Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Should Feminism Care About Hillary Clinton Or Other Powerful Women?

Should feminism be at all concerned about rich, white (in the US), educated and relatively powerful women and their problems?   Aren't those women already on the top rungs of the societal power ladders?  Didn't the second wave of feminism mainly benefit them, perhaps at the expense of working class women and women of color ( in the US black women)?  And doesn't all this mean that feminists might spend their effort better than by defending, say, Hillary Clinton when she runs for the US presidency?   After all, she is a woman of privilege.

That paragraph is my attempt to summarize (with a squirt of apple cider vinegar) some of the arguments presented in this National Journal article, about why young feminists might feel ambivalent about Clinton's running or about any powerful women out there (at least white powerful women in the US).  Examples from the article:

Fem­in­ism came to mean something very dif­fer­ent from girl power. And Hil­lary Clin­ton came to look like the sym­bol of an older gen­er­a­tion of wo­men more con­cerned with fe­male em­power­ment—in par­tic­u­lar, with white, middle-class, Amer­ic­an fe­male em­power­ment—than with broad­er is­sues of so­cial and eco­nom­ic justice.


To young wo­men like Sylvie Ed­man, a 20-year-old stu­dent at the Uni­versity of Mas­sachu­setts, Am­h­erst, Clin­ton em­bod­ies “cor­por­ate fem­in­ism,” which Ed­man defines con­cisely: “It’s em­power­ing wo­men who are already power­ful.” Clin­ton and Sheryl Sand­berg, the Face­book COO and au­thor of Lean In, are of­ten name-dropped in this con­text; while they ex­per­i­ence sex­ism, the think­ing goes, they’ve been able to dare greatly be­cause of their race and class—while be­ing helped along the way by work­ing-class wo­men and wo­men of col­or who didn’t have the same op­por­tun­it­ies.


Aye­sha Sid­diqi, the 24-year-old ed­it­or-in-chief of the on­line magazine The New In­quiry, says that this range of con­cerns should be no sur­prise. “Fem­in­ist is­sues,” she says, “are no more com­plic­ated than the is­sues of people’s lives.” But that philo­sophy makes young wo­men’s views of Clin­ton—and her cam­paign’s ef­forts to gal­van­ize them be­hind her—very com­plic­ated in­deed.

The issues I'm grappling in this post are complicated.  They begin with the question what feminism is.  

Is it an activist movement, focusing on social justice,  which needs to define whom it is trying to help first, in order to best use the limited (very limited) resources of money and time the movement has?

Or is it a theoretical way of analyzing the world, taking apart power structures and then putting them back together, using history, psychology, sociology, political science and plain hard thinking to understand how being defined as a woman or a man affects our lives, paying attention to how class, race, age and other characteristics influence those effects?

Or is it both?   Or even an overall ideology, a large box into which someone puts all the concerns about justice and how societies should be organized?  Almost like a religion?

And what about the idea that feminism should be concerned with all oppressed groups, in the way one young woman defines it in the linked article:

The 17-year-old Viqueira and her high school friend stood off to the side in a small lounge, look­ing like they were dressed for a reg­u­lar day of school. They’d taken the train in from Maple­wood, New Jer­sey. “To me, fem­in­ism isn’t only about want­ing equal­ity for all genders,” Viqueira told me later, “but want­ing and ad­voc­at­ing for the equal­ity of all op­pressed groups, which can and do in­ter­sect.”
What happens if some of those oppressed groups really really want to oppress some of the other oppressed groups?  Which oppressed group would then be prioritized?  What is the role of being viewed as a woman in this kind of feminism?

The background to all these questions are the theories of intersectionality on one hand and of kyriarchy on the other.

The former concept is based on the exciting  sociological research of (especially)  Kimberlé Crenshaw and Patricia Hill Collins on the way multiple oppressions ( such as sexism, classism, racism, ageism, ableism and homophobia) may intersect:

This feminist sociological theory was first named by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, though the concept can be traced back to the 19th century.[2][3] The theory suggests that—and seeks to examine how—various biological, social and cultural categories such as gender, race, class, ability, sexual orientation, religion, caste, age and other axes of identity interact on multiple and often simultaneous levels, contributing to systemic injustice and social inequality. Intersectionality holds that the classical conceptualizations of oppression within society, such as racism, sexism, biphobia, homophobia, transphobia, and belief-based bigotry, do not act independently of one another. Instead, these forms of oppression interrelate, creating a system of oppression that reflects the "intersection" of multiple forms of discrimination.[4]

"Intersectionality, " then is about the intersections of multiple forms of discrimination, not about the existence of multiple forms of discrimination in itself.  What it means to "be a woman" varies, depending on where a particular woman is situated on the societal ladders, and that varies, partly, depending on her race, ethnicity, income, religion and many other characteristics.

This distinction, between the intersection of oppressions and their existence in general,  seems to me an important one, though often neglected in the Internet conversations I have followed.  That we look at intersections in feminism should not mean that gender itself needs to be ignored.  If it is, which other movement (fighting racism, classism, ableism, ageism and so on) will care about it?

Kyriarchy is a related concept, as is evident from this quote.
Kyriarchy, pronounced /ˈkriɑrki/, is a social system or set of connecting social systems built around domination, oppression, and submission. The word was coined by Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza in 1992 to describe her theory of interconnected, interacting, and self-extending systems of domination and submission, in which a single individual might be oppressed in some relationships and privileged in others. It is an intersectional extension of the idea of patriarchy beyond gender.[1] Kyriarchy encompasses sexism, racism, homophobia, classism, economic injustice, colonialism, ethnocentrism, militarism, and other forms of dominating hierarchies in which the subordination of one person or group to another is internalized and institutionalized.[2][3]
Bolds are mine.

These are theoretically juicy concepts and wonderful to think about.  Their proper use could be of immeasurable value in creating better theories about gender, for example.

But they also hint at the complexity anyone wishing to enter that field of thought must face:  Someone can be both oppressed and an oppressor, depending on where one is situated in the power matrix,  these relationships can be in a flux, depending on the actors and the context, and the intersections can themselves be multi-dimensional.  They may not always work in the same direction and they look to me very difficult to quantify or to compare*.

Still, as far as I understand the situation, the theoretical case against supporting Hillary Clinton's candidacy on feminist grounds** can be found in those two theories:  

She is a rich, heterosexual, white woman, born to middle class parents, educated in high quality institutions, helped by her marriage to a powerful man.  Her health is good and although her age has been used against her in a way I have not seen the age of Bernie Sanders used against him (which suggests some gendered thinking), she doesn't rate very high on any intersectionality index.  She is one of the lords or masters (or ladies or mistresses, heh) in the theory of kyriarchy, and has plenty of opportunity to exert power on others.

Thus, from the point of view of feminism as social justice activism it's pretty safe to say that she doesn't need our help just because she is a woman.

But what happens if we move the definition to feminism as an analytical enterprise, one aimed at understanding how being a woman works in various circumstances?*** 

There the answer differs, and the main reason for that is this:  Misogyny has intersecting aspects, such as particular slurs aimed against black women on the Internet.  But much of misogyny in particular and of anti-feminism in general acknowledges no intersections This is one recent example of what I mean here:

Rapper T.I. won’t be picking a female White House hopeful for president, saying he “can’t vote for the leader of the free world to be a woman," though he later walked back the remarks.
In a recent interview with DJ Whoo Kid for the radio host’s show, “The Whoolywood Shuffle,” T.I. said, “Not to be sexist,” but he wouldn’t be casting a ballot for Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton or any other woman for commander in chief.
“Just because every other position that exists, I think a woman could do well,” the “Whatever You Like“ rapper said. “But the president, it’s kind of like, I just know that women make rash decisions emotionally — they make very permanent, cemented decisions — and then later, it’s kind of like it didn’t happen or they didn’t mean for it to happen.”

Rapper T.I. later apologized for his comment (sorta).  But it deserves closer analysis.  Note that his opposition to Hillary Clinton's candidacy is not because she is one of the lords or masters of this world and it is not because she is a rich white woman.  His opposition comes from the fact that Clinton is a woman, and from his belief that (only) women make rash emotional decisions.****

If anything, the "intersection"  he worries about is one which has "woman" and "power" intersecting.

Indeed, one might well argue that sexism rears its ugly head more rapidly when its target is a woman with some power or a woman who is judged as trying to take power (uppity. talkative, loud).  That's because this conflicts with the blueprint of a properly hierarchical society.  If true, this suggests yet another possible complexity in how we think about the intersections of class and gender and race.

What's the take-home message here?  Perhaps it is to be able to both chew gum and dance, to be able to both understand intersectionality and kyriarchy, and not to forget the building blocks of those intersecting oppressions, not to forget the various flavors of misogyny?  Not to drop any of the balls we are juggling.


I hope that this post casts some light on the question why Rebecca Traister writes that she is a hot mess when it comes to Hillary Clinton's candidacy.  Thinking about her article led to the thoughts above.

*  Because having many intersections of oppressions does matter but so does the strength of any one of them.  We need to be able to quantify those forces, to determine where to aim our efforts in the social justice activism.

**  Only on those grounds in this post.  I'm not writing about her politics or her policies.  Indeed, you could replace her with any other female politician who is deemed powerful.

***  I'm omitting here all kinds of other arguments why feminists should support women in high-powered positions or into them, such as the role model argument, the fair representation argument (we should see women in power in the same positions as their relative numbers in the country), the argument that having more women in power will ultimately create a fairer world for women and so on.

Those are not unimportant.  But I wanted to focus on the generalized nature of much of sexist commentary.

****  That argument is common among those who want to keep women out of power.  It's the "reason" why women can't be judges according to some interpretations of Islam.  To adopt it requires a very warped lens, given the actual history of violence and mayhem.