How a Fractious Women’s Movement Came to Lead the Left…

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It’s not that women’s activist groups vanished or political organizing stalled. But it did become possible for an American woman to cultivate a relationship to feminism that was primarily consumerist: There were feminist TV shows to watch, feminist celebrities to follow, feminist clothes to buy. Unlike many other major social movements, women’s liberation dovetails neatly with an important advertising demographic, a lesson capitalism absorbed more than a century ago. In 1908, the advertiser J.Walter Thompson hired suffragists to address the growing women’s market. Over the next decades, the industry would slip women’s rights messaging into ad copy. Old Dutch Cleanser offered “freedom from household drudgery”; Shredded Wheat promised a “declaration of independence” from cooking. These days, even our bath products have achieved empowerment. Ads for Secret deodorant nudge us to ask for a raise, and those for Always prompt us to challenge stereotypes about girls. Dove wants us to feel beautiful at any size.

It’s telling which strand of feminism these brands have deemed marketable: the one that doubles as self-help. This is a vision of feminism in which the primary thing that needs to change is a woman’s frame of mind. Something similar happened to the pop stars who once hesitated to call themselves feminists — they came around to feminism by redefining feminism around themselves. To Lady Gaga, feminism was about protecting “the integrity of women who are ambitious.” Taylor Swift realized, she said, that she had “been taking a feminist stance without actually saying so.” Feminism was being defined down to its most benign interpretation. It was less a political platform than a brand identity.

In 2013, “Lean In,” by Sheryl Sandberg, raised this pop-cultural subtext to the level of text. Sandberg called the book “sort of a feminist manifesto,” but it preached individual solutions to systemic problems, encouraging women to focus on “internal obstacles” and “dismantle the hurdles in ourselves.” This feminist mode, where personal success becomes synonymous with social progress, can be plugged into any number of political orientations. The latest model for the corporate-celebrity feminist brand is Ivanka Trump, who has built a lifestyle company under the hashtag #WomenWhoWork. A recent pitch neatly weds activist language with shoppable solutions: “We’re committed to solving problems. If we can’t find a solution, we’ll make it ourselves (case in point: the Soho Tote, the ultimate work bag).”

By the time the 2016 campaign rolled around, Clinton wasn’t just permitted to run as a feminist — she was practically obligated to. Her messaging shifted accordingly. Years of women’s debating the right way to be a feminist had the side effect of forcing the first female major-party candidate to the left. In 2008, she argued that she wanted abortion to be “safe, legal and rare — and by rare I mean rare.” In last year’s debates, she stopped qualifying her support. “I will defend Planned Parenthood,” she said in one. “I will defend Roe v. Wade, and I will defend women’s rights to make their own health care decisions.”

Meanwhile, her campaign mimicked the aesthetics of the pop-cultural feminist mode. The candidate affirmed her feminism in a video interview with Lena Dunham, posed in a Kim Kardashian selfie and made a cameo on “Broad City.” Her campaign posted a BuzzFeed-style listicle informing Latinos that Clinton was “just like your abuela.” (With the Twitter hashtag #NotMyAbuela, those voters begged to differ.) Her site sold embroidered pillows that said “A Woman’s Place Is in the White House” and a T-shirt with a big “YAAAS, HILLARY!” printed over her senior portrait from high school. After Trump accused her of playing “the woman’s card,” her campaign introduced a free hot-pink “Official Hillary for America Woman Card” that drove more than $2 million in donations within days. One young woman earnestly prodded her at an Iowa campaign event: “If you could choose, would you rather be the president or Beyoncé?”

Pop feminism, having been washed of its political urgency, was now being integrated back into politics at the highest level. The candidate who once shrank from feminism was positioning herself as an icon of the movement. Her image became closely aligned with two metaphors — the pantsuit and the glass ceiling — that speak to a particular kind of woman: a corporate careerist at the top of her field. A “secret” Facebook group, Pantsuit Nation, popped up to encourage Clinton supporters to wear pantsuits to the polls. When she clinched the Democratic nomination for president last June — the one she would formally accept the following month, dressed in suffragist white — Clinton called back to the Seneca Falls convention of 1848, where “a small but determined group of women, and men, came together with the idea that women deserved equal rights.” The feminist project started there, she implied — and she was going to finish it.

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Million Woman March, Philadelphia, Oct. 25, 1997.

Credit
Chris Gardner/Associated Press

When Clinton lost, pop feminism suffered a crisis. As everyone pored over exit polls, some of the long-simmering fractures between different groups of women exploded into view. Ninety-four percent of black women voted for Clinton, but 53 percent of white women voted for Trump, perhaps more likely to see themselves in his vision of the world than in the pop feminism that fed Clinton’s campaign. Despite Trump’s palpable, eminently bloggable disrespect for women — and that infamous tape — he had successfully courted a faction of female voters. His win suggested that Americans were more comfortable with misogyny than many had thought, but it also burst the bubble of cheery pop feminism, which had achieved its huge popularity at the expense of class consciousness and racial solidarity.

In some places, you could watch the mood turn in a matter of days. The Pantsuit Nation Facebook group ceased its celebrations and became a site for sharing stories of pain and resilience. But when the group’s founder, a Maine educator named Libby Chamberlain, announced a plan to channel the power of the group in real life, it wasn’t exactly a call to activism — it was a coffee-table book. “You are a force, Pantsuit Nation,” she wrote. “Let’s see if we can harness that force within the pages of a book and see it on night stands and coffee tables all around the world.” The idea brought on a revolt. “The N.R.A. with its five million members has a stranglehold on Congress,” one commenter wrote. “Pantsuit Nation has four million members and decides its main mission is ‘storytelling’ and now, selling books. What a colossal waste.”

But for some outside observers, this was a productive comeuppance. Rhon Manigault-Bryant, an associate professor of Africana studies at Williams College in Massachusetts, published “An Open Letter to White Liberal Feminists,” on the website Black Perspectives, expressing her disappointment that it had taken Donald Trump to shake them into her reality. “I am delighted that you have received the potential awakening of a lifetime, and that now you might actually get what so many of us have been describing all along,” she wrote. “Welcome to that deep perpetual angst. Embrace it, and allow it to motivate you to a deeper form of action.”

In those same November weeks, the nascent march-on-Washington project was navigating its own identity crisis. Some of the early organizers had romantic-comedy-type jobs — pastry chef, yoga instructor. One of the women, Bob Bland, a fashion designer, had amassed a small online following by designing “NASTY WOMAN” and “BAD HOMBRE” T-shirts and selling them online. “I had this whole network of ‘nasty women’ and ‘bad hombres,’ ” she told me. “After the election, they were looking to me like, ‘What are we going to do next?’ ”

Disparate organizers convened around a Facebook event announcing a Million Women March. There was one major problem with this: In 1997, activists organized a Million Woman March in Philadelphia to address the particular concerns of black women. When this new march on Washington unwittingly chose a very similar name, it crystallized the idea that the nascent movement was being run by a handful of white women with no organizing history. Comments began pouring in from all sides.

The organizers had stumbled into a conflict that has dogged women’s organizing from the very beginning: Of all the tensions that have coursed through the women’s movement, none has ever been quite so pronounced as the one between white and black women. Consider what happened when Sojourner Truth showed up at a women’s rights convention in Ohio in 1851. Frances Gage, the woman running the show, recalled the scene 12 years later: “The leaders of the movement trembled on seeing a tall, gaunt black woman in a gray dress and white turban, surmounted with an uncouth sunbonnet, march deliberately into the church, walk with the air of a queen up the aisle and take her seat upon the pulpit steps.” A “buzz of disapprobation” spread through the church. White women in attendance complained that a black woman’s testimony would distract from the convention’s focus. “Don’t let her speak, Mrs. Gage — it will ruin us,” one said. “Every newspaper in the land will have our cause mixed up with abolition and niggers, and we shall be utterly denounced.”

Throughout the convention, men arrived to speak out against women’s suffrage. Women, they said, were too weak and helpless to be trusted with the power of the vote. Because “there were very few women in those days who dared to ‘speak in meeting,’ ” as Gage put it, their points went unchallenged until Truth stepped forward. White women hissed, but Truth’s very identity nullified the arguments coming from both men and women in attendance. “That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere,” she said. “Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud puddles, or gives me any best place. And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm!” She rolled up her sleeve to the shoulder. “I have plowed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me. And ain’t I a woman?”

In that moment, Truth shattered an idea of white femininity that had been used to both underpin and undermine the cause of suffrage. As a slave, she had worked in the fields like a man; as a free black woman, she could not rely on the offerings of white male gentility. Gage wrote that Truth’s testimony compelled the white women in attendance to embrace her “with streaming eyes, and hearts beating with gratitude.”

But two years later, Truth still drew jeers from white crowds when she attended women’s meetings. A vision of whiteness was ingrained in the leaders and the arguments of the mainstream movement. Even the suffragists’ signature white clothes were deliberately chosen to signal purity. This ideal of feminine virtue did not extend to black women, or working-class ones. Some suffragists made their racism and classism explicit. In 1894, a white woman at a meeting of the Brooklyn Woman Suffrage Association complained that New York had become an “asylum for the trash of all nations,” arguing that women’s suffrage ought to be restricted. “Think what it means to give it to all women,” she said. “Our criminal and pauper men have wives; there are thousands of female operatives in tobacco factories and similar fields of labor; there are probably two million Negro women in this country who are but little uplifted above the plane of animals.”

One curious point of this history is that so many suffragists came from the antislavery movement. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, whose partnership would come to define the suffrage movement in the United States, started their activist careers as abolitionists. But after the Civil War, as black men and all women agitated for the right to vote, a political battle broke out over who would be enfranchised first. (Either way, black women would be last.) In 1865, Stanton lamented having to “stand aside to see ‘Sambo’ walk into the kingdom first,” as she put it in The National Anti-Slavery Standard.

Over time, these racial contours would harden into lasting institutions. When women’s social clubs spread across the United States at the turn of the century, two models emerged. Whites-only clubs leveraged middle-class women’s leisure time to campaign for social reforms. Black women, who largely worked outside the home, came together around urgent needs. One of the first actions of the black Chicago Women’s Club was to raise money to prosecute a police officer who killed a black man. The main distinction between clubs, the black activist Fannie Barrier Williams wrote, was that for black women, “it is not a fad.”

Black women distinguished themselves not only as suffragists but also as vocal critics of a movement that pushed one kind of justice aside in pursuit of another. In 1913, when thousands of suffragists marched on Washington to agitate for the vote, black women were instructed to march in the back. Ida B. Wells defied the order and marched with the delegation from Illinois, her home state. She wasn’t just protesting for her right to vote. She was protesting the protest too.

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Sojourner Truth in the 1860s.

Credit
Library of Congress

This dynamic is not only a thing of distant history: In the thick of feminism’s second wave, women were often still divided along lines of identity. In 1967, as the best-selling author Betty Friedan called the first meeting of the New York chapter of the National Organization for Women, she found herself at odds with a black activist and lawyer named Flo Kennedy, who pushed the women around her to make common cause with the antiwar and Black Power movements. Friedan and the meeting’s host — Muriel Fox, the highest-ranking female executive at the world’s largest public-relations agency — were not pleased. As Kennedy put it in her memoirs, they “went bonkers.”

Friedan’s 1963 book, “The Feminine Mystique,” had been an awakening for a class of white, married, middle-class women, and she pictured herself as the leader of what she called a “mainstream” feminist movement. When women at one 1970 march offered her a lavender armband to wear in solidarity with a NOW member recently attacked for her bisexuality, Friedan dropped it on the ground, furious at the attempt to add gay rights to her program.

Kennedy continually pushed in the opposite direction, trying to build bridges between feminist groups and other movements. At one point, Friedan admonished her to leave the feminist movement alone and “focus her attention on matters of Black Power.” As the second wave matured, black women found themselves continually calling on it to consider a new approach, one that acknowledged the different needs of different women. As the black feminist and leftist Barbara Smith told the National Women’s Studies Association in 1979, any feminism that didn’t account for the specific concerns of black women, poor women, disabled women, lesbians and others was not really feminism — it was “merely female self-aggrandizement.”

There has never been one women’s movement. It’s difficult, for example, to say that the American feminist project started in Seneca Falls, N.Y., in 1848, because black women were not invited to that convention. It’s hard to say that electing a woman as president would have been feminism’s crowning achievement, because the success of one woman does not naturally trickle down to all. The history of the women’s movement is one of warring factions and sharp self-criticism. But its 150 years of navigating internal disputes put it in a position to lead what seemed, at the end of last fall, like a highly divided left.

“It’s embarrassing to me now to say it, but I didn’t know the term ‘intersectionality’ when we started,” Bob Bland, the Women’s March co-chairwoman, told me. Now she deployed it often to emphasize the growing diversity of the march. She told various reporters that she had met women working “in so many different intersectionalities” and hoped to reach a “a wide intersectionality of people” in a march that reflected “all of the different intersections of human rights.”

That magic word comes from a 1989 paper by the legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw that was published in The University of Chicago Legal Forum. Crenshaw had studied cases in which black women sued their employers for what appeared to be “compound discrimination” — both racial and gender biases. But they were often told they lacked legal standing: Laws protected them from discrimination as African-Americans or as women, but not specifically as black women. Crenshaw used a traffic metaphor to describe the interlocking forms of oppression a person might face. Cars flowed through an intersection in all directions; when an accident happened, it could be caused by cars from any number of sides, or even all sides.

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The International Council of Women during its first meeting in Washington in 1888. In the front row, Susan B. Anthony is second from left, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton is fourth from left.

Credit
Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG/Getty Images

That metaphor would be plucked from Crenshaw’s paper and grow in resonance over the next two decades, until “intersectionality” became a rallying cry — the main point of rhetorical resistance against the tide of single-issue feminist conversation. Even beneath the shiny surface of Obama-era pop feminism, dissenters took countless shots at its racial cluelessness, its lack of class-consciousness, its sometimes shallow concerns. Women of color convened on Twitter under hashtags like #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen to detail their experiences of being sidelined in feminist conversations, and many on the left criticized the way a trickle-down, professional-oriented feminism was becoming popular just as income inequality between women was ballooning. (It’s hard to “lean in” to a job cleaning hotel rooms.) In recent years, intersectionality even popped up in People.com, on Bustle and in a tweet from Clinton.

Often the criticism that lies behind this word is brushed off, met with defensiveness, taken personally. (As the founder of Pantsuit Nation wrote to critics of her book deal: “This is not the place for divisiveness.”) Women turn to feminism because they want to stand up and say something; it can be jarring for them be told to sit down and listen to someone else. But the concept became a useful tool for the march on Washington, which set about the task of uniting feminism’s mainstream, popular arm and its dissenting factions — all in the space of two months.

Soon after the suggestion to march raced across the web, Vanessa Wruble — a white producer and co-founder of the media company OkayAfrica — made a pivotal intervention in its planning. “I thought the stakes were so high,” she told me. “It needed to be an inclusive movement, or it was going to be a total disaster. I felt that it could damage the country.” At this critical moment, with the march quickly ballooning into something bigger than the initial organizers could handle on their own, Wruble reached out and urged them to drop the name Million Women March. Then she linked them up with her network, and soon three seasoned activists — Carmen Perez, Linda Sarsour and Tamika Mallory — got on board. These women hadn’t necessarily supported Clinton, and they didn’t necessarily identify as feminists. But they had experience organizing in communities of color and saw the march as an opportunity to reach a large new audience. When Sarsour got the call, she had just posted a comment on the march’s Facebook page: “Can you include Muslim women and Muslim communities in the list?”

The three women — one Chicana Latina, one Palestinian-American, one black — met through their involvement in Justice League NYC, a juvenile-justice initiative. In 2015, they organized a nine-day march from New York to Washington, ending in a rally at the Capitol that drew a small crowd. Now hundreds of thousands of women whose previous interest in justice may have been abstract at best were turning to them for leadership. The question, Perez told me, was “How do we get them to understand that their liberation is bound with ours?”

Meanwhile, the three had some catching up to do with the mainstream feminist perspective. “I don’t have a lot of what I would consider to be deep, transformative relationships with white women,” Sarsour told me. “I’ve been learning a lot,” she said, and working toward becoming “more comfortable around this movement of feminism that I always felt didn’t particularly include Muslim women.” The organizers appeared on the hip-hop radio morning show “The Breakfast Club” and loaded their Instagram page with black feminist heroes. But they also posed for windswept photos in Vogue, and some dropped by the Wing, a private Manhattan women’s club with a $2,250 annual membership fee. Their rally put Angela Davis on the same stage as Scarlett Johansson.

When I called Kimberlé Crenshaw in January, she had just returned home to Los Angeles from the march on Washington, where she walked with a group of women from the African American Policy Forum. Her group was so far back in the crowd that they couldn’t hear the rally, and “I’m kind of glad about it,” she told me. “We were in this sea of humanity.” Wading through the crowd, she said, “I saw all the different issues and people that had found their way under the banner of the Women’s March. It was the embodiment of the intersectional sensibilities that a lot of us have been working on for a very long time.”

The women’s movement’s tendency toward a singular perspective is “not an exceptional problem for feminism,” Crenshaw told me. “Patriarchy works in such a way that these critiques never even surface in a lot of movements led by men. This conversation isn’t always happening in other spaces. And if the conversation leads to more robust ways of thinking about women, feminism and social justice, it can be a very good thing.”

“The million-dollar question is: Can these feminisms live together under an anti-Trump banner?” Crenshaw said. “It happened for 24 hours all across the world.”

When I made my way back to my hotel after the march, the cheers of the crowd fading into the distance, I opened my laptop and saw a different version of what I had just seen in person. Now it was all filtered through my own social-media bubble — that of a middle-class white woman who lives in Brooklyn. Facebook’s trending topics, tailored to fulfill each user’s particular online habits, served me up a pop-celebrity version of the day’s events. It pointed me toward the speeches of Scarlett Johansson and Madonna, and nobody else. As scenes of the march traveled through the media and across the web, the story spun out in even more directions. Twitter lit up with notes of internal dissent and snapshots of signs from the march: DON’T FORGET: WHITE WOMEN VOTED FOR TRUMP and BLACK WOMEN TRIED TO SAVE Y’ALL and I’LL SEE YOU NICE WHITE LADIES AT THE NEXT #BLACKLIVESMATTER MARCH, RIGHT?

But for the moment, at least, Trump appears to be the great uniter. In the days and weeks since the march, its energy spilled into spontaneous actions across the country, with protesters coming together on behalf of Muslims and immigrants. Donations poured into Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union. Congressional switchboards were inundated with calls. When The Washington Post polled Americans post-march, it registered a huge shift in energy among Democrats, especially Democratic women, 40 percent of whom said they planned to get more involved in activism.

But liberals are not the only ones drawing inspiration from the protests. Flip to Fox News, click around conservative blogs or browse pro-Trump Twitter, and you can watch the demonstrations fuel a different kind of opposition narrative. After the march, Fox News set clips of rally speeches to foreboding music. Breitbart published photos with the headline “See what a massive, Hillary shaped bullet America just dodged?” The right-wing Media Research Center aggregated the most “vile and ridiculous signs.” Twitter exploded with anti-Muslim attacks on Linda Sarsour, who was called a “terrorist” who “loves ISIS.” When the annual March for Life hit the Mall to demonstrate against abortion rights, The Blaze called it “the real women’s march.” (The Women’s March did, at one point, remove the name of an anti-abortion group from its list of partners, after an uproar.) According to Public Policy Polling, 48 percent of Trump voters think the protesters who convened at airports to protest the travel ban were paid by George Soros. Trump tweeted recently: “Professional anarchists, thugs and paid protesters are proving the point of the millions of people who voted to MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!”

In the first weeks of the Trump administration, the factions that split over his election are deepening along the same lines. Each side seems oddly confident in its political position. Trump supporters call themselves “the silent majority,” while his critics identify as the “popular vote.” When I called Eleanor Smeal, a co-founder of the Feminist Majority Foundation, and asked her whether the organization had any plans to reach out to the 53 percent of white women who voted for Trump, her response was to question the margin of error in the polls. “We don’t really know if we lost the majority or not, and I believe that we did not,” she told me. “I think they’re with us.”

For now, the factions of the left seem to have found an accord. But to regain any power in Washington, they will need to sway the center too — including some of those women who voted for Trump. The white women of the left, many of whom are just now finding their footing as activists, have been eager to dissociate from that group. Mention the 53 percent, and they’re quick to tell you that they’re of the 47. But of all the people who marched on Washington last month, they may be among the best positioned to reach across that aisle. “I know of no other time when it would be more important,” Barbara Smith, the black feminist and leftist, told me. “That’s not my work to do, but somebody ought to do it.”

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