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Be Careful When Labeling Social-Justice Concerns ‘Bourgeois’

In an important piece in the Stranger, Dan Savage pushes back against the notion — recently resurfaced, Savage notes, in the New Yorker — that same-sex marriage was and is, in effect, a first-world problem, of interest only to wealthy gay white men, not to the LGBTQ community more generally. As Savage explains, marriage rights are anything but an elite concern: “You gotta wonder if marriage rights aren’t coming in handy right now for unmarried binational same-sex couples in the US or for Americans dating or in love with undocumented immigrants.”

Something quite similar is going on in the post-election feminist reassessment. In a New York Times essay, journalist Amanda Hess, a self-identified “middle-class white woman who lives in Brooklyn,” calls out the feminism leading up to and extending into Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign for focusing on “topics that middle-class women would experience firsthand: reproductive rights, catcalling, campus rape, professional opportunity, pop-culture representation.” Hess accurately describes the economics of online women-oriented journalism (from the standpoint of someone who has left that world; thus, I suppose, the past tense, because the business model itself hasn’t disappeared), and the “consumerist” aspects of too much of what calls itself feminism these days. Her overall conclusions about what the Women’s March momentum means for the left are optimistic and persuasive.

But I wonder about what it means to classify a host of still-urgent feminist concerns, impacting women across the socioeconomic spectrum, as “middle-class.” (And Hess isn’t alone in doing so — this is the conversation at this point.) Yes, a focus on campus rape, rather than sexual assault in general, is a middle-class emphasis; the “pop-culture representation” issue we can set aside as relating more to journalism economics than to what any demographic of women is losing sleep over. But reproductive rights are if anything especially important for women who rely on Planned Parenthood for such services. Street harassment disproportionately impacts women of color, queer women, and others already marginalized in our society. There are issues with how these topics are discussed — that is, with mainstream feminism focusing on how a middle-class white woman encounters these issues — but the topics themselves count.

What about “professional opportunity”? That has to be a bougie concern, does it not? Sure, we can revisit (as Hess does) the limitations of any feminism that centers on Lena Dunham’s performance-art existence and Sheryl Sandberg’s ability to metaphorically lean forward during business meeting. Yes, we must question the relative priority given to struggling women at the bottom of the economic hierarchy and pay gaps that persist at the top. But what of the big one: the presidency? Was it bourgeois to desperately to see a woman president? The standard post-election reassessment take has been yes, it was super bourgeois and out-of-touch for feminists to care about getting a woman into the White House. As though the desire to see a woman as president weren’t about political representation, but about a personal identification with reaching the top of a corporate ladder.

Dismissing still-relevant concerns as posh can be interpreted as a well-meaning attempt, on the part of the relatively posh, to reassess priorities. And priorities should be reassessed! It’s just important not to prematurely declare battles won when they’re still ongoing, or to offer overly broad definitions of what constitutes an elite concern.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy edits the Sisterhood, and can be reached at [email protected]. Her book, The Perils of “Privilege”, will be published by St. Martin’s Press in March 2017.

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