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The Sisterhood Split

Instead of calls for togetherness, feminists should use this election as a chance to learn from each other and to create the movement we want.
 
 
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At a Washington reception last month for a well-known national women's organization, the chair of the board asked Maureen McFadden, a communications executive with the organization, which candidate she'd voted for in the recent primary. McFadden, hoping to avoid an awkward moment, answered that she'd voted by absentee ballot. The board chair pressed ahead, "Did you vote for a boy or a girl?"

"I paused for a long time," says McFadden. "Then I told her I voted for a boy -- I wasn't going to lie." McFadden, who has worked on women's issues for twenty years, says the room went silent and the board chair chastised her. "It was clear that I had betrayed feminism by voting for Obama. It became obvious -- if you didn't vote for Hillary, you were less than a feminist and only marginally a woman."

It's no secret that Clinton's candidacy has caused waves in feminist circles. Media outlets from the Wall Street Journal to the Washington Post have reported on the rift between feminists voting for Clinton and those supporting Obama. Blogs have weighed in, and feminist listservs are aflame. As a feminist blogger and writer, I've been watching the tension unfold--but with no great surprise. This election "rift," far from being a new wrinkle in a feminist utopia, is a fairly predictable response from a movement already disunited. The Clinton-Obama divide has shone a spotlight on feminism's dirty little not-so secret: the movement's longstanding power imbalance, in which a few organizations and leaders decide what counts as an acceptable platform. Indeed, feminist support for Clinton--coming from the usual suspects like the National Organization for Women (NOW), EMILY's List, Gloria Steinem and former Ms. magazine editor Robin Morgan--has been organized, strong and far-reaching. What's been less than savvy, however, is the reaction some feminist Clinton supporters have expressed toward their Obama-endorsing cohorts. I've seen Obama supporters called everything from naïve to traitors to the cause, and the majority of this ire has come from mainstream professional feminists.

For example, in a widely disseminated article that inspired responses ranging from effusive to horrified, Morgan diagnosed young women who support Obama as "eager to win male approval by showing they're not feminists (at least not the kind who actually threaten the status quo), who can't identify with a woman candidate because she is unafraid of eeueweeeu yucky power..." Gloria Feldt, former president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, penned a piece for The Huffington Post in which she warned women they would be missing out on a historic moment if they didn't vote for Clinton. "Will women give this Moment away freely once again?" she pondered.

The intensity of feminist infighting has even prompted a call for reconciliation. "Morning in America: A letter from feminists on the election" in last week's Nation, written by feminist heavyweights, called on women to "refocus on the bigger picture." But the letter--written after a breakfast of blueberry muffins served on "the good china" at Steinem's house, with nary a woman under 40 in sight--represents the exact problem it purports to seek an end to: the narrowing of feminist viewpoints. Moreover, feminists make a mistake in prematurely calling for unity. Instead of glossing over the problem with the rhetoric of sisterhood or having an elite group declare the dispute settled, let's own the conflict and use it to make real progress.

Rebecca Walker, a founder of the Third Wave Foundation, says, "There are no new issues on the table. What we see in this election is the zenith of the decades-old struggle between women of different sensibilities." Walker believes today's election friction is simply a consequence of mainstream feminist leaders and organizations not listening to critiques from younger women, women of color and grassroots activists about the exclusivity of thought within the movement. "The issue at hand has to do with [institutional] feminism's inability to respond adequately to the claims brought against it," Walker says.

One of these claims is that mainstream feminists have ignored an "intersectional" approach to feminism--one that takes class, race and sexuality into account -- in favor of one that focuses on sexism above all else. NOW executives, for example, campaigning for Clinton in Ohio told women voters that sexism is "the worst of the isms."

In a segment on Democracy Now! with Steinem, Melissa Harris-Lacewell, an associate professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton, took this single-issue mind-set to task: "Part of what, again, has been sort of an anxiety for African-American women feminists like myself is that we're often asked to join up with white women's feminism, but only on their own terms, as long as we sort of remain silent about the ways in which our gender, our class, our sexual identity doesn't intersect, as long as we can be quiet about those things and join onto a single agenda."

Amanda Marcotte, a former John Edwards campaign blogger and now an Obama supporter, says there's "been some pressure from feminist Clinton supporters who feel that no reason to vote for Obama outweighs the possibility of the first female President." Marcotte, however, is quick to point out that "plenty of female Clinton supporters report being bullied by liberal men who support Obama."

Herein lies the reason so many of us are loath to discuss intrafeminist problems publicly. We know that Clinton supporters are taking heat from sexists--whether at home, at work or from pundits who relish talking about Clinton's "shrill" voice or whatever thinly veiled misogyny of the day is on cable news. We don't want to provide the backlash more fodder. We also know how hard our feminist foremothers fought to be here and how important the moment is--and we want to be a part of it. I certainly do. But not at the expense of what I believe is best for women, and not just because a movement that assumes it knows what's best for me tells me to.

No matter what Clinton's fate, feminist election tensions will start to fade -- but we shouldn't let them, no matter how many calls for solidarity are issued by movement leaders. Instead of the group hug approach, let's focus on tangible goals: fostering youth leadership, working from the margins in and using intersectionality as our lens--instead of just a talking point. Let's use this moment, when our politics and emotions are raw, to push for a better, more forward-looking feminism.

Jessica Valenti is the executive editor of Feministing.