend women can have it all is not a reality—which is why men aren’t both stay at home dads and the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies at the same time.

This discrimination case, however it plays out (probably a settlement to Hommel, because that’s probably much much easier) highlights an increasingly apparent problem with modern feminist discourse. It’s not that a woman can’t have it all, it’s that she shouldn’t have to. If men and women are truly equal, then they should have the same choices—and it should be equally as recognizable that they are choices. That asking a woman to be June Cleaver and Hilary Clinton is no more fair or equitable than asking a man to be Ward Cleaver and a stay-at-home dad. That there are only so many hours in a day that things can get done, and some things have to be priorities, and that is okay. Asking a woman to be both and selling it as “she gets to” is just as unfair as denying her the right to either option.

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