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Current Affairs - March 5, 2020

"... I think one of the reasons that liberal feminists tend to concentrate on office microaggressions, media representation, and shitty boyfriends is that these problems are relatively easy to talk about. The fact that your clothes are made by impoverished women in factories in Bangladesh demands much more difficult conversations, and something beyond even those difficult conversations: activism, organizing, and systemic change. American women endure a great deal of misogyny. We also sit on top of a tower of misogyny, and refuse to look down."

It’s a perfectly nice photo. Elizabeth Warren is climbing a flight of stairs with a young woman at her side. They look delighted and energetic. To the right and slightly in the background, Bernie Sanders is riding an escalator in the same direction. He looks a little tired. Warren supporter and health policy expert Esther Choo posted the photo on Twitter with the caption “Good lord this photo just hits me so hard.” The tweet was met with derision, as well as justified accusations of ableism—a person’s ability to take or not take stairs is hardly indicative of anything. Choo deleted it quickly. But many leftist feminists also responded with pure confusion. Brandy Jensen tweeted: “i would like everyone to start explaining what that picture of liz warren climbing up stairs is supposed to be a metaphor for pls.” Honestly, I have no idea. Before Choo deleted the photo, the tweet racked up at least 24,000 likes. It must have made sense to some people, I guess.

I hesitate to write about Twitter fights, because they’re stupid. Only 22 percent of the population uses Twitter, which is either a lot or a little depending on how you look at it. But I do think this incident lays bare a particular disconnect in feminism right now, between the increasingly divergent strands of liberal feminism and leftist feminism, between Warren supporters and Bernie supporters. I get extremely frustrated talking to my liberal feminist friends these days; I know they’re getting frustrated with me.

Many prominent liberal feminists have endorsed Warren. In the Guardian, Rebecca Solnit called her a “dream candidate.” After praising Warren’s upbringing in the “heartland” and her “tangible strategies for widening our distribution of income, healthcare, education and opportunity… she would be smart about the intersections of race, gender, class and the rest” Solnit’s essay veers awkwardly off-course. She writes:

My dream candidate would’ve been a woman of color with all these qualities, and my dreamiest dream candidate would be a woman of color with Medusa hair who could turn the entire Republican Senate to stone with a glance, but Warren is who’s left in the race, and she is magnificent, and superheroes from Megan Rapinoe to Roxane Gay agree.

As we say in feminist circles, this is a lot to unpack. From the objectifying comment about an idealized woman of color with “Medusa hair,” to the reduction-by-suspiciously-excessive-praise of Megan Rapinoe and Roxane Gay to “superheroes” rather than living human people, it’s pretty clear that Solnit herself needs to be smarter about the intersections of race, gender, class, and the rest. What happened to Solnit? I’ve long admired her work—Men Explain Things To Me is still essential reading as far as I’m concerned. What went wrong here? And why were liberal feminists, normally sensitive to microaggressions and quick to call them out, not bothered—as far as I could tell—by this essay?

If you’re trying to understand the various competing factions in feminism right now, it might make sense, oddly enough, to start with the TERFs. For those unfamiliar with the term, it means “trans exclusionary radical feminists,” aka feminists who refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of trans women as women. To a TERF, biological sex is all-determining, and gender more or less unreal. As Suzanne Moore recently wrote in a really execrable Guardian column: “The radical insight of feminism is that gender is a social construct—that girls and women are not fated to be feminine, that boys and men don’t have to be masculine. But we have gone through the looking-glass and are being told that sex is a construct.” There are lots of classic TERF misconceptions here, but to handle just one: While it’s true that social constructs aren’t physical truths, we like, live in a society, and it turns out that how we are regarded in terms of gender—which may or may not have anything to do with our biological sex—matters a great deal. The oppression of women may stem from attempts to control the means of reproduction in the deep mytho-historical past, but gendered expressions today are still heavily policed. And nothing is more heavily policed than violation of those gender norms; trans people experience housing discrimination, job discrimination, and disturbingly high rates of murder. In short, by insisting that boys and men are “not fated to be masculine,” but still can’t be women, you’re really insisting that there’s a limit to their gender expression: They can paint their nails and get a femme haircut but otherwise they’d better stay in their lane.

And that’s what TERFness is really about—policing the lane, getting to decide who counts as a woman and who doesn’t, who gets drawn into the ring of feminist solidarity and who gets shoved out into the cold. This is an old move in feminism, embodied by many early white suffragettes who fought for rights provided they went to white women only. Other feminists have extended sisterly protection to all women but sex workers (SWERFs), or all women but homewreckers (feminists during the era of Monica Lewinsky), or all women but the ones who wear torn fleece pajamas around the apartment all day and night (I’m just sure someone is judging me right now, and okay maybe it’s fair.)

I think what’s happening in liberal feminism is a distantly related sort of lane-policing and exclusion, though it takes on an unusually abstract and intangible form. The majority of liberal feminists are of course supportive of trans rights and opposed to TERFs; Warren has been endorsed by several prominent trans activists (other trans activistshave endorsed Bernie). At an LGBTQ forum last September, Warren read aloud the names of the transgender women of color who had been killed in 2019. This is a practice “she pledged to do at the Rose Garden if elected” and further “said she would have a young trans person interview her nominee for secretary of education, and her platform includes plans to combat trans discrimination in homeless shelters, the foster system and nursing homes, and a grant program to fund organizations fighting the epidemic of murders.”

This is another quote which I think will make liberal feminists cheer and leftist feminists squirm. The plans are well enough, in theory, although a national housing policy such as the one proposed by Bernie Sanders might go a lot further to help homeless trans people than funding nonprofits to fight discrimination in homeless shelters. But pledging to read the names of murder victims in the Rose Garden…it would certainly bring attention to the plight of trans women of color, but it also seems like rather grotesque performance art, since it presumes that these murders will just keep happening, and at a disproportionate rate to the rest of the population. This makes me wonder how effective those grant-funded organizations “fighting the epidemic of murders” are really expected to be. And inviting “a young trans person” to interview a potential Education Secretary—which young trans person? How would they be selected? Why just one? How is this not well-meant but unseemly tokenism, much like Solnit’s praise for the dream candidate of color with her magical Medusa hair?

Tokenism is the necessary inverse of exclusion; it’s the inclusion of one, or a few, and a bar on the gate to everyone else. Most liberal feminists would, I think identify as intersectional feminists, and agree that tokenism is wrong and feminism should never be exclusionary. In a recent Nation essay, the feminist academic Suzanna Danuta Walters praised Elizabeth Warren as the first “intersectional candidate.” The title of the article was later changed and the article updated with an apologetic footnote about Walters’ failure to mention the campaign of Shirley Chisholm “as well as other 2020 candidates who used the intersectional framework before dropping out of the race.” When the essay was first published, these rather important facts had been left out.

This is a perfect example of where we find exclusion in modern-day liberal feminism—in the realm of the feminist imaginary, the world of the social construct. Even within a stated intersectional framework, there’s still a question of which women we choose to talk about, which women’s problems matter, and which problems are considered “womanly” enough to deserve the attention of liberal feminists. Certain issues and certain women—not by explicit agreement but implicit erasure—consistently get left behind. ...
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