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Outlook: The Shortfalls -- and Future -- of Feminism

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Linda Hirshman
Feminist Author
Monday, June 9, 2008; 1:00 PM

"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 apparently likewise failed at her goal of becoming the first woman president of the United States. At 40-something, organized feminism is having trouble reproducing. ... 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."

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Feminist author Linda Hirshman, who wrote "Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World," was online Monday, June 9 to discuss her Outlook article how the end of the Clinton campaign is indicative of how splintered the feminist movement has become, and how women can better work together for future advancement.

A transcript follows.

Archive: Transcripts of discussions with Outlook article authors

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Linda Hirshman: Hi everyone -- fire away.

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Future of feminism: One option is to go in the kitchen and fix me a sandwich. :-)

Linda Hirshman: What's a sandwich?

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Herndon, Va.: Please, please correct me if I'm wrong, but were you saying in your essay that the feminist movement should stick to "white" female concerns exclusively? If so, what sense would that make in a country becoming more Obama (multiracial) and less Hillary (white)? Shouldn't the focus be on what makes all of America better?

Linda Hirshman: This is a very important question. I was saying that the feminist movement should stick to female concerns; the other would not only be imprudent, in light of demographics, but also, er, wrong. Many female concerns, with their particular shapes, arise in the lives of people who are not "white." They should be addressed in their particular manifestations. But the women's movement should not -- repeat not -- be the only movement that is responsible for the well-being of all of America, as you suggest, any more than the woman in the family should be solely responsible for the well-being of the family.

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Fairfax County, Va.: When I saw at Nancy Pelosi at the State of the Union, my heart swelled with pride. When I look at the wonderful diversity of women in the Senate and House (yes, I know they aren't 50 percent of those bodies -- yet) the same thing happens. And Claire McCaskill has been a wonderful surrogate for Obama throughout the campaign. Not to mention the pleasure of listening to Donna Brazile's wise comments throughout the primary and, I hope, for a long time to come.

I am a middle-aged white woman and strong Obama supporter. The victory or failure of one woman, with the very unusual (and frankly, somewhat troubling) circumstance of a spouse who is an ex-president, has nothing to do with the forward advance of feminism. We are women, hear us roar. Don't worry about one lost campaign.

Linda Hirshman: I worry about all the ways in which women's interests have been denigrated, ignored and back-burner-ed, just as I celebrate when they are not. As my young friend from Feministe put it, you cannot go on appeasing forever.

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Seattle: How can we reconcile feminism with the fact that racism, poverty, etc., disproportionately affects women of color and poor women vs. men of color and poor men? Talking about feminism, it seems we find that every problem unique to females in society is magnified in a different way when other social problems are introduced, and yet I do not want to dilute feminism to being about "social justice."

Linda Hirshman: I do not know that racism disproportionately affects women of color vs. men of color or poor women vs. poor men. It would be interesting to think about how you weigh the oppressions. Men of color are disproportionately in prison and disproportionately subject to the death penalty.

Anyway, I think a woman's movement should focus on the problems of women. If women are poorer because they bear the burden of child care, for instance, focus on child care. I'd leave bringing down capitalism to Barbara Ehrenreich and the others.

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Austin, Texas: Let's boil down your main political point as well: Because black women did not exert pressure on Democratic senators sufficient to block Clarence Thomas, they should have atoned in the 2008 presidential primary by voting for Hilary Clinton?

Linda Hirshman: Good question. My interest in atonement pretty much cis ashed out one day a year, but as a thought experiment, let us consider whether black women would be better off next November without Clarence Thomas on the bench and with Hillary Clinton in the White House.

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Scottsdale, Ariz..: So how can the feminist movement get out from under its undeserved rap (my opinion) as a white woman's movement without spreading itself too thin to be effective as a political movement?

Linda Hirshman: Thank you for asking this. I think there are two easy and morally upright solutions.

One, where women's issues arise and affect people in particular ways because they are the victims of other oppressions or challenges as well, feminism needs to craft specific solutions tailored to the women's needs. An example suggested to me is that women of color are subjected to pressure not to reproduce -- one such report spoke of long term Norplant-type stuff as a condition of parole. This is different from the pressure to reproduce that is the subject of much choice energy. The women's movement must protect women of color from this particularly female oppression, if the reports I received are true.

Second, insofar as the women's movement mostly is comprised of white women -- and I do not know this to be true -- then white women need to make strategic alliances with women who are not "white" (I hate this term). See my prior answer to the Clarence Thomas/Hillary Clinton question.

The mistake is in adopting every system of oppression as our own, regardless of the intensity of its gendered impact, and without extracting reciprocal commitments from others.

As my young friend Jill Filipovic put it in her interview, the progressive white men who run the Democratic Party do not have to pay attention to women, because they know we always will come back to them. And we lower our value even further by adopting their causes -- civil rights, the environment, etc. -- as our own, whole cloth, without any tradeoff.

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Boston: One of the last thoughts in your essay -- that male Democrats know that they don't have to do that much because at the end of the day we'll still be there -- particularly resonated with me. I've come to believe that, with most of the large and obvious obstacles to women's economic parity overcome (such as gender-specific help-wanted ads, as you noted), we'll need to get men on board to be able to fix the less-obvious and/or less-quantifiable inequalities (child care, for example). How do we get men involved (or even get them to care)? Or do you disagree about the degree to which we even would need their help? Many thanks from a young (25-year-old) feminist.

Linda Hirshman: I am a Hobbes scholar. Hobbes famously said that man seeks, above all things, his own good. We must refuse to deal with them on unfair terms, particularly in the reproductive family. I don't think men are villains, I just think we never have demanded that they bear their fair share of the private world. As another famous Hobbesian (Larry Summers) allegedly said "I never met a man who washed a rented car." No matter how much the female pundits who did it loved Barack Obama, they should have refused to go on the Chris Matthews or the Tim Russert programs, leaving them purely white and male. The women who appeared with Chris and Tim are no different than the people who went on Imus. They were his "skirt."

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Philadelphia: Is there a clearly visible generational split among feminists? It seems obvious that older feminists supported Hillary Clinton while younger feminists were more attracted to Barack Obama. Were there any significant issues that caused this split, or was it mostly a difference in style, as younger voters could identify more with a younger candidate? Finally, if it is a difference in style, who are the younger voices of feminism today would are appealing to the younger feminists?

Linda Hirshman: The generational line was not a perfect divide -- I hear from lots of women my certain age who say they're for Obama, and some young ones on the other side. The exit polling indicated that Obama's women were younger on the whole. For one thing, they were much more African American, and African Aamerican voters are younger, so you have to keep your crosstabs straight. But even correcting for race, the "white" Obama women were on the whole younger.

Several things are true: Intersectionality is much more intense among younger feminists and probably their civilian cohort as well, so they see racism in general -- regardless of who it impacts -- as a feminist issue. That allowed them to hold onto their feminist identity and still vote against the female candidate. Second, he and most of his campaign staff were closer to their age cohort, so there were style issues. Finally, I believe that young white women thankfully have benefited from the gains of feminism, and feel their interest less keenly. Oh, and a lot of the young women are fresh out of college, the last Russert/Matthews-free pure meritocracy they ever will know. LOL.

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Southern Maryland: I'm 47, married, working professional, mom of two. I'm not threatened by men and feel no need to vote for a candidate based on gender. Isn't this what our mothers fought for -- equality? If we are truly equal, then we don't need to "prove" anything by having a woman president. Honestly, we'd be better off if women got over the need to have someone else validate them. Go out and make your own way!

Linda Hirshman: I do not understand what "go out and make your own way" means in this comment. Every test of bias that social science has come up with produces the result that there is still an enormous amount of bias against women at every level. Symphonies that conduct auditions behind a curtain wind up with more female musicians, etc., etc., etc. So if we were truly equal, we would indeed not need to prove anything. If my aunt had balls, she'd be my uncle. And the point is?

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Madison, Wis.: Could you flesh out how you think the (in)action of women of color was key in getting Justice Thomas on the bench? I don't quite follow you on that on.

Linda Hirshman: Several news sources, including the New York Times reported that polls showing that black voters backed Clarence Thomas were influential in determining the vote of the Southern Democrats to confirm. It is a demographic fact that more black voters are female than male. Of course specific women of color were opposed, as was the NAACP, which has quite an honorable record -- as I noted in my article in a different context.

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Salt Lake City: Even if white bourgeois feminists are being alienated from feminism because of intersectionality (and I take issue with that), why should we treat the unique problems and concerns of such a privileged group of women with the same urgency we approach some of the life-and-death questions of less-privileged women?

Linda Hirshman: This is a terrific question. There is indeed an argument that we should not. However, because most of the country is white and middle class -- as an electoral movement, your strategy is harder to execute. "But," you may say, "Barack Obama won." True. But the Democratic primary demographic was something like 20 percent or more African American this year. Winning, as the nominee did, up to 90 percent of such voters means that he had to win only -- which I suspect is the case -- about 38 percent of the 80 percent of Democrats who were not African American. This is not the composition of the American electorate. So for overall political power in a democratic system, it's difficult.

Also, I must confess to being heartily tired of hearing women's claims forever subordinated to more exigent claims. Why aren't we giving all our money away until we have just one penny more than the poorest beggar, as Peter Singer advises?

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Washington: A female colleague of mine and I recently were discussing Sen. Clinton's campaign in the broader context of feminism and the fact that so many women in this country don't identify as feminists. I shared that I thought part of the problem involved the fact that some strains of feminism (not all) are hostile to motherhood and family issues. I'll never forget the reaction of many academic and feminist friends in graduate school had when my wife and I shared that she was pregnant. "Oh my God, was it planned?" was a frequent response. Colleagues in my wife's department treated her as if she were selling out the movement. Why haven't family rights taken hold more strongly among the various strains of feminism?

Linda Hirshman: Because the heterosexual reproductive family is a fount in inequality. I think motherhood and family should be a central concern of feminism, starting with insisting that men shape their lives with the expectation that they will bear half the burden of child-rearing and homemaking forever. Now there's a family value I can support without caveat.

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Helena, Mont.: I'm not so sure what Hillary brings to the table as far as feminists are concerned. I think so many people got so wrapped up in a fantasy about the "first woman president" that they projected onto Hillary positions that she didn't truly hold. She wasn't a particularly strong voice on the Ledbetter decision, and hasn't pushed publicly for a reversal of this equal pay decision. In fact, she really hasn't been a particularly strong voice for women in her time in the Senate.

Linda Hirshman: The Ledbetter decision is absolutely crucial. Let us all start publishing our salaries (men too).

I am more interested in the philosophical structure of feminist thought than in the particulars of this election, and trying to open the problem of when inclusive becomes dilutive.

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Washington: I think you unfairly are blaming the focus on intersectionality for weakening the feminist movement. Why would it be the fault of black women for walking away from a movement that doesn't represent them? Shouldn't the onus be on the feminist movement to address the needs of all women? Furthermore, why play this zero-sum game where intersectionality means banishing older, affluent, white women? When did anyone say we should do that?

Linda Hirshman: My point is that black women should walk away if the movement does not represent them, but should not walk away if the movement does not represent black men. Thanks for letting me clarify that.

Regardless of why they walk away, the solution is to offer bargained-for compromises in which their interests are traded off for the interests of white women in a way that produces the optimum achievable outcome for both. Instead, women selectively ally with men, producing the situation Jill Filipovic described in her interview with me.

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Bellingham, Wash.: If feminism lives or dies based on the success or failure of Hillary Clinton's campaign, is it a movement, or a cult of personality? I think what many feminists "of a certain age" fear this isn't the death of the movement but the end of their hold on it. Personally I saw Clinton's campaign less as the first serious run by a woman and more as the last chance of the Baby Boomers.

That's why the Gloria Steinems of the world feel such anger and loss. It's the same reason Bill Clinton got down and dirty and why the Rev. Wright wouldn't exit the stage. Whether we are talking feminism, Democratic Party leadership, or the civil rights movement, the torch is being passed, and the old guard (re: Baby Boomers) doesn't want to let go.

Linda Hirshman: This is interesting. It is possible that Hillary Clinton was the weird leftover representative of a social moment that has passed. As many people have said elsewhere, her reliance on her husband to get started is a compromise almost all of us in her generation have made. But I have observed clearly how men make a movement and their sons take it over (conservatism -- hello John Podhoretz, William Kristol, ad infinitum and ad nauseam) without breaking stride. Why is it that women always seem to need to kill (death of the movement) their mothers, and not to emulate them as Oedipus did, but to do the opposite?

If all the bias and abandoned dreams were over, I'd say "go for it young'uns," and take up the piano or something -- but the "break" seems to me to be more Greek theater than Greek philosophy.

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Linda Hirshman: As that lovely and charitable avatar of feminism, Frances Kissling, said in her interview in the Nation recently, it's time for me to die.

But since my mother was a feminist (and a Democrat) until she died sadly at the age of 89, I think I will just sign off.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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