“I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute.”
Rebecca West wrote those words in 1912. It’s 2015, and we still can’t agree on what the F-word really means.
In a recent op/ed for The New York Times Room for Debate answering the question “Is Hillary Clinton’s feminism out of style?,” Letty Cottin Pogrebin contested the notion that “feminism has evolved” from its second-wave form — a movement that many Jewish women, including herself, co-Ms. Magazine founder Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan and Bella Abzug helped shape:
“Clinton’s generation of second-wave feminists – of which I’m a card-carrying member – can be faulted for many inadequacies of purpose and promise but I resent the notion that “feminism has evolved” to some new and better form as if its previous incarnation was primitive. We put ourselves on the line. We took the bullets and absorbed the “Women’s Libber in combat boots” ridicule so that today’s young purists could lecture us on ‘intersectionality.’ The movement of the 1970s and 80s was fully cognizant of what was then termed “multiple identities” of race, class and ethnicity. But we were also proudly “woman-identified” because we had to be to achieve change.”
I’m sorry, but I disagree.
As a a member of the third, or fourth or fifth, or whatever wave of feminism is attributed to Gen Xers (Katha Pollitt rightly points out that the very concept of “waves” is “off”), yes, I am incredibly grateful to the women who first cracked the glass ceiling, who fought for my right to choose, and who made it possible for me to hold a job as a journalist, once an almost entirely male-dominated field.
I am grateful to them, just as I am grateful to those suffragettes who chained themselves to buildings for my right to vote.
But does that mean I, as someone who has come after them, cannot question their tactics or the consequences of their decisions?
I don’t take issue with Hillary Clinton or any other female leader’s past achievements. What I do resent is being told that I enjoy my rights as a woman out of some kind of maternal benevolence from those who have come before me.
“Today, lots of us old war horses are still beating our fists against the bastions of patriarchy so that today’s young feminists can do, say and be whatever the hell they want,” Pogrebin wrote in the Times.
That kind of attitude completely dismisses the very real concerns that my generation holds to heart.
Beyonce may be running the world from a stage boasting a “Feminist” banner, but the struggle is far from over. Women are still not guaranteed equal pay. For women of color, the gap is more like a chasm. According to the American Association of University Women, Hispanic and Latina women were paid only 54% of what white men were paid in 2013, while African American women could expect 64% of a white man’s pay for the same job.
Trans women, and trans women of color in particular, still face the terrifying prospect of violence or even death for the simple “crime” of being who they are. In 2014, 13 trans women (that we know of) were murdered. All but one were women of color.
What’s more, as someone who grew up in Canada, I’m still baffled at the gross lack of parental leave protections in this country.
Letty Pogrebin and Gloria Steinem may not have quite the WASP cred that Clinton has. But they are white, middle-class Jewish women. That comes with a certain amount of privilege, and should be acknowledged.
As Jazmin Martinez, a college student and feminist activist for the Spark Movement, wrote in an opposing op/ed:
“Clinton’s feminism will supposedly fight for women, but what kind of women is she about? Does she include women who work in the fields and grow her food? Women living in fear of being deported or having broken families because of deportation? Indigenous women and black women? Or is her feminism just about white women trying to make it in the corporate world? Women doesn’t just mean white, middle-class and educated, but her brand of feminism makes it feel like it does.”
Hillary Clinton has done a lot for women. But she isn’t perfect. She espouses a feminism that implies certain inherent advantages, most of them financial.
Change is incremental, I get that. Second-wave feminism had to play on privilege and middle-class status to break down the preliminary barriers so that all women could follow. It wasn’t easy, and I most definitely do not want to belittle the effort and sacrifice that went into it.
But now, the time has come for the younger generation to be heard alongside those women who broke down the door. As a 2016 candidate for president, Clinton needs to look to the issues that young women of all races and backgrounds want addressed. And for what it’s worth, I think she understands that.
“There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives,” Jamia Wilson, quoting Aude Lorde, wrote in another Room for Debate op/ed. “Clinton has a unique opportunity to commit to a proactive multi-issue agenda that promotes access and inclusion.While Clinton’s recent steps signify a more progressive shift, a platform with sustained emphasis on advancing racial and economic justice will be necessary to mobilize diverse young women voters.”
We deserve a woman president, and despite the criticism, I think we have a strong candidate. But with all due respect to Letty Pogrebin, questioning Clinton’s platform and addressing past failures (and there have been some — just look at her support for gutting welfare, which left many women and children without government assistance, or her vote in favor of the Iraq war, which is responsible for the deaths of countless women) is not a “catfight among feminists.” It’s holding a political candidate accountable.
There is no such thing as an ideal candidate, and there is no one feminism to go “out of style.” As a presidential candidate in 2016, Hillary Clinton’s feminism needs to be our feminism. And that means personal, political, diverse — and inclusive.
Anne Cohen is the Forward’s deputy digital media editor. When she’s not looking for the secret Jewish history of Voodoo in New Orleans, or making lists about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, she writes for The Assimilator. She graduated from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism with an M.S. magazine concentration in 2012.