The Third Third

Politics and The New Feminist Divide

“THIS IS WHAT A FEMINIST LOOKS LIKE” declared the T-shirt my youngest daughter brought us to wear in the April 25, 2004 March for Women’s Lives in Washington, D.C.  My three daughters and I, who had gathered from across the country to march, wore the bright fuchsia T-shirts proudly. Everywhere.   I organized the trip, but my three daughters made me do it.  We marched because they had pushed me out from behind my comfortable, intellectual feminism to confront, finally, the systematic sexism they believed threatened their lives and, through my ladylike deference, governed mine.  This was the generational divide that challenged us in 2004, and we took it on as mothers and daughters, sisters and friends. We understood the stakes, we committed to the cause, and we acknowledged that “This is what a Feminist Looks Like” said it all:  each of us had made a unique journey to this time and place, to our identity as feminists.  It was hugely powerful to march together, to take steps in the same direction. I was grateful to my daughters for teaching me what it meant for them to be feminists and for accepting and empowering my story, too.

So I am sad that women today are once again engulfed in a generational battle about what a feminist looks (and acts and speaks and votes) like.  How frustrating when there is so much to fight for that we are fighting against each other. Again.   I get it, I really do, that some younger women can’t identify with the causes we embraced.  My peers and I fought hard for the many opportunities we ultimately won — to be “the first woman who. . . “ (got into the Ivy League, became television journalists and bank directors, flew planes, raced cars, won elected office, had routine access to birth control, could get a legal abortion, chaired the board, owned the business, you fill-in-the-blank).  But once we achieved these personal successes, I’m afraid we can be faulted for failing to broaden the agenda and to engage more women and their different hopes and dreams. I can see why younger women might deem our feminism privileged, possibly even irrelevant today. Instead of acknowledging the opportunities hard-won for them (which they can now take for granted), they see how much remains to be done and they wonder, in fact, exactly what we were doing these past several decades.  We, on the other hand, feel we are being dismissed as inconsequential, and while we’re used to that coming from men, it has a particularly painful sting when it comes from other women.  It makes us angry and we lash out intemperately or lecture condescendingly.  How patently ineffective and foolish.

But while we’re busy being distracted by this internal struggle, opportunities to advance our common feminist agenda are passing us by. Indeed, much of the progress we thought we’d made is at risk of being lost. I don’t think this is an accident.  It could simply be  a matter of a missed opportunity to learn from each other about what feminism means for any of us today and to march forward together as my daughters and I did 12 years ago.  But it might also be part of a more insidious, sexist campaign to continue to deny women both control over their bodies and unambiguously equal rights to education, jobs and professions, property and money, and yes, power. That’s what concerns me.

If we but consider the court cases still being argued before the Supreme Court and the lower court rulings likely to stand if, following Antonin Scalia’s death, the justices hold at 4-4:  shutting down of abortion clinics in Texas, restricted access to contraception via Obamacare. Or listen to the Republican Presidential candidates still railing against Roe v. Wade, and against Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest purveyor of women’s health care. If we remind ourselves  that equal pay for equal work is still not the law of the land; and think of the access to family leave, quality child care and education not afforded most working mothers, we must recognize how very much is at stake.  These are women’s issues; these are, yes, still,  feminist causes — every feminist’s, young and old.

Which brings me to the feminists’ divide in the Democratic Primary  and the young (mostly) women who sneer, “You want me to vote for Hillary Clinton ‘just because she’s a woman’?” and call me sexist and my suggestion insulting to women’s intelligence and ability to choose the best candidate.  To this my answer is No, definitely not just because she is a woman.  I want their votes for Hillary because of her extraordinary qualifications, the depth of her experience, and her lifetime of effective public service on behalf of women and children.  I want their votes for Hillary in part, yes, because I rode the so-called second wave of feminism with her and I know her and like her and admire her.  I want their votes for Hillary, no matter Bernie Sanders’ progressive bona fides, because, frankly, I can’t abide another old white man wagging his finger at me and shouting that he knows best what I need.  And, more importantly, I want their votes for Hillary because she is the only Democrat who realistically has the ability to defeat Republican efforts to turn the clock back on women’s issues both at the ballot box and on the Hill.  What, girlfriends, has Bernie Sanders ever accomplished for you?  Even Sanders’ colleague in the Senate, Elizabeth Warren, another popular and intelligent progressive, when invited to make her own run for the Presidency, declined in part because she said she did not want to do anything to deny our nation it’s first woman President. That’s the way a feminist thinks;  I doubt the thought ever crossed Bernie Sanders’  mind.

So yes, I believe it’s important to bridge our feminist divide and vote this particular woman, Hillary Clinton, into the White House.  There’s far too much at stake for all of us, men and women alike.

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