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.