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Is Women’s Solidarity Possible?

To be a successful movement, feminism has had to ignore its failure with conservative women

Tomorrow is International Women’s Day. Don’t do housework—let men do it (that is, should you own a man: we don’t at my house, so we would have to rent or borrow one.) Don’t do paid work. Don’t shop—except at female and minority-owned small business (should you be able to locate one in Manhattan.) And do wear red: this makes you visible as someone who is participating in the strike.

You may wish to go to a rally as well: if you are a New Yorker, one will be held in Washington Square Park between 4:00 PM and 5:00 PM. Not a New Yorker? Watch the rally live on Public Seminar‘s Facebook page. I suspect a lot of energy is going into these events: I know that two of our editors have been working very hard since last week to publish women’s testimonies (you can read them here), and tomorrow will be devoted to a day of articles about the strike. I’m always proud when people can pull something like this off.

To read more about The Day Without Women, and why you might want to take part in it, go here.  The International Women’s Strike (IWS), which coincides with International Women’s Day, associates itself with every progressive cause there is, making Betty Friedan’s actual dream for feminism—not that it would be a radical movement for women, but that it would be a liberal equality movement for all people—a reality.

But do we make a mistake when we equate the interests of a feminist movement that has embraced progressive multiculturalism with the interest of “women”?

Conservative women say yes. Many would also argue that what the vast majority of tomorrow’s participants see as a strength is the weakness of the Day Without Women: that it isn’t for all women, and that if you are a conservative woman, feminism isn’t particularly interested in you. Last year’s event drew a range of criticisms in the conservative press. “Many women can’t take the day off to make a political statement,” policy analyst and blogger Hadley Heath wrote in the Washington Examiner (February 27, 2017). “How would I explain to my 7-month-old daughter that I’m not going to change her diapers or make her bottles on March 8? She’s a demanding customer, and the work I do for her is emblematic of the unpaid work that millions of women do every day as homemakers, mothers, and caregivers to their elderly relatives. It’s not optional.”

So, a feminist like myself might reasonably point out, tell your husband to do it. But some mothers don’t perform this work “entirely out of obligation,” Heath continues. “Our work is also our joy.” She also points out that the directive to stop shopping or to deliberately discriminate in your shopping habits is, to conservative thinkers, an anti-equality measure: “Free-market capitalism is one of the most equalizing forces in the world,” while all businesses—not just women and minority-owned ones—should be supported for the jobs and they create in their communities.

Carrie Lukas, president of the Independent Women’s Forum, agreed. Like many left movements, she argued in The National Review (March 7, 2017), the strike is organized around the interests of elite, professional women. “Women outside university campuses and upscale progressive bubbles know…that executing such a strike would be impractical and potentially cruel. That’s not who women are. The labor they perform can be challenging, monotonous, and even unpleasant—but it’s mostly done out of self-preservation or love and isn’t fodder to make political point.”

One of the things I became aware of in my two days at The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) last month is that the rejection of  feminism among conservative women is as uniting for them as the attraction to feminism is for women on the left. Part of this resistance to a movement that once imagined that it could include conservative women is abortion. Despite other divisions, left-wing and liberal women are clear that complete reproductive freedom is a core feminist principle, while women on the right are absolutely clear that they want no part of a movement that would require their support for ending human life, no matter how few cells we are talking about.

But there is something else at stake too, which is the more general perception of conservatives that we on the left are whiners, always looking for someone else to prop us up, whether it’s the state, welfare, an affirmative action officer, or a social movement. They, on the other hand, see women’s progress as a long history of women standing on their own two feet and making no excuses. In the exhibition hall, The Clare Booth Luce Policy Institute, which promotes conservative women’s campus activism, and books speakers like Bay Buchanan and Christina Hoff Sommers, had a chalkboard that said it all: “I DON’T NEED FEMINISM…I am not a victim.”

The bigger problem, perhaps, and one that is baked into any action that promotes the interests of women as a class, is that the desire to speak on behalf of the entire sex, is that feminism—as a movement—has never come to terms with its repeated failure to achieve a unified agenda. For example, when Gloria Steinem sent out a letter to all the major foundations announcing the formation of the Women’s Action Alliance (WAA) on July 3, 1971, the capacity of women to work across all differences was its governing principle. Steinem and attorney Brenda Feigen Fastau had conceived of the Alliance as meeting a felt need for coordinating and assisting grassroots groups around the United States. As Steinem explained to the Russell Sage Foundation, the purpose of WAA was “to extend research and technical assistance to groups of women around the country who want to work on projects which will help them as women.”

Attaching feminism to a human rights agenda, Steinem explained that “we are interested in human resources and education; we are particularly concerned about developing the human potential of over half the population; namely, women.” Steinem also stressed that the board of directors had been chosen with an eye to the “impressive” and “bi-partisan” credentials of its members. A similar letter to the Rockefeller Brothers Fund emphasized another kind of big tent orientation: “We are dedicated to education, welfare, civic improvement and cultural advancement.”

By December, the WAA had secured its 501c3 status, a $30,000 grant from the Stern Fund, and donated office space on Lexington Avenue and 41st street in Manhattan; had hired a staff of three; and had called its first board meeting for January 11, 1972. It was an impressive, multi-racial and mixed-gender group. It included politicians (Bella Abzug, Shirley Chisholm, Yvonne Brathwaite and Patsy Mink); intellectuals (Phyllis Chesler, Susan Sontag, John Kenneth Galbraith, Pauli Murray, Linda Nochlin, Sheila Tobias); Welfare Rights Organization activists George Wiley and Johnny Tillmon; Lupe Anguiano, of the United Farm Workers and also a founding member of the National Women’s Political Caucus; peace activist Maya Miller; Democratic Party operative and future Carter administration appointee, Ann Wexler; and journalists Nat Hentoff and Anselma dell ‘Olio.

The Alliance was many things, but it was not bipartisan, and this may have hampered Steinem’s attempt to raise money. But a second problem was organizational: by constantly dipping into the same group of high-profile radical activists and left-wing Democrats, rather than broadening its recruitment efforts to be truly inclusive, feminist groups like The Alliance quickly ran out of gas. In April 1973, Steinem postponed a board meeting intended for the following month because no plan had yet emerged to address the “financial problems” that had been discussed in the January meeting. Some of the difficulties in moving forward with a funding plan may also have been due to board members’ inability to fit the WAA into their schedule. Correspondence from the organization’s first two years show that Wiley and Tillmon, who were working night and day to organize mothers on welfare at the grassroots, were unable to attend meetings; members of Congress were particularly busy between 1972 and 1974 as the Watergate hearings led to the fall of a president; feminist attorney Constance Slaughter joined the board and then was unable to attend a fall board meeting because of a trial; and organizer Lupe Anguiano resigned because of her “many commitments and heavy schedule,” a condition common to most feminists but endemic among the community activists with whom the Alliance sought to work.

The Alliance’s stated purpose—serving as a resource for community groups—also stalled, both because of the lack of funds and a lack of organization. Board member Bill Pierce, of the Child Welfare League, wrote to Steinem about a possible fundraising scheme but also his concerns about the recent and “totally useless” meeting. “Had you been present you would have been shocked at how little was accomplished and how much time was spent on typical board-and-staff politics. I am a very minor character in all this,” he wrote, “you aren’t and such a meeting should never take place again without you being present.” The staff had trouble completing even routine tasks: Pierce scrawled at the top of the letter that he had not yet received the minutes of the meeting or a follow-up memo on a board nominee. Although the organization stabilized its finances, expanded its office staff, adopted a more formal organizational structure, and hired an executive director, it never became “the national force for social change” that Steinem and Fastau hoped it would be.

National feminist organizations no longer suffer from the organizational and financial fragility that they once did, but they do continue to suffer from the illusion that it is possible to represent all women without fully engaging what many women say their interests are. Saying you are interested in all women really makes no difference unless you are interested in all women, and that may mean engaging—or temporarily tabling—areas of profound disagreement in order to work together on one or two things. Maybe feminist faculty could agree that shutting down conservative speakers when they came to campus is wrong, and we could tell our students that when they do that, they do it without our support.

So, on Thursday, strike! Wear red! Insist that your husband, brother, son, or baby daddy do the chores! But while you are taking that time—don’t just celebrate. Try to imagine a world in which all women really did talk, and listen, to each other. About something. Anything.

Claire Potter is a professor of history at The New School, and executive editor of Public Seminar. You can follow Claire on Twitter. This article draws on correspondence in folder 8, box 4, of the Women’s Action Alliance Papers, the Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts. 

  • Julia

    One what would those “one or two things” be, Claire? How can we know that without mobilizing the voices and stories of all those who identify as women?

    • Would you, in this mobilization, include conservative women, Julia, as suggested by Claire?

      • Julia

        I think they’re doing just fine on their own, Jeff.

        • Should they be just on their own? I tried to address this in my post today, responding both to your comment and Claire’s post.

        • Tenured_Radical

          Many of the conservative women I’ve been talking to since the Tea Party mobilization in 2008 are not Christina Hoff Sommers: they are working their buns off at minimum wage, have no health insurance, and are one or two paychecks away from eviction.

          • Lisa Aslanian

            You also mention something important and Simone de Beauvoir addresses it in interviews. Not all mothering is drudgery and not all women take care of their children from a place of obligation. A lot of mothering is deeply fulfilling and a psychologically complex. So when a conservative woman says she is taking care of her child not out of obligation, she is telling a truth. Of course, the problem is that there is no value (economic) attached to the skills it takes to be a mother. And as Jeff mentions, this ‘mothering’ should be open to the father as well. I cannot to this day use my experience as a mother in a job interview. When asked if can multitask, I say yes and then I have to lie and say it comes naturally to me. It does not but once I had children, I had no choice. I have more in common with a conservative woman who works outside the home and does not treat her children like a project than I do with liberal women who stay home with their children and turn their children into a replacement for a job outside the home. We have lost something—and Claire is getting at this— the space to talk about our experiences, as women, to share and to be less isolated.

          • CMuir

            The quote below lies at the heart of what Claire is trying to get women on both sides to rise above. Let’s put aside our petty prejudices and try to find some common ground. And, yes, there are one or two things we could find in our conservative sisters across the socio/economic spectrum that would acknowledge our shared humanity.

            —–“I have more in common with a conservative woman who works outside the home and does not treat her children like a project than I do with liberal women who stay home with their children and turn their children into a replacement for a job outside the home.”—–

      • Tenured_Radical

        Many conservative women are working their buns off at minimum wage.

    • Tenured_Radical

      What I am saying is that that is not happening, even though the claim is there that when we say “women” all women are included. There are multiple divides, within the left and between ;eft and right. But one or two things? I think conservative and liberal women are both interested in having excellent schools for their children, and there is no women’s group or feminist group that is mobilizing for this. At CPAC I met a number of libertarian women (and men) who are anti-death penalty and anti-incarceration, yet we don’t see them in coalition with feminists on this issue. So there is two right there.

  • Chiara Bottici

    Thank you Claire for sharing your thoughts. Every strike has had to deal with this issue, while some workers entered shut down factories out of their freedom not to strike. Which is fine. You seems to point to a more insidious problem though: for a WOMAN to be able to strike, there has to be a MAN to take up the changing diapers and feeding the screaming baby…would that not just be going from one master to the other?

  • Rose

    It seems to me that it’s pretty irresponsible to go from editing a book on Charlottesville to condemning anti-racist protesters shutting down hate speech under the guise of ‘free speech’. Furthermore, conservative women exclude themselves from the feminist movement as their conservativism has no room for black, brown, indigenous or queer women. Would you prioritize their comfort over our survival? This liberal fetishism of the universal that you’re engaging in is the same that brought us ‘All Lives Matter’ among other racist dogwhistles. This whole piece is white as hell.

    • Tenured_Radical

      Dear Rose: I want you to compare these two statements.

      Mine: ” Maybe feminist faculty could agree that shutting down conservative speakers when they came to campus is wrong, and we could tell our students that when they do that, they do it without our support.”

      Your version of what I said: “it’s pretty irresponsible to go from editing a book on Charlottesville to condemning anti-racist protesters shutting down hate speech under the guise of ‘free speech’.”

      And what does it mean for a piece of writing to be “white as hell”?

      • The Centrist

        Beware of racism disguised as “anti-racism.” To label something “white as hell” tells us more about the labeller than what has been labeled.

        • Tenured_Radical

          Duh. But who’s the critic? Some anonymous asshat. So who cares?

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