Feminism at the Polls

Feminism at the Polls

The Democratic primary revealed the fault lines of both establishment feminism and the socialist left. It also suggested an appetite for the kind of feminism we need—one that understands the impact of economic and foreign policy on the majority of women’s lives.

Hillary Clinton speaking at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC)’s annual policy conference, March 20, 2016 (Lorie Shaull)

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For the nation’s handful of socialist feminists, the U.S. presidential primary season is usually less inspiring than a ribbon-cutting for our local Walmart.

Usually we choose from a lineup of dutiful manservants of American-style capitalism, trying womanfully to convince ourselves that there are subtle differences between them. Maybe one has expressed a concern about poverty? Or perhaps he is black? Maybe he has a pretty cool wife? If so, we’ll make a strenuous effort to prefer him over the others.

Most years, we hear no talk of serious redistribution, socialized medicine, or free higher education—policies embraced around the globe—and little about any issue specifically affecting women, other than abortion. We are thrilled if, in a debate, anyone asks these largely indistinguishable chaps about the pay gap between men and women.

Meanwhile, we try in vain to ignore the carnival of buncombe that is the Republican primary, hoping that our most conservative fellow citizens will have the sense to choose their nominee from among the 59 percent of Americans who are aware that dinosaurs and people did not walk the earth at the same time.

This election has abruptly flipped that script.

The Republican primary has been surreal, pitting a misogynist reality TV star seething with sexual violence—that is even directed at other Republican males, such as when he boasted that he could have induced a former GOP candidate to “drop to [his] knees” for his endorsement—against a Tea Partier whose evangelically informed conservatism makes him an even worse choice for most female voters.

Yet the primary season’s most startling facet has been the sudden salience of both socialism and feminism. Vermont senator Bernie Sanders is running as a self-identified “democratic socialist”—a historic first for a serious Democratic primary effort—while former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is poised to become the first woman president, running openly as a feminist. In this race, two movements crucial to human liberation—but too often absent from mainstream politics—abruptly took center stage in American public discourse, often clashing noisily. The cacophony revealed the fault lines of both establishment feminism and the socialist left. It also suggested sizable constituencies for both movements, and some hopeful ways to build them.


Too often, the choice between the two front-runners in the 2016 Democratic primary has been framed as a choice between feminism and socialism. The media has enjoyed and perpetuated this dichotomy. Some feminists—including Sady Doyle, Rebecca Traister, and Joan Walsh—claimed that although their politics were to the left of Hillary, they were #withher because she was the feminist choice. Even some socialist feminists—like Suzanna Danuta Walters and Katha Pollitt, both writing in the Nation—prominently and publicly chose Clinton. To Pollitt, it mattered that Clinton was running as a feminist. Walters’s piece was provocatively titled, “Why This Socialist Feminist Is For Hillary,” yet she gave no socialist reasons for her choice, instead deploying her “red-diaper baby” background as a kind of identity politics clickbait, the way a Log Cabin Republican renders his conventional politics noteworthy with his gayness.

For those of us who believe, for both practical and idealistic reasons, that socialism and feminism are inseparable, the notion that we had to choose between the two was exhaustingly absurd. But we were not necessarily surprised by this framing, or at least, we shouldn’t have been. The economic left—whether “socialist,” social democratic, or simply progressive—never does a good enough job of explaining why its policy ideas are feminist. And mainstream feminism, captured and nourished by narrow elite and short-term interests, rarely foregrounds the economic and social policies that the vast majority of women need if we are to enjoy anything close to equality with men.

Feminist engagement with national elections tends to revolve entirely around abortion rights. The discussion of that vital issue was more materialist than usual this year, going beyond crude, though accurate, evocations of the Republican “War on Women.” Sanders’s platform promised to guarantee reproductive rights as part of his single-payer health plan, and even Clinton spoke of repealing the Hyde Amendment, which restricts poor women from using federal funding for abortions. Yet we rarely heard reproductive rights discussed in the context of broader economic rights. As the feminist writer Maureen Tkacik has observed in an essay published in my anthology False Choices, the economic constraints on young women are barriers to a truly free consideration of the “choice” to have (or not to have) children. Neoliberal feminism is willing to assert the right not to have a child for sound economic reasons, as Tkacik suggests, but a more radical, expansive, and expensive feminism would assert, with equal force, the right to have one, with the economic security that motherhood demands. Such a vision was not discussed this primary season, but both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders brought other women’s issues into the conversation, like paid family leave and equal pay. This was highly welcome.

Yet with most national women’s organizations and famous feminists supporting Clinton—from Gloria Steinem to Roxane Gay to Courtney Love—feminist conversation foregrounded the goal of electing a woman president. This often devolved into the exercise of defending the female candidate against perceived sexist slights. This narrative of grievance gave new meaning to the “micro” prefix in micro-aggression. When Sanders said in a debate that “all the shouting” on gun control would not resolve the issue, Clinton and her supporters fired up the feminist base with an accusation of chauvinism: see, a woman being emphatic is perceived as “shouting!” Incidents like these put left feminists in a curious position, in which many became weirdly protective of a person who has not been stopped by patriarchy from attaining a net worth of over $30 million, and is poised to attain the most powerful political office on earth.

No wonder, given that net worth, that despite the number of female-headed households living under the poverty line, we heard from Clinton that Sanders’s emphasis on inequality made him a “single issue” candidate, in contrast to his opponent’s “intersectionality.” It was nice to hear this word (normally confined to graduate seminars or social justice Twitter) in a national election. But what was her feminism intersecting with, exactly? It was hard to make sense of this rhetoric—after all, the number of ways that access to healthcare, education, higher-paying jobs, and wealth are intertwined with race and gender can’t even be counted. Elite feminism simply presents the spectacle of a few women intersecting with money and power, almost by chance, the way you might hope, lacking a timetable, to catch a high-speed train.

Speaking of intersections, given the robust tradition of feminist anti-militarism, from Virginia Woolf to Malala Yousafzai, we also heard too little feminist critique of the record of the former Secretary of State, who not only voted for the war in Iraq, but advocated a belligerent approach to Libya and Iran that contrasted sharply to that favored by President Obama and the rest of his administration. Clinton also, behind the scenes, assisted and gave cover to a right-wing coup against the democratically elected government of Honduras, as Belén Fernández and Greg Grandin have written, which has greatly increased rape and femicide in that country.

We need a mainstream feminism that understands the impact of economic and foreign policy on the majority of women’s lives. In deciding who to endorse, the mainstream feminist organization EMILY’s List only considers the gender of candidates and their position on abortion rights. In light of that explicit criteria, it made sense for EMILY’s List to endorse Clinton. But the group was not alone: other national feminist groups also overwhelmingly endorsed the former Secretary of State.

That the feminist lens on electoral politics is so narrow speaks to the need for much louder socialist voices within the women’s movement.

Only a few feminists interrogated the goal of electing a female president. Sarah Leonard was one, arguing in her Nation essay “Which Women Support Hillary (and Which Women Can’t Afford To)” that female representation in politics does little for women workers when compared to the potentially broader impact of redistributive universal social welfare programs.

Despite this, the Sanders agenda was not framed as a feminist one nearly often enough, reflecting the need of the left to speak the language of feminism more fluently.

We did sometimes hear that Sanders’s support for raising the minimum wage to $15 was feminist, since the majority of low-wage workers are women. (Throughout the primary season, Sanders has supported the nationwide movement to raise the minimum wage to $15, while Clinton has made clear that $12 would be just fine.)

But rarely in this primary did we hear that single-payer healthcare, vigorously opposed by Secretary Clinton and stalwartly supported by Senator Sanders, benefits women even more than men, as the feminist health advocacy group Our Bodies Ourselves pointed out in 2009. Women have higher medical debt, higher medical expenses, and are more likely to navigate the healthcare system for dependents. In addition, research shows that the kind of social benefits Sanders advocates—universal and distributed through the state, rather than through work or marriage—should be part of any feminist agenda: they advance women’s equality more than any other policy approach. Instead, our current system practically mandates jobs and husbands, major sources of women’s oppression (as delightful as they can be) as the primary means through which women should receive these benefits.

There was equally little framing of free, public four-year college tuition—supported by Senator Sanders and opposed by his opponent—as a feminist priority, even though the majority of college students are women and young women bear the majority of student debt held in this country.

Another problem was that some of the organizations with the most practical grassroots knowledge of the intersection of race, class, and gender are unions. But with the mainstream media in any case largely uninterested in labor, neither candidate was asked many questions about the possibilities for expanding workers’ organizing opportunities. Both Sanders and Clinton joined Verizon strikers on the picket lines, but could have also discussed the critical role of unions in fighting race and sex discrimination in the workplace.

Nor was the impending collapse of public-sector unionism or the ongoing ideological and material assault on the nation’s public school teachers framed as a feminist issue, though so many of these workers are women of color. The elite hostility to public-sector workers, while certainly rooted in a desire to pay lower taxes and fury that any group in the working class enjoys a modicum of bargaining power, also stems from racism and sexism, an assumption that black women couldn’t possibly deserve decent pay or benefits, or the respect of professional status.

We can lament the missed opportunities of the 2016 primary, but we should also view its aftermath as an inspiring invitation for socialist feminists to engage with electoral politics. We should be making arguments about why social-democratic priorities are feminist, and we should also be explaining why feminism is integral to—and not a distraction from—a broader progressive agenda.

One way to do that is to look to candidates who can speak about both socialism and feminism at once. This is far easier to do when running for offices other than the presidency. With women already building on the Sanders momentum to run for state and local offices as socialists, the potential for socialist-feminist electoral politics seems rich.

One of these candidates is Debbie Medina, a democratic socialist running for New York State Senate. Asked why women should be socialists, she told the Nation,

Think about it. Who does capitalism neglect and ignore? Women. Capitalism has no use for a woman who wants decent housing at a decent rent. . . . How is rent control not a women’s issue? How is the Fight for $15 not a women’s issue?

More of us should follow her example and run for county commissioner, school board, community board, or whatever other avenues to state power are open.

But the political terrain is set not just by candidates, it is also molded by organizations.

Socialist feminists should also join—or infiltrate—national feminist groups like NARAL and Planned Parenthood (and especially NOW, which has a much more democratic, grassroots structure), and push them to focus much more on the economic challenges that the majority of women face.

We must also change the labor movement. One of the few major unions—and one of the few national feminist organizations—supporting Sanders was National Nurses United (NNU), which has campaigned tirelessly for him. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers has also been campaigning for Sanders. Strengthening the reach of organizations like this, which represent women in large numbers and fight for socialist priorities, will help to reshape the electoral landscape in the future.

If the leaders of our major national labor unions continue to insist on shilling for the worst candidates the Democratic Party can spit out, we need to build more independent labor organizations like the NNU that are able to bring knowledge of women’s everyday economic struggles into electoral politics. It was disgraceful that so many unions representing mostly women workers—the American Federation of Teachers, the Service Employees International Union, to name just a couple—endorsed Clinton, a candidate whose record and agenda are so deeply at odds with their members’ interests, whether we are examining her campaign against teachers’ unions in Arkansas, or her tenure on the board of Walmart, a company famous for illegal union-busting, low wages, and sex discrimination. It reflects the deep need for democratic reform—and socialist feminist education—within those organizations, and that must be part of our electoral agenda for the future.

What will also help is fighting on the issues that we consider critical to the socialist feminist agenda. The Fight for $15, for example, offers a beacon of hope. The movement to raise the minimum wage to $15 swept the nation and enjoyed some concrete victories during the primary. This transformed the notion of a $15 an hour wage from a leftist ideal promulgated by a socialist city councilwoman in liberal Seattle and largely assumed to be too threatening to business, into a tangible goal embraced by much of the mainstream Democratic party. So by April, even Clinton was rushing to appear supportive of the Fight for $15, joining fellow centrist Democrat Andrew Cuomo at a rally and photo-op to celebrate signing it into law in New York. It’s too easy to point out how cynical she is, and how fast she changed her tune. But the goal of left politics is to make left ideas so popular that the most mainstream politicians will support them, and Clinton’s shift on the Fight for $15 shows how, by organizing, we can do just that.

It was a surprisingly hopeful season, in which we heard the words “socialism” and “feminism” a lot more than we could ever have expected. A couple of us even found ourselves saying the words together, publicly, in the same breath. The surprising popularity of both Bernie and Hillary has shown us that the time for feminism and socialism is now. Bringing them together, in our political practice and our thinking, is our next challenge.

Liza Featherstone is the author of Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Workers’ Rights at Wal-Mart (Basic Books, 2005). She is the editor of False Choices: The Faux Feminism of Hillary Rodham Clinton (Verso, 2016).

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