Monday, March 10, 2008

Take A Deep Breath, Part II: Exhale

This will be the geekier post of the two in this twinning, but I hope that you wade through it, because the issues I want to discuss matter greatly.

The issues have to do with how to define feminism. It's not a game of looking up the correct answer in a dictionary or Googling for a bunch of definitions. It has to do with something much more experiental, much more flesh-embodied. Two quotes may help me in trying to explain why this topic matters. First, here is Jessica Valenti in the Nation magazine, in a piece about the problems with the second wave feminism and the importance of changing the way movement feminism is practiced:

Rebecca Walker, a founder of the Third Wave Foundation, says, "There are no new issues on the table. What we see in this election is the zenith of the decades-old struggle between women of different sensibilities." Walker believes today's election friction is simply a consequence of mainstream feminist leaders and organizations not listening to critiques from younger women, women of color and grassroots activists about the exclusivity of thought within the movement. "The issue at hand has to do with [institutional] feminism's inability to respond adequately to the claims brought against it," Walker says.

One of these claims is that mainstream feminists have ignored an "intersectional" approach to feminism--one that takes class, race and sexuality into account--in favor of one that focuses on sexism above all else. NOW executives, for example, campaigning for Clinton in Ohio told women voters that sexism is "the worst of the isms."


No matter what Clinton's fate, feminist election tensions will start to fade--but we shouldn't let them, no matter how many calls for solidarity are issued by movement leaders. Instead of the group hug approach, let's focus on tangible goals: fostering youth leadership, working from the margins in and using intersectionality as our lens--instead of just a talking point. Let's use this moment, when our politics and emotions are raw, to push for a better, more forward-looking feminism.

What Valenti refers to here is the unfortunate tendency of much of second wave writing to view women's problems predominantly from the place where middle-class white educated women sat, focusing on the grievances and problems this group of women had. For example, the idea of women being put on a pedestal (where one cannot move, of course) was a pretty alien one for all the women who worked the fields and staffed the factories and then went home and cooked the meal and washed the dishes and put the children to bed. A pedestal looks like a mighty nice place to someone like that.

"Intersectionality", as far as I understand it, means that it's important to look at women positioned in all the different places in the society: poor women, women who are ethnic minorities, religious women, immigrant women, lesbians, disabled women, to give a few examples, and to make sure that the way feminism is practiced isn't just to benefit those who already are fairly well placed, as women are concerned. Thus, an intersectional lens is being applied when a feminist study looks at how the treatment of a chronic illness differs between male and female sufferers from it, or when a study asks how racism affects women differently than it affects men.

Now, notice how I stuck something relating to women into all those sentences? The second quote I have picked shows a very different interpretation of "intersectionality" in feminism:

Let me explain. During the heydays of the second wave of the women's movement -- the late 1960s through most of the 1980s -- the problems were very well defined, the barriers very visible, the opposition very overt, and many of the solutions very clear. The movement's goal, as well, seemed just as specific and just as clear -- gender equality. But as the women's movement continued to change and grow, and as white women finally began to listen to what women of color had been telling them for decades -- over and over again -- branches of the women's movement began to redefine the movement more broadly as a social justice movement. This was particularly true for Third Wave feminists -- my generation. The intersectionality between gender, race and class became the mantra, and more traditional gender equality advocates -- while not unsupportive of broader social justice ideals -- wondered at the wisdom of supplanting gender equality from the movement's central focus in favor of other progressive ideals.

It seems to me that the Clinton/Obama split in the feminist community in many ways mirrors these differing philosophies. Clinton supporters, while supportive of broader social justice initiatives, are nonetheless more focused on the women's movement as a gender equality movement, and on Clinton as an important, long-awaited first in a previously boys-only club. Obama supporters seem to be more focused on the women's movement as a vehicle for broader social justice action -- the focus on anti-war activities is a perfect example. Based on this analysis, it should not be surprising that younger women, less apt to identify with equality rhetoric, are more likely to support Obama, while older women -- more familiar with women's equality issues and the need not only for continued progress but for efforts to protect our gains -- are more reassured by Clinton.

My reading of this quote is that intersectionality is not viewed as the intersection of gender with other aspects of a person's social position but as taking other social justice goals on board either as equally important with the goal of advancing women or perhaps as supplanting that goal altogether. If my reading is correct then a third wave feminist could work for an objective which has nothing to do with women at all, as long as it is connected with the social justice movement. Or perhaps a better reading is that everything that benefits human beings will ultimately benefit women, because women are about one half of all human beings. Hence being against the Iraq war is viewed as a feminist stance because women are hurt by the war.

I have trouble with this definition of feminism, not because the goals wouldn't be good or important, but because it seems to leave the term "feminism" without any real context. If feminism is not about women's equality first and foremost, how does it differ from lots of other social justice movements? And why would it be called feminism at all? And perhaps more importantly, if feminist activists choose to use their time and resources on issues other than women's rights, who is it who will speak for women? I see a big problem right there, because the usual assumption is that feminists are to take care of all issues having to do with women so that the rest of the society doesn't have to bother with those. But if feminists are busy saving the world in other ways, well, women's special concerns will be mostly ignored.

This is where defining feminism matters. I see roughly two definitions in embodied use among the feminist activists. One is the dictionary definition of wanting women and men to have equal opportunities, the one I apply, though with the addition that I also want traditionally male and female spheres of activity to be equally valued. The other definition has to do with "putting women first," with wanting to make the lives of women better. The two are not mutually exclusive, and all feminists do want to make the world a better place for women. But the definitional differences may explain why sometimes I feel totally lost in feminist debates.

There are probably better ways of expressing the second definition. But I think that's the definition that must be behind the argument that feminists should work against the war or fight racism or fight poverty, because all those ultimately hurt many women. Of course they also hurt many men.

Fighting against wars or poverty or racism are wonderful acts, great acts, acts everybody should be encouraged to perform. But are they feminist acts? That's where the definitional question comes in.

Consider this hypothetical example: You talk to a woman and ask her what it is that is really horrible in her life, what it is that she would like to be different, and she answers you by telling that she is poor and needs to have more money to feed herself and her family. Suppose that lots of other women tell you the very same thing. Does this make the eradication of poverty a feminist platform? It does, if we use the second definition of feminism. If we use the first definition of feminism we'd probably have to find out more about the relationship between poverty and being female, the way societies perhaps stop women from earning more and the way gender roles make it harder for women to get out of poverty.

In short, fighting poverty in general and fighting female poverty might be two different choices under one definition of feminism but the same thing under the other definition.

You must have noticed that I'm unhappy about the second definition, not because I'm mean and narrow in my world view (though I'm probably that, too), but because that definition is too wide and too messy and, paradoxically, might leave the tag "feminism" attached to an empty basket in the supermarket of ideas. It could also result in some very odd types of feminism. Suppose that you ask a fundamentalist woman what she most wants to have changed in this world to make her happier, and suppose that what would make her really happy is if all other women stop working for feminist causes. Is making her happier a feminist act?

One final warning: Everything I have written in these posts has to do with professional feminist activities, the feminist movement and the definition of feminism the movement people use. I'm not trying to rank causes or to compare oppressions, or to imply that a feminist would be some one-dimensional fanatic only working for women's issues.