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Rinku Sen
July 15, 2015
Public Books
 
In this look at three new and “valuable contributions to our cultural thinking and political thinking on today’s feminist movement,” Rinku Sen finds much to praise; however, she criticizes these authors because they “treat these two realms as largely disconnected from each other.” That’s too bad, Sen adds, because the movement is strongest “when cultural and political interventions reinforce each other.”
 
 

Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights
Katha Pollitt
Picador USA
ISBN:9780312620547

Feminism Unfinished: A Short, Surprising History of American Women's Movements
Dorothy Sue Cobble, Linda Gordon, and Astrid Henry
Liveright
ISBN: 9780871406767

Bad Feminist
by Roxane Gay
Harper Perennial
ISBN: 9780062282712

 

By Rinku Sen

The first explicitly feminist campaign I worked on took place during my sophomore year in college. At Brown University, the 1984/85 academic year saw successful campaigns around nuclear war and racial justice, and somewhat less successful but still important ones around needs-blind admissions and sexual orientation. By Spring Weekend, the women who had led these campaigns had also realized that none of them had addressed sexism on campus. Spring Weekend can be a flashpoint at colleges, a moment in which intense partying fuels sexual harassment and assault. I particularly recall one fraternity whose members sat in their courtyard rating women on cards as we walked by.

Over three weeks, 120 women whose political skills had been honed through other fights gathered to address sexual violence. Making decisions by consensus (four hours were spent debating whether or not to trample newly planted grass), we crafted an intervention—a women’s speak out in front of the Health Services building, which happened to be in the quad occupied by all the fraternities. We planned it to be one hour, at the very start of reading period. For nearly five times that long, women lined up behind the mic while a smaller group presented demands to the administration. Our most enduring victories included two fraternity charters being revoked and the establishment of a dusk-to-dawn shuttle service.

I had always thought of that campaign as a purely political action, but in the last few years I’ve also come to understand its cultural significance. We intervened in a campus culture that was only one generation into being coed.

The speak out and attendant demands challenged the norms of how men and women related to each other, and inserted feminist ideas of bodily integrity into campus life. A picture of dozens of women lined up to take their stories public became a part of campus history. The symbolism of doing this in Wriston Quad—a space that many women avoided—was a cultural statement.

We feminists constituted a subculture, and we eventually brought it out of the women’s center to the campus as a whole. Those cultural interventions undoubtedly supported—maybe even fueled—the concessions we won, and we planted an early seed in today’s much larger, much more recognizable movement against campus rape.

I thought about this experience recently while spending a couple of dispiriting hours on the Women Against Feminism Tumblr, where, over nearly two years, hundreds of women have listed their reasons for shunning the word, the agenda, and the identity. The women are young and overwhelmingly white (an observation many of the posters would likely find racist). Feminists, they say, revel in victimhood, display bigotry toward half the human race, and are unwilling to take responsibility for their failures or sexuality. One typical post reads: “I don’t need feminism because getting drunk at a party and having sex with a stranger is just irresponsibility. NOT RAPE.”

I was struck by the rugged individualism in these posts. Many objected to the notion of a collective voice, to feminism as a movement. “I am capable of critical thinking and I do not need other women representing me,” writes one poster. Another added, “I don’t need feminism because I can speak for myself.”

The Tumblr reveals a problem faced by many successful movements. The lucky beneficiaries of victory are spared the worst treatment suffered by their predecessors, and they forget that the whole agenda has not yet been won. No movement has ever solved every aspect of every problem it was addressing. Universal, publicly funded childcare, for example, has never made it into a US federal budget. Yet, whatever progress there has been mitigates the outrage and energy available for the next round of fighting. Taking the feminist team off the offensive then enables backlash and backsliding. If the 2016 election cycle ends with a female president, feminists will face what racial justice activists did in 2008—widespread chatter that the nation is now “post-gender.”

In the last decade, feminist ideas, demands, and campaigns have grown in frequency and volume, part of a general rise in organizing among lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people, low-wage workers, and communities of color. To expand the political space available to us, feminists will have to push our aspirations in both political and cultural terms. Modern feminists frequently act on this insight, producing not just policy campaigns but also art, music, comedy, movies, and cultural criticism. Yet, three recent books on feminism reveal much daylight between cultural and political thinking, and thinkers, on contemporary feminist questions.

Feminism Unfinished by Dorothy Sue Cobble, Linda Gordon, and Astrid Henry and Pro by Katha Pollitt are on policy change, while Bad Feminist by Roxanne Gay constitutes cultural criticism. Aside from their individual strengths and shortcomings, as a whole the three books rarely connect the cultural and political realms. Political and cultural strategies don’t have to come from the same people—I don’t really want my novels and movies to be written by politicos. But without the muscle that enables thinking through both politics and culture, regardless of which arena any specific person or organization works in, we are unlikely to win the many changes that women still need.

The disconnect between the two fields evident in these books may reflect a weakness in feminist thinking and strategy more broadly. The books are about different aspects of life, to be sure, and every writer does not have to cover everything. Yet these gaps tell us something important about the emerging movement’s unaligned, and in some cases undeveloped, cultural and political strategy. On the ground, activists have been understanding this for several years, and innovations incorporating cultural strategy into political planning are in development.

Conventional wisdom holds that there have been two peaking women’s movements in this country, separated by several decades, with a third that appears to be growing now. The surprising part of Feminism Unfinished, according to its authors, is that they “show the existence of a continuous women’s movement.” Cobble, Gordon, and Henry focus on the feminist work between the first wave (Suffrage) and the second (Women’s Liberation), years that history has tried to erase, and they posit that a third wave has been coming together since 1992. Of the three books, Feminism Unfinished does the best job of exploring the cultural context of feminist action, occasionally even describing key cultural interventions like the publication of The Feminine Mystique.

There are, and have been, as many forms of feminism as there are women. Cobble, Gordon, and Henry write that, among other lessons, study of non-peak periods shows that “feminism was constantly changing,” and that “there has never been a single, unified, feminist agenda.” Race and class conflicts have always shaped those debates. Feminism Unfinished focuses on the women of color and working class feminists who practiced intersectionality and thus earned, in the authors’ view, the title of “social justice feminist.”

Each generation of feminists has to redefine the word itself, and addressing the culture is partly how they do it. Feminism Unfinished covers cultural developments throughout, showing how these changes affected women, and how women, in turn, reshaped the culture with their ideas and actions. Cultural shifts, often manifest through fashion, art, and entertainment, changed the context, revealing or even generating new problems. Flapper culture of the 1920s encompassed a newfound sexual freedom, with rising hemlines and liberty to socialize more with men, but also brought pressure on women to be sexually available outside of marriage. The culture of the white nuclear family defined women’s roles through the 1950s and ’60s, fostered by people desperate to push white working women back out of the postwar job market. But white women joining women of color in the labor force turned out to be permanent, and midcentury feminists had to conceptualize white women’s new conditions, and the effect on marriage, family, and community. Third-wave feminists have had to deal with the complexity of demographic change and build an ideology that reflects multiple lenses like race, class, and sexuality.

As an activist on racial justice and feminist issues, I deeply appreciated the authors’ focus on what I call pre-movement times, the periods in which people build consciousness and capacity for victory, a process that often includes losing many battles until a critical mass develops. These pre-movement times are deeply underappreciated and under-recognized in mainstream culture. Mainstream representations of the Civil Rights movement are a great example, where we tend to see a couple of people and a couple of moments reified, erasing the years of building, the key institutions, the internal political conflicts, and much, much more.

In the final chapter, Henry surveys feminist developments since 1990. She situates Rebecca Walker as a founder of contemporary feminism, citing Walker’s essay in which she coined the term “third wave” to distinguish her brand of feminism from that of her mother’s (the author Alice Walker) generation. Henry also covers Anita Hill’s revelations of sexual harassment during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings. The hearing itself served as a symbol of how far women had come—here was an African American woman lawyer—and how that progress was complicated by the continued discrimination they faced in the workplace. Hill, and supporting feminist organizations, had a long climb—too long, it turned out—in convincing an overwhelmingly male Congress that a history of sexual harassment ought to keep someone off the Supreme Court. Hill was unsuccessful politically in that moment, yet her story had a lasting progressive effect not only on workplace law, but also on workplace culture.

Henry does a good job of considering the cultural interventions of contemporary feminists after September 11, 2001, when the feminist energy of Generation X and the Millennials began to multiply, and an emerging movement took advantage of new media technology. A number of independent media outlets arose, providing the third wave new platforms, often with an irreverent style, including Jezebel, Bitch magazine, and the popular blog Feministing. New organizations took on the questions of sexual violence and reproductive rights, which have become the flashpoint feminist issues of the 21st century. “Rape culture” is one of the most important conceptual contributions of young feminists, being hotly debated in magazines, on cable news shows and college campuses, and, of course, on the Women Against Feminism Tumblr. While the efforts to reboot Americans’ way of valuing women’s work, represented in coverage of groups like the National Domestic Workers Alliance and Moms Rising, have been less successful culturally, they have made their own forays into cultural influence by creating their own media and generating action among celebrities. Feminism Unfinished reveals that what needs to be finished must take place in both political and cultural realms.

Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist is an antidote to many of the objections thrown up around feminism. Gay is a novelist and essayist who teaches at Purdue University contributes to sites like Salon, the American Prospect and BuzzFeed, and is a recently named New York Times columnist. She is also prolific, personal, and often funny on Twitter. Most of the essays that make up Bad Feminist have been previously published online. Some are longer and better than others, but taken together they cover a satisfying range of recent national debates and cultural markers. However, Gay, as a cultural critic, deals little with the political movement surrounding these debates.

Gay presents herself as a “bad feminist” because she breaks with the rules of particular forms that don’t work for her. She resists the notion that such a thing as “Essential Feminism” exists, even as the very notion of bad feminism hints at expectations being set by Essential or professional feminists (her caps). She is a bad feminist because she likes sex with men, watches tons of TV (and not PBS, either), and criticizes elite brands of feminism that exclude women of color, transgender women, and queer women. All these things could place her outside some—perhaps the best known—feminist projects, yet she can’t leave the word behind. She’s a woman who doesn’t want to be “treated like shit,” and so she adds the “bad,” hoping that other kinds of feminists will keep her in the club. There is not a single kind of feminism, she acknowledges, but all the different kinds might be equally and inevitably flawed, because feminists are humans who are themselves flawed. “I would rather be a bad feminist than no feminist at all,” she writes on the very last page.

I found two chapters especially thoughtful and instructive on matters related to political culture, or what might be called the subculture of progressive politics. In “Peculiar Benefits,” Gay writes about privilege and political culture at a time when Twitter has become a policing ground for anyone who has not adequately acknowledged or eschewed their privilege, whether it be conferred through whiteness, maleness, wealth, or the possibility of passing for heterosexual. Rarely acknowledged in such exchanges is the reality that everybody’s got some privilege, even someone like Gay, who is dark-skinned, female, and a child of immigrants. She is also able-bodied, got a tenure-track job on the first try, and holds elite college degrees. Accepting these forms of privilege has been one of the hardest things she’s ever had to do, she writes, and the standards of some people make it really difficult. “Too many people have become self-appointed privilege police, patrolling the halls of discourse, ready to remind people of their privilege whether those people have denied that privilege or not.” As a remedy, Gay proposes that we think of addressing privilege as a matter of “observation and acknowledgement rather than accusation.” I think that might actually work.

In “The Illusion of Safety/The Safety of Illusion,” Gay takes on trigger warnings. Trigger warnings are things like the parental discretion notes that TV stations air before shows that depict graphic violence. Campuses are now debating their inclusion in course descriptions or syllabi as a matter of policy. Gay doesn’t believe in them. Life is hard, she notes, and nearly everything is a trigger for someone. In the end, though, she acknowledges her resistance but chooses not to exercise it: “Trigger warnings aren’t meant for those of us who don’t believe in them, just like the Bible wasn’t written for atheists. Trigger warnings are designed for the people who need and believe in that safety. Those of us who don’t believe should have little say in the matter.”

Gay is more cultural critic than political pundit, but I nevertheless wished she had taken some opportunities to connect emerging political action with her cultural insights. A chapter on The Help offers a black feminist’s critique of the film’s romanticization of Jim Crow, which was echoed by many of her peers at the time, and with which I agreed. However, the National Domestic Workers Alliance (whose members at the time were largely Caribbean, Latino and Asian immigrants) found in the film a rare depiction of domestic workers and a connection to the African American women whom they had replaced as nannies, housekeepers, and caregivers. While the Alliance didn’t exactly endorse the film, they did reach out to its stars and conducted several events with Cicely Tyson and Viola Davis. The connection to African Americans eventually took the form of the organization starting an African American chapter in Atlanta. I would have loved to see Gay’s take on these developments.

In her chapter on Trayvon Martin’s killing, Gay also misses political developments, like the formation of the Dream Defenders and their takeover of the Florida State Capitol for more than a month after the Zimmerman acquittal. These essays were clearly written and published at the time the news was made, in the form of a thousand-word column. Gay could perhaps have updated them to reflect on the subsequent politics that formed in those moments.

In feminist circles of a certain age (45+), I often hear this refrain: “I can’t believe how much we’re backsliding on choice. I thought we finished that fight with Roe. I’m totally depressed.” The backslide on abortion has been steep and swift, fueled by a movement that exhibits a level of organization, strategy, and tenacity that inspires fear and envy among progressives. In Pro, Katha Pollitt takes up the questions of how this retrenchment took place, and what we can do to reverse it. Pollitt granularly breaks down the political strategy of anti-choicers, which I would argue has had an enormous and accompanying cultural effect. She does note the impact of that cultural effect on pro-choice activism, but doesn’t delve deeply into its implications.

Pollitt’s argument has several portions. At the core, she contends that the right and access to legal abortion are critical to women’s self-determination and to gender equity. She outlines the many ways in which that right has been subverted, starting with the establishment of legality through Roe v. Wade as a privacy (rather than equality) measure, proceeding through the anti-abortion movement’s strategy to focus on the rights of the fetus, and covering the vast array of anti-abortion measures in motion throughout the country. She ends with ideas on how to reframe the debate, lifting up some of the most promising efforts to broaden legality and access.

The crisis is real, and worsening. Between 2011 and 2013, Pollitt notes 205 new restrictions like waiting periods, inaccurate scripts required by law to be read to women seeking abortions, bans on state Medicaid payments (federal Medicaid has been banned for abortion through the Hyde Amendment since 1976), insurance restrictions, and parental involvement laws. Pollitt incorporates a race and class analysis, belying the notion that abortion is primarily a white, middle class women’s concern. She embraces the “reproductive justice” frame, which has been proposed by organizations of color as necessary to effective engagement of communities of color in debates including abortion. “Reproductive justice,” Pollitt writes, “connects the right to choose abortion with the right to choose how to give birth.”

Pollitt contends that we got here because of how effectively the anti-abortion (she makes a point of not using “pro-life”) reframed the issue from being about a woman’s right to privacy, which was the dominant paradigm of the Roe era, to being about the sanctity of life starting at conception. Most Americans, Pollitt notes, don’t actually think life begins at conception, or they’d be unwilling to make any exceptions for abortion. As it is, people do routinely accept such exceptions to preserve the life or health of the mother, or in cases of rape and incest. That brilliant reframe made the central character in the abortion drama the so-called baby, which Pollitt refers to as zygote/embryo/fetus. Centering the zygote has changed the way we all talk about abortion, from something that rational, responsible women choose for themselves to something “sorrowful, troubling, traumatic.”

Over time, pro-choicers have also subtly adopted that frame. Citing the Democratic Party mantra that abortion should be safe, legal, and rare, and the Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA) response to the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s threat to cut off grant support because they provide abortions (PPFA redirected the gaze to their other services, which amount to 95 percent of their work), Pollitt writes: “We may roll our eyes when abortion opponents contrast the anguish of abortion with the joys of unwanted babies, and the selfishness of women who end their pregnancies with the nobility of women who keep theirs whatever the difficulty, but over time it seeps in.” Pollitt wants us to assert freshly the demand for safe and legal abortion, and to lose the shame.

Pollitt draws a straight line between abortion bans, so many of which treat pregnancy as a harsh consequence of illicit female sexuality, and the oppression of women, and shows great sophistication in her analysis of the anti-abortion movement’s reframing strategy. The only thing she misses is the limitation of rationality and data in reframing debates, and the importance of storytelling. Significant communications research, based on neuroscience, shows that people tend to dismiss facts that contradict their most deeply held frames, yet Pro skims over cultural interventions on abortion. But culture and entertainment are what reproductive rights leaders are thinking about. Ilyse Hogue, who leads the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL) and whom Pollitt mentions admiringly, told me when the film Obvious Child came out that “choice doesn’t get good representation in movies … Before Obvious Child, we really had only mainstream movies where the woman doesn’t have the abortion. Citizen Ruth, Blue Valentine, Juno … It feels like we’re behind on the cultural front compared to other movements, like immigration or racial justice.”

Pollitt finds signs of hope in recent efforts to shift the political balance with successful defenses, and a tiny number of affirmative wins. In 2014, the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum worked with NARAL and other mainstream women’s organizations to defeat the Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act, a proposed California ban based on the mythical “problem” of sex-selective abortions that not-so-subtly stereotyped Asian Americans as obsessed with male children. In 2013, California passed the first law allowing nurses and some other healthcare professionals to perform first trimester abortions, and, last year, Pollitt notes that 51 pieces of pro-choice legislation were introduced in 14 statehouses.

Pollitt’s path forward, however, rests on moving ideas that would fuel new policies: that mothers themselves have value, and that young women, poor women, and women of color are key to activating the large numbers of Americans who are pro-choice but not saying so. These two ideas cannot be established by politics alone. The culture has to help create a debate in which mothers can be more than just “potting soil,” and a cultural strategy must be part of the plan.

Reading these books convinced me that Women Against Feminism don’t have a chance. There is too much feminist motion, in too many places, for feminism itself to be dismissed. That motion has the most traction when cultural and political interventions reinforce each other. In the movement itself, leaders are understanding and reassessing where their energy should go, realizing that they must have both cultural and political strategies to advance their issues significantly. As a whole, these books make valuable contributions to our cultural thinking and political thinking, but treat these two realms as largely disconnected from each other. 

Such work has been developing for years, especially in immigration and racial justice, and increasingly among feminists. Favianna Rodriguez is a visual artist who is one of the founders of Culturestrike, which organizes artists, musicians, and writers on immigration issues. Rodriguez has recently started a project called Pussy Power to explore feminist ideas about female sexuality. The Citizen Engagement Lab, which has incubated groups like the online women’s organization Ultraviolet, provides innovation labs for activists, including a culture lab. Organizations of domestic workers, restaurant workers, and other low-wage workers have cultural strategists on staff. We will be seeing many more cultural products with progressive, political, and feminist themes emerging from these efforts in the near future. Over time, I wouldn’t be so surprised to see a new Tumblr called Women Who Used To Be Against Feminism.

Rinku Sen is the president of Race Forward, a national racial justice organization, and the publisher of the daily news website Colorlines.com.

 
 
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