I am a feminist, and not a single person who knows me would be surprised by that statement. In college and graduate school, people often asked me what I wanted to be after I graduated. My response was vague but consistent: I wanted to be a professional feminist.
In my mind, a professional feminist meant I wanted to work for a feminist organization and make fighting for women’s and LGBTQ rights my career.
After I graduated, I landed an administrative job in a feminist organization, whose name I shall purposefully omit. I will start by saying that the work this organization does is amazing, and I commend them for their passion and dedication. I didn’t even care that the position was administrative when I had my M.A.
I figured although I might be bored, I would still learn a lot about the inner works of a feminist nonprofit. Besides, degree or no, we all have to start somewhere. I’m not above hard work; I started my working career helping my father move furniture across country in a semi-truck.
Just like every job I’ve ever held (and there have been many), working as an administrative assistant taught me a lot. I learned how to prove support to different staff positions and a Board of Directors. I learned how to deal with grants at every level. I learned about fiscal responsibilities that hadn’t ever crossed my mind before.
More importantly, I learned that not all feminist organizations live by the values they preach.
I felt really uncomfortable and devalued in my job. I dreaded going to work, because of the underlying friction and power struggles between executive staff. I dreaded going to work, for fear of being treated like a child by individuals who had children my age and couldn’t distinguish between an employee and their kids. I dreaded going to work, because I felt like others expected me to act a certain way based on my age, and when I didn’t, they would push or fish for some sort of negative emotion or reaction.
Hell, I dreaded going to work for a lot of reasons, and when I tried to communicate, the only people who listened were other administrative staff.
As in any professional organization, we were encouraged to talk to our supervisors if we had issues. But none of us felt like we could talk to our supervisors. After all, the supervisors were the problem.
When we tried, we were dismissed in various ways. When I asked questions about why a task was done inefficiently, causing a lot of unnecessary work for a lot of staff, I was told “That’s just the way it is. So-And-So isn’t going to change.” When I was upset about unprofessional treatment, the response was “Everyone has that issue with So-And-So. You just have to deal with it.”
To make matters worse, the constant rhetoric concerning the rights of women focused on “empowerment.” Empowerment. This is one of the most important components of feminist theory and practice! Yet, while leaders preached empowerment, they were not empowering to staff. Apparently it only applied to everyone not working in the office.
The worst was the day I was called “just” an administrative assistant. The emphasis on just isn’t made up; it was said with such a degree of condescension that it still makes me angry today. Administrative assistants do a lot, dammit, and put up with even more. We are not just anything.
I never felt empowered in my feminist job. Not once. In fact, I was miserable and found the support of the other administrative staff quintessential to my not just walking out one day. We didn’t gossip; we simply shared stories that really upset us. We were there for each other, offering a latte or a supportive email. We also encouraged each other to take care of ourselves, by taking mental health days, eating chocolate, or taking a walk around the parking lot.
One day, we were told to stop talking to each other, that it was unprofessional. That we had to talk to our supervisors. Animosity deepened; what little morale left completely evaporated. We talked to each other because, as I mentioned earlier, we couldn’t talk to our supervisors. I began to frequently leave the office for my lunch. I began to stress eat brownies and down sugary drinks. I was completely disillusioned. Here were these feminist leaders I was supposed to look up to -– and had –- and they collectively killed my desire to work in the field.
Then, I came into work one day. And I lost my job. Grant cuts; multiple positions eliminated. Yadda, yadda, yadda.
I was actually relieved. I nodded. Said I understood. As I was about to ask for the rest of the day off to process, the individuals laying me off wouldn’t stop talking. They had those puppy dog eyes, and just kept explaining the same things (i.e., “It isn’t our fault. We don’t want to do this. We love you!”) over and over again. I kept saying “I understand.”
It wasn’t a lie. I absolutely understood. It is a tough time for nonprofits, especially any dealing with women’s rights. But they wouldn’t listen. They kept talking. Until I finally started crying out of sheer frustration and the desire to be left alone.
After I started crying, they let me leave. It was almost immediate, as if they were waiting that half hour just to see me react the way they expected.
I was livid, but not about losing the job. No. I was actively looking for another job and had been for six months. For me, losing that job meant that I wouldn’t have to be miserable every day. No, I was livid because they violated everything I ever thought about working for feminists, and I was livid because of all the un-empowering ways they treated myself and others.
While I know and understand that other work environments treat their employees in similar ways, I never expected this in a feminist organization. The only job where I have felt worse is during my relatively short stint at McDonalds in 2005. Working for these particular feminists even made me nostalgic for the housekeeping job where I was sexually harassed by a house boy for the entire summer (and that was a rough summer).
Losing my job at that organization is the best thing that has happened to me since moving back to the Midwest. Because of a belly dance connection, I walked straight into a temporary job in a large insurance company. I literally had no down time, and hopefully the temporary position will last long enough for me to find a permanent job with benefits. I’ve cast my net wide and am willing to do almost anything that pays enough for me to pay my student loans.
My temporary position is absolutely wonderful. I go to work in the morning, drink coffee, do my job, and leave. I have the time and energy to think about what I want to do and what I don’t want to do. I’m also emotionally settled enough to think about me rather than how I’m going to deal with whatever bullshit other feminists will toss my way today.
In this temporary job, I am happier than I’ve been since I started working in a feminist organization. Just ask my best friends who seem to like me a lot more now than they have the past few months. For now, that’s enough.
Among the positive and negative experiences I had working for feminists, I met a lot of amazing people. Now, I still want to be a professional feminist but am reworking what that means.