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."

But recently, the feminist movement hit an unexpected bonus: The Millennials, the generation born roughly between 1977 and 1996, have started re-engaging with feminism. In the last 10 years, all the major feminist organizations -- NOW, the Feminist Majority Foundation, the National Council -- started campus programs and outreach initiatives for 20-somethings. Organizations such as the Center for New Words, Women in Media and News and the Women's Media Center represent the young generation's interest in the media and its representations of women's lives. Feminist blogs -- Feministe, Feministing -- have sprung up. You "cannot overestimate the impact of the Internet on feminism's outreach potential," says Feministing founder Jessica Valenti. "We reach women who never had a class in women's studies, women in towns with no NOW chapter or any other explicit feminist organization."

Feminism's sclerosis problem seems to have found a cure. Valenti's writing has a wonderful defiant quality reminiscent of the days of the movement's youth. "A lot of feminist organizations are so accustomed to backlash that everything they put out into the world is very thoughtful, deliberate and safe," she says. "Feminists are always going to encounter backlash no matter how careful we are, so why aren't we saying exactly what we want?"

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?

Many young feminists, ironically, are frank about wanting to keep people who don't sincerely embrace intersectionality out of the future feminist movement. And it's true that, despite their intersectional mission statements, mainstream organizations such as NOW did endorse the white female candidate, putting gender first. Contemplating reconciling feminists now that the primaries are over, Valenti writes that she isn't interested in reconciliation unless "intersectionality is used as a lens and not just as a talking point." Older intersectionalists chime in. Anticipating Obama's victory in a recent interview in the Nation, Frances Kissling of Catholics for a Free Choice predicted the end of traditional feminism: "If [Clinton] doesn't win, it will be a death knell for those people. And that may be a good thing -- that a younger generation will start to take over."

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.

What remains? Not that some female candidate with no baggage is going to rocket out of nowhere as Obama did. The Brookings Institution just released a study revealing that, after 40 years of feminism, the number of women entering politics has leveled off. Only eight of the nation's 50 governors -- the most common White House track -- are women. Men don't recruit women, women bear the lion's share of household work, and few husbands seem to quit working to support their wives' careers.

The good news is that just because a movement fails as an electoral force doesn't mean that it's meaningless. As Gloria Feldt, former president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, says: "Elections come and go, but feminist issues are forever." The young feminists are networking and coordinating. The New York City chapter of NOW works its feminist agenda every day -- this year, they successfully lobbied the state legislature to repeal the statute of limitations on rape and ran a campaign against sex trafficking. But even chapter president Sonia Ossorio doesn't think much about using her victories for movement building: "I don't have time to sit back and the luxury of thinking how to market," she says.

The absence of realpolitik is serious. Sooner or later, the same lessons always emerge. When the four Southern Democratic senators voted to put Thomas on the Supreme Court, liberal women got mad. But they didn't get even. Leave the party? "Where do they have to go?" asked Birmingham-Southern College political science professor Natalie Davis.

This is probably the moment for me to admit that I am a Chris Matthews-inspired Clintonite. I started out feeling very lukewarm toward Clinton, but every time someone on cable television called her a bitch or a pimp, my interest in her candidacy went up. A lot of the feminists for Obama were also horrified at the tone of the Clinton coverage, but they maintained that you could be mad at Matthews and Tim Russert and Alex Castellanos and the guys on the Internet and in your office but still support Obama. I am, as my young feminist friends and Obama supporters keep reminding me, old.

So I'll invoke the insight of someone less than half my age, the young editor of Feministe, Jill Filipovic. "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," she told me. Filipovic supports Obama, but recognizes that "most of the time, appeasement is not the solution."

Or, as the legendary feminist philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli said, it's better to be feared than loved, if you can't be both.


Linda Hirshman is the author of "Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World."

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