On one hand, as Jessica Valenti told Bennett, "The fact that corporations want to be associated with women’s causes at all is certainly progress." However, corporate sponsors have a way of quietly refocusing these kinds of conferences away from the nitty-gritty issues that face ordinary American women and toward elite women congratulating one another for getting increasingly richer. The money wants to hear "inspiring" stories of women overcoming obstacles to become leaders, leaving little room for the less inspiring but more important stories of ordinary women getting chewed up by insurmountable obstacles like lack of health care, child care, or job opportunities.You'll notice, especially if you read the New York Times article, that this particular brand of feminism is distinctly one for older, wealthy, white women. 1% women. Follow me below the fold for why this really struck a nerve with me and why I fight it.
Last year, I attended a panel at Netroots Nation that was probably the best panel I've ever listened to in all my years of attending Netroots. It was called "Not Your Mother's Abortion Fight: Millennials, Youth of Color and the Fight for Reproductive Justice." The panel featured several young women and one young man, all of color, discussing the work they'd done in their own communities to organize for reproductive justice, and how their efforts often didn't fit in with or were outright ignored by established women's organizations.
It was an inspiring panel--I seriously urge anyone interested in this issue who wasn't there to watch the video. The thing that blew my mind the most was learning that the phrase "pro-choice" has no meaning in Spanish, and so activists working within Hispanic communities have to come up with new ways of framing the issue. I came out of it reinvigorated to do the work of organizing for reproductive justice, and asking myself how I, as a white feminist, can work to ensure that the voices and concerns of women of color are heard loud and clear in our movement, and that they're addressed. After all, the future of this movement looks a lot more like them and a lot less like me.
And then came the first question. An older white woman asked, "So how do we get younger women involved?" I was shocked--had this person not been paying attention for the last 45 minutes? The panelists had spent that whole time answering that very question! That was the first brush I had with the notion that more established feminists may not truly understand, or even care about, what younger women or women of color have to deal with.
Fast forward to last week. Here in Los Angeles, our citywide elections last year resulted in having only one woman out of 15 on the City Council. It wasn't because Los Angeles contains a ton of sexist voters, but because apart from the mayor's race and the one Council race, there was a serious lack of female candidates to begin with. In the Democratic and progressive political community here, we've had plenty of discussions since about how we can get more women to run for office--how we get more women into the pipeline. But more often than not, that conversation devolves into a scolding--more often than not by an older, wealthy white woman from the Westside--of other women for not blindly falling in line behind female candidates regardless of their policy positions.
As part of a civic leadership group I'm involved in, last week we had a session with a speaker from California List, an offshoot of EMILY's List to get women elected to statewide office in California. My group contains many 20 and 30-something women from a variety of backgrounds, and I was hoping to hear her insights about how women like us could get into the pipeline to run for office one day. But it became apparent early on that this woman's brand of activism consists of raising large sums of money from other wealthy white Westside women, and was otherwise completely ignorant of the concerns we had as younger women. She at one point actually said that she considers 20 and 30 something women to be "a wash" and that we're complacent on reproductive choice. Needless to say, she lost the whole room at that point.
But still we pressed on. I brought up the point about how organizing for reproductive choice is happening outside of traditional channels now, and even mentioned the anecdote about how "pro-choice" has no meaning in Spanish, only to be greeted with a blank look. Someone else asked what criteria her organization has for endorsing candidates, and after mentioning a few, she stated that if a candidate is pro-choice, other issues like the minimum wage tend to just fall in line. It was all I could do at that point not to stand up on my chair and yell BULLSHIT. I could point to any number of corporate Democrats in Congress and in Sacramento who might be pro-choice but never met a pro-Wall Street, anti-worker bill they don't love.
So there we were--no discussion about how you actually get more women to run for office, nothing about how a progressive woman can start building support and getting into the pipeline, but a whole lot of a rich white Westside woman clucking at a group of younger women (and men) for not just getting in line with their agenda.
Maybe it's these experiences, maybe it's being active in the Los Angeles progressive community in such a way that I can recognize my own privilege more than I ever could before, maybe it's the experience of having two degrees and being effectively underemployed for the better part of the last two years. Whatever it is, reading about corporate feminists congratulating themselves on being "inspiring" and getting richer than they already arewhile shutting down discussion on topics that might actually be relevant to a working woman makes my blood boil. How dare they claim the mantle of feminism while their actions actively undercut women?
I'm a proud feminist. And yet I cannot, and I will not, separate my feminism from my commitment to class and economic justice. We need choice and we need more women in positions of political and corporate power, for sure. But do you know what else women need? Jobs. Healthcare. Affordable housing. The tiniest damn sliver of economic security that the 1% have.
You want more women to run for office? You want more women to be involved in feminist organizations? You want someone other than older wealthy white women to show up to your event? Then you have to work to raise up everyone.
That's why to me, being a feminist means supporting efforts to raise the minimum wage for fast food workers and hotel workers, and across the board. It means a guaranteed paid maternity AND paternity leave, so that women can still "lean in" at work. It means protecting what social safety net we have left over tax cuts for the 1% and the corporations. It's about creating a society where all women can participate in the civic world, not just the wealthy ones.
I say let these women have their conferences where they get to be all inspired. And as soon as I finish yelling BULLSHIT, I'm going to get down from my chair, roll my sleeves up, and work to improve conditions for the other 99% of women.