Monday, January 7, 2013

Feminism & its discontents (& nemeses)

As the gestalt of feminist consciousness began to take shape in the 1960s, orchestrated opposition began to emerge in the media ridiculing us as lesbians or as too ugly to get a man. Organizations like the National Organization for Women (NOW) bent to that pressure at first & banned lesbians from membership. But neither the ridicule nor the ostracism could deter thousands of women smarting with fury at our treatment from entering the movement in large numbers. That included lesbians & heteros, whites & Blacks & Latinos, young & old, liberals & socialists. One of the first things the emerging movement took on was the lesbian-baiting. As it crescendoed in the media, activists all showed up at protests wearing purple bands in solidarity with lesbian participation. NOW eventually overturned its ban on lesbian membership.

The movements brevity in time was overshadowed by the power of an idea whose time had come & the amassing of forces willing to fight for it. The ruling elite had sustained an assault on segregation from the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, massive antiwar opposition to the Vietnam War, & was unprepared for an onslaught for women’s rights, as well as homosexual rights. They conceded to abortion rights in early 1973 (Roe v. Wade) before massive mobilizations had yet begun. Abortion rights were a central issue of feminism (along with no forced sterilization, equal employment, & childcare). With the passage of Roe v. Wade & the leadership of the women’s movement firmly hitched to the Democratic Party, the movement soon declined as a social movement. But it changed the lives & possibilities for millions of women & the consciousness of men & women around the world since it was an international movement.

Orchestrated media opposition to feminism could no longer be crude & vulgar propaganda; it had to get sophisticated & this is when the reports on “scientific” studies began to appear. Susan Faludi has discussed many of them in her invaluable book, “Backlash.” Most of this rubbish tried to link human misery & ill-health to feminism rather than female oppression. One pernicious study (which I wrote an expose about) in 1986 said college-educated women or those not married by 40 had a better chance of getting killed by a terrorist than of finding love. All media accounts focused on professional women & made it appear feminism was primarily for the white middle-class & irrelevant to working class women (Black or white). Terms like “feminazi” became popular & women standing up for their rights were taunted.

In the early 1990s, Third Wave feminism emerged, which is an intellectual current & not a social movement. It based itself on the perceived failures of the Second Wave of the 1960 & 1970s, in particular critiquing the lack of Black, Latino, Asian, & Native American women. Third Wave feminism is much broader now, but in its origins it derived its analysis much more from media misrepresentation than any sustained research on the women’s movement. As a social movement, Second Wave feminism was brief but there were significant & sizable conferences & actions around the US (& around the world) of Black & Latino & Asian feminists.

Since its inception, another current of opposition to feminism developed--as well as opposition to the Black & Latino & Native American movements, & the LGBT movement. These are the people opposed to what they call “identity politics.” The adherents are often radicals who believe the only identity worth fighting for is that of “worker,” which they quite narrowly define. They scorn “identity politics” as a low brow liberal thing.

Well let’s set the record straight! And to do that, we should situate the place of liberals in the social movements. In the nearly 47 years I’ve been involved in social movements, liberals have made up the majority of people--of antiwar activists (who’ve stayed the hand of US military aggression); of Black activists in the Civil Rights Movement; of feminists; of LGBT activists--all who have made monumental changes in political practices & consciousness. Without those low-brow liberals, these changes would not have been made. They remain a steadfast & leading force in the antiwar movement. And to add insult to injury, it’s liberals who bankrolled every single one of these movements. When it comes to social transformation, there is a place for everyone.

It is not feminists or Black & Latino or LGBT activists who make an issue of our identity. Most of us would love to at least once be able to walk into a mixed gathering or live a day without reference to our identities--& references that aren’t usually insulting, demeaning, pejorative, or patronizing. Hatred, discrimination, put-downs, insults, & the most unspeakable aggression & violence make our identities a political issue--not our desire to be distinctive & stand out in a crowd. We’re tired of standing out in a crowd so as to be targets of abuse. And just to be clear, our identities will remain an issue until our oppression is decisively ended & the hatred & violence toward us overcome.

This is an appeal to the young, in particular young women (since without your leadership there'll be no social transformation), to study the achievements of all these movements, to base your understanding & criticisms on their complex realities & not on media slanders. The work of those “identity” movements has only just begun & can only be continued by informed activists undaunted by ridicule & slander. We can do it--& we won’t tolerate any guff in the process.

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