Rebecca Walker


Friday, February 29, 2008

Feminist In-fighting 101


There is a lot of discussion about "feminist in-fighting" of late, spurred by the election. Jessica Valenti of is doing a piece on the subject for The Nation. Here is my response to her query:

1. The fact is there have always been many "feminisms,"but one dominant, more visible Feminism, which is essentially comprised of the needs, views, and philosophies of straight white women with a certain degree of privilege. Now we can add "and of a certain age" to that list. Women of different backgrounds have been speaking to this issue of exclusivity for decades, and their critiques have been voluminous. The lack of resolution of these critiques is currently manifesting in an exacerbated form, and labeled "infighting." There are no new issues on the table. For example, my mother, Alice Walker, did not create the term "womanist" in the late seventies because she was feeling creative. I did not offer the concept of Third Wave in the nineties because I wanted to inject a catchy phrase into the Feminist discourse. And, many "mainstream" women did not reject the Feminist label in the sixties to present because they don't know what Feminism really is.

The complaints brought against Feminism include racism, classism, ageism, out of touchism, and a certain tendency toward First World arrogance. There has been an enduring wariness in communities of color specifically, about Feminism's mantra of independence rather than interdependence with male family members and the world at large. This would include Feminism's ambivalence about motherhood, marriage, and domestic life in general. This would include Feminism's divisive and ultimately unhelpful commentary that women need men like fish need bicycles (women need their grandfathers, fathers, sons, brothers, etc for a host of reasons too lengthy and obvious to list here). This would include Feminism's dismissal of religion itself based on its patriarchal leadership. This would include Feminism's characterization of young women who don't fall in line with the Feminist status quo as naive and ungrateful. This would include Feminism's short-sidedness that will ultimately undo the work of their anointed protegees.

Simply put, if Feminism was Wal-Mart, and had as many decades-old unresolved grievances against it, it would have long ago been bankrupt.

2. What we see in this election is the zenith of the decades-old struggle between women of different sensibilities seeking empowerment, enfranchisement, and their rightful share of the resources available. The issue at hand has to do with Feminism's (not feminism's) inability to respond adequately to the claims brought against it. If, for instance, the leadership had taken the aforementioned critiques, including those in my 1995 book To Be Real, seriously, many younger women might not feel so alienated from a movement that achieved so much for them. Women of color at large might not still be skeptical of what they perceive to be Feminism's true agenda--to empower the few and not the many. Men, many of whom would be allies to feminism's cause, would not feel attacked, rejected and alienated from a movement that held great potential benefit for them as well.

The rise of Women for Obama then, to some extent has to do with Feminism's creation of a vacuum. This is why, for instance, a Wal-Mart would "go green" at the insistence of its customers. If Wal-Mart did not respond to the messages of its base, its base would go elsewhere. To a consumer environment that better suits their sensibilities an aspirations, perhaps. The same could be said about Feminism.

3. Overall, the response of Second Wave Feminist leadership has been a stubborn insistence that it has already accommodated the aforementioned views and critiques, and that if people would just understand the "real" history, this would all be cleared up. There does not seem to be an understanding that this very response is problematic, insulting and trivializing to those who have brought forward these concerns. It is not that this diverse community of challengers is ignorant, it is that they have surmised the landscape to find many of their concerns and reservations confirmed. It is no secret that, just as middle class blacks have benefited the most from the civil rights movement and the rest are either impoverished or in jail, so have a certain group of women been the primary beneficiaries of Feminism.

To continue the analogy, if Wal-Mart claimed it had made the switch to green, but the products on its shelves were, in fact, not reflective of that claim, Wal-Mart would lose the faith of its customers and again, over time, be forced into bankruptcy.

4. Based on the above, I am not entirely certain that the calls decrying Feminism's death are incorrect or even undesirable. Perhaps a Feminism that has not responded to the needs of its constituents needs to die. Perhaps Obama is unintentionally killing Feminism and facilitating the rise of "feminisms." We shall see. He has clearly addressed the issue of ageism. Young people are not marginalized in his campaign or team of advisors. In fact, young people of all backgrounds have come out in support of his message by the hundreds of thousands. This generation has yet to do the same for Feminism.



Anonymous Nicole said...

wow, Rebecca. well said. this answered a lot of questions that I've had about feminism and its history. and i agree totally that the in-fighting is a symptom of larger issues that need to be addressed if the movement is to continue and be truly representative.

Anonymous Cardozo said...

Chelsea Clinton says she didn't "get it" (in reference to Robin Morgan's essay -- the sexism her mother faced) until she actually witnessed dissenters (all male) at her mother's rallies shouting such lovely things as ‘iron my shirts’ --what shocked her was not them, but the amused reaction of the media. Likewise, I'm a 37 year-old multi-racial black woman, and I really don't get why it's okay for Clinton to be depicted as shrill, unlikeable, desperate, whiny, and a host of other unfavorable adjectives, a few of which Obama has even used, to the amusement of all, apparently. Would it be okay for Chris Matthews to say that he was afraid of Obama (tongue in cheek, of course)? We'd jump all over that, in the black and white community, for the perceived racism. I don't understand why women are not enraged by these things, in the way that black people were enraged (and showed it in their voting)by perceived racist comments by the Clintons. Indeed, I don't know how we got so far as to even foster the thought that the Clintons are racist! Unless I've missed a campaign speech somewhere, Obama's not really addressed women making a third less overall in salary than men make in this country, which really seems to be a major economic point. Am I really missing something? Women are, generally, anti-woman (if voting records in America can be believed -- we don't like voting for ourselves, if the numbers in the House and the Senate, as well as the Governorships can be believed) if that makes sense, especially in American society, and this seems almost like a case study. To me, this represents a much larger problem -- and the Obama candidacy seems to be a distraction from this.

Blogger Rebecca Walker said...

I agree with what you've said here Cardozo--I was stunned last month in Pensacola when I shared the elevator with a man whose t-shirt had a picture of Hillary on a bucket of chicken. The caption? "Two small breasts, two left wings, and a pair of fat thighs." I was so shocked by the vulgarity, I couldn't respond in the moment.

The issue is that Feminism has failed in its attempt to countermand this misogyny by building a devoted, diverse, mainstream base through its us vs. them, often short-sighted and divisive dynamics. The presence of misogyny alone is not a reason to vote for Hillary, though it would certainly be a reason to vote against Obama if it existed.

The issue of whether Obama can address the specific concerns of women, or even make good on half of his promises, is an important one. And yet, we cannot deny the potency of his open approach to all issues, the incredible team of advisors he has put together, and his ability to relate to many around the world for whom whiteness in either gender still stands for colonialism and exploitation.

One thing is for sure, and I know this from personally traveling from Kenya to Thailand and all points including Iceland in between, the US is in desperate need for a makeover, substantively and superficially. In a truly global world, the people of every country have a stake in this election.

It's an interesting place to be.

Anonymous Victoria Marinelli said...

Dear Rebecca,

I had read this piece earlier as it appeared on Huffington Post, and am delighted to find it here on your individual site tonight; you're one of my favorite authors*, and its timing is so crucial. I had already been linking to it in this post, Heat vs. Light, in which I addressed my choice to withdraw from work on a piece I'd spent most of the previous week writing (excerpted here), concerning the present elections. It wasn't "writer's block" that stopped me from finishing it; rather, I simply didn't want to add further fuel to fires now erupting among feminists over this election. It's poisonous, and I've seen enough examples of internecine warfare within supposedly "progressive" communities (my first taste: in 1992, when I did community organizing around lesbian battering), that I can't bear to see it happening all over again.

The acrimony among feminists is now such a palpable thing that I can't read the blogs I used to enjoy without getting butterflies in my stomach first.

And tonight, I'm conflicted about that choice - can't gauge whether I was showing cowardice in not posting the essay (I had an opportunity, ironically enough, to cross-post it at HuffPo, as a guest under another blogger's login), or if letting it simmer some more on my proverbial back burner was, indeed, the most useful thing to do.

And now I'm wracked with self-doubt over a subsequent piece I posted tonight (on white Clinton supporters disproportionately declaring that race had been a deciding factor in their votes earlier tonight), which was certainly more angry than it was conciliatory. Because I have been stunned by the unwillingness of many feminists to acknowledge the role racism has played and continues to play in this election; it almost seems as if by referencing the enormous sexism that has (incontrovertibly) been directed at Senator Clinton, that one has somehow rendered the racism directed at Senator Obama nonexistent. As if they were mutually exclusive evils!

I suppose I'll find my way with all this, through the self-doubt, deciding between conciliatory and confrontational modalities. And some of the time, I'm sure to mess it up, because I'm human.

But in the meantime, I have this piece of yours to come back to, this breath of fresh air and reason, and it helps me to find my center again. (Also refreshing: something the late, great Flo Kennedy said, when I asked what she thought the phenomenon of lesbian battering meant for feminism and vice-versa: Oppression does not make people beautiful. Well, ain't that the truth.)

Thank you.

Respectfully - Victoria


*My favorite line from Black, White, & Jewish is its first: "I can't remember things." That sentence alone, reflecting the way memory is fragmented, is electrifying and inspiring to me, in no small part because my own childhood was spent shifting through various identities, whether conceived for me or invented, as I adjusted to situations like attending twelve schools over thirteen years (eight of which were between kindergarten and second grade).

Your courage in naming what can be named, from the fragments that are available, helps me to feel courageous too.

Anonymous Kay Whitlock said...

Dear Rebecca Walker:

Thank you from the bottom of our hearts for your fabulous "Feminist In-Fighting" post on The Huffington Blog.

Three of us who are white, second-wave feminist Obama supporters, have written a response to The Nation's "Morning in America: Letter from Feminists on the Election." We reference, with gratitude, your post in our piece.

Since The Nation has already put up Jessica Valenti's response piece, we are simply sending our response out widely and putting it
up on other blogs and websites.

We thought you might enjoy knowing that some older, white feminists are just as pissed off as you are, and for the same reasons.

Thanks for your work, your voice, your spirit.

Kay Whitlock
Missoula, Montana

Jackie St. Joan
Denver, Colorado

Pam Keeley
Seattle, Washington

(our response follows in next post)

Anonymous Kay Whitlock said...

BACKWATER BREAKFAST: Pass (on) the Syrup, Please

By Pam Keeley, Jackie St. Joan & Kay Whitlock

They say what goes around comes around, but we didn’t think it would come around in quite this way. First, twenty-four years ago Ronald Reagan told us it’s Morning in America, speaking in bland homilies to create a tidy, white image of the nation. Now a group of leading feminists gathers in Manhattan and sends out a letter that it’s Morning in America (The Nation, March 17, 2008) again, and time for a series of kaffeeklatches or power breakfasts all over the country—to sort out the threats that the current election presents for feminists’ friendships and related movements.

We’ve felt the strain, too, but the NYC letter seems to us to be pretty lite. It’s not that we don’t respect these professionals with big institutional affiliations and media recognition. We do; many of them share parts of our own combined 120 years of activist history. We share the Hillary Clinton voter demographic, but we’re all active volunteers in the Barack Obama presidential campaign out West where we live.

So we took up the suggestion of more discussion, but we wanted to start just among ourselves—Obama supporters—before this well-intentioned rush to healing and unity muddled our thinking. We got together for a virtual breakfast, over tortillas, bad coffee, chicken-fried steak, granola, and orange juice reconstituted from concentrate, to figure out why we were so annoyed by the “Letter from Feminists on the Election.” Here’s how we see things:

Although they may be our friends who are doing it, we don’t want our politics confused with the politics of those feminists and others who through the Clinton campaign are doing the race/gender comparing and fueling resentments again. It’s not only the male media who is claiming that Obama is “stealing” the moment that belongs to…well, a particular white woman. And on the pro-Clinton blogosphere, who is comparing gender oppression to racial oppression, and insisting gender oppression is worse? We think that, at its root, the potential for racial resentment and rift is a (continuing) white (feminist) problem. (Jackie: Personally, I witnessed this in Iowa in January, where Hillary Clinton lost, fair and square. The next day at the Des Moines airport I overheard two different Clinton supporters on their cell phones bitterly telling friends back home, “They just can’t take the idea of a woman President.” I wanted to say, “No, sister, you’re wrong. Wake up.”)

None of us imagined that the “historic breakthrough moment for which we have all longed and worked hard” would become one moment, not two. We’re irked by the suggestion that it’s all marred by the false choice between race and gender. Nothing is marred. This is a potentially transformational moment in politics, where people seem to be making choices based on other considerations, as well. Even the old white guys seem to have accepted that we’ve ended up with a black man and a white woman running. Win or lose, these candidates are changing the American political landscape for all women and people of color. A large part of that potential, we believe, can be credited to the leadership and wisdom of Senator Obama, who took the lead in not playing any card.

What happened “to the last four decades of discussion about tokenism and multiple identities and the complex intersections of race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity and class” is that the women’s movement’s main strategy focused on developing big organizations that needed big funding to maintain themselves—all at the expense of continuing to do community organizing. As the movement went professional, professorial, and publishable, internal movement democracy suffered, and organizational agendas, decided in-house, replaced a commitment to mass movement building. Momentum plummeted. Some in our generation benefited personally, but politically we flubbed. But, today – good news! – cross-constituency organizing is alive and well in the Obama ground game and elsewhere, often led by young people of diverse colors and backgrounds.

Our sisters gathered in Manhattan worry “that the feminist movement's real message is not being heard.” Which feminists? Which “real” message is that? We loved Rebecca Walker’s recent Huffington Post piece addressing this question. We see more creative and irreverent feminist energy out here than we’ve seen in decades. It’s in our sons and daughters who carry their children to Obama and Clinton rallies. What pisses us off is that this emergent energy is not being recognized by the women who helped create it. Now it is embodied in younger activists whose multi-issue organizing is touching people and exploding in different voices, and across generations in wild and astonishing ways. It’s not just about Obama/Clinton as popular music videos – Si Se Puede Cambiar and Yes We Can – suggest. It’s about us.

Who is asking the candidates to deny their race or gender or to claim “by their very existence that misogyny and racism no longer exist?” The Clinton campaign’s belief that people are asking that of her may be part of why so many people feel she comes across as inauthentic. No one is asking Obama to deny being black. And he wouldn’t do so anyway. He wrote an entire book about that.

We think it’s OK for people to feel good these days that many Americans are uniting for the first time around presidential candidates who are not white males. Of course this doesn’t mean that misogyny and racism no longer exist. And it doesn’t mean that we think the two Democratic candidates are equally good, or that there aren’t shortcomings on both sides. But some voters have transcended their own expectations of what is possible for female and black candidates. And some voters have even transcended expectations of themselves. This, even as sometimes both are “popularly and reductively caricatured in perniciously stereotypical ways.” We can rightly complain about the pundits. But what about the campaigns? Isn’t Clinton doing the same when she talks about Obama not being ready to be president? Or when she shouts out “Shame on you!” like she’s talking about a boy, not a man? And is the readiness on “day one” actually sexist code for the fact that she has a husband we can all fall back on in a crisis?

If “many women feel that a vote for Obama ‘cheats’ Clinton of her chance to break the glass ceiling, and many blacks feel that a vote for Clinton is a betrayal of the chance to break the race barrier,” then we urge any campaigns fostering such ideas to denounce and reject them. Loyalty to the issues of gender and racial justice should not be confused with loyalty to a female candidate and/or a candidate of color.

Much as anyone might like the personal gratification of having someone who looks like oneself in the White House, we must be political beings first. We didn’t march and organize in the sixties and seventies to be guilt-tripped into voting for a candidate, on the basis of gender or race alone. The women’s movement at its best was never a voting bloc. It was a coalition that shared a belief in the power of women to change the world. There are men who believe this, too, and Senator Obama is one of them.

We do wish that both candidates would speak more directly to the problems women continue to face in this country and especially abroad—the impact of war, illiteracy, globalization, and feudalism on women and children, the ongoing gender violence everywhere, the growing, courageous movement of women to free themselves and their families through peaceful means, such as education, a pre-requisite for a sustainable democracy anywhere. Kavita Nandini Ramdas addresses this in her powerful article in The Nation, “Leveraging the Power of Race and Gender.”

How might we position ourselves so we're not fighting one another?” By raising these issues, again and again, and insisting that our candidates do the same. Yet we should also recognize that there is no monolithic “feminism.” We will have strong political differences with each other from time to time. We should have more forthcoming and vigorous debates about these differences –disclosing our biases, defining our complaints, challenging claims with facts, analyzing and sharing – not less.

The times are changing, friends. We remember the older women (like ourselves now) who inspired us during the civil rights, farmworker organizing, anti-war, women’s movement days. Those are our role models now—with all our rowdiness, our history, our know-how—along with a good dose of humility and grace, which, frankly we also desperately need or no one will listen to us anyway. We can and will play a part, but, blessedly, it’s not just “our” movement any more. Move over and let younger generations have their day. We had ours.

So, on our morning in America we decided to extend an invitation for coffee on an upcoming August morning in Denver. Our place. August 24, 8:00 a.m. Give us a call. We’ll talk about how to nurture real movement building, not just electoral politics. You bring the blueberries, and next time we’ll skip the raspberries.

Authors’ Note:
Pam Keeley, an artist and nurse in Seattle, was an Obama staff member during the February caucuses in Washington and continues to work for his campaign. Jackie St. Joan, a writer and lawyer in Denver, volunteered for Obama in Iowa, Colorado, Texas and Ohio. Kay Whitlock is a writer and activist who lives in Missoula, Montana.

Blogger Harlem Mama said...

All I can say is WELL SAID.
Every time a declared representative of the movement opens their mouths, like the statements over the last month or so in the elections, it spews elitist tones. The words rarely respond to women of color. The tone is condescending and archaic. The old movement attempts to belittle new voices embracing the natural feminism of motherhood and women who embrace men lovingly, whether they identify as straight or bisexual or lesbian.
The in-fighting must happen in order for a different type of movement to happen. A movement focused on the rights of women in the workplace, starting with maternity leave. Then moving on to daycare and the right to decent daycare as a working mother. And rethinking laws where lower income families are penalized when they marry and lose assistance in housing and food. I know people who don't marry because they don't feel they'd be able to afford to, not the wedding, the bills down the road. We need to rethink the movement on what women are facing today. As bell hooks talks about, class matters. And that was the detriment and downfall of the feminist movement, in its current state. We have to focus on building what's important to us socially. And I won't lie, I look at my feminist movement mama and wish for just one day a week she could be more traditional and take that role of being a grandmother. She does now, but I had call her out that acting 20 at 60 isn't practical for the family. I'm just saying. The movement definitely has its issues and one issue definitely is relating to our mothers that we're different and we see a new path to championing women's rights.


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