Jill Filipovic Investigates Expectations of Women at Work
Jill Filipovic writes about women in the working world, but she herself knows what it's like to make a huge career switch. In 2012, Filipovic left her full-time law career to write about feminism and politics for publications including The Guardian, The New York Times, the Washington Post, and, perhaps most notably, Cosmopolitan. She released her first book May 2, taking her brand of politics and policy coverage through a feminist lens to the next level. "The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness" is a deep-dive into the idea that women are not only human, but humans who deserve happiness in addition to “having it all.”
Filipovic shared a bit about her journey as a writer and dived into some of the topics she explores in "The H-Spot."
Rewire: You left a full-time career in law to write about politics for a few feminist blogs and then Cosmopolitan. I’m curious what that transition was like.
Jill Filipovic: I had been writing on a feminist blog called Feministe since late college… I started writing for them in 2003, like a million years ago in internet time... then in law school and then also while I was practicing. And when I was in law school and also practicing law, more opportunities to write for other publications started coming up.
As I was working at the firm, these writing opportunities kept becoming more possible, and it became quite clear that I was working two different jobs, as a full-time lawyer and a part-time lawyer, and it was not sustainable.
So I decided, "Alright, I would rather be a broke freelance writer and happy than a lawyer and miserable," and decided to try my hand at it, with the understanding that if I spectacularly failed, perhaps I could go back and practice law again. I quit my firm in 2012, and went to writing full-time. I was a columnist at The Guardian initially, which was a great first landing pad, I was at The Guardian for about a year, and then went to Cosmo full time a year after that.
It was totally terrifying, I had no idea if I was going to be able to pay rent, or if anyone was going to give a crap about anything I had to say. I was not necessarily expecting professional success… (I was) quite lucky that right at the time I was transitioning into writing full-time was the same time that feminism was becoming increasingly mainstream in major media outlets, and editors were actually willing to pay for that kind of writing.
Rewire: Do you feel that your path to journalistic success—starting out by blogging—is still a pathway to success for young writers?
JF: I feel like the heyday of blogs is over, and maybe it’s not, maybe there’s something going on that I don’t know about, but at the time that I was blogging, there were a lot of young, upstart journalists and op-ed writers... People like Jessica Valenti, and Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias and Gene Demby… People whose name we now see on the mastheads of major publications.
I don’t know that that same culture of blogging is around. People are more apt to use other social media platforms, frankly what seem like shorter-form platforms:... Tumblr, Twitter, other stuff the kids are using these days that I don’t know about… It doesn’t seem like there’s an analogous platform to what blogs were 10 years ago today.
Rewire: "The H-Spot" blends anecdotes with research to make a compelling argument. How did your background writing for different publications prepare you for writing the book?
JF: One of the more interesting things about writing for Cosmo (was that) I wasn’t writing for the same audience as I was at a place like The Guardian. I’m writing for young women who are very bright and informed and interested, but I don’t think young women get the message that they’re entitled to have strong political opinions, that they’re entitled to be political actors, that they’re entitled to be people who relate to the news and their political system the way that young men do.
And so, writing for that audience, both making the types of topics I was writing about accessible, by which I don’t mean dumbing them down, I just mean presenting them in a way that I hope sends the message to young women that, "Yes, this is about your universe, you are allowed to care about this, you are allowed to be passionate and opinionated about it." It’s a very different style of writing than writing for The New York Times or The Guardian or Foreign Policy, publications where most people who are reading already have that assumption.
I tried to bring some of that ethos into the book, trying to not make it a pure policy book, not make it a giant treatise on whatever the social climate was, but illustrate stories to connect these issues with both a reader and people’s real lives.
Rewire: When did you first consider writing a book? Why make the jump from writing articles, which allow you to react to current events?
JF: I’ve been thinking about writing a book for, God, more than a decade now. I think when you’re a person who writes for the public eye, publishers will approach you… so it’s something I’ve been kicking around for a long time, but I didn’t want to write a book just for the sake of it, I wanted to feel like I really had something worth saying, and also something, in a more selfish way, that I actually wanted to dedicate a year or two of my life to.
So it’s been a long process thinking through what I even want to write a book about, and in conversations with my editor, Alessandra Bastagli at Nation Books, we met for the first time and I threw out a couple ideas I had been kicking around… so we had a series of conversations about it, and massaged the idea into something resembling a thesis, and finished the book from there.
Rewire: In your book, you wrote “there is still no cultural consensus that women could, or should, derive a sense of identity from work, that delaying marriage and working is an acceptable choice, or that it’s a good thing to have an identity outside of a relational one (mother, wife).” Aren't the hashtag #girlbosses and Ivanka Trump's Women Who Work initiative a celebration of women’s identity as workers?
JF: I think one of the reasons that those hashtags are popular is because they are still considered kind of unusual, not the hashtags themselves, this facet of female identity. There’s no #menwhowork hashag, or #boyboss, because of course... men work, of course men are bosses… This #girlboss thing is very cutesy and I see it as an effort to make female power in the workplace less threatening…
I’m reading one of the things that comes up in Ivanka’s book ("Women Who Work: Rewriting the Rules for Success") in the first couple of pages:... Watching her mother go to work in full makeup and high heels, very hyper-feminine wear, and obviously there’s nothing wrong with dressing however you want… but there’s an effort to soothe an anxious public that women having power, women having money, women having influence, especially in the corporate sphere, doesn’t mean that they’re going to become less feminine, it doesn’t mean that we’re necessarily going to be challenging a whole theory of patriarchal norm.
So, yes, I think of course it’s good that this is shifting, and I think that things like #girlboss and... "She-E.O.," it’s good, I think to embrace this identity of working women, but the way that it’s happening I think makes clear that we still have a lot of anxiety around this particular issue.
Rewire: What, if any, conclusions have you been able to draw about workplace failure and how it is or is not disproportionately used as a weapon against women, particularly women who want to “climb the ladder,” so to say, in their company?
JF: Yeah, I think there obviously is this dynamic, where women who are first, or particularly public…we pin very outside expectations on them, and I think we do often hold them to a higher and unfair standard. On the other hand, if you’re branding your company as a feminist one, which Thinx did and Nasty Gal did, I think you’d raise the bar for yourself, right? You need to live that ethos.
Rewire: Is there any value in seeing these really public failures?
JF: I don’t know… I think that kind of remains to be seen. I think part of the worry is this outside focus on female failures and women who run companies, sometimes not particularly well, ignores the fact that male-led companies fail all the time, too, and certainly male-led companies, many of them, have enormous issues with sexual harassment and poor employment policies and bad HR and a long list of things that have plagued Thinx and Nasty Gal, but that’s almost to be expected and so we largely ignore it.
I wish that one of the lessons from this was that we could give male-led companies and male CEOs the same kind of focus that we put on companies run by women, but yeah, in terms of whether public failure will be good or bad, I don’t know. Ask me in a year or two.
Rewire: You provide statistics about millennial husbands and fathers who expect to be the breadwinners and make more money than their wives, and also expect their wives to stay home should they choose to have children. Do you feel like there’s any sort of mirroring in the current generation as there was at that time in the 1950s?
JF: I think when it comes to male expectations around earning money and wives staying home, that’s kind of been a norm in American life. I don’t think we are an aberration, I think we’re very much a continuation of standard American expectations.
I think what made the '50s different was that people got married earlier and had more children and previously there had been a clear line for marital age growing, getting married later in life and having few children… and that’s kind of now course-corrected, and now again we’re getting married older and having fewer children, but the kind of more entrenched norms about who makes the money, who takes care of the children, that’s a very post-industrial norm.
It’s shifted, obviously—women have entered the workplace in enormous numbers in the past couples decades—but in terms of expectations around childcare and expectations around what it means to be a man and how that’s tied up with breadwinning… there have been shifts, but there haven’t been nearly as large of shifts as you would expect given the number of women whose roles are significantly different than they were a half-century ago.
Rewire: On the other hand, in the pressure of the current #girlboss culture, do you think women could eventually lose themselves in the effort to identify first and foremost as a professional woman?
JF: I don’t know, I don’t know that there’s necessarily too much pressure in that realm. Obviously all of our identities are multi-faceted, and work is not the only thing that defines us. At the same time, women for so long have been defined purely relationally—whoever’s wife we are, mother or daughter or whatever—so I think it’s certainly a step forward to give women space to identify with other aspects of their lives, and I think the capacity to support oneself and the responsibility that that brings is a really important part of adult life, and something that women have long been either formally blocked from, or culturally discouraged from.