Law in Contemporary Society

In Their Own Shadow: How Women Perpetuate Female Invisibility

-- By JenniferBurke - 04 April 2008

In “Cerriere’s Answer,” Martha Tharaud says “a whole lot of women disappear in this business. Where do they go? Is anyone trying to find them?” Part of the reason why women disappear at work is because they are marginalized in society. As much as this can be blamed on patriarchy and resistance to change, the questioning should begin with how women perpetuate this cycle. Women should work together and be the first line of defense against patriarchal norms but instead are guilty of enhancing their own invisibility by competing with each other in the workplace and questioning each other’s choices in society. Even when women do support each other, like female backers of Hillary Clinton, they still manage to marginalize other women who have not made the same choice. While these issues are surely related to patriarchal norms, to stop the cycle maybe women should stop looking at men and first start to recognize how their own missteps reinforce these norms.

Cooperation v Competition

Books with titles such as “Woman to Woman: From Sabotage to Support” try to encourage women to stop competing in the workplace, and a TIME magazine article in 2001 chronicled female lawyers and the struggle that they encountered working with other women in law firms. According to the article, female supervisors are often hostile to younger women entering the field (an experience I can attest to having interned at a law firm and faced one of these women myself), while female associates often accused their female supervisors of becoming “one of them” –a reference to the patriarchal power structure. TIME. While certainly the power struggle against male norms is a primary reason for women not rising to the top, women contribute to the cycle as well. Hostile competition between women contributes to forcing females out because not only are women fighting patriarchy, but they are also battling each other. Without allies women often do not get to the top because there is nobody supporting the climb. Maybe women compete against each other because of biology or because the women at the top have “become one of them,” part of the male hierarchy they do not want to threaten. Maybe it is that women who have struggled think that other women need to struggle as well. Whatever the explanation, part of the reason nobody can find the “disappearing women” is because many of the people who should be starting the search are actually an impediment to finding the solution. Nobody expects all competition to fade. Men compete with other men all the time after all, and women should compete as well, with both men and women. But women should compete with other women without cutting each other down because even if the men at the top support the female quest for equality, women will never get it without treating each other as equals first.

"The Mommy Wars"

The “mommy wars” indicate that this competition is happening outside of the workplace as well. Instead of using the women’s movement as a means of encouraging autonomy and respecting women’s choices, many women fight over working versus staying at home. Through this process of marginalizing each other’s experiences, women contribute to their own invisibility in society, which perpetuates their invisibility in the workplace. Arguments that pit working mothers against stay-at-home mothers imply that there is one type of idyllic mother, making some women out to be lesser women rather than recognizing individual accomplishments at home and at work. This marginalizes individual women’s experiences and asserts that there is one “ideal” lifestyle for women. If women want to be seen as equals to men, if they want to stop being made invisible at work, women must first start recognizing each other as equals and start respecting each other’s choices.

Women for Hillary! (But Against Other Women)

With Hillary Clinton running for President what should be a moment for women to take advantage of their visibility in the political process has become another example of women marginalizing each other. I have been told, sometimes by women whose only reason for voting for Clinton is her womanhood, that not voting for her is a betrayal to my gender. NOW has perpetuated this view by criticizing young female supporters of Obama for not feeling the obligation that they should to vote for Clinton. The call for women to support each other does not mean that all women need to blindly support someone solely because she is a woman. This method of support contributes to women’s invisibility. When women vote for Clinton because she is a woman, are they not diminishing her work and her values? In a political process that should be about leadership and views, to vote for someone because of their gender only serves to reinforce gender lines, not break them down. This lack of recognition of Clinton's views diminishes her as an individual and as an accomplished person.

But more importantly, women are demeaning each other. To assert that a woman is betraying her gender by not voting for Clinton minimizes women as individuals. It lumps women into one entity, whose defining characteristic is gender, not values. Further, it demeans women whose own experiences do not match up with Clinton’s by implying that because Clinton is a woman, she is the best representative for all women. What about women whose experiences differ from Clinton’s? These women’s values and views are discounted in favor of gender “obligations”. Even when women are supporting another powerful woman, they somehow manage to also demean other women, making them invisible in society by discounting their individuality.


If “disappearing” women are to be found at work, they must first be visible in society, an important element of which is the political process. Women must stop marginalizing each other, and instead, recognize each woman’s value as a person, whose choices should be respected. Just as with any other group fighting for equality, it is nearly impossible to solve the problem when the problem is being perpetuated within.

  • Almost any reader is likely to be struck by the problem presented in the resonance of the formal call for loyalty at the start of the essay with the recognition that feminists don't have to vote for Hillary Clinton. It's not a "conflict," that has to be resolved, but rather a form of tension that should be observed and felt, rather than left unacknowledged. I also think the argument that there will be no male feminists if women aren't loyal to one another is facile, and almost certainly wrong. I don't think men who believe in women's equality therefore expect women to avoid undermining one another, because they're men and they know that men undermine one another all the time. Equality will not come as quite as big a surprise to men as they like to pretend. Men who support women don't believe in angels any more than women do.

  • Wouldn't it have been fair to say here that women are people as men are people, and are both different and the same, as all people are to one another? Once being said, what is the recommendation for women struggling for equality that isn't also relevant to all the other movements for human respect and liberation: beware the narcissism of minor differences, there is strength in unity, keep your eyes on the prize?



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r8 - 22 Jan 2009 - 01:18:58 - IanSullivan
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