That’s what Linda Hirshman argues in the Washington Post. And, not surprisingly, I think she’s wrong.
FYI: There will be a live discussion about the article here at 1pm today. Join in.
Full disclosure: Linda interviewed me for this article. I’m quoted in the second-to-last paragraph. I really enjoyed speaking with her — it was clear during the interview that we have very different visions of what feminism should be, and we pushed back against each other quite a bit, but it was an engaging conversation. I didn’t expect to convince her or anything, nor her I — and from the article, I feel like we’re speaking different feminist languages.
Linda seems to be arguing that feminism has lost focus by way of intersectionality — because we’re so busy looking at things like race and class, we’ve forgotten about women. Race and class are “divides” that fragment the movement, making us less able to, say, get a woman elected president:
So what keeps the movement from realizing its demographic potential? First, it’s divided along lines so old that they feel like geological faults. Long before this campaign highlighted the divides of race, class and age, feminism was divided by race, class and age. As early as 1973, some black feminists formed a National Black Feminist Organization; in 1984, the writer Alice Walker coined the term “womanism” to distinguish black women’s liberation from feminism, the white version. In the early 1970s, writer and activist Barbara Ehrenreich argued on behalf of “socialist feminism,” saying that the women’s movement couldn’t succeed unless it attacked capitalism. The movement was barely out of its teens when Walker’s daughter, Rebecca, announced a new wave to distinguish her generation’s feminism from the already divided feminisms of the people who had spawned it.
This would have been enough to weaken the movement. But it still could have been like many other reform movements, which manage to remain effective by using such traditional political tools as alliances and compromises. There’s an old-fashioned term for it — “log-rolling.” Put crudely: First I vote for your issue, then you vote for mine.
The mostly white, middle-class feminist organizations could have established relationships of mutual convenience with groups such as the black feminists. An alliance like that might have been able to prevent the confirmation of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court in 1991. White feminists opposed him, but he had enough support among black voters — who are heavily female — to induce four Southern Democratic senators who were heavily dependent on black votes for reelection to cast the crucial votes to confirm him.
But feminists weren’t going to do things the old-fashioned, “political” way. Instead, faced with criticism that the movement was too white and middle-class, many influential feminist thinkers conceded that issues affecting mostly white middle-class women — such as the corporate glass ceiling or the high cost of day care — should not significantly concern the feminist movement. Particularly in academic circles, only issues that invoked the “intersectionality” of many overlapping oppressions were deemed worthy. Moreover, that concern must include the whole weight of those oppressions. In other words, since racism hurts black women, feminists must fight not only racist misogyny but racism in any form; not only rape as an instrument of war, but war itself. The National Organization for Women (NOW) eventually amended its mission statement to include interrelated oppressions.
And this is where I get confused. Feminism no longer concerns itself with concerns of white middle-class women, like the corporate glass ceiling or the high cost of daycare? And where I feel like we speak different languages is when Linda seems skeptical of the argument that feminists should oppose not only racist misogyny, but racism, and not only rape as a tool of war, but war itself. War does serious harm to women — is it only a feminist issue when women are raped during war, but not a feminist issue when they’re killed or displaced?
But my main concern comes at the way the issues are split into authentic “feminist” issues and those “other” issues that those “other” women are trying to integrate into feminism. It’s a question of who feminism belongs to, and who is entitled to set out its goals and concerns. I view feminism as a collective, where women of all backgrounds can set the agendas and push the movement forward. I don’t think feminism has to be a unified force on all fronts; I don’t think it’s main purpose is to get the right Democrats elected. Electing progressive politicians is a crucial goal for some parts of the feminist movement, but it’s not the be-all end-all to the movement. And since I see feminism as ideally offering equal space for women of all backgrounds, I don’t see why middle-class white women’s issues are more purely feminist that the issues raised by poor women or Black women or Hispanic women, or any other group of women. The issues that disproportionately effect middle-class white women are also issues colored by race and class — but because they’re the dominant race and the dominant class, that gets glossed over. It seems to me to be an unfair double standard. And it seems to me that white middle-class feminists shouldn’t be doing the same thing that the white guys have always done: We should not be telling other women to forgo their issues for the ones we deem important. We should not be telling other women to wait their turn. We should not construct a movement that assumes “woman” to only represent one narrow construction of womanhood.
Although other organizations work on women’s issues when appropriate, none of the other social movements were much interested in making intersectionality their mission. The nation’s oldest civil rights organization, the NAACP, which co-sponsored the 2004 march in alliance with women’s groups, says nothing about feminism or homophobia or intersectionality in its mission statement. The largest Hispanic rights organization, National Council of La Raza, unembarrassedly proclaims that it “works to improve opportunities for Hispanic Americans.”
I do think there’s a lot of room to criticize other social justice movements for leaving women out, or not representing women’s interests enough. The second-wave feminist movement sprung partly out of frustration at the sexism in the anti-war and civil rights movements. But the answer isn’t to say, “Well, these other movements don’t explicitly talk about women, so therefore we don’t have to talk about race.” That’s playground politicking, not building a strong and justice-based feminism.
She then talks about the Millennials, who she says are recharging feminism with online activism. But:
So what’s the bad news? A lot of millennial feminism simply magnifies the weaknesses of the old movement. As Burk says: “When we started the [younger women's] task force, the young women wanted to identify it with environmentalism and prison rights and, and, and. . . .” Sound familiar?
But to me, that’s not “bad news” — that means we’re starting to make valuable connections. Environmentalism does intersect deeply with feminism — it’s women who bear the brunt of clean water shortages, whose bodies are compromised because of “population control,” who are often most harmed by food crises. It’s powerful to bring feminist analysis to environmentalism, to prison rights, and to other social justice issues. It’s not a weakness.
As someone who has been faithful to feminism since I received a first edition of Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” in 1964, I can’t help saying: “Be careful what you wish for.” The process of shedding potential allies can be hard to control.
After the Center for New Words’s diverse and inclusive “Women, Action and the Media” conference this past April, the blogosphere erupted with charges and countercharges. Bloggers like “Sudy,” a self-described “Filipina of mesmerizing volcanic eruptions,” declared some of the conference’s female subjects to be synthetic: “I . . . don’t believe that simply putting a womyn’s face where a man’s face once was is going to solve our problems . . . by Real Womyn I am talking about womyn of color, incarcerated womyn, migrant womyn, womyn at the border, womyn gripped in violence, rape, and war.”
Participant and blogger Brownfemipower accused participant and blogger Amanda Marcotte, who wrote an article on immigration after the conference, of not coming up “with all these ideas on her own,” and a supportive commenter on her blog, high on rebellion, put the accusation into the broad context of it being “all too easy for white women to get away with stealing the ideas of women of colour.”
A movement that uses intersectionality as a lens but banishes white, bourgeois, corporate older women might be a vehicle to glue what remains of feminism together, but it will struggle to achieve social change for women. The Clinton campaign has, perhaps unwittingly, revealed what many in the movement know — that if feminism is a social-justice-for-everyone (with the possible exception of middle-class white women) movement, then gender is just one commitment among many. And when the other causes call, the movement will dissolve.
…yeah. I wonder if she bothered to interview Sudy or Brownfemipower or any other women of color?
I’m unclear on where Linda gets the idea that feminism is banishing white women or women who don’t use intersectionality as a lens. Obviously I wish that more feminists would use an intersectional approach, and I am skeptical of those who don’t — but I don’t want to kick them out of the movement (and I couldn’t if I tried). The interests of white middle-class women still dominate the mainstream feminist organizations. NOW may mention intersectionality on its website, but it doesn’t mean that the interests of white middle-class women no longer control much of what the organization does. Just look at what’s in major newspapers when it comes to gender and feminism: Elections, elections, elections. I don’t read all that much about feminist views on prison reform or environmentalism.
And the bit about WAM… I’m hesitant to even get into it, but to me, Linda’s article reads like, “WAM was a great and diverse conference until those meanie women of color showed up and started shit.” The implication seems to be that feminism is great and dandy until we let non-white women in the door.
I can understand the knee-jerk frustration when something you love is criticized. I had a great time at WAM, and I came back invigorated and inspired. It did feel like a punch in the stomach to read that some women found WAM to be exclusionary, white-focused, and not representative of the feminism they want. My first reaction was exasperation — what more do they want? I can see how feminists who felt at home at WAM would think that the conference would just be so much better without killjoys complaining about it. It’s easy, when you love something, to want to protect it at all costs. It’s easy, when your perspective is the only one you can know, to think that people who see it differently must just be wrong.
But that is not the feminism I want.
And it’s not the feminism that exists and has always existed. Many white feminists — and I’ve been guilty of this myself — operate under the arrogant assumption that white women started feminism and still work as the bouncers at the door of the movement. That simply isn’t true. Whether women of color serve on the board of NOW or not, there is still grassroots, progressive, feminist work happening in communities all over the world — and it doesn’t take white women to come in and open the door or “teach” other women how to stand up for themselves. Women are organizing. Women are taking feminist actions. The question isn’t whether intersectionality should be a part of feminism — it already is. It always has been. The question is whether the women in positions of greater power — women who tend to be white and middle or upper-class — are going to emulate existing power structures, or whether those women are going to recognize the diversity and richness of feminism and try to represent that by challenging the very structures that gave them power in the first place.
None of that is to say that women should eschew power if they want to be “good” feminists. There are lots of ways to be a good feminist — and it doesn’t mean that you have to put your own interests last. But it does mean that we need to recognize that true power and transformative change comes from areas other than the government. Yes, elections are important. Yes, our representatives and our laws are crucial tools for equality and justice. But they are neither the beginning nor the end of the story. Perhaps that’s where the divide between my thinking and Linda’s comes in.
And I remain troubled by her contention “that if feminism is a social-justice-for-everyone (with the possible exception of middle-class white women) movement, then gender is just one commitment among many. And when the other causes call, the movement will dissolve.” That simply isn’t true — unless you think that gender operates totally separately from all other oppressive social structures, which seems like an awfully simplistic and blind way of seeing the world. First, we need to cut the “poor white women, feminists are so mean to them” meme. Feminism should stand for all women. The problem right now is that it stands disproportionately for white women. Critiquing that is not the same as saying that white women don’t deserve justice. And to me, a movement that is willing to trouble itself with the complicated realities that women face — realities that include a diversity of experiences, beliefs and identities — is the only movement worth adhering to. A movement that attempts to define “womanhood” in a way that only appeals to a narrow group of women, that refuses to acknowledge that womanhood means different things to different women, and that does not recognize the ridiculousness of expecting women to separate out their femaleness from their other defining characteristics is not a movement that I trust.
I do hear what she’s saying: It becomes problematic if feminism is diluted to simply mean “social justice.” In the lead-up to the March for Women’s Lives in April 2004, feminist organizations were rife with these conversations, and particularly with the question of how many issues should be permitted to be raised at the march. If you’ve ever gone to a lefty protest, you know what the concern is — that every lefty issue under the sun will be raised. The March was about reproductive rights; they were concerned that raising issues like marriage equality or the war would be unnecessarily divisive and distracting. At the time of the March, I didn’t know where I stood. I do think there’s something to be said for having single-issue actions.
But feminism isn’t an issue — it’s an umbrella movement that should encompass and represent women’s interests. Those interests are going to be diverse and occasionally divisive. I think that’s ok.
I do think Linda is right in her point that without cohesion, feminists lack power as an electoral force. She quotes me in the article as saying, “”Mainstream liberal Democratic guys don’t have to take feminism seriously because they know that, at the end of the day, we’re going to be there.” That’s true — women’s votes are only deemed important so long as we’re getting the Democratic dudes into office. Democrats know that once the election is over, they don’t have to represent feminist interests, because where else are we going to go? It’s a frustrating catch-22: If we don’t support Democrats, we’re opening the door for an even worse party to maintain power. But when we do support Democrats in exchange for crumbs, we reward bad behavior, and we undermine ourselves as a powerful political force.
So I think we do need feminists like Linda, who are concerned with getting women into positions of power — because for a lot of women, that’s important. It’s difficult to deny the fact that having women in power is valuable not only because it models power to other women and girls (raising a generation of women who feel entitled to the kind of stuff men have always had), but because it normalizes femaleness and elevates “women’s issues” to the level that “men’s issues” have always been at — that is, it turns “women’s issues” into “issues.” But that isn’t enough. We need a feminist movement that pushes the women who do achieve power to be better — we need women who bring up issues of race and class, and who won’t shut up or back down or sit in the back seat in the name of cohesion. We need a system that doesn’t privilege some people over others when it comes to achieving power. And we need a system that redefines “power” in the first place — and a feminism that recognizes the fact that power through electoral politics is not the only power worth having.
I am tired of a feminism that assumes to be built and maintained by middle-class white women. I am tired of a feminism that, when challenged, falls back on the same old excuses and knee-jerk reactions that men have long relied on when faced with feminist critiques. I don’t think feminism needs to be everything to everyone, and I do think that it must be concerned with women first and foremost — but I am tired of a feminism that treats whiteness and class privilege as a default position. I am tired of a feminism that values cohesion and electoral power over substantive change and true justice.
I have quite a bit of respect, admiration and gratitude for the feminists who came before me. But I take issue with the idea that those “older feminists” were mostly white middle-class women, and that it’s us third-wavers who are just now bringing in race and class analysis. Feminists have always been diverse. Feminisms have been developed around the world, in varying ways in varying communities. The public face of feminism, though, has recreated existing prejudices and privileges — white middle-class Western women have taken the stage not because we’re doing more work or better work or the only work, but because we have relatively more power, privilege and access than other feminists. I don’t think it does a disservice to feminist accomplishments to acknowledge that.
In other words, feminism hasn’t lost its focus — it is simply evolving. We do not have to be completely and entirely unified in order to be a force of nature. We are instead better when we hash out our ideas, when we disagree, when we come into feminist spaces with varying experiences and beliefs. That’s how we learn, and that’s how we get better. And if feminism cannot withstand critique, diversity and evolution, then perhaps it’s not an ideology worth adhering to.
I obviously believe feminism is worth the time, love, energy and thought that so many of us put into it. But it is only a movement made up of ideas and individuals; it is not a thing unto itself. And so we get to decide what it looks like — all of us. In reality, that means that it’s going to look like a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Ideally, we will be able to consolidate our collective power and become a force to be reckoned with — but that shouldn’t require a large group of us to repeatedly set aside our own interests or our identities.
Diversity of thought and of issue areas are not weaknesses for feminism — rather, they are indications of relevance. The fact that feminism matters in prison reform, in environmentalism, in anti-racist activism, in LGBT activism, in human rights ideology, and in the anti-war movement is a testament to feminism’s strength and its widespread value.
All of that said, there remains a problem of representing feminist and women’s interests in progressive politics, which Linda tried to get to at the end of her article. I don’t have the silver bullet to solve the impossible problem of Democrats wooing women during elections and then taking us for granted when they’re actually in power; I don’t think voting for McCain, or opting out of the elections, is going to teach them any sort of lesson — and it certainly won’t be doing ourselves any favors. But we also aren’t doing ourselves any favors by continuing to participate in a system that screws us at every turn.
But I don’t think intersectionality is to blame for the relative lack of power that feminists have. I don’t think that pushing aside the issues that large groups of women face is the appropriate answer.
I also don’t know what the appropriate answer is, at least when it comes to electoral issues. Linda and WaPo readers will be discussing that question here, at 1pm today. Join in if you can.
UPDATE: BfP has a post up about the article as well. It’s worth a read.