No, Feminism Isn’t Over -- But It Needs to Change

(Photo: AP/Chuck Liddy/News & Observer)

Thousands march in downtown Raleigh, North Carolina, on February 8, 2014, as part of the Moral Mondays movement.

It was supposed to be the ultimate moment of the feminist project—that moment when the national media networks would call the 2016 election for the nation’s first woman president. That didn’t happen, of course; instead, a man, who has made a display of his contempt for women, won the White House. Since Donald Trump’s great Electoral College triumph, women dedicated to the cause of equal rights, whether they describe themselves as feminists or womanists, have been taking stock.

For many, it’s hard not to fall into despair, especially as pundits and analysts allied with the Democratic Party tell us that the failure of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign was due to her ostensible neglect of the white working class—by which they usually mean white, working-class men. As Kali Holloway, a woman of color, wrote in the days following the election, this amounts to “the endless privileging of white pain above all others.”

Especially distressing is the irrefutable fact that a majority of white women voted for Donald Trump: 52 percent, according to exit polls reported by CNN. Because white women comprised a significant chunk of the electorate—37 percent, according to the exits cited above—that’s a big deal, especially when you consider that 94 percent of black women voters pulled the lever for Clinton, as did 69 percent of Latina voters. (By contrast, black women made up 7 percent of the electorate, and Latinas comprised 6 percent.)

“Feminism lost. Now what?” reads the headline of Susan Chira’s January 1 essay on The New York Times op-ed page. While Chira, a senior editor and writer at the paper on gender issues, contends that the 2016 election was not a referendum on the subordination of women (I’m not so sure), she writes that “it’s a warning that feminism, as it has been defined, did not inspire enough people in enough places around the country.”

Chira makes a good case for the problem being the identification of issues classically defined as feminist (reproductive rights and justice, subsidized daycare, equal pay) with a particular class of women: white, middle-class women. Citing focus groups conducted by Lake Research Partners, Chira argues for a reframing of some of these issues as economic measures designed to help all families.

That’s all well and good, but framing alone won’t fix the problem. The problem is structural, both in the make-up of feminist leadership, and in the dominance of men as the leaders funders turn to when liberals periodically deduce that there’s a problem with the liberal and progressive political infrastructure.

Resistance to the anti-woman Trump agenda and the reconstitution of a grassroots women’s movement will require ways of listening and organizing that have long been absent (or at best, not strong enough) in liberal and progressive politics.

While Chira is right that certain issues long relegated to the feminist sphere can likely be reframed as economic measures designed to aid all families, there’s far more to the feminist agenda than economic issues, and the economic fixes applied in the name of feminism often do not take into account the needs of working-class women and women of color. The assault on women’s reproductive health and rights that has been ongoing for decades is about to get a major boost under Trump, who has said he would like to see Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court case that legalized abortion nationwide, overturned. He’ll have the opportunity to appoint justices who are inclined to do just that.

Republicans in Congress have long shown hostility to protecting women from domestic violence. And the continuous hole-poking at the social safety net, such as attempts to gut nutrition assistance programs, is nothing short of an assault on the very sustenance of women and children.

 

WRITING IN SLATE last month, Michelle Goldberg laid out just how much of the feminist agenda is at stake. It’s a grim read. Leaders of women-focused national organizations are professional and knowledgeable in the ways of national politics. But the feminist project cannot be saved by them. However in touch they may be with what’s happening on the ground and in the states, they are not on the ground and in the states. Those who are must not only be heard; they must be acknowledged as the ones who will conceive and build the new ground-level organizing infrastructure that victory over the tyranny of the oligarchs will require.

Trump’s Electoral College victory came in no small part on the back of organizing in the states by groups like Americans for Prosperity, which is funded by the Koch network. It’s been a state-level effort that ultimately delivered enough state legislatures and governors’ mansions to Koch-allied Republicans to effect a seemingly intractable GOP majority in the House of Representatives, through the redrawing of congressional districts in ways designed to diminish the impact of non-white and progressive voters. At the same time, it is in these very legislatures that laws gutting voting-rights protections and access to reproductive health care have been enacted. And the governors elected with help from the Koch network are those who refused the Medicaid expansion that was part of the Affordable Care Act—a purely retaliatory refusal with little impact on elites, since those who would have benefited from the expansion include significant numbers of women and people of color.

As liberals and progressives regroup and reassess in the wake of Trump’s victory, news media have predictably turned to the leaders of big organizations in a spate of “What do they do now?” pieces. There’s talk of war rooms and opposition research, and lots of money flowing into them. That’s all well and good, but these efforts will not save the day. Neither will pouring money into existing institutional organizing structures, which tend to be election-focused. Turning the tide against the oncoming wave of assaults on the rights of women—especially working-class women, a class in which women of color are amply represented—will require the leadership of women at state and local levels in the general progressive grassroots political structure, and their empowerment to envision and create a new infrastructure that engages the whole of the progressive movement.

Women, especially women of color, have long histories as leaders and ground-level organizers of movements for social justice. In the Age of Trump, these movements will struggle to survive unless women are at the forefront—not simply “dealt in” or “at the table.”

This is no time to wait for inside-the-beltway groups to get their war rooms up and running. Let the big donors pour their money into that for the time being; we need to begin building without those resources, if only to prove the need for them.

In North Carolina, Reverend William Barber has shown what consistent, 24/7, intersectional organizing can accomplish. In the most unlikely of years, a Democrat was elected to the governor’s mansion. The threat perceived by the Koch-bought legislature was revealed when, shortly following the election, the Republican majority passed a measure stripping the governor’s office of much of its power.

But leaders at the state and local levels will now have to fight on two fronts—the congressional as well as the state legislative arenas—if rights are to be maintained and reclaimed. While Barber’s Moral Mondays movement shows what state-level mobilizing can accomplish, organic grassroots opposition to the Trump agenda in Congress is also mandatory.

In a succinct and instructive handbook, former congressional staffers Ezra Levin, Leah Greenberg, and Angel Padilla advise a sustained mobilization of resistance to the Trump agenda that targets members of Congress from both parties, using the Tea Party as their model. Especially helpful is Chapter 3, which has suggestions both for creating new groups and resetting the focus of existing groups to create the opposition. They suggest that groups need not be large in order to stop or impede a legislative proposal.

“If a small minority in the Tea Party can stop President Obama,” they write, “then we the majority can stop a petty tyrant named Trump.”

Under President Trump, legislative proposals designed to stick a knife into any prospect for gender equality will abound, as Goldberg duly noted. The same goes for racial equality. Economic oppression of out-groups will only intensify, as opposition to such basic elements of civilized life, such as the federal minimum wage and basic food supports for poor people, are likely to take hold.

If the liberal project is to be saved, it will be women who do it, and women of color who lead it. Men need to listen up.

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