Looking to the Future, Feminism Has to Focus

By Linda Hirshman
Sunday, June 8, 2008

In April 2004, around 1 million women went to Washington to rally for women's rights. One of the main speakers at the event was the junior senator from New York, Hillary Rodham Clinton, even then the object of future presidential speculation. Her surprise appearance elicited an ecstatic response from the crowd.

For all its size and enthusiasm, though, the rally failed to achieve its central goal of defeating George W. Bush in the presidential election and protecting the abortion rights majority on the Supreme Court. And now, after a valiant effort, Clinton has likewise failed, for the moment at least, in her goal of becoming the first woman president of the United States.

At 40-something, organized feminism is having trouble reproducing. Nothing says that more clearly than Clinton's struggle in the primaries. Whatever its achievements, a movement with a potential constituency of more than half of all eligible American voters has never, with the possible but unclear exception of 1996, been able to deliver the deciding goods in any presidential election. And what this precise electoral moment tells us is that in fact it was never in a position to function as an effective electoral force.

Like the rally, Clinton's campaign initially looked a lot better for the movement than it turned out to be. Within days of her January 2007 announcement that she would make a run for the White House, her lieutenants Mark Penn and James Carville predicted that women would carry her over the threshold. In an appearance in Iowa early that same year, she reminded her audience that she was presenting herself as a woman and a mom. But as I wrote at the time in this newspaper, I had doubts. Though I came to recognize the feminist stake in Clinton's candidacy, in the beginning, the feminist in me wanted the first woman president to make it on her own, not with a big boost from her husband. And the Chicagoan in me looked at the precincts and didn't think that women would ultimately bring them in.

Nor did they. In the end, although Clinton won more women's votes overall than Barack Obama, the gap -- 9 percent across states with exit polls -- wasn't huge. African American women went for Obama by a five to one margin. Feminist activists split between the rival camps, exchanging manifestos. The Democratic women's vote splintered, and the candidate with the most male votes won.

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.

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."

Meanwhile, white middle-class women, who had started the movement, had already gotten a lot of payoff from the removal of many gender-only barriers, such as sex-segregated help-wanted ads, two-tiered wage structures and prohibitions against pregnant schoolteachers. Once the most insulting abuses were removed, many of these women, somewhat ignobly, lost interest. Research among U.S. college women in 1987 (a largely white group) revealed that only a small proportion called themselves feminists; in 1989, a Time/CNN poll revealed the same thing.

So by the time a viable female candidate for president surfaced, some of the movement's potential supporters had come to think that identifying chiefly as women was too activist, while others thought it wasn't activist enough. As Martha Burk, past president of the National Council of Women's Organizations, put it: "Women have a problem with voting their own interests."

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