When I was leading the grantmaking efforts for a women’s giving circle, I asked the volunteers on the grant committee to tell the story of when they first considered themselves to be feminists, and one woman started the conversation by incredulously stating, ‘I am not a feminist’. Dr. Ruth, in a scene from the recent Netflix documentary on her life, adamantly denies to her daughter and granddaughter that she’s a feminist, even as they continue to point out the ways she is, in fact, a feminist. My own mother suggested I drop the word from the title of my soon to be released book on philanthropy, “so people will actually buy it.” Even among women who advocate for and support feminist ideals, the word feminist can be divisive.
It’s divisive precisely because of what it aims to do – which is to rebalance the power dynamic in our world by exploring and championing the feminine. This is systems changing talk, and it is exactly why I embrace it. I am a feminist because I think this power dynamic needs more feminine leadership: the relational, mutually empowering aspect of humanity that lives in all of us to one degree or another. This kind of leadership is not purely female or male, and it is not anti-men. Feminism is a call for us to confront the patriarchal, homophobic, racist, classist systems in our societies, and men benefit from and are a part of this work as well (in fact, some of the best feminist leaders I’ve worked for and with have been men).
For too long this feminine aspect of our humanity has been suppressed in everything from politics and economics, to our psyche and leadership … and our philanthropy. Feminism encourages all people to explore the power dynamics that keep society locked in a status quo that doesn’t work for everyone. For me, feminism and systems design are co-creating our shared future.
And this is the fertile soil where feminist philanthropy is rooted. Feminist philanthropy encourages philanthropists to question the status quo and what we place value on, and it supports people in being free to determine their own lives for themselves. It recognizes the power and privilege in economic systems of giving, and is finding ways to make this dynamic more equitable. A feminist philanthropist works in solidarity, honors reciprocity and emboldens agency. These principles echo those of relationship and systems design: we acknowledge we don’t know everything, we are integrated in the solutions, and we recognize that our giving is part of the greater whole. This kind of giving seeks creative and holistic solutions, works around the edges, and embodies courage and humility.
In this philanthropy, your giving is not one aspect of a life well lived, siloed from the other parts of your day; instead, it is the way you live and interact, the intention you bring to your days and the way you integrate what you give with what you take. It is a conscious political act. The future of philanthropy hinges on equality across the political, economic, personal and social spectrum, and using the lens of feminism can provide individuals with the tools they need to be more intentional and innovative in their giving. And more importantly, it provides needed change to the systems holding current power structures in place.
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I’ll be speaking at the South Sound Philanthropy Summit on September 27th about Changing the Culture of Philanthropy. Join me!