Does Feminism Have a Narrative Problem? A Critique of the The Nation’s “The Curve”

Okay everyone, I have a confession to make: nothing makes me happier than having an intelligent discussion. I get starry-eyed over debates, I daydream over past clashes that I’ve won, and nothing makes my heart beat like that moment that my opponent and I wrench open a textbook/ dictionary/ journal to start rattling off facts.

Which is why the launch of The Nation’s new semimonthly column, “The Curve” makes me a little weak at the knees. Who doesn’t love a good roundtable discussion?! Their first article was “Does Feminism Have a Class Problem?” which is a great question to be asking, but given that it was discussed by a bunch of highly educated, successful women, whose cultural biases (and some straight up incorrect reasoning) definitely detracted from their arguments, it was more of an exercise in unintentional irony. Of course, those who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones: I’m a white, middle class, queer, student at a private liberal arts school. That doesn’t mean I don’t get to have a voice: it just means I need to work hard to be inclusive in my analyses. 

Now, that being said, when someone gets their facts misconstrued about, say, “socialist feminism” – I gotta set them straight. In the spirit of constructive discourse, we can add to the Curve’s roundtable on class and feminism by setting the record straight on some things that they didn’t quite get right. 

Kathleen Greier tried to trace the history of feminist economics, and stated: 

[Sheryl] Sandberg’s book made the class divide within contemporary feminism clear, but it’s a rift that has deep historical roots. During first-wave feminism at the beginning of the twentieth century, when economic inequality reached historic levels, there was tension between wealthy suffragettes like Alva Belmont and socialist feminists such as Mary Ritter Beard. Widely divergent views about economics within feminism have continued ever since. During second-wave feminism in the ’60s and ’70s, these differences were less prominent. While it’s true that second-wave socialist and liberal feminists engaged in spirited debates about the merits of capitalism, crucially, as the sociologist Leslie McCall has pointed out, there was far less economic inequality between women in that era than there is in our own. That eased class tensions, as did the fact that the second-wave feminists were united in the goal of achieving formal legal equality for women.

Okay. Yes, there has always been inequality between women in the feminist movement. But the term “socialist feminism” was not coined until the late 1960’s (for reference, the anthology Women, Class, and the Feminist Imagination, follows the rise and fall of socialist feminism), and while certain prominent early feminists did take a more leftist view of economics and argued that capitalism was detrimental to gender equality (a significant example is Simone de Beauvoir), it is technically incorrect to label these women as socialist feminists because they themselves never used that title. In the 1960’s, academics such as Juliet Mitchell (“Women: The Longest Revolution”) and Gayle Rubin (“The Traffic in Women”) were amongst the first writers to use the works of Marx and Engels as a structure that allows for a systematic and materialistic understanding of female oppression. Engels himself believed, based on his writing in The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State that the oppression of women would fall away with in a socialist society, because the capitalist system necessitated women’s oppression in the family to reproduce the workforce for free. Heidi Hartmann and Zillah Eisenstein coined the term “socialist feminism” to refer to the theory of “mutual dependence of the capitalist class structure and male supremacy” (Eisenstein, 1977). So, please don’t throw around the term “socialist feminism” without properly researching the theoretical history of socialism and women’s oppression under capitalism, feminism and, finally, socialist feminism as it was developed starting from the ‘60s onward. 

And, speaking of proper research – if you are going to write a short history of the feminist movement in America, please research American feminist history. Yes, there may have been less economic disparity between the rich and poor in the second versus the first feminist movement, but it doesn’t follow that the second feminist movement was therefore “united” because of overall greater economic equality in the U.S. (And more economic equality than previous eras still doesn’t mean that society still didn’t have pervasive inequalities.) I hardly know which history book I want to cite in order to prove the (in my mind) obvious fact that the second feminist movement was held back because of the disgusting, overwhelming and egregious inability of the white, mid-upper class women to stop and listen to their sisters who were colored, lesbians, and working class or poor (but, if I had to pick a book, I’d pick Ruth Rosen’s The World Split Open). Yeah: don’t play that “united” card with me. Read your history (hell, read some Audre Lorde). Own up to your history. Second wave feminism was powerful, but highly problematic. So was the second wave-era “socialist feminism” – in part one of my last series on socialist feminism, I discussed how narrow-minded socialist feminism was during its heyday, and how the lack of intersectionality was directly responsible to the downfall of socialist feminism.

And then, here’s the real kicker: Greier then “explains” (for lack of a better word) that the reason why capitalism and feminism don’t work together is because capitalism requires women to do unpaid work in the home. This is the exact argument that second wave-era socialist feminists used to make, and while that is true in America and Britain and other highly industrialized countries, it does not explain the inequalities that we find in developing nations. And that is why the socialist feminisms of the 60’s failed – their analysis was not intersectional, and therefore limited, and the fact that contemporary feminist economics haven’t learned that lesson is terrifying to me. And, to top it all off, she ends with, “A feminism that recenters itself around economic justice would have much to offer American women” and “even many elite women would have much to gain from sweeping changes in the American economy and workplace. They, too, feel torn by the competing demands of work and family—sometimes to the point where they drop out of the workforce altogether.” Seriously? You could have picked any other demographic and that would have supported your argument for the need for intersectionality. Isn’t that what this piece is all about?! Feminism’s class problem?! Why are you still only catering to your own demographic?! Practice what you preach and present an argument for economic justice by speaking about and to the exact groups of marginalized people that have been left out of mainstream feminism!

Judith Warner’s contribution directly addresses the problems I raised about Greier’s section – she asks: why is there a disconnect between the image of the middle class, white, straight cis-female feminist, and the masses of women that feminists are truly working to help? And she reasons that “It’s largely a question of who produces our mental images. Upper-middle-class women’s stories about ‘having it all’ sell. They reflect the realities of those who write, edit and produce them; they tap into the pressing day-to-day concerns of those who have the time and inclination to consume agenda-setting publications like The New York Times and The Atlantic. Stories of low-income, even middle-class women, don’t make for great ‘click bait.’” Right on. But then she claims that this “media caricature” of feminism is really to blame for the disconnect, not feminism itself. But this argument loses its power when you remember that just a few paragraphs upwards, there is more of that pandering to “the feminist demographic.”

I do care about rich, white, straight, highly educated women – but for the love of God, when are those women going to recognize their privilege and start standing up in a more concrete way for those who cannot speak? Those who don’t have the degrees that would allow them to write for The Nation? Those who need to pull down a regular wage just to put food on the table, and therefore don’t have the time to write editorials? Or start a casual blog? 

The entire rest of this article was a discussion about whether or not we can “blame” feminism for race or class (and the like) inequalities – which I think was coded to mean, “does feminism have a duty to address all inequality, everywhere?” There was some solid analysis about the origins of oppressive structures, but they seemed to be saying “of course, little, innocent feminism isn’t responsible for racism, etc.” – but you don’t get a cookie for not explicitly propagating oppression. And ignoring the cross-pollination between gender and race inequality, or gender and sexuality inequality is invalidating the struggle that comes along with being a minority. Which is oppression. So, I have to conclude that unless feminism is working to raise up women of all types of backgrounds and identities, feminism is, in fact, suffering from a classist, racist, homophobic and transphobic, hauntingly latent yet pervasive ideology. At least, this article risks portraying it way. 

Which… I don’t want to be true. The feminists I interact with do a great job of validating the stories all women bring to the table. But reading an article written by very intelligent women who do not seem to understand that by being a bystander you are just as bad as an oppressor, is straight up scary. And I do believe that this article was written in good faith – so maybe next time you want to talk about classism, talk to someone who works at a non-profit in low-income communities? Or is in charge of social media outlets for a corporation? Maybe a college-grad who runs a blog? You don’t need to have studied feminist theory for the length of an entire career in order to talk about classism within feminism – ladies who work in social media or “on the front lines” have excellent perspectives on how feminism works for them and their constituents. 

To my friends at The Nation: I applaud the creation of this venue for conversation, but the content of this article was a little distressing. Keep the dialogue going!

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Categories: Angry Feminists, Economisses, News and Analysis, The Dismal Discipline

4 replies

  1. “I do care about rich, white, straight, highly educated women – but for the love of God, when are those women going to recognize their privilege and start standing up in a more concrete way for those who cannot speak? Those who don’t have the degrees that would allow them to write for The Nation? Those who need to pull down a regular wage just to put food on the table, and therefore don’t have the time to write editorials? Or start a casual blog?”

    This is exactly what I (Megan of the Women’s Fund of NH) have been thinking lately – not just about that article, but about discussions of feminist issues in general. We are working hard to make sure this is the case, and your post, especially that paragraph, completely sum up what I haven’t been able to accurately articulate lately. Thank you!

  2. Oh yeah, fauoubls stuff there you!

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