The Feminine Mistake

By Maureen Tkacik
Wednesday, June 11, 2008; 12:00 AM

I am not sure if Linda Hirshman, writing in Sunday's Outlook section, recognizes the irony in prefacing her observation that "organized feminism is having trouble reproducing" with a line on the importance of protecting abortion rights. But whatever her intention, the juxtaposition points to a flaw in her generation of women's-rights activists: They lack a certain bedside manner. At times, the pungent cocktail of indignation and impatience fueling veteran feminists through this primary season has seemed suicidally poisonous. Witness Geraldine Ferraro's threat to vote in the general election for John McCain because she found Barack Obama's campaign "sexist." (Sweetie, McCain is an antiabortion Republican who has explicitly stated his intention to nominate Supreme Court justices in the mold of John Roberts. He also, incidentally, traded his first wife -- who'd been disfigured by a car accident -- for his second in the matter of a month.)

But back to bedside manner. Never before this campaign did I suspect the strident shrillness often associated with the feminist movement was actually indicative of some larger character flaw. "Style" is not, after all, "substance." And I was drawn to the arguments laid out in Get To Work, Hirshman's call for privileged educated women to eschew stay-at-home motherhood. I believe that the overrepresentation of men -- men with cartoonish, deeply socialized notions of masculinity -- in all stations of power has been, frankly, disastrous for our society and our institutions. As Hirshman found herself rooting for Hillary Clinton in reaction to the stereotypically male arrogance and sexism of cable-news anchors, so a lot of women I know found themselves rooting for Clinton in response to the stereotypically male greed, aggression, and obliviousness to consequence that has defined not just the Bush Administration but the preponderance of the private sector.

Yet by the logic of Hirshman's latest missive, to advocate the advancement of women on the grounds that it would improve our foreign policy and corporate governance and the Greater Good and whatnot is to engage in the counterproductive muddling of feminism with related causes. Her word for this is "intersectionality," referring to the academic bias within feminist studies toward "issues involving the intersectionality of overlapping oppressions." She blames intersectionality for seducing feminists who only ever meant to protest, say, "racist misogyny," into the fight against "racism in any form;" and for distracting women from targeted issues like "rape as an instrument of war" into opposing "war itself."

I wish it ended there, and I could stick to rebutting a screed that might be dubbed "In Praise of Myopia." Because there are so many crucial points she's blindly shuffled past already: namely, that it will always be harder to be a woman than a man; that it is nevertheless generally much harder in this country to be born a black male than a white female; that it is perfectly natural for a movement comprising half the population to fragment into smaller subsets, based, among other things, on their bank account balances and levels of desperation.

But then Hirshman gets personal, blaming "intersectionality" for the fact that my generation of white middle-class feminists "somewhat ignobly" lost interest in feminist causes once the "most insulting abuses" against women were removed. She repeats this word, "intersectionality," so often you could be forgiven for forgetting that its synonym is humanism, and that by her logic it is ignoble to care about people other than one's partners in demography.

News flash, Linda! We are women. We care about people. It's what we do! And if the popularization of neuroscience and terms like "emotional intelligence" -- coupled with the past eight years of Enron and Spitzer and Mission Accomplished -- has endowed my generation with anything, it's the confidence that our empathy is rational; that the way we are is on the side of reason.

Before I attempt to explain why so many young feminists chose the candidate who opposed the invasion of Iraq to usher in this new Era of Reason, please humor a dispatch from the Annals of Intersectionality, because I think it neatly illustrates Hirshman's assertion that "millennial feminism simply magnifies the weaknesses of the old movement" -- the weakness of excessive empathy for other causes. Last month, a Baghdad stringer for the Guardian broke a soul-shattering story about a man in Basra who beat his daughter to death for forming a crush on a British soldier. While the girl's mother went into hiding in fear that she would meet the same fate -- her husband blamed her for their daughter's rogue lustful genes -- the police dropped the investigation after two hours because, in the words of the father, "everyone knows some honor killings are impossible not to commit." Two weeks later, the girl's mother met the same fate, gunned down in the street after trying to escape to Jordan with the help of a fledgling women's-rights organization. I covered the story on Jezebel, a feminist blog I co-edit, and attempted to offer readers some context: Honor killings have long been practiced in Iraq, but they have grown more common as women's rights have been curtailed under the reign of fear imposed by the chaos of the occupation and the puritanism of Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr. One reader wrote to ask the name of the women's-rights organization, so she could send them some money. Almost as an afterthought, I IM-ed the stringer in Baghdad and we hastily set up a PayPal account so other concerned readers could offer up their beer money as well.

I cannot overstate this charity drive's offhandedness; it was prompted by a single blog post of more than 50 we produce daily. Nevertheless, within a few days I'd received a few thousand dollars from about a hundred readers. A surprising (considering our heavily female readership) majority came from male names. Many readers copped to using their boyfriends' or husbands' accounts. Not every millennial woman, as it turns out, nurses an eBay handbag addiction that would necessitate her own. But they found a way to donate money anyway. And that is why we strive for equal pay.

In The Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama recalls being the only child at his school in Jarkarta allowed to swim at the tony American Club -- an early epiphany as to the privileges afforded by American citizenship. Obama was born into a nation that allowed him to swim in the pool of his choosing, just as I was born into a nation that allowed me abortion in the state of my choosing. And while Obama's race, like my gender, awakened him to the history of injustice, he never lost the sense that he was, in the context of that history, deeply, unjustly fortunate, and thus duty-bound to attempt to correct that. Speaking as a middle-class millennial white feminist with not a lot to complain about, I suppose that is where our interests intersect.

Maureen Tkacik is an editor at Jezebel. Her e-mail is

© 2008 The Washington Post Company