On the cusp of what many see as an important feminist achievement—the election of the first female president of the United States—one merely has to glance at the headlines to understand why this moment means so much for some and so little to many. Beside the think pieces about Hillary’s all-white pantsuit are accounts of bitter conflicts over immigration, mass incarceration, police brutality, economic inequality, and racism. And next to those are stories about the assault on reproductive rights, violence against women, homophobia, and everyday misogyny. In recognizing that these are all feminist issues, we must also acknowledge that they cannot be solved by shattering the highest glass ceiling. Even Hillary’s staunchest supporters admit that social movements must push her, like any other politician, to do more.
So what are feminists thinking and doing today? While calls for women to “lean in” continue to ring through the mainstream media, a more radical feminism simmers in campaigns led by activists and organizers and in the creative work of academics and artists. In addition, some of today’s most important social movements in the United States, like Black Lives Matter and the Fight for $15, are led by women, many of them black, queer, or immigrant. However, unlike during the heyday of second wave feminism—from roughly 1963 to 1979—there is no single, unified movement for women’s rights and gender equality.
In this special section devoted to feminist movements, we cast an eye to struggles both at home and overseas to help us imagine—and strategize—how we might take advantage of a new president determined to be seen as a feminist. By looking at campaigns in the United States and abroad, in India, China, France, Poland, and the UK, we hope to spur creative thinking about the shape of feminism, both today and tomorrow.
If loud and vibrant movements are essential to making social change, women must have the time and resources to lead and join them. Many women today are squeezed between care work and waged work, which constricts our ability to organize. In an interview, Nancy Fraser argues that capitalism in the United States has entered a “crisis of care,” undermining the very reproductive tasks—raising children and tending to the needs of the sick and elderly—that are essential to maintaining the system. Johanna Brenner addresses this crisis directly, considering whether current arguments for policies like paid parental leave or universal pre-K are enough to ease work-family conflict, or whether they serve only to subtly reinforce the work ethic. Brenner instead advocates giving women greater control over their time—whether for love, leisure, or rebellion.
Abroad, as at home, feminism can contain contradictions. As Srila Roy argues, the socialist roots of the women’s movement in India created a hierarchy of concerns—violence before sexuality or gender identity, rural issues before urban ones. New campaigns led by young, cosmopolitan, mostly college-educated women are trying to transcend these divisions by showing how the concerns of the urban elite are linked to those of working-class and rural men and women in the fight for public safety. In challenging the paternalistic approach of the state to women’s protection, these activists argue that women must be able to exercise their right to take risks, and also how, in claiming spaces for themselves, they must be willing to open them up to everyone. To do so, they have turned away from the state, and toward a campaign of persuasion directed at fellow citizens.
Yet, taking on a state, especially an authoritarian one, is often not only brave but necessary. Leta Hong Fincher’s reflection on the rise and repression of China’s Feminist Five shows how the “feminist celebration of single, sexually non-normative, and often child-free women” poses a direct threat to the authority of the Communist Party in a country where marriage and child-rearing still depend on the subordination of women in traditional roles.
Ann Snitow and Katheryn Detwiler reiterate the importance of engaging with the state while offering an American perspective on the tactics of Polish feminists: they argue that they—and we—cannot afford to become cynical about political parties and disengage, since the costs of doing so, as we know from the threat of Trumpism, are high. In response to the right-wing Law and Justice party’s self-declared “war on gender,” Snitow and Detwiler describe how Polish feminists are combating the assault on abortion rights, cuts to public services for women, and repression of even classroom conversations about equality using both insider and outsider strategies. The state of politics demands that they try to expose the brutal sexism of the state while presenting feminism as a viable alternative.
As the spate of burkini bans across France this summer and the troubling questions they raise clearly show, repression is not always easy to identify—very simply, women must be able to define it for themselves. In her exploration of various strands of Islamic feminism in France, Mayanthi Fernando argues that mainstream French feminism must radically evolve if it is to stay true to its pluralistic ideals. Secular feminists, she contends, must give the concerns of black, Muslim, and immigrant women—like police violence, poverty, ethnic and religious discrimination—equal standing with issues such as reproductive rights. Importantly, given their cross-cutting concerns—patriarchy, but also racism and economic inequality—Fernando shows how the left-wing groups led by observant and non-practicing Muslim feminists can usefully intervene in increasingly polarized debates in many Western nations about Islamophobia, terrorism, and democracy.
Fernando’s piece also points to an important model for feminist organizing, one that is increasingly employed in struggles for racial justice here in the United States as well: “intersectional” approaches, which see class, race, and sex as inextricably linked, both in their analysis of the causes and solutions to injustice as well as the way movements should be shaped and led. In leftist circles, the tension between class and so-called “identity politics,” although painfully recurrent, is rarely useful. Movements such as Black Lives Matter have pushed this analysis forward by showing how inequality, mass incarceration, police brutality, racism, and heteronormativity reinforce one another, and how we cannot address one without taking on the others.
In another striking example of how inequality and sexism can together conspire to determine women’s conditions, Dawn Foster chronicles the tale of working-class single mothers who illegally occupy an empty council estate in East London in response to austerity-driven evictions. These women are compelled to both care for their families and work for wages, all while being pushed further and further from the center of London and their children’s schools. Their occupations highlight the absurdity of London housing policy in general: as one protestor’s sign points out, these empty homes need people and these women need homes. Foster emphasizes the importance of secure housing for women in particular, especially those with children or who need to separate from abusive partners. The London evictions proceeded against these young mothers, one imagines, because they seemed too poor, too female, too weak or ashamed to resist. Campaigns like Focus E15 and Sisters Uncut have put those assumptions firmly to rest.
While many of the authors in this section raise larger questions about what feminist goals should be, others focus on the use of strategic demands and alliances to achieve them. In critiquing the current rhetoric of “care” used by some domestic workers groups to win employers over to their side, Premilla Nadasen argues that being tactically smart doesn’t have to mean dull, middling compromise. She instead shows how similar movements in the 1970s were far more radical in their emphasis on labor rights, and presents the argument they used to win federal minimum wage protection for domestic workers in 1974. The Household Technicians of America claimed that if Congress didn’t properly pay and protect domestic workers, women simply would no longer be doing this work—men would. Who would have thought that the threat of having to do the dishes could be so powerful?
As Ann Snitow, a longtime member of our editorial board, wisely points out, feminist complexity always stands in stark contrast to conservative certainty. So even as we say “no!” to Trump and “more!” to Hillary, we try to do so carefully, offering a multiplicity of viewpoints, concerns, and tactics. Our work can only be successful if gender oppression is confronted as relentlessly as other kinds of oppression. But sexism cannot fall without dismantling the others, too.
Kaavya Asoka is a senior editor at Dissent.
Sarah Leonard is a senior editor at the Nation and an editor at large at Dissent.