Saturday, June 07, 2008

Food For Feminist Thought

Linda Hirshman has written a thought-provoking piece on feminism and the recent primary fights. A snippet:

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."

I don't know if this description is true or not, though I suspect that it might be somewhat exaggerated as Hirshman likes to provoke us into thinking and arguing. Or so I interpret the style she uses. But she makes a point worth discussing in that last paragraph: What is the best use of scarce feminist resources? Is it duplicating work already done by other organizations, especially if those organizations don't reciprocate by focusing on women's issues in return? Is work duplicated in reality? And if it is, how come are the other organizations allowed a free pass, so to speak, on the way they work for women (or don't)? And what could be done about it?

The whole piece is interesting to read, whether you agree or disagree with Hirshman's arguments. Are feminists really divided so clearly along the lines she describes: age, race and class? Are the waves of feminism really so different in their understanding of what constitutes feminism?

I want to leave this post full of questions for you to think about. But I'm already feverishly thinking about some of these issues in terms of my own feminist definitions, about horizontal and vertical equity, about the onion layers of feminism and about which layers we want to work on, about how someone who wasn't part of any of the waves in person might see them and so on. I think we need to go deeper in the onion, to strip off the layers one by one, not to discard them, but to investigate each of them on our way to the core. That probably doesn't make any sense right now, but I think that the way I write about feminism is more in the world of concepts and theories and less in the world of how they ultimately crop up and interact with other phenomena. Is that bad or good or indifferent? Or even true?

Then there's the whole problem of the class "women" being part of so many other classes, defined by race, income, class, religion, ethnicity, so many ties of solidarity of shared experience, of shared oppressions in some cases, too. How does that all play out in defining feminism?