The Women’s International

Today, Wednesday, March 8th, 2017, is International Women’s Day.  It will be marked by protests, marches, rallies, and a proposed general strike by women — the ‘Day Without A Woman’ — in reaction to the election of Donald Trump as president and the legislation, remarkably hostile to women, that he has advanced.

It is a dangerous time to be a woman in America.  Many of the same old problems of the past continue, while some towards which progress have been set back significantly.  After the economic collapse of 2008, domestic violence prosecutions were de-prioritized by local police departments; the vast and growing gap between the rich and poor has hit working women particularly hard; and abortion rights have never been more in jeopardy thanks to the relentless work of right-wing politicians in state government.  Some of the fundamental ideas about what it means to be a woman in a free society are coming under the worst fire they’ve seen in decades.

But there is a lot more to the struggle of women today than just that.  The nature and meaning of the word ‘feminist’ has always been in dispute, but today its very underpinnings seem to be in question. Women of color have increasingly begun to bristle under a conception of feminism that, at best, does not speak to their experience or their needs, and at worst, is a continuation of white supremacy. Working-class women — themselves increasingly women of color — are questioning whether the feminism of corporate strivers, of gender equity in the boardroom and the corner office, is actively harmful to their lives.  The existence of bisexual and trans women has become divisive for elements of the feminist movement who do not recognize the common humanity of struggle, who feel that they alone should hold the keys to the puzzle of liberation.  American women must come to terms with the fact that feminism in other countries may put itself at odds with feminism in our own; feminists raised in a Judeo-Christian society must contend with a very different manifestation of feminism in the Islamic world.  Women for whom feminism is inextricably political must deal with its cooption as a means of marketing and branding.  And men who think of themselves as allies to feminism must negotiate uncomfortable new landscapes of responsibility, where they must not only expand their prior conceptions of women’s rights, but call other men to answer for their mistreatment of women and for their role in the sustaining of a culture of masculinity that degrades us all.

It is very, very easy, faced with such contradictions and conundrums, to fall into the traps of divisiveness and reaction.  We are told to believe women, but do we believe women who make accusations against those we think of as political allies?  We are told to amplify the voices of women, but is every woman’s voice worth amplifying?  Do we fight for the rights of all transgender women, or only the ones we feel have a call on our respect, who think and act the way we do, who give the right answers to our questions of allegiance and affiliation?  Do we valorize powerful women because of what they can do for the movement, or do we focus on the less powerful who will never have that kind of voice or presence?

These questions have names:  Chelsea Manning, Hillary Clinton, Berta Cáceres, Rasmea Odeh, Juanita Broddrick, Sady Doyle.  But they are questions far more important than the individuals to whom they have been assigned.  They are questions about our very conception of the what it means to be a feminist, and what direction the feminist movement should take in these crucial moments.

Along with this existential angst has come a split, largely along a left/liberal axis, over who ‘owns’ feminism in a political sense.  A narrative has been built that the left is not a home for feminists; that it is a cult of personality for Bernie Sanders, who, in this telling, scuttled the historical presidential run of Hillary Clinton (oh, Shirley Chisholm, we hardly knew ye) out of some combination of misogyny and spite; that it is a coalition of dudebros and sexists who harass women on line for sport; that there are no women of consequence in its ranks, save for college girls looking to get laid and self-hating women who have internalized our society’s misogyny.  This split benefits neither side, and does what such bitter infighting always does:  strengthen the enemy, who want us fighting over crumbs so it can sweep in and leave us with nothing.

I cannot deny that there are eruptions of misogyny in the left, and I cannot elide the fact that it falls to men of the left to deal with them as they happen. But liberalism is hardly free of such eruptions; ask any liberal woman who’s been alive more than 30 years, or just Google the names of Hugo Schwyzer, Jian Ghomeshi, or Jamie Kilstein.  And, more profoundly, it does a grotesque disservice to the history of radical leftist women to erase their identities and contributions from both the past and the present. The first International Women’s Day was celebrated in Soviet Russia, in a culture that elevated the status of women to equals a half-century before America even took baby steps in that direction.  The first International Women’s Day in America was celebrated by a socialist organization.  Criticisms that have arisen in light of the Women’s General Strike that work stoppages are a toy of the privileged white women come most often from privileged white women, and ignore both the rich past of women in American labor, from Mother Jones to the Triangle fire, and the present, when women of color (often put in the lowest-paying and least protected jobs) are the leaders and vanguards of leftist struggle both here and abroad.

For many years, I have been hesitant to self-identify as a feminist, because I don’t believe it’s my word to claim or my idea to co-opt.  But if I am a feminist, this is the kind of feminist I am:  the kind who believes in the equality of all women, regardless of nationality, class, race, or religion; the kind who thinks is it not the place of one group of women to dictate to another group what form their liberation should take; and the kind who believes that a feminism that excludes any woman or erases their contributions to the struggle out of political convenience is a feminism that isn’t worth much.  I also believe that capitalism is the greatest burden on women in this world, and that, because capitalism literally depends on inequality to function, no true equality can be achieved through its practice.

Every day, I hope for peace between liberals and the left, and that the two can set aside their differences and focus on combating the threat of right-wing ideology that will always be the most dire threat to women’s rights until it ceases to exist.  But I want no part of a liberal feminism that demands abandonment of leftist principles, that erases or derides the existence and contribution of women to the left, or that complete and unconditional freedom for women is contingent on their acceptance of a liberal political narrative alone.  Today at the International Women’s Day strike, I will stand proudly behind my comrades, the women of the radical left.  They were here before you, and they’re not going anywhere.  You can ignore them and you can minimize them, but you can never replace them.


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