Friday, May 09, 2008

Dividing feminists (by Suzie)



       In the We Hate Hillary issue of The Nation, executive editor Betsy Reed blames Clinton for dividing feminists. The article has gotten acclaim in the liberal blogosphere.
       I have a few problems with the article, beginning with the idea of division. No. 1, division doesn’t seem to be Reed’s real point. She wouldn’t want feminists to unite behind Clinton; she wants them to support Obama. Wanting everyone to support your candidate is not the same as disliking discord.
       Using her logic, couldn’t someone say Obama divided feminists because he appeals to some and not others?
       No. 2, you can’t have a rift unless you had unity before. Anyone who thinks the feminist movement ever marched in lock step needs to read some history.
        Inadvertently, Reed illustrates this point by naming the different kinds of bad feminists who support Clinton (mainstream, corporate, institutional, second wave) vs. the good feminists who support Obama (antiwar, antiracist and young). The latter are more sophisticated, she says, because they are not “confined” to feminism. (Take away message: If you work full-time on feminist issues, bad. If you work for an organization that focuses on feminism, bad.) 
        Who supports whom is not as simple as she suggests. The petition “Feminists for Clinton” includes women who have written on race and war.
        Reed runs a magazine in which male writers dominate. Socialism and feminism have had a rocky relationship from the get-go, and in the United States, the sexism of the Left sparked much of second-wave feminism.
        Her article begins by describing the “torrent of misogyny” in the campaign, but she says Clinton is the wrong woman to rally around. This reminds me of arguments over rape and abortion. Feminists cannot always find a violated virgin to support. Sometimes they build their case around the person they have.
         Reed doesn’t blame Obama or his supporters for any of the campaign’s sexism. No, it’s the woman’s fault. Reed says the “militaristic” “hawk” Clinton has injected sexism into the campaign by acting more “macho” than the “feline Obama.” Although she knows their votes and policies are close, she suggests what really matters is their attitudes. Let me get this straight: If Bush had carried out the same war, but he had acted more catlike, whatever that means, and less bellicose, that would have been OK? As a supervisor, I was taught to judge people on performance, not attitude, and I still think that’s a good rule to follow.
          Reed talks about white women voting for Clinton, but doesn’t mention Latinas or any other women of color who support Clinton. Once again, a world of color has been rendered black and white.
           Prominent supporters of Clinton believe that gender is more oppressive than race, Reed claims. (Perhaps some do, but many have denied that, including Gloria Steinem, whom she names.) She makes the point, as have many others, that people should not say one form of oppression is worse than another. But I don’t see the people who say this trashing those who think racism is worse than sexism. Shouldn’t it work both ways?
          Clinton supporters don’t just give gender a higher priority, Reed says. Their campaign has been racist, “enabled” by the media. Reed rehashes racist and sexist charges discussed at length by others. For a different point of view, see Clinton supporter Anglachel in her recent posts “The Whiteness of the Whale” and “Millstone.” I hope people will read different opinions and make up their own minds.
           If Reed is wrong, then she and other Obama supporters are the ones creating harmful divisions in feminism and the Democratic Party. For the sake of argument, however, let’s say she’s right. If one oppression is no worse than another, why would racist attacks on Obama be worse than sexist attacks on Clinton? One answer is that racism is trickier, according to Reed.
Clinton has, to be sure, faced a raw misogyny that has been more out in the open than the racial attacks on Obama have been. But while sexism may be more casually accepted, racism, which is often coded, is more insidious and trickier to confront.
          Is it not possible that coded, insidious, tricky sexism exists, too? Why should we assume all sexism is out in the open?
          Reed quotes sociology professor Patricia Hill Collins, keynote speaker next month at the annual conference of the National Women’s Studies Association, on the risk of alienating young black women from feminism. Since feminists are split in this campaign, why should black women who dislike Clinton be alienated from the movement as a whole? Why shouldn’t they want to build coalitions with women like Collins and Reed? I wish all young women, no matter their ethnicity, would learn that no one has a lock on feminism. It is not a monolith. Different women have different ideas.
          Reed also quotes law professor KimberlĂ© Crenshaw:
"There is a myopic focus on the aspiration of having a woman in the White House--perhaps not any woman, but it seems to be pretty much enough that she be a Democratic woman." This stance, says Crenshaw, "is really a betrayal."
          Is supporting any woman a betrayal of black women who might feel better represented by a black man? Would it be a betrayal for black men to want any black Democrat in the White House, without concern for gender?
           Black women have long critiqued feminism. In a 1995 article, later collected in a book, English professor Susan Stanford Friedman described the cycle of women of color accusing white women of racism, followed by white women apologizing. She doesn’t want to end these discussions, but would like feminists to find common ground on which they can unite for political action.
            Similarly, I hope critiques of racism and sexism continue, but I wish people could avoid idolizing some and demonizing others. We all have some complicity in a sexist, racist society. Even politicians.