gender, politics

Who’s a Feminist?


In a recent New York Times op-ed, Jessica Valenti discusses the reluctance of many feminists to support the nomination of Gina Haspel as Director of the CIA, and Fox’s choice of Suzanne Scott as the network’s chief executive. She examines the criticism by Republicans of those feminists, using the argument that feminism means supporting all women, any woman, no matter what else she may be or not be. Valenti gets it right – feminism does not mean, “I’m for the woman, any woman, right or wrong,” but rather, it supports anyone of any gender who supports equality. In that respect, Valenti notes, Haspel and Scott are not in any sense “feminist” icons.


But the Republican critique is even more noxious than Valenti shows. First, it’s just another example of the Republican determination to co-opt liberal values: now they’re declaring themselves the best feminists of all, the only feminists properly equipped to comment on the feminism of others. “Irony” hardly describes it: Republicans are precisely the people who have opposed every feminist position, at least since the 1960s: equal pay for equal work, Titles VII and IX of the Civil Rights Act (not to mention the Civil Rights Act as a whole), and – the cherry on the sundae – reproductive rights. This is the party itching to destroy Planned Parenthood, and thereby dooming millions of women to disease and death. Republican “feminists” adopt one of the principal oppressive roles of men: to claim ownership of the language, denying other women the right to make their own meanings.


So (they say) feminists may not criticize Gina Haspel, enthusiastic supporter of torture; Suzanne Scott, who enforced Fox’s miniskirt requirement for on-air women; or Ivanka Trump, who derives all her power from her relationship to a man whose contempt for women goes beyond legendary.


Also as Valenti points out, feminists are not entirely free of blame for the situation: we keep insisting that feminism is a big tent, open to a very wide range of opinions. But it isn’t, or shouldn’t be, as big as the Republicans want it to be. Feminists have insisted on the “big tent” because, as women, we are embarrassed at being called not nice. So we blush when we are scolded for not welcoming pro-life candidates. (How welcoming have Republicans been to the pro-choice side? But that’s OK, because they don’t claim to be inclusive, merely correct.) Here again conservatives are co-opting our language, determining what our words are to mean and who gets to decide that.


But the argument is worse than that. It smacks of a peculiarly virulent form of something every good Republican, male or female, professes to hate: identity politics. The Republican feminist argument here boils down to: if it has two X chromosomes, you support it – regardless of anything else about it.


In the first place, this argument suggests an especialy noxious form of bias: “They all look alike.” Women are not, in this view, individual human beings like men. Rather, we are like teeming vermin, one just like the other, none with human attributes that would encourage us – human males, and the women who support them – to see them as human and worthy of respect and dignity as individuals. So this “feminist” position is, in fact, the opposite of everything feminism stands for.


These haters of “identity politics” are hypocritical supporters of this strong form of identity politics: if you’re a woman, you should – must – support all women (especially, it would seem, conservative Republican women), regardless of what these women stand for, no matter how abhorrent their. Don’t support a woman because she believes in something you believe in and shows a willingness to fight for it as a priority – no, that would be seeing women (including yourself) as individuals with minds. That would be totally unacceptable.


If the term “identity politics” is anathema to you, recall that, properly understood, all political decisions made by anyone arise out of identity politics. It’s just that the identity politics of the white male are obscured by his long-time ability to unilaterally make the definitions for all of us. So it looks as if his decisions are determined by judgments made on universal grounds: somehow, his preference is magically transformed into what is good for all of us. But it aint necessarily so, and Thomas Friedman’s claimed “aversion” to identity politics in a recent op-ed is but a paper tiger.


So if anyone reading these words feels a twinge of residual guilt about not wanting to be Gina’s or Suzanne’s or Ivanka’s BFF, lay those fears aside. Identity politics that is about supporting those who share the passions of those most like ourselves is how all politics has always worked.


Therefore real feminists must make serious choices especially in this election year, in primaries and even in the general election in November, choices that have seldom been available before: female Republican vs. male Democrat; woman versus woman. What is “feminist” in this brave new electoral world?


The rational consideration is the obvious one: vote for the candidate who comes closest to representing the way you would like the country to be and believe. Vote for the candidate who most closely resembles a decent human being. But it’s more complicated than that.


You have to look first at what a candidate is most likely to sincerely believe and fight for, and see how that aligns with your own interests. If, for instance, reproductive rights are high on your list (and I feel that, if you’re a woman, they’d better be), you not only consider whether a candidate’s ads peg them as pro-choice. You need to figure out how much they will risk for Planned Parenthood and contraceptive and abortion rights, for instance. That might be one argument for choosing a female Democrat over a male: all too often, the man, once elected, abandons his claimed support for reproductive rights when it interferes with something closer to his heart. This is not always the case, but all too often it happens with male politicians. So if you have to choose between a reasonable man and a reasonable woman, the odds say – go for the woman.


There is another reason to make that choice. Now (since November 8, 2016) more than ever, gender parity in high places is crucial. Women will never have power equal to men unless and until we have achieved something close to numerical parity in Congress. We can’t think seriously about a female presidency until we have achieved parity in lower offices. So when a male and a female candidate are equally good, don’t flip a coin — vote for the woman.


There is a counterargument in primaries. Suppose a woman is preferable to her male opponent. Suppose in other ways than gender they are equal. But since women are still underdogs in general elections, her chances of victory in November might not be as good as his. (This would be of especial concern in purplish districts.) Is it more important to go for identity and parity, or victory? Under present circumstances, and very reluctantly, I think I would advise the latter.


But what about the many recent cases where women have unexpectedly triumphed over men, both Republican and Democrat? We should not discount the world-changing capacity of #MeToo and Donald-loathing. Maybe I would vote my real preference and hope against hope.


What you do not do: if the general election race is between a female Republican and a male Democrat, you do not vote for the Republican on the grounds that she is female and you are a feminist. That is what the nice ladies like Sarah Sanders are telling us to do. Let’s not.