“There is a special place in hell for women who don’t support other women.”
It’s a great quote – there is no question of that. And it has been used by innumerable women for every reason under the sun since Madeleine Albright said it first in a UN speech nearly 25 years ago.
I read the quote in the early 00’s when Albright reprised it at a graduation ceremony at one of the Seven Sisters, to much applause. I loved it. It seemed to ring true for my own brand of pick-and-choose feminism. For a couple of years post that, it was my go to intellectual curse for all sins, including stolen parking spaces.
I was stopped in my cursing tracks when I was called out by a former boss. She was a powerhouse. One of my first real introductions into women making a place for themselves in the restaurant industry. She was also a dedicated feminist and had been since the 60’s.
She didn’t take too kindly to my flinging the phrase around whenever it suited me – she called me out for condemning other women and, in so doing, for stealing the power from an important and powerful statement about the relationships between women. We sat down later that day and talked, and I what I received was a lesson in gender politics that far exceeded any coursework that had come before it.
What I took away from that day, and a series of conversations that followed, was that although the accomplishments of 1848 (the First Women’s Conference in Seneca Falls), and 1920 (the 19th Amendment), and 1964 (the Amendment to the Civil Rights Act regarding women) all seem so far in the past, they are not. The role of women in our society is still being challenged, being developed, and requiring our work.
More importantly – no matter the direction of our politics – we have an obligation, or at the very least an opportunity, to continue that work and to support those goals. We have an obligation, or at the very least an opportunity, to help each other, to empower each other, and to advance each other.
When, in 2006, we started work on what would eventually become A Toute Heure, I wrote a vision statement. There were a lot of things that were important to me as we built the business – supporting small farmers, contributing to our local community, working to shape my food system from the inside – but primary on that list was a commitment that my kitchen, my restaurant, and my business would have a role for women in it.
It is something of which I am extremely proud, but have been criticized for, have had to fight for, and have had to work to maintain a focus on. From cooks and employees in all facets, from farmers to purveyors, from interns to advisors – the role of women is something that was important to me to foster, to advocate for, and to support.
And it was, by no means, perfect.
In 1960, only 38% of women worked and in very limited roles according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. To be a small business owner, a chef, a land-owning farmer, a baker, a cheesemaker, or any of the myriad of strong women I met in the 10 years of my business, was just not an option that many were able to realize.
How can we not then make every effort, no matter how small, to support that progress and push forward? So that at some point, in whatever industry we choose, we all have greater choice and greater options.
The quote came back around in a rougher context in 2016. Ms. Albright used it at a Clinton rally during the 2016 election cycle. It met with backlash as it felt a bit like a divisive declaration that was more political than its’ original context. Ms. Albright wrote an OpEd in the NY Times about a week later saying she had made a mistake – that the statement, and the work it spurred, and the collaborations it created, were too important to load with politics. She noted that “our saving grace lies in our willingness to lift one another up.” Very true.
Everything came full circle for me a couple of week’s back.
I sat with a friend, a woman and small business owner, and we were downloading on her business. But one part of her narrative really stood out, because it was a story about a couple of women trying to do business together and not being able to, or willing to do the work to, find common ground.
I know that for me, I had assigned value to the product she has created – I do believe that what she has created is empirically better at the end of the day. But I also have found value in her, specifically, as a component of what makes her product, her company, and the act of doing business with her, unique and of greater value.
When she brought her product to ATH she created an opportunity for us both – for me, an opportunity to not only use a product I believed in but to be able to support another woman in a challenging industry; and for her, an opportunity to find support, common ground, and value for her role and her business.
In her current situation, another female business owner, who professed to support all of these things in her own situation, either didn’t value that opportunity, or didn’t care.
And it is in that moment that I start to see reason for worry.
Ms. Albright, in that same op ed, reinforced what I’ve said (much more eloquently as usual), “We cannot be complacent, and we cannot forget the hard work it took us to get where we are.”
For each of us, no matter our role, has to keep moving forward.
I have never considered myself a feminist. I don’t march. I don’t consider myself radical in my beliefs. But in this I do believe.
I have worked hard and been very lucky, in my many roles – to have been a female business owner; to be a female chef in a leadership role; and, to be both a (step) mother and a grandmother to a lovely bunch of young girls. And so, with everything that I have seen, heard, faced, overcome, or enjoyed over the past 10 years in these many roles in this difficult business, that I just can’t imagine any reason to not embrace each and every opportunity to do just what she has asked…to not forget, to keep moving forward, and to help.
Each day, as professional women, we are presented with opportunities for mentorship, for pooling resources, for passing along opportunities that don’t fit us – things that as a professional “person” (not even considering gender) I would hope we are all inclined to do. But, beyond that, it is with our buying power in which we hold a final, important amount of sway.
How are we choosing to spend our dollars? Whose businesses are we choosing to support with our dollars? Whose ideas are we willing to invest in with our dollars? And whose labor are we willing to encourage with our dollars?
Those decisions, especially as one woman to another, are 100% clear ways to help – and to help determine that the hard work of the past continues to move forward.
It’s really our choice.
I’ll keep you posted. xo Andrea