Women of the World Unite?
Radical, Liberal and Conservative Feminism, and Democracy
In the wake of the International Women’s Strike, I feel a need to express my support of “the feminism of the ninety nine percent,” but also of “lean-in feminism,” and “conservative feminism” (if there is such a thing), fully aware that they do not support each other. Such is my gray sensibility, built upon my recognition of the social condition, the presence of intractable tensions knitted into the social fabric and the dilemmas they pose.
The need is tempered with concern: I don’t want to write anything in the wake of the International Women’s Strike yesterday that suggests I am not in solidarity with the women activists who struggle for gender, race and class justice including the authors of the testimonials published here in both Spanish and English, and the authors of the additional pieces on intersectional struggle. Yet, I also am concerned that there are people who identify as women, along with their friends, who are missing in this.
With this in mind, it seems to me, my friend and comrade in publishing arms, Claire Potter, raised the key question: is women’s solidarity possible? Here I am trying to give my deliberately considered exploration of an answer.
Potter observes, after documenting the history of the struggles to establish a broad women’s movement that would serve all women regardless of their political orientation:
“National feminist organizations… 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.”
She was thinking about this also reflecting upon her observations of conservative women, as she viewed them up close, reporting on the ultra conservative #CPAC18 gathering a couple of weeks ago. Key obstacles to solidarity were apparent, including the controversies surrounding reproductive rights, but also issues of individual and family responsibility. Conservative women just don’t see things the way their sisters to their left do.
But the problems hit even on the left. Liberal feminists, think Hillary Clinton and Sheryl Sandberg, and the people who enthusiastically support them, know that women’s rights are human rights, that equal work should yield equal pay, that sexual abuse and harassment, private and public, in the home, the workplace and in politics, is wrong, rampant and must be stopped, that women should have a shot at being all they can be, flourish and succeed as easily and as well as men.
But feminists more to the left, of the ninety nine percent, of the global south, along with their working class sisters in the global north — lesbian, bisexual, gay, transgendered, queer and questioning, see the privileged position of liberal feminists as part of the problem, not the solution. The liberals seek advancement in the unjust prevailing order of things, accepting the basic rules of the game, wanting women to be included, and therefore supporting the hetero-normative patriarchal capitalism that oppresses, from a more radical point of view. The radicals understand how the oppression of women is exponentially intensified as it intersects with the oppressions of race, nation and class.
Bridging across the feminist spectrum to everyone’s complete satisfaction is impossible, as Potter demonstrates in her post. So she offers a simple strategy: find the one or two things to agree upon and work together on this. This makes sense, but I think there is an important additional step to be taken, apparent to me as I thought about a comment to Potter’s post.
“Julia” (who I suspect is a Public Seminar colleague) asks: “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?” I think this question was posed in appreciation of the women’s strike and the testimonies we published. The strike and testimony make the concerns that are generally invisible, visible, and then they can lead to common action. Yet, I wondered and added my comment: would Julia include conservative women? To anticipate my conclusion, this is where democratic politics comes in: democratic inclusion and democratic interaction among those who disagree.
I have known, respected and loved conservative, liberal and radical women, and I know that they are capable of working together, but I think it requires an appreciation of who these people really are and how their cooperation, despite their differences, becomes possible.
There are women (and men, including me) for whom love of family is the primary moral attachment, not in the abstract, but as a matter of lived experience. Care for an aging parent, a critically ill brother or sister or lover, and for children, with all their wonder and needs, is a fundamental ground upon which a good life is built. We may question many aspects of family life, as it has been configured in one historical moment or another, in one place or another. We may imagine radical alternative forms to prevailing forms of family life. Yet, committing to the care and love that can connect family members makes for a life worth living. Conservative (anti-) feminists turn this into an exclusive principle, but so have, less exclusively, women very close to me. To get personal, the love and life commitments of my grandmothers (Brauna and Razel) and mother (Pearl) for their children and grandchildren were splendid. The way they cared for their love ones has inspired me, along with my wife, Naomi. One of the great gifts of the feminist movement is that I fully and openly commit myself and engage in this love, knowing that it used to be a female privilege.
There are women (and men including me) who see the underside of family life, and its patriarchal and hetero-normative qualities as we have known it. The power of the father, the favoring of sons over daughters, the intolerance toward those who don’t fit into heterosexual and traditional binary gender expectations, this and much more is problematic. Many have suffered from traditional family commitments. Further, we liberals and leftists also are aware that commitment to and support of one’s immediate loved ones can hide and blind us to injustice beyond ones immediate family circle.
I remember with deep appreciation and love my first professional mentor, Alicja Iwańska. She was an anti-communist feminist, also a veteran of the Polish underground, which fought against the Nazi occupation of Warsaw. She was a resistance courier in Warsaw’s sewers. I learned a lot form her about life, as she opened the door to Poland to me. The idea that her dignity and her right to have a career as a woman, her commitment to diversity and democracy, and to social justice, required a commitment to a project of revolutionary transformation, would bewilder her, even though as I recall she thought of herself as a socialist. She was no lover of capitalism, but she rejected the idea that it is at the root of all evil.
But of course, there are also women (and men, including me) who are radical critics of the prevailing order of things, who realize that equal rights for and dignity of people who identify as women are undermined by structural injustices. Last week my friend and colleague, Shireen Hassim came to the class Elzbieta Matynia and I have organized, Women and Men in Dark Times. She gave a brilliant lecture, and we had a fascinating discussion, which is now on Public Seminar’s You Tube Channel. She was reflecting upon the tragic situation of South Africa, and how it is related to the intersecting problems of race, class and gender, insisting that solution to the deeply problematic situation requires addressing these problems as they are related. She was quite persuasive. But I wondered: aren’t there moments when one must choose priorities, when the injustices of capitalism, or patriarchy, or racism is the immediate task at hand, and other tasks must be overlooked? Dilemmas must be faced: there are political moments when the solidarity of women or people of color or of the working class takes priority, it seems to me.
We had an interesting discussion about this, the truth probably exists in the debate and not one position or another. You can judge, as you watch the video, particularly the last ten minutes or so. There are coherent and persuasive theories that explain why Hassim gets to the heart of the matter, for example that of Nancy Fraser, and there are coherent and persuasive theories that justify my position, as I indicated in our discussion that of Hannah Arendt. But significantly the resolution of the tension involved, one way or the other, is political and not theoretical. We can work at a momentary resolution of the tension among ourselves, even as we recognize there is no definitive solution.
And this returns me to the question at hand about women’s solidarity. As Potter demonstrates, it can’t be built upon agreement except about one or two simple propositions and commitments, perhaps something around respect for and the dignity of women. After that it requires working together as equals, recognizing differences, with mutual respect, committing to the notion that concerted action together is possible despite differences. It may sometimes seem that this is impossible, given how the conservative, liberal and radical feminist commitments are clearly mutually exclusive, but as I am sure that my mother (a traditionalist), Alicja Iwańska, my professor, (a liberal), and my friend and colleague, Shireen Hassim (a radical) would have liked each other and been capable of working together, about issues of gender justice and much more, I have hope that it is possible to answer the question posed in the title of this piece in the affirmative. Uniting not based on agreement, but on mutual respect for differences, the kind of solidarity that is the ground upon which democracy is constituted, a gray solidarity.
Jeffrey C. Goldfarb, the Michael E. Gellert Professor of Sociology at The New School for Social Research, is the Publisher and founder of Public Seminar