“There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.”

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 – just ask Taylor Swift.

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 sins ranging from business snubs to stolen parking spaces.

I was stopped in my cursing tracks, and stopped using it as an all encompassing condemnation – 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.  And, in this case, she was pissed.

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 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 developed.

More importantly, we therefore – no matter the direction of our politics – have an obligation, or at the very least an opportunity, to continue that work and support those goals.  We have an obligation, or at the very least an opportunity, to “help” each other.

When, in 2006, we started work on what would eventually become A Toute Heure, I wrote a vision statement, or rather a vision list.  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 foodshed 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, have been criticized for, have had to fight for, and have had to maintain a focus on – the role of women in my business.  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 and to support.

And it was by no means perfect.

But, if you think backwards.  In 1960 – which was just about 60 years ago – only 38% of women worked (according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics) and in very limited roles.  To be a small business owner, or a chef, or a land-owning farmer, or a bakery owner, or 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.  So in what is less than a normal lifespan of some of these women, there has been that much progress, and that much change.

How can we not then make every effort, no matter how small, to support that progress forward?  So that at some point, in whatever industry we choose, this just no longer needs to be a conversation.

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’ve been taking time off and trying to catch up with friends along the way.  I sat with a friend recently and we were downloading on some parts of her business as it grows and expands.  The good, the bad, the challenges along the way.

But one part of the exchange really stuck with me.  Partly because for other, more ideological reasons, it just felt wrong.  But, partly because it was a story about a couple of women trying to do business together and not finding common ground.

The conversation stuck with me because while I value the product she has created – I do believe that what she has created is empirically better at the end of the day – but I, me personally, found value in her, specifically her, as a component of what makes her product unique and of greater value.

When she brought her product to ATH, so many years ago when we were both starting out,  that was the moment that, for me, was an opportunity to not only use something I believed in – her product – but to be the woman who was able to support another woman in this industry.  She handed me an opportunity to fill that role – and that in itself is important.

And it struck me that this other gal either didn’t value that lesson, or didn’t care.

And it is there that I start to 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 am very lucky, in my many roles, to have been a female business owner.  And, I am very lucky, in my many roles moving forward, to be both a (step) mother and a grandmother to a lovely bunch of young girls.  And, perhaps it is with that, or with everything that I have seen, heard, dealt with, faced, overcome, or enjoyed over the past 10 years in those 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

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