Look Beyond Representation

One of the boys, one of the girls, one of the individuals...

I’m the youngest child and only girl of the original three kids in my family - my older brothers are 9 and 12 years older than I am. Later, post-divorce, my father had another child, my half brother, who recently turned 18. I am the only girl. 

I often joke that I experienced the mid-90s as a teenage boy. In 1996, I was 9 years old, and with my friends my own age I collected Beanie Babies, had a Tamagotchi, and listened to the Spice Girls and watched Toy Story. Yet, at the same time, I also would hang out in my brother’s room in the basement reading his graphic novels and comics (like Elfquest!), stealing his band t-shirts and listening to Tool, Smashing Pumpkins, Marilyn Manson, Nine Inch Nails, Tori Amos and Fiona Apple, and Star Wars was my favorite movie (the whole original trilogy). I remember the first time my brother Ragnar played Tool’s song Sober for me in his car - I remember the way the guitar came in and blew my mind. I remember thinking this is so cool, this is rock music. I was a seven year old girl wearing a Princess Jasmine t-shirt.

Growing up, I had peers closer to my age of both binary genders - my neighbor’s daughter was 3 years younger than I was, their twin sons 3 years older, and the four of us all used to run around the neighborhood from yard to yard playing epic games of hide and seek. My best friends were boys and girls I knew from different contexts like the neighborhood or Girl Scouts - and growing up in the pagan community I had close friends of all ages and genders whom I treasured in part for understanding exactly what it’s like to grow up with parents doing your birth astrological chart, invoking various gods and goddesses, and knowing the paganized lyrics to traditional holiday songs. 

As I got older, my interests further developed - computers, politics, Magic the Gathering - and I found myself sometimes being the odd girl out in a room of boys. In college I was elected President of the Computer Club (I was one of two girls in the club) and I led the effort to convince the school administration to set up WiFi on campus (this was 2003ish). Same thing happened in politics - my parents had been Libertarian activists in the 1970s and 1980s - so when I developed my own Libertarian voice I found that I was one of only a few women (sometimes the only one!) at some events. 

This theme has continued in various ways in my life, though I’ve been pleased to see many more women involved in the various fields I work (like finance, startups, and cannabis) and play (Libertarianism) in, and I’ve never been one to think “I’m not like the other girls”, it’s just nice to have some other women around sometimes. I’ve never been protective of my novelty nor obsessed with having equal participation - I just want people to have the chance to be interested in something and to engage if they are. If that means more women or just some, I accept that we’re all individuals, and I loathe quotas for the sake of quotas.

It’s been an interesting balance recognizing, for example, that I never want to be given a job or a speaking gig just because I happen to be a woman and they need to meet a quota - but I also recognize that various organizations do value diversity in perspectives and appearances, and I benefit from that sometimes, and I don’t think that’s necessarily wrong. As I always say - value is subjective, and I can provide value in lots of ways. I may or may not be the most knowledgeable on a topic but perhaps I’m the best communicator of said topic. I may be one of a lineup of people who are somewhat equally qualified on paper, but my charisma, charm, or yes, my gender, may have value to the people selecting me for the podcast, interview, speech, or gig. 

I hear a lot that “representation matters”. We see it in media and business a lot. I don’t disagree. I remember as a child loving that there was a girl (Leia) in Star Wars. 

But I also hated that there was basically only ONE girl in Star Wars (original trilogy days). If my friends and I were playing Star Wars in the back yard and there was more than one girl hanging out, well, there were a lot of fights over which one of us was Leia. 

It was nice to have some representation, but I wanted more than getting one token character in franchises I liked.

I was talking to someone about the idea behind representation, and I said something they had me explain, which inspired this particular essay.

I said that representation matters because someday I want to be seen as an individual, not as someone being represented, and the first step of that is enough representation that representation is meaningless.

Yes, I know that’s confusing. Let me explain with a very specific example.

I used to work for a boutique ideologically-driven investment firm called Euro Pacific Capital (EPC). It was founded by Peter Schiff, who brings a somewhat-Libertarian perspective to his investing strategies. I started as a brokers’ assistant. (I eventually left for a company we did a capital raise for, but that’s another essay). 

At the office I worked in, there were 9 brokers in our specific office, and 1 of them was female. The company had, if I remember correctly, 5 offices - some larger than ours, and a total of either 2 or 3 female brokers company wide.

The female broker (or “investment consultant”, as they called them) in my office, whom I will call Jane for the purposes of my story and to protect her privacy, was a totally great human being. She was smart and capable and pretty funny. She wasn’t as aggressive a sales person as some of the guys in the office, but the performance of her clients’ portfolios was generally on par with some of the other brokers in the office. It was a weird couple of years for investors in particular assets that EPC tended to invest in, and some investments performed, others didn’t, and some clients called in to figure out how to make their portfolios perform with a bit more oomph. A lack of performance of an account wasn’t necessarily indicative of the individual broker’s abilities, given their shared tendency to advise based on aligning with the philosophy driving the company.

Anyway, at some point Jane decided to leave the office. I think she found a better offer, something a bit more suited to what she really wanted to be doing, and so she left the company.

As the most charming of the brokers’ assistants, one of my jobs was to call some of her clients and inform them that she had left the company and another broker would be taking their account. I would make the call and schedule the meeting with whichever broker got assigned.

I’m a woman, with a woman’s voice.

“Hi, I’m calling from Euro Pacific Capital, to let you know Jane has left the company, but your account is in good hands with ---”

“Oh! My account’s been going down for a while! Are you my new broker? I don’t want another woman!”

This happened a bunch of times. Different phrasing in many cases, but several male clients informed me that they’d had a bad experience with “the girl” and they wanted a man this time.

Sometime later one of the male brokers left the office, and I had to make similar calls - nobody ever said “oh well my account went down, I don’t want another man on my account.”

You see, there was a representative of women in the office, but too many people treated her like a representative of women. She wasn’t just being evaluated based on her personal performance and having it reflect on her future career - people assessed her performance, attributed some element of that performance to her gender, and decided that it’s indicative of the future performance of other people of that gender.

This drove me a little crazy, particularly because I was in the middle of preparing for my licensing exams so I could become one of the firm’s only female brokers. 

It’s something that people in this position point out a lot - they aren’t just judged on their sole performance and representing themselves, suddenly if they fail or mess up, they’re representing everyone like them in the eyes of the people who aren’t like them. It’s an enormous responsibility.

I don’t sit around saying “we need half of CEOs to be women” or anything like that - I only want people who have the desire and the qualifications for the job to get the job and I accept however that shakes out. However, without insisting on quotas or minimums or complete parity, I recognize that the fewer people of a particular demographic in a field, the more likely they are to have the pretty obnoxiously heavy burden of themselves ending up the gatekeeper for the others, because people not like them will see them representing the capabilities of people like them.

So yes, I want more female brokers, and more female CEOs, and more women in cannabis and more women in Libertarianism (and yes, I could say this about every demographic and other fields, I’m just speaking to my own experiences right now). I want them not because I want to be represented - but because I want us to get beyond being represented. I want it to be so uneventful that we have a female presidential candidate or a female investment consultant or a female cannabis CEO or anything else that they stop functioning as representations of their gender to others, and start being acknowledged by everybody as individuals, and in turn freeing all those people with shared demographic characteristics to be embraced as individuals. 

Years ago, two friends of mine were known as vocal female liberty personalities. I’m not changing their names because they’re somewhat public figures:

Julie, who represents more conservative sensibilities in her libertarianism, and Cathy, who represents basically the opposite in terms of lifestyle preferences in libertarianism.

They are two very different women who both represent ideas held by libertarians. They’re both conventionally attractive, white, articulate, smart, and have plenty of shared attributes along with differing personalities and beliefs. A few events pitted them against each other to draw attention, as did fellow libertarians (usually men), who would pick their favorite, or claim that one of them should be the voice of Libertarian women.

Another female Libertarian friend of mine saw this, leaned into me at an event, rolled her eyes and scoffed “apparently we’re only allowed to have ONE woman speak for the rest of us. But ONLY one.”

It’s not enough.

One of the reasons I work with Ladies of Liberty Alliance is not to just pick a woman to represent us, but to lift all boats with a rising tide. To help Libertarian women find the skills and resources to grow into leadership roles and be writers or activists or television personalities. Not because we need equality or parity within the movement, not because we need to be represented, but because I want there to be so many of us that we stop being seen as a collective represented by the words of one of us - and we are finally each judged as individuals.

On a panel last year about Libertarian Feminism, I said “there’s a saying that feminism is the radical notion that women are people. I say Libertarian Feminism is the radical notion that women are individuals.

I’m profoundly grateful for those who’ve treated me as such. 

As a post-script, it’s worth mentioning that I’m on the board of Feminists for Liberty, and we’re always raising money to do more activism. We’ll have a booth and panels at FreedomFest in July in South Dakota (I’m speaking there - if you want to attend - register with the code AVENS50 to get $50 off, and I get a commission).

If you’d be interested in making a tax deductible donation to support our efforts you can click here to make a donation. Do let me know if you do - the execs like to track our individual fundraising!