Melissa Harris-Lacewell and Katrina vanden Heuvel were on GRITtv yesterday to talk about the “Year of the Woman” framing that’s hit hard after the round of primary elections we saw in the States last week, and something that Harris-Lacewell said really struck me.
Transcript: This is part of what identity politics always does, it assumes that anyone whose voting record is contrary to the identity group from which they emerged, it assumes that they are therefore independent thinkers. We saw the same thing with Colin Powell as a potential Republican nominee for the U.S. presidency, the idea that as a military man and a Republican he wasn’t bound by race. It’s part of what made the election of Barack Obama so extraordinary. It wasn’t even so much the election of a black man but a black man in the Democratic party which was so surprising! I’d expected us, in fact, to elect a person of color, to elect a white woman as president, but I certainly thought that it would have come from the Republican party because there’s always this assumption that if you are against the interests of the majority of the individuals of the group from which you emerge, that you are therefore an independent thinker.
Sarah Palin’s whole “Maverick” shtick. Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman, who my boss noted are just the acceptable version of any other multimillionaire, being able to play some sort of “outsider” game. These women get credit for being independent!!!! because they’re seen as having decided on their own to come to right-wing politics, having stepped outside of their identity group to join a politics that, let’s face it, favors well-off white people, especially men. They favor cuts to government services that disproportionately help women, they pretend that gender is no obstacle–well, sure, when you’re the former CEO of eBay or HP, your money buys you out of many of the obstacles that gender creates for women candidates in fundraising.
Me, I’m pretty far left in my politics, but in general I do support policies that would be assumed to be “identity politics.” Yet for me, it was completely contrary to how I was raised. My parents were conservatives. For me to come round to being not only a liberal but someone who identifies as a socialist, I had to do a lot of “independent thinking.” Solidarity wasn’t exactly a word that was used in my household growing up.
But suddenly the media has a narrative it likes; that this is the year of the (Republican) women. I spent a chunk of last month writing a piece that should be out soon on women in the Tea Party and Patriot movements, and their connection to feminism. I mentioned yesterday when writing about Labour in the UK the idea of requiring 50% women in the Shadow Cabinet, and Harris-Lacewell, elsewhere in the show (you can watch the full episode here), noted that having women and people of color represented is in fact a good in itself because it shows people who is considered a citizen, who counts. But that is a separate good from having candidates and elected officials who are in fact progressive and supportive of people who are oppressed, regardless of their identity group.
In other words, to simply be a member of a group does not mean you are actually advocating for or helping the members of that group. You see this even more with the kind of identity politics that are created rather than innate: the argument over who gets to call themselves a feminist, for example. Feminists are rightly angry that antichoice, anti-social-spending Sarah Palin wants to claim the title, and saddened when young women reject it. But just the fact that Sarah Palin and others put it on does not mean they are actually doing anything for us.
It’s what makes me like bell hooks’s statement that instead of saying “I am a feminist,” one should say “I advocate feminism.” It changes it from an identity to an action. Otherwise anyone can declare themselves a feminist and then have to do nothing to help women. One can say “I’m not racist” and then get angry when called out on a racist action. It becomes not all that much different from claiming to help women simply by being a woman in the race. Maybe on some level it helps to have more women calling themselves feminist, more women in office, but we need more than just words and presences. We need action.
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