This article was first published to The Huffington Post on November 20, 2014.
‘Tis the season to be shopping for holiday gifts, and books are a perennial favorite. If you’re looking for something for that special woman in your life, you’ll have plenty of choices. In particular, the sub-genre of “power-woman memoir” has a lot to offer: Off the Sidelines: Raise Your Voice, Change the World by New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (with a foreword by presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton); Forgetting to Be Afraid: A Memoir by former Texas gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis; A Fighting Chance by rising left-wing star Senator Elizabeth Warren; and Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s My Beloved World. There are also some memoir/self-help books available, most notably Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, written by the COO of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg.
All of these books chronicle how successful women have overcome personal, political and social obstacles to become leaders and sources of inspiration. The objective of books like these (aside from drumming up publicity for the authors) is to share hard-won lessons in the hopes of motivating other women to improve their own situations.
There is plenty of room for improvement. American women have a long way to go to close the gap in gender equality. The United States currently ranks 54th in the world in women’s political empowerment. Women’s representation on Fortune 500 boards is at 17% and hasn’t changed in eight years. Women control 80% of consumer spending in the United States, yet represent only 3% of creative directors in advertising.
Improving gender equality in America is going to require aggressive campaigns on multiple fronts. No doubt strong federal legislation supporting women’s issues would help. Most critically, the United States must fund a federally mandated program for maternity leave; we are the only high-income nation in the world that doesn’t have one. Implementing this program at the federal level creates a consistent message that we, as a nation, value and support working mothers.
However, since only one in five members of Congress is a woman, legislation cannot be the sole hope for improving gender equality. What is more important, and arguably much harder, will be to change social perceptions about women.
Changing these perceptions will not come from reading success stories about how powerful women overcame obstacles. In fact, the wave of power-woman memoirs only serves to further ingrain the status quo by focusing on the historical and the personal. Power-woman memoirs make society look backwards and inwards, when we should be looking forwards and outwards.
The media has always played an essential role in shaping our opinions. Right now there is much too great a focus on the gender of — rather than on the professional successes of — power women. The litany of articles profiling a bunch of power women kvetching about how hard their road to success was serves the same purpose that power-woman memoirs do — backwards-looking validation of the status quo. Instead, we need to read stories about what these women have accomplished — and not because they are women, but because they are good at their jobs.
The same applies to entertainment. Too many of today’s female heroines are victimized, emotionally-scarred women (or they are over-sexualized, but that’s a topic for another blog post). Consider power lawyer Alicia from The Good Wife: her husband is a philandering crook. Alicia’s success as an attorney is motivated by her need to overcome her husband’s failures. Then there’s Nancy from Weeds. She’s a widow — and a drug dealer. Comedy offers us Christy from Mom. She’s a former teen mom who’s a recovering alcoholic, barely making ends meet as a waitress. Give us better female role models. Enough said.
Women in powerful positions need to use their influence to change the way Americans perceive the female gender, and it shouldn’t be done with memoir. This holiday season, the greatest gift American women could receive would not be a book. It would be a collaboration between Hillary Rodham Clinton, Kirsten Gillibrand, Wendy Davis, Elizabeth Warren, Sonia Sotomayor and Sheryl Sandberg that resulted in visionary, practical ways to achieve gender equality in America.