Binders Full of Women Take Issue with Isolated Incident
Austin City Manager Marc Ott apologized recently for something “sexist” happening at City Hall. It was the softer side of patriarchy expressing regret for an uncontrolled outburst. Like a hung-over frat boy, the chief city bureaucrat is real sorry about his behavior last night; and he is making a case for forgiveness so things can go back to normal.
Honey, we need to leave this dirt bag – not Ott – but patriarchy behind us.
The incident in question has blown up the over the last few days. The office of the city manager, under direction of Assistant City Manager Anthony Snipes, offered a training called “The Changing Dynamics in Governance: Women Leading a Local Government”. Two speakers came from Florida, former city manager Jonathan K. Allen and professor and consultant Dr. Miya Burt-Stewart. They addressed a room of mostly women on what differences occur when women, instead of men, are in charge in the workplace. Burt-Stewart took the lead presentation about gender differences in the workplace. Allen described the growing trend of women as majorities in the public sector. One of his main arguments as to why this is important was that women care more about communities than numbers, and that men need to change to accommodate this. However his style and vocabulary was not in sync with white Liberal professional culture.
The media produced a public uproar about the training, framing it as sexist. Articles came out in local and national papers (see links below) that shamed the city manager, his staff, and the speakers. There has been repetition of the same narrative by every news source available. Virtually none seem to reference the training, but only the initial news article’s interpretation of the training, which ignores Burt-Stewart completely and takes Allen out of context. Two days later the women of City Council, the Mayor and the City Manager responded with a press conference expressing their disappointment of the “sexist” presentation. Ott apologized in the midst of calls for his ouster. A day later Assistant Manager Snipes was suspended over the incident. This is how the public narrative currently stands: sexist men were shown the door, girl-power, go back to work.
“There is some cultural thing going on that we’re not aware of,” said Garza in her response. Adler added, “we need to understand how we got here.” Apparently, they’ve never heard of patriarchy – a word that we have not seen mentioned in any news article about the situation (including snarky “feminist” blog) or by any official responses. Instead everyone has been using the Liberal safe words “diversity” and “difference”.
Before everyone goes quietly back to work, we might address the opportunity we have to advance gender equity in our city right now and what this will look like. We might also notice how when members of historically disenfranchised groups achieve status, they spend most of their political careers playing defense, moving to the “center” and molding their politics and behavior to align with the dominant social group. The “controversial” trainings appear to be a perfect opportunity to move against patriarchy – but council’s response was to NOT talk about gender. I respect the women on council enough to take this more seriously and rise to this potentially feminist occasion.
Somebody has some serious Mansplaining to do
Ott mansplained his way out of charges of sexism by claiming that the speaker is in no way representative of the “culture, philosophy or approach” to how he manages the city.
So, the city of Austin operates as a passively matriarchal organization via culture, philosophy and approach and NOT as a patriarchal organization rooted firmly in treating women as if they do not have power? I don’t think so.
The problem with the training was not that it had an “outdated message” as the council claimed. The problem is that despite women taking representative power in city government, management in our society remains rooted in patriarchy.
Instead of talking about patriarchy, everyone followed Ott’s framing that “the city respects diversity”. Sound familiar? It should. We are in as much of a post-patriarchal society as we are in a post-racial society. Adler’s public comment that “this kind of misguided ‘training’ does not represent Austin and its inclusive values” is the opposite of our sentiment:
“Oh, the most segregated city in America is in Liberal denial about structures of oppression and thinks “diversity” challenges power? Yeah, I guess that would apply to gender as well as race.”
Despite having a non-white president as our image of an anti-racist America, racist violence against people of color has increased under Obama. This actually makes sense when we understand how power works: When White-Supremacy is challenged at the institutional level, people who rely on white-privilege to claim power in society look to re-establish their dominance through violence. We have seen this unfold in regards to sex and gender over the last generation – something often overlooked among feminists.
Patriarchy is a hierarchical social system where masculinity is associated with agency and represented by “male bodies” (mostly penises) and femininity is associated with submissiveness and represented by “female bodies” (mostly wombs). Key to the function of patriarchy is that power is reserved for men within families and government through the control of the women’s sexuality and labor. Women are property in some patriarchal societies, in others they have no agency, and in others they simply are treated as inferior to men. Patriarchy does more than give power to penises, it associates dickish qualities with agency and strength. Therefore domination is considered power because men dominate, not because it results in good governance.
Sadly, the feminist movement has not made way for enlightened men to share power. The erosion of patriarchy also coincided with the rise of neoliberalism (basically capitalism as a culture; hyper-individualism with no clear values). While under patriarchy, women are treated as objects of value; under neoliberalism they are treated as objects with considerably less value. Now that women work, men have not stepped up to do more domestic work, they just play more video games. Men now struggle for dominance with hyper-masculine woman hating. The misogyny that we have seen on the rise in recent decades should not be seen as just more patriarchy – it is distinct. It is a direct result of an unstructured confrontation over domination with men rejecting the patriarchal values of family and leadership.
While some Conservatives respond to misogyny by calling for more patriarchy (“we need to protect women”), Liberals have responded with calls for more individualism (sisterhood, diversity, Beyoncé, feminism is whatever you want it to be). Neither of these paths will bring us liberation from the hierarchy of gender norms. Culturally we view power and order as masculine and so accept patriarchal behavior as the best way to govern. It is not.
Under second-wave feminism, women responded to patriarchy in the workplace by acting more domineering and patriarchal. While this is a product of an important push for liberation, it has not eroded male-dominance, only admitted women to the dominators club. The problem isn’t that not enough women are assholes, it’s that too many men are. In a similar fashion, Oprah and LeBron don’t empower communities that suffer under racial inequity – they only benefit from exploitation like white people have traditionally done. We don’t need a more multicultural elite – we need less of an elite altogether.
Gender isn’t about diversity – it’s about power. Women politicians have been viewed in the West as an obstruction to the perceived natural order of power and generated fear.. Responses have ranged from patriarchy (women should stay in the home), to misogyny (they deserve to be raped). Second wave feminist responses to this sexism have been that women can be like men, too. This has been transcended in practice. Today’s feminism neither reinforces a gender binary or rejects gender. Much like race, gender is complex, and socially constructed around power. The goal is to undo the hierarchy – so why can’t we talk about it?
You know who talks about gender? – Sexists!
The city council women’s public response to the training was entrenchment of second-wave feminism. I have to wonder if we watched the same video. Garza, Kitchen, Houston, Tovo, Poole, Troxclair and Gallo all said how outdated the messaging was, and were backed up by Ott and Mayor Adler. They were disgusted and appalled by the assertion that women and men are different. After all, they wear power suits and get shit done as well as any man. One of them is even a firefighter for Pete’s sake!
Let’s not pretend that “women are just as good as men.” In reality, women are BETTER than men are. We do not say this towards feminist male-deprecation – we mean that most men exercise male-privilege and are therefore: less sensitive to others, more distant from genuine experiences of injustice, and more likely to be attracted to hypocrisy and corruption.
The differences between men and women was the core of the presentations. For example, “men use a ‘dominating’ management style/women use a “compromising” style” illuminates a positive quality for a public servant and associates it with femininity. The point that was not explicit and sorely ignored by all is that men have traditionally not made the ideal candidates for democratic leadership.
Kitchen came close to making this point: “asking questions is strength” (that was actually the point that the presenters were making by the way), but then she linked this back to Liberal diversity saying that “both men and women do it.” Then she went on to talk about how good women are at numbers. What is missing here is that management = patriarchy. The very culture of managing other people is based in domination. This culture can still be addressed by our woman dominated council, but it is unlikely to happen when we ignore power.
The most explicitly criticized element of the presentations was the idea that women take longer to act. Instead of simply shutting this down, we might engage this critical question: why with added elements of oppression would any group take longer to do things than another group? Furthermore, how is the value of doing things quickly (effectively) related to oppression?
Intersectionality gives us the answer to these questions. Understanding the roots of patriarchy and colonialism can make this a simple equation: power rooted in exploitation is intrinsically dehumanizing; this hierarchy (white-supremacy/patriarchy) is based on a falsehood that some people are superior; those who benefit and operate according to this falsehood have less reason to ever know the truth; knowledge of reality is therefore more readily accessible to those at the bottom of the hierarchy, and most distant to those on the top. This is likely why so many of the greatest theorists are queer women of color – they are socialized to see truth more readily than others. This is also why the stupidest and most powerful people are white, hetero, cisgendered men. [This line of reasoning is paraphrased from, and influenced by, Patricia Hill Collins’ Black Feminist Thought (1990) – a fantastic read!]
“Women are from Omicron Persei 7, Men are from Omicron Persei 9”
Dr. Burt-Stewart’s presentation was more feminist than many of the responses from the women on city council. We suggest they watch the video. We would even argue that, as a Black woman, Dr. Burt-Stewart possesses intersectional knowledge that most members of council do not. In the end, her presentation and this knowledge, has been erased in the public narrative.
Burt-Stewart asked her majority female audience to “openly acknowledge gender differences.” She was careful to avoid talking about patriarchy directly, but she was alluding to it throughout her presentation. Ideas like “men act on facts, women act on emotions”, “men have egos”, “men recluse to solve problems while women seek support”, “men want individual acknowledgement, women want to be more of a team” and “women are not heard by men” were spoken as positive qualities about women. She was seeking acknowledgement for management becoming more feminine. Most of her presentation was about Emotional Intelligence, and how women score higher than men. The presentation was not about gender binary, it was about moving towards a more matriarchal culture.
The ‘good ol boy system is coming to end; Burt-Stewart and Allen both lauded this sentiment. Their treatment of gender difference was a blatant stereotype. Burt-Stewart repeated the words “typically” over and over again to refer to gendered behaviors. Only when she was careful to not upset any men did she add, “not one is better than the other”, appealing to the safety of Liberal Humanism. If only she were more brazen to directly confront patriarchy, there would have been little to critique. Her speech, much like Allen’s, should have used words like patriarchy and power – that would have made them radical. Instead they used words like “diversity” and “difference”, and no one took them seriously. Unfortunately, giving people the benefit of the doubt remains uncommon to everyone reporting on this story.
Women in power means taking more time to hear constituents, more care in concerning other viewpoints and making compromises instead of hiding in cooked-up numbers. This is not happening in all aspects of our society. Allen noted in his presentation that Women make up 3 percent of businesses executives and less than 1 percent of CEOs, a reverse dynamic than in public sector. Racism and capitalism provide enough structural imbalances in our society. In seeing how far we have to go, it is frustrating to see backwards steps. Let’s move beyond patriarchy. I look forward to having more conversations like the ones began by Burt-Stewart and Allen, but conversations that take patriarchy and dominance seriously. Perhaps then, we can all take steps towards a decolonial matriarchy.
by: Dr. Tane Ward & Rockie Gonzalez
Thanks to my mother, daughter, sisters and all of my woman relatives for encouraging my feminist voice and allowing me to speak. Thanks especially to my wife and duality, Rockie Gonzalez for collaboration and guidance.
-Dr. Tane Ward
“Women rule the world. We do.” -Dr. Miya Burt-Stewart, controversial speaker
“The first thing that I did was recognize that I need to change.” -Jonathan K. Allen, controversial speaker
statement from trainers in response to controversy
Dr. Burt-Stewart Presentation
Statesman “warned to expect more questions”
Wonkette (snarkyfeminist blog post)