Monday, September 2, 2013

Is the next stage of feminism to leave “feminism” behind?

At a very young age was made familiar with the word “feminism”.  It was made clear to me it was a positive term to be embraced, if it had certain connotations.  At the time those “connotations” were more of things like bra-burning, radical behaviors that might not be embraced by everybody. What was not clear to me, until relatively recently, was the exclusivity of the term. That is that the kind of feminism that I had been brought up on, rights to one’s own body/reproductive rights, promotion of women in the workplace, equal pay and the like, were a particular brand of feminism, specifically the white, middle-class kind.

I have always been around people of color, in schools, in my community, in my workplace. I have always taken seriously the issues of racism, and in college became familiar with reproductive issues beyond birth control and abortion, i.e. forced sterilization of women of color. However as I left college for a professional career my attention to these issues waned in my conscience.  I should add that I have worked in female-dominated environments with substantial minority representation (if not in positions of power). If on occasion I paid attention to feminist issues, and noted that the people were represented were overwhelming white my inherent tendency was to think it was an oversight. That maybe the women of color who also were involved with the struggle were busy that day. That there was not a systemic attempt to keep women of color, and issues most important to them, off the agenda. When the term “intersectionality” become a thing, I was a little confused. Were we not all on the same page already?

A few weeks ago the hash tag #whitesolidarityforwhitewomen, started by Mikki Kendall (@Karnythia) became a thing. Most of the tweets under this hash tag could be described as complaints about white, middle-class feminism and the media outlets that support it, as well as ways women of color are marginalized, in society, in the media, and even in the activist groups that supposedly support them.  Regardless of the critiques themselves the fact that there was such an overwhelming response to such a thing should give white women pause.  Clearly, many women of color felt they were not being represented, that the “whiteness” of many women’s groups was not by accident, but by design, whether it was conscious or not. Clearly, if there is such a thing as feminist movement it is already divided, if so many women feel they are outside it.

There was an unfortunate tendency for some to complain, essentially, that the critiques were not “fair”. Can I just say I do not think any racial group uses the word “fair” more than white people? I think that it comes from the (imaginary) world that most white people live –where everybody is treated equally regardless of race, creed, and social status. The world where everybody has a chance to “climb the economic ladder”-it just takes hard work and education don’t you know! I feel that people of color, particularly women, tend to not talk about “fairness” but justice, what is right and what is deserved. It has to be fought for, it is rarely given.

You cannot help whom you are, where you come from. We all have benefited from who came before us, some of us much more than others. But, that doesn’t mean you can’t pay attention, and listen to others. If in this year of 2013, post-Trayvon Martian, post-Kiera Wilmot, you can say that “race” is trivial (as one tweet that came across my timeline did) I can’t help you. If you can look at the numbers regarding drug arrests, prison populations, recognizing that for every black man in prison there is at least one black woman suffering, I can’t help you. If you look at the losses of jobs and wealth in the great recession, so much more for people of color than white people, no tweet or hash tag is going to make sense to you. All of us who consider ourselves “women”, (regardless of actual anatomy) share many things in common, but if we cannot realize the different experiences we have as shaped by other factors, what is the purpose in “solidarity’?

Which brings me around to the point of this post, is the forth wave of “feminism” not to be “feminism” at all? The way” feminism” has been traditionally articulated, has an agenda that could be considered “corporate”, and as result has only been really embraced by a certain group of women. The idea seemed to be if we got enough women in positions of power—not to fight the corporate model but to change it by taking it over, to “lean in” this would uplift women.

Leaving aside for a moment the issue that for most women, the dominant concern is survival, how has this worked?  I would state for the record, that it has not. The most important issues to this cohort, (middle to upper-class women) reproductive issues, employment options (flexible work, paid maternity leave, childcare options) have changed little in the past twenty years. Work-life “balance," the middle-class woman’s mantra, is as elusive as ever. The response of the Sheryl Sandburg’s of the world seems to be, well we just to do a little more, to “lean in” and we can fix it, and really we can. The reality is, lifting up comes from below, and it does not trickle down.

The corporate model is not compatible with humanity; it values profit, the transfer of the public to private in the name of “efficiency” and “competiveness”. The corporate model leaves the handful of people who were not able to jump on that boat remaining at the shore, fighting over the scraps that are left. The women who have risen in this system generally embrace it—you actually have to do this if you are to rise—and beyond tooling around the edges these women are not interested in changing it. Therefore one could make the argument that you could have women in 90% of CEO positions, and little would change.

This lack of change could also be seen in the recent article “Opting out”. The purpose of this article was to interview women who has “opted out” to stay with their kids, 10 years later, to see how things had changed, or not. What women found difficult was not their children per se, they all had all appreciated the chance to be home when their kids were young, but dealing with the (lack of) sharing of household duties with their husbands, and the difficulty of returning to work.  The response to this from a predictable right-wing source, Meg McArdle, was basically oh that’s just the way it is. If you want to be at the top, male or female, you need to put the hours in—that’s the way the system works. But the writer of the piece quite specifically points out that the “elites” of her group had no problems returning to work. The women who had problems were not looking for the corner office, they were not looking for “career plums”, they were just looking to get work that was in the neighborhood of where they had been. They understood they had stepped off the train; they just wanted to get back on. The idea is one should be able to return to work roughly where one left off, maybe a little behind if things have changed but roughly in the same spot. But these women, frequently, were just looking for work, any kind of work where they could make enough to justify being away from their kids. What they found was significantly below what they had before, which predictably resulted in increased stress on the whole family.

The best way to solve the problems articulated in this article is not a endless round of dumb-ass questions/discussions regarding stay-at-home moms versus working moms, is daycare harmful to children, what do women have to do to get ahead etc. The best way to solve these problems is to enact policies that provide for full employment and reduce economic equality.

The dramatic changes that have occurred in the workplace since the “recovery” began-less benefits, increases in part-time work (when people want full-time work), the relentless wage drop/stagnation, the complete disregard for employee health-are occurring because corporate American can do it.  There is no housing bubble, it’s a little harder to make money out of nothing through “financialization” but corporate America still needs to support the 1%. That support is coming directly from the 99% in these changes in the labor market. Even so unemployment is high, as a result there are always workers ready to fill spots—unemployment is high in every job area. When you hear nonsense about a “skills-gap” that’s corporate America trying to cut wages. As a result inequity under the Obama administration has accelerated and grown larger.

In addition to full employment there needs to be a continued push for single payer health-care in some kind of form, and guaranteed income. We can raise the minimum wage, and support the fast food workers fight for fifteen movement. In short, could spend a lot of time persuading companies to “do the right thing” or we could say fuck it, we are going to make sure people have enough to live on, and be able to go to the hospital when they need to, without worrying about going bankrupt.  We have the money, it’s not technology’s fault either.

If we are serious about engaging women fully, it starts with economic equality issues, which naturally dovetail with others. While considering anniversary of the March on Washington Michelle Alexander made a recent statement regarding the need to "connect the dots between poverty, racism, militarism and materialism". Focusing on economic equality, pushing for "a radical structuring of society"will do more for feminism than anything else. We could all do with "getting out of (our) lanes" and demanding a brave new world where we all valued, women most of all.