Journalist Jessica Bennett speaks about her new book. 
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Journalist Jessica Bennett speaks about her new book.
Credit: Courtesy of Harper Collins Publishing

First rule of Feminist Fight Club: You must talk about it

It was a fight club – except without the fighting and without the men. Every month or so, a dozen of us – writers and creative types, producers and comedians, all women in our 20s and 30s living in New York City – would gather at a friend’s apartment (actually, her parents’ apartment: none of us had an apartment big enough to fit twelve people).

She’d provide the pasta, salad, or pasta salad, and we’d bring the wine (and seltzer … for some reason we all really liked seltzer). We’d pile plates high and sink into the cushioned couches in her living room to talk – or, bitch, rather – about our jobs.

In those early days, the rules of the group were a little different:

What was said in the group stayed in the group.

Members were never to speak the group’s name.

And we practiced strict vag-cronyism.

That is, membership was not based on merit but vagina. Which meant that once you were in, you were in: engulfed in a bosom-life support, embraced and respected, encouraged with finger snaps and fist bumps and cat videos, but no cattiness.

The fact that the club was kept a secret basically justified its need. We were smart, ambitious women striving to “make it” in a city that eats the soft alive. We had grown up in an era of Girl Power – God bless the 1980s! – when it wasn’t simply an encouragement but an expectation that girls could be and do whatever they wanted. And we believed it. The gender war, we thought, was a relic of our mother’s generation – a battle won long ago.

And yet each of us, in every field, in every role, was stumbling into gender land mines at seemingly every turn – and often ones we didn’t even know existed. It was like trying to dodge that stench that lurks on a New York City street on a hot summer night: there you were, minding your own business and BAM.

Our meetings had a moderator, of sorts – our host. Sometimes she’d hand out note cards containing handwritten questions. (Where do you want to be in five years? What’s one way you plan to help another woman this year? Who’s your favorite female perform—Oh wait, duh, Beyoncé.)

There were times we’d gather in smaller, informal settings as needed: if none of us had a crisis, an upcoming job interview, an article due, an impending mental breakdown, or looming unemployment – which nearly every single one of us had faced at one point or another.

But usually we simply hung out, ate snacks, shot the shit and talked about work.

I’ve vowed to keep their details secret, but the group looked something like this: Danielle, a brilliantly funny writer, had been toiling away as an assistant at a well-known TV show (a show that, at that time, had not a single female writer). On the side, she’d written two books, created web videos, and taught herself Photoshop – mostly so she could make colorful invitations to Fight Club meetings. But she was never able to move up. Tired, disgruntled and dying of boredom, she had taken to mining the web for inspirational lady news to send to get us through the day. That, and making feminist cat sweatshirts. Did any of us know the best website to host them on?

Nola, a project manager at an ad agency, had emailed us all in a rage the week before. She was leading a top-level client meeting when one of her male colleagues had asked her if she didn’t mind grabbing some coffee for the group. Stunned, she found herself trudging to the kitchen to complete the task. She returned to the meeting with a coffee stain down the front of her blouse and daggers shooting from her eyes.

There was another woman, a straight-shooting web developer named Rachel, whose male boss told her she was “too aggressive” with her staff. Everyone knew what that was code for: too loud, a little bossy, not “lady-like” enough, according to some made-up standard. But this woman was good at her job—that was never in question. So why should the volume of her voice have mattered?

There was a documentary filmmaker at a production house, Tanya, who told a story of having her idea for a show handed off to a male colleague to produce. She was livid, of course. But she stayed quiet, not wanting to be viewed as too “emotional” (or a poor team player). If any of us got wind of any production openings, please, please, send them her way.

I was working at Tumblr at the time, my job part of a widely touted initiative to hire journalists to create content on a blogging platform most commonly known for GIFs (and porn). The perks of a tech company were shiny, for a second: Free meals. Endless snacks. Bring your dog to work … every day. Fancy cold-brew coffee, and the hot guy named Grady who would deliver it. Unlimited vacation. A kegerator that would ID you (and your beer preferences) by your fingerprint. A ping-pong table for when you got back from your vacation, finished your personalized beer, played with your dog, and just wanted to …. you know, relax, man.

And then there were the annoyingly bro-y things: said ping-pong table was six feet from my desk. (No, really—ping-pong balls ricocheting off my laptop were a daily occurrence.) Offsite field trips consisted of basketball games and Medieval Times, and in-office social hour meant all-staff flip cup—again, on the ping-pong table, inches from my desk.

But at the core of the problem was the job itself. I’d been hired along with another editor, whom I’d met and liked. We would be co-editors, I was told, and would both report to the CEO. Which was sort of true, except that when I accepted the job – but before we had finalized my title (note to self: never accept a job without formalizing the title, even if you’re told you’ll get to “choose” your own!), I was informed casually that he’d chosen the title of editor in chief. As in: editor in chief, the highest possible title a person in our field could hold, typically reserved for the absolute ruler of the editorial outfit. But, no worries, the HR manager assured me, we were all part of a suuuuper flat structure here – so what title did I want? (I chose “executive editor.”)

Now in reality, it was not all bad: said colleague, the editor in chief, was a great guy. (A feminist, even!) Married to a power lawyer, the father of two adorable kids. Progressive! Supportive! Jovial! And yet the fact remained: I had been sneak-attacked with a surprise boss, and that boss was a dude. The title set the tone.

I could have complained, had the hiring director – or “head of people,” as he was called – not been fired days after I arrived (and never replaced). Still my boss was an experienced manager. He knew how to command respect in an all-male room. He spoke sternly and authoritatively, whereas I got nervous. People looked at him, not me, in the meetings anyway – he looked like a boss – whether we were talking about a project he was running or not. He would try to help – repeating my ideas with the vocal authority of a six-foot-two, 42-year-old white man who was trying to be my advocate. But then he’d get credit for them, too.

I was there too short a time for any of this to really matter: we were all laid off abruptly just over a year after we started, the precursor to an acquisition by a larger company.

This essay is adapted from Feminist Fight Club: An Office Survival Manual (for a Sexist Workplace), a new book by Jessica Bennett and HarperCollins.