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Washington Post Writer Gets It Wrong: A Feminist Focus Includes Everybody

smitchells Icon Posted by Shireen Mitchell

June 11th, 2008

Note: I wrote this op-ed with Adele M. Stan, hoping to respond in the Washington Post’s Outlook section. That didn’t happen, so instead, we wanted to share our thoughts with you, readers of WIMN’s Voices. We’d love to hear your feedback in the comments.

Feminism is a failure. Just ask Linda Hirshman, who used a hefty chunk of real estate in last Sunday’s “Outlook” section of the Washington Post to tell us why: we feminists are just too darned concerned about things that, according to Hirshman, aren’t the oeuvre of “white middle-class women.” Things like civil rights, war and peace, and the fate of the planet. And how does Hirshman know that feminism has failed? Well, Hillary Clinton failed to clinch the Democratic presidential nomination. Time to pack it in.

As we sat, marooned by weather in the Atlanta airport, we scratched our heads as Shireen scrolled through her Pocket PC, reading Hirshman’s essay. Hirshman’s target, she explained, was “intersectionality,” the notion long embraced by feminists, at least in theory, that feminism stands for the empowerment and rights of all people, and touches upon all movements that seek rights for the oppressed. In other words, Hirshman has met the enemy, and its names are Shireen and Adele (and most who deign to call themselves “feminist”).

Taken together, we’re a “walk into a bar” intersectionalist joke. Shireen is African-American and heterosexual; Adele is white and queer. Shireen grew up in a Harlem housing project; Adele grew up on a New Jersey, whites-only cul-de-sac. Shireen is a tech wiz; Adele prefers to work with pencils. Adele belongs to what is known as the second wave of feminism; Shireen hails from the third.

The Imus lesson

The two of us began working together because of our roles in organizations that belong to the National Council of Women’s Organizations — an umbrella organization for groups ranging from the League of Women Voters, Feminist Majority, the National Congress of Black Women, the Women’s Media Center and the National Organization for Women. (Shireen leads the non-profit Digital Sisters and blogs with Women In Media & News; Adele was doing a project for the National Women’s Editorial Forum.) And though we like and respect each other, we don’t hang together simply for the good times; we know that together we’re much more powerful than we are apart.

When radio personality Don Imus made his infamous attack on the Rutgers University women’s basketball team, NCWO’s intersectional assemblage of institutional players proved its strength in keeping the heat on the media — not just on Imus’s bosses, but on the talk shows covering the controversy, most of which initially covered the incident solely as a race story, discussing it on panels composed completely of men. The Women’s Coalition for Dignity and Diversity in the Media, led by the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, maintained pressure on television radio producers until the cable TV and radio producers began booking more women on their panels, results that have sustained themselves through the presidential primary season. So much for the failure of intersectionality in advancing the interests of women.

What history book are you reading?

Assessing feminist history, we find ourselves wondering of what feminist movement Hirshman writes — surely not the one we know.

Hirshman claims the women’s movement was started by “white middle-class women,” conveniently leaving out the middle-class black women, like Ida B. Wells-Barnett, who helped found the women’s suffrage movement, or the second wave’s Flo Kennedy, the first black woman to graduate from Columbia Law School. Despite the racism of some of the white leaders of feminism’s first wave, feminism has always been a movement of “intersectionality.” Many of the white founders of the women’s suffrage movement, like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, were abolitionists.

The movement really began to go downhill, Hirshman contends, when middle-class women allegedly became disinterested once their early demands for more egalitarian workplaces were met. (After all, “women are fickle,” Hirshman has claimed.) Hirshman asserts this happened around 1987, when polling showed that only a small proportion of college women called themselves “feminist.” Nowhere does she note that the term had been demonized by the right, and that many women who avoided describing themselves as feminists still believed in the fundamental equality of men and women. (You’ll recall that in 1988, during the presidential election, the word “liberal” received the same treatment, and most liberals stopped calling themselves “liberal.” Now we’re all “progressives.”)

Blaming black women

To illustrate the perils of intersectionality, Hirshman points to a recent dispute between bloggers Amanda Marcotte and two women of color who blog under the names Sudy and Brownfemipower. The topic was immigration, and the dispute was over whether Marcotte took her ideas, without attribution, from the other bloggers. Hardly the meltdown moment of a dying movement.

Throughout her essay, Hirshman writes in an exasperated tone, essentially blaming black women and young women for what she perceives to be feminism’s failures. Clarence Thomas, she tells us, got confirmed to the Supreme Court because of the “yea” votes of four Southern Democratic senators from states with large African-American populations. This myth has been debunked by researchers from the University of Mississippi, who found that social class and cultural values had as much to do with race among the constituents of those senators and others in their attitudes toward Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill, the former employee of Thomas’s at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission who accused him of sexual harassment.

Implicit in Hirshman’s critique of electoral behavior in the presidential primary is the notion that black women somehow failed feminism by voting overwhelmingly for Barack Obama.

White women short-shifted?

In Hirshman’s argument against intersectionality, one finds an opening for a single-minded, gender-lens imperative when eying the candidate for whom one would vote. In her live chat at the Washington Post Online the day after her piece appeared in the paper, Hirshman said, “…the feminist movement should stick to female concerns…” Hirshman dismisses the idea of war defined as a woman’s issue; therefore any feminist should presumably feel comfortable voting for Hillary Clinton despite Clinton’s vote to authorize the president to make war on Iraq. Never mind the tens of thousands of civilians (including women) killed, the plights of the women deployed overseas, the mothers who will never see their children again. All that matters is the feminist imperative to put a woman in the White House.

Perhaps most telling is the red herring Hirshman throws into her poisonous brew of white-privilege feminism: that somehow an inclusive, intersectional feminist movement deprives white women of their place in the movement:

“A movement that uses intersectionality as a lens but banishes white, bourgeois, corporate older women might be a vehicle to glue what remains of feminism together, but it will struggle to achieve social change for women.”

Huh? Who said anything about banishing anybody? (Some of Shireen’s best friends are white, bourgeois, corporate older women — who happen to be feminists. Adele’s, too.) Just look at the investment of countless pro bono attorneys in employment discrimination cases on women’s behalf. Look at the joy and dismay, respectively, with which feminists met Lily Ledbetter’s court wins and ulitimate loss before the Supreme Court when she sued for discrimination after learning that for most of her career she had been paid far less than men who held the same job at her company.

Hirshman also contends that feminists don’t do enough to pursue a right to affordable day care, attributing this need only to middle-class career women — as if the poor women we intersectionalists care about have no problem finding affordable day care. In her piece several months ago about feminists, like Adele, who support Obama, Hirshman accused us (intersectionalists that we are) of being overeducated elitists who don’t care for working class women. In this essay, she decries our caring too much for the poor and non-white, and not enough for educated white elitists.

Empowerment, not entitlement

To equate Hillary Clinton’s failure to win — this time — the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party with the failure of feminism insults both Clinton and the movement. Sure, sexism played a role in Clinton’s defeat, but so did the simple fact of the peculiar moment in history at which she made her bid — one on the brink of generational transition and of weariness with war. Clinton played a hand based on an old map of the U.S.; even so she advanced further to the goal of becoming Madam President than anyone before her. Barack Obama played to a new and shifting set of demographics and won the bet. At a most unnerving time in American history, Obama offers hope and inspiration. And that matters.

Most disconcerting, perhaps, is Hirshman’s admission that she only came to be an ardent supporter of Hillary Clinton’s campaign after television commentators made sexist remarks about her. We believe that you can take on sexism against a candidate without signing on to that candidate’s campaign. We came to feminism for empowerment, often a messy process — not for the easy imperative that says the enemy of my enemy is my leader.

If we learned anything from the remarks made by Don Imus about the women of the Rutgers University basketball team, it’s that where there is racism, there is generally sexism, and so, too, the reverse. In a single phrase, “nappy-headed ‘ho,” Imus demonstrated how the two are inextricably intertwined. We prefer to take part in a women’s movement made strong by the diversity of its membership its fundamental unity of purpose: to improve the lives of women throughout the world.

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