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Whither Feminism?

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Fire-thrower Linda Hirshman has a piece in the Washington Post today in which she bemoans feminism’s (newfound?) focus on intersectionality. She writes:

So what keeps the movement from realizing its demographic potential? First, it’s divided along lines so old that they feel like geological faults. Long before this campaign highlighted the divides of race, class and age, feminism was divided by race, class and age. As early as 1973, some black feminists formed a National Black Feminist Organization; in 1984, the writer Alice Walker coined the term “womanism” to distinguish black women’s liberation from feminism, the white version. In the early 1970s, writer and activist Barbara Ehrenreich argued on behalf of “socialist feminism,” saying that the women’s movement couldn’t succeed unless it attacked capitalism. The movement was barely out of its teens when Walker’s daughter, Rebecca, announced a new wave to distinguish her generation’s feminism from the already divided feminisms of the people who had spawned it.

This would have been enough to weaken the movement. But it still could have been like many other reform movements, which manage to remain effective by using such traditional political tools as alliances and compromises. There’s an old-fashioned term for it — “log-rolling.” Put crudely: First I vote for your issue, then you vote for mine.

The mostly white, middle-class feminist organizations could have established relationships of mutual convenience with groups such as the black feminists. An alliance like that might have been able to prevent the confirmation of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court in 1991. White feminists opposed him, but he had enough support among black voters — who are heavily female — to induce four Southern Democratic senators who were heavily dependent on black votes for reelection to cast the crucial votes to confirm him.

But feminists weren’t going to do things the old-fashioned, “political” way. Instead, faced with criticism that the movement was too white and middle-class, many influential feminist thinkers conceded that issues affecting mostly white middle-class women — such as the corporate glass ceiling or the high cost of day care — should not significantly concern the feminist movement. Particularly in academic circles, only issues that invoked the “intersectionality” of many overlapping oppressions were deemed worthy. Moreover, that concern must include the whole weight of those oppressions. In other words, since racism hurts black women, feminists must fight not only racist misogyny but racism in any form; not only rape as an instrument of war, but war itself. The National Organization for Women (NOW) eventually amended its mission statement to include interrelated oppressions.

Although other organizations work on women’s issues when appropriate, none of the other social movements were much interested in making intersectionality their mission. The nation’s oldest civil rights organization, the NAACP, which co-sponsored the 2004 march in alliance with women’s groups, says nothing about feminism or homophobia or intersectionality in its mission statement. The largest Hispanic rights organization, National Council of La Raza, unembarrassedly proclaims that it “works to improve opportunities for Hispanic Americans.”

While I have sometimes found myself nodding my head in agreement with Hirshman, I have to agree with Jill that Hirshman’s painting of feminism is outdated and, frankly, head-scratch-inducing.

Hirshman’s neat division of issues into “feminist” and “other” (my labels) just doesn’t work. As jill notes, Hirshman’s privileging of white, middle class feminist issues as “purely feminist” and the issues of poor women and women of color as somehow less feminist encapsulates and reinforces the problem that made feminism passe to begin with. People rightly perceived feminism as a wealthy white women’s movement. It’s come a long way (though certainly not all the way, as various blog brouhahas make clear) toward a broader notion of what issues are “feminist.” But Hirshman wants to drag us back. And young feminists — rightly — are not going without some kicking and screaming.

So Hirshman’s incendiary vision seems to be just a rehash of the same old intergenerational feminist battles. It’s time to put them away. For good.

Update: Jen @ Feministing has more, including reactions to an online chat with Hirshman today.

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