Steinem, Woodley, Feminism and Impact: Early Morning Musings On The Evolution Of An Idea

During an interview with Time magazine, the actress Shailene Woodley was asked if she considered herself a feminist.

“No,” replied Ms. Woodley, who had safely reached the advanced age of 22 and was therefore uniquely positioned to opine on such matters. “Because I love men, and I think the idea of ‘raise women to power, take the men away from the power’ is never going to work out because you need balance.”

Let’s set aside for a moment the apparently innocuous (if somewhat over-reaching) statement itself. Let’s also give some wriggle room for a strong-willed, obviously smart, young woman who is known for being outspoken about environmental issues and has never shied away from controversial topics. And finally, let’s recognize that statements like this, in Hollywood, in the second decade of the 21st century, might be expected to hardly raise an eyebrow.

(Let’s also emphasize, if only in passing, one key word: balance. Ms. Woodley deftly points out that power should not be seen as a zero-sum game, a perspective that could easily be applied to capital. I’ll not belabor the point, but as with so many controversial topics, the heat derives more from the binary positions of the adversaries than from the subject itself. A topic for a future blog, perhaps.)

But this being the America that finds itself in the grip of a so-called Culture War, and Ms. Woodley being a particularly bright and shiny penny, and the issue of sex, gender and power always offering the potential for a flashpoint… well, the online backlash to her comment about feminism was immediate, extensive, caustic and, quite likely, expected.

While I find the social media aspect of this tea-potted tempest uninteresting, I do find the broader implication most curious: what does it say about a young woman ascending in her chosen profession that she feels no obligation to identify herself with the movement that created the opportunities that make possible that same ascension? And what does it say about us — the reader/viewer — that we feel inclined to judge her disinclination? And, more generally, what does it say about the state of inter-sex relations that there are still women ready to man the Feminist barricades, even when doing so castigates one of their own? A circular set of questions, to be sure.

Steinem and Woodley… spiritual sisters separated by the evolution of an idea?

Mr. Woodley’s age is likely a factor (she wasn’t even born when Gloria Steinem burned her bra in a provocative — and near mythical — statement against male oppression), as are her looks (research has demonstrated conclusively that beauty is an on-ramp to more gracious treatment, wider opportunity and a generally easier path in life), as is her profession (Hollywood has been rare in its willingness to anoint powerful women) as is the debate on the meaning of “feminism” in today’s culture (is it a zero-sum battle between the sexes, a clarion call for equality or simply a tired old rallying cry that fails to resonate with young women?).

But even given these factors, I find her disavowal of feminism fascinating, particularly as the term/movement seems to be gaining traction: according to a recent study by Ms. Magazine (not, if we are to be honest with ourselves, the most dependable source of such information), the number of women calling themselves feminists actually increased from 50% in 2006 to 68% in 2012. For anyone accustomed to social statistics, this is a massive shift.

Perhaps Ms. Woodley is simply being provocative, executing a calculated and shrewd PR gambit? Or, more provocative still, perhaps she is tapping into an as-yet un-named zeitgeist that will reveal her to future generations as a trailblazer in (finally?) normalizing relations between the sexes? Or perhaps she was just speaking off the top of her mind, forgetting for the moment that there might be enthusiastic dissection awaiting anything she might have to say about sex, gender, power and money. One might forgive her this slip. She was, after all, only 22 years old.

But the same might not be said for the list of women who have similarly distanced themselves from the designation. A single Google Search (which found over 350,000,000 references in .36 seconds) allowed me to identify, in no order: Monica Lewinsky, Lady Gaga, Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Katy Perry, Carla Bruni, Sandra Day O’Conner, Taylor Swift and Marissa Mayer. All without reading beyond the search results page.

(And it certainly bears mentioning that the list of Feminists — capital “F” — is equally long, equally august and equally passionate. But that is the subject of another blog…)

“But what, exactly,” might the astute reader ask, expecting erudite and incisive commentary about the State of Impact Investing, “does this have to do with the re-imagination of capitalism and its role in society?”

“A great deal, actually,” your humble scribe would offer in reply.

Feminism was born a fringe movement, nearly militant in tone, emerging from the suffragist movement of the early 20th century. The women who led it were visionaries and humanists, dedicated to the deceptively simple — and utterly threatening — notion that one sex should not oppress another. That feminism moved so thoroughly from the fringe to the center, to the point that women today debate its ongoing utility rather than the oppression itself, is a clear indication of the power of its message. That it took so long is an indication of how difficult it can be to effect durable change.

This is not to say that misogyny has been relegated to the dustbin of history. We are reminded daily, and shamefully, of the atavistic attitudes of men. Rather, Feminism’s evolution from radical to conventional demonstrates that the wholesale oppression of one half of our species, all in the name of tradition and convention, is no longer standard operating procedure.

Convention changed. Social norms shifted. The way we think about sex and gender is simply different now than it was. And while there are certainly holdouts against the march of social progress (I recently attended a wedding at which the word “obey” was used no fewer than forty times during the service… I stopped counting.), history has decided the winners and losers.

And, like Feminism, impact investing — the notion of deploying capital with the intention of creating social and/or environmental value — is beginning to move from the fringe of the capitalism banquet to, if not the table of honor, at least someplace more centrally located than the accustomed seat it has historically occupied, over there… by the kitchen… in that dark corner.

Which brings me, in a most roundabout way, to the observation that inspired this post:

Over the past several months, we have been engaged in a review of global real asset managers (agriculture, real estate, forest and timber, conservation finance, etc.). A surprising shift has occurred wherein many of these funds, initially resisting self-identification as “impact” funds, now leverage every opportunity to label themselves as such. Clearly, some are not, even if the hangtag might suggest it; purchasing large agricultural assets in emerging countries, booting the farmers, importing seed, fertilizer and technology and then exporting the resulting increased yields is not exactly an “impact strategy”… even if the marketing materials include impact-y phrases like “agriculture”, “emerging markets” and “food security”.

But even more are clearly impact oriented. Respect for indigenous communities. Deal structures that offer attractive revenue share elements. Education opportunities. Various community development efforts (healthcare, schools, etc.) linked to the project. But the managers of these funds do not see these deal elements narrowly defined as “impact”. They see them as aligning the interests of the various parties to ensure durable, sustainable value creation, and to enhance the probability of a successful financial outcome.

In other words, they see them as “investing”. Full stop.

And this, in my mind, is where the entire impact community should be pointing: to that day in the future when what we think of as “impact” is simply “investing”. When investors would no more ignore the carbon consequences of their investment than they would the operating margins of the business. When the idea of providing a livelihood as opposed to simply a “job” is an integrated part of the financial modeling of the business.

A brief tangent: I recently joined a gathering of academics and professional impact investors hosted by the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. During the daylong roundtable, we struggled to agree on a definition for impact investing (the subject of an impending blog). In exasperation, Drew von Glahn from the World Bank suggested “An impact investor is someone who argues about the definition of an impact investor.” Cue tired and frustrated laughter.

But there is truth in jest. Drew was flagging what many secretly admit: we are so busy parsing the definition of impact that we sometimes forget to actually put capital to work. To test our collective thesis. To innovate. To fail forward. I want to move beyond such petty bickering. After over a decade of engaging in this conversation, I’m tired of it. Yes, definitions matter. And, yes, I understand that investors who are new to the discipline feel inclined to “discover” issues that have been debated, and settled, long ago. In other words, we have not yet gotten to the point of our own “feminist moment”. We are still arguing, sorting and sifting.

But I can’t wait. I can’t wait for a young, smart, engaged investor who is resolutely dedicated to the notion that capitalism should include the creation of social or environmental value to be asked whether they see themselves as impact investors, and for that investor to say… “no”. In other words, when a generation of young investors refuses to wrap itself in the cloak of an adverbial modifier for no reason beyond tribal identification, impact will have moved to capitalism’s table of honor… and we can all stop arguing about what it is, focusing instead on what it can do.

Hey, a guy can dream, right?

Matthew Weatherley-White is a Managing Director and co-founder of The CAPROCK Group. He is a sought-after speaker, talented panelist, impact visionary and capitalist philosopher. Drawing from an illustrious career of over two decades in finance, he is best known for helping legitimize and popularize Impact Investing. You can find him on Twitter at @i3impact

Matthew Weatherley-White

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Focused on the evolution of #impinv. Random musings, views and opinions. Occasional provocation to spike the punchbowl. Guilty of #hashtag #overuse

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