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Jessica Ensley- Lean in Further

Lean In Further: Feminists may need to conform

This past weekend I spent time at a conference entitled “Feminists Working Weekend.” When I walked into the high-rise conference room overlooking the Manhattan skyline, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew what a privilege it was for me to be there and that a lot of activists and people who want to help in social change would not have the same opportunity I did. 

The weekend was dedicated to helping us make financial investments, how to fit into different work environments and figuring out what to do with the rest of our lives. It was much more inclusive than I expected, with speakers that ranged from white, cis-gendered women, to women of color and members of the LGBTQ community.

The last presentation was discussing how we can improve our resumes and what feminist employers look for in cover letters. A fellow female attending the conference raised the important question as to why we were learning how to conform ourselves when it’s something we, as feminists, fight so hard against in almost every other aspect of life.

Resume and cover letter templates are something everyone must use when applying for jobs. We use these templates to fit into an image that is expected of us. Images that are conformative go against most feminist thoughts and theories. So how can we, as activists who want to go into the professional field to create change, accept this type of conformity? Is playing into the system to attempt to change the system really worth it? These are questions I ask myself frequently. 

Respectability politics is the concept that one must conform to society’s ideals. Those ideals include wealth, whiteness, maleness, ableness and gender roles. I dislike the idea that we must be like the society that keeps us down. I realize that in order to create change in this society that a platform to speak from is needed. While we can create our own platform (like F--kRapeCulture did) the broad aspect of national and international feminist discussion is furthered through larger organizations.

Getting hired is important to simply being able to survive. The focus this past weekend was on feminist positions, but one important lesson I learned was that we can create our own feminist space no matter what work we’re doing. You don’t have to work for a nonprofit or create a grassroots movement to make change (although it’d be cool if we did). Say something when a coworker or boss says something sexist. Let your colleagues know you’re a feminist — if you are one or not, see my past column explaining what feminism means — so that they don’t view feminism as a man-hating movement.

I’m still juggling my position between a feminist who wants to take down the system and start a revolution and a feminist who wants to be able to work to feed herself. While I do that, think about the messages we send people when we ask them to state their value on a sheet of paper. Each of us is more than what we present to employers, so what can we do to change the conformist ideals? Because right now, I’m at a loss.

Jessica Ensley is a senior studying journalism. Email her at

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