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Feminism Friday – Calling Out Fellow Progressives for “Sexism Prevents Unity on the Left”

Originally posted on Shakesville by Melissa McEwan on February 28, 2008 (Shakesville’s change to a new comments database means that the original comments no longer are shown on that link)


Also see: Circular Firing Squad.

This oft-wielded cudgel to silence feminists who cry foul at sexism expressed by political allies is wrong for the following reason, which I cannot state any more succinctly than this: When someone engages in divisive behavior, any resulting division is their responsibility.

It is, simply, not the duty of any person who is repeatedly subjected to alienating language, images, behaviors, and/or legislation to nonetheless never complain and pledge fealty from the margins. If women, men of color, gay/bi/ trans men, et. al. are valued, then they should not be demeaned—and if they are demeaned, they should not be expected to pretend it does not matter.

Pretty straightforward stuff. There are some related ideas I want to address, though, which complicate the issue, especially from the perspective of those who earnestly cannot understand why feminists don’t see the “perfect logic” of:

• Candidate A is sexist, and at worst will not make things any worse for women.
• Candidate B is sexist, and at best will not make things any worse for women.
• Therefore, feminists should vote for Candidate A.

I get why that appears to make sense—and for some feminists it does, particularly Democratic partisans, which is totally legitimate—but then there’s that whole my vote is mine thing, and this subject is really bigger than for whom anyone will or will not vote, because the (typically) unspoken corollary to “Therefore, feminists should vote for Candidate A” is “…and they should not do anything to undermine him like point out that he is a sexist.”

The reasoning behind the “perfectly logical” calculation above—and the related compulsion to cajole alignment with that strategy and/or silence feminist criticism—is predicated on a couple of commonly-held (and oft-cited) assumptions:

1. Voting for/Supporting the more liberal of two mainstream party candidates is always and necessarily the most consistent with feminist principles.

2. Voting for/Supporting the more democratic of two mainstream party candidates is axiomatically the most feminist choice.

3. Feminism is an “issue” or a “cause” akin to other political issues or causes like protecting social security or fair elections.

4. The best possible America for a straight, white, able-bodied, wealthy man is the best possible America for everyone.

5. More rights for “everyone” means more rights for women.

All of these are wrong—or, at minimum, not always correct. Let’s take them one at a time.

1. Voting for/Supporting the more liberal of two mainstream party candidates is always and necessarily the most consistent with basic feminist principles.

Occasionally, supporting the more liberal candidate (i.e. the Democrat) is entirely consistent with basic feminist principles. The vast majority of the time, the candidate represents a platform which has some inconsistencies with those principles, often by sheer omission of basic tenets of equality, e.g. a commitment to eradicating the pay gap, active recruitment of female Congressional candidates, support for the ERA, etc. In the current campaign, the current Democratic frontrunner has used sexist dog whistles and language that precipitated some concerns about his commitment to women’s issues, as have candidates before him.

Clearly, that strategy is incompatible with feminism—which is why the exhortation “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good” is as inaccurate as it is condescending. A sexist candidate with an incomplete or incompatible platform is not “good,” even though, by any feminist reckoning s/he is better than the major party alternative. Feminists are well within their right by virtue of their basic tenets to take exception with the expectation that they recognize a sexist candidate as “good,” which is by no means a synonym for “not as bad.”

All of which means that voting for/supporting a third-party candidate, depending on the candidate and platform, may well be the choice most consistent with basic feminist principles. Reminders that Democrats are more inclined to make court appointments favorable to feminists are accurate, but ultimately irrelevant to determining which vote is most intrinsically feminist—third-party candidates would do the same.

The important point here is that while voting for the Democrat over the Republican may indeed have a pragmatic rationale from a feminist standpoint, it is wrong to conflate “pragmatic rationale” with “consistent with feminist principles.” Feminists must often, in fact, vote counter to their principles to be pragmatic voters. That is not a small thing, and it should not be treated as though it is.

2. Voting for/Supporting the more democratic of two mainstream party candidates is axiomatically the most feminist choice.

This idea is closely related to the previous one, but turns on the presumption that democracy is inherently more feminist than other forms of government, represented in comments that exhort feminists to recognize the imperative of keeping the nation’s leadership out of the hands of those who have effectively tried to approximate a rightwing dictatorship.

It’s treated as axiomatic that preventing America from becoming a dictatorship is somehow simultaneously a fight for women’s rights, but that’s not necessarily true. Women’s equality is wound up in national politics, certainly, but it is also largely independent of them, too. It is a misunderstanding of what women experience to suggest that protecting our democracy is the same as championing feminism.

Forward movement for women can happen even in dictatorships, and can be reversed even in democracies—because women’s equality is inextricably linked to so many other cultural variables, like religiosity. To presume that greater democracy will de facto mean increased equality for women is to tacitly buy into Bush’s line about freedom magically emanating from any country deemed a functional democracy. It just doesn’t work that way. A democratically-elected American theocracy would, for example, be anathema to feminism.

I have many good and important and personal reasons for not wanting America to become any less democratic than it is now—not least of which is because those agitating for increased authoritarian control of government are simultaneously agitating for increased control of women’s bodies. I also have many good and important and personal reasons for fighting for my equality. Some of those good and important and personal reasons overlap. Some of them don’t.

The important point here is that, while most American feminists are undoubtedly interested in voting for the most democratic candidate, it is wrong to reflexively conflate “more democratic” with “more feminist” (even though that’s historically a safe bet). Feminists may, in fact, for reasons outlines above, have to vote counter to feminist principles to vote for the most democratic candidate of the two major parties. That is not a small thing, and it should not be treated as though it is.

3. Feminism is an “issue” or a “cause” akin to other political issues or causes like protecting social security or fair elections.

Feminism, especially for women, is not mere political advocacy, but a philosophy centered around advocating for personal equality. When feminists are inveigled to vote for/support the Democratic candidate (and refrain from questioning his commitment to women’s issues lest his candidacy be undermined), because This Issue is so important, the implicit calculation is that This Issue is priority over women’s equality, reproductive rights, etc.

Because feminists have increasingly resisted taking a backseat to issues like social security when their very value as human beings is up for debate, those using this rhetorical strategy have learned that nothing is quite so effective as using Roe v. Wade as This Issue, thusly reframing the argument from “Vote for the Democrat to get what you want” to “Vote for the Democrat to not lose what you’ve got.”

It’s a nasty little bit of blackmail, which fails utterly to take into consideration that the veiled threat of losing legal abortion because of one’s uncompromising belief in one’s own equality and autonomy is so bitterly ironic that it would be laughable if it were not so profoundly sad. Instead of demonstrations of commitment to protecting Roe as one among many commitments to the basic feminist principle of women’s equality, we are meant instead to be motivated by menace and intimidation. We’re supposed to gleefully hop on board with people who ominously warn that failure to do so will evoke tragedy by our own hands—and, if we succumb, we find that even asking for basic respect, for sexist words and images and behaviors to not be used, is considered too much, an impertinence.

All we are offered is the protection of what we’ve already got, and nothing more.

Which makes one wonder why we’d ever be given anything more, since the risk of losing one thing is greatest when there is only one thing to lose.

The compromise of everything else to protect this one thing is particularly problematic for feminists because being a woman is not a cause. If women’s issues are ignored, we cannot simply change our skin like a losing lobbyist changes strategies. Always will we be women, and when we are asked to put our “issues” on the back burner for the good of “the larger cause,” we are being asked to wait longer yet to have our equality fully realized. That is not an easy burden to indefinitely bear for thin promises.

4. The best possible America for a straight, white, able-bodied, wealthy man is the best possible America for everyone.

America being the best place it can possibly be for straight, white, able-bodied, wealthy men does not de facto mean it’s also the best place it can possibly be for a poor, black, disabled lesbian. That seems like it ought to be obvious, but every time women or men of color or gay/bi/ trans men are told “just hold your concerns and focus on winning this election for now and then we can get to your issues,” it’s clear that there are people who don’t understand how fighting for control of the White House/Congress and fighting for one’s own equality are not the same thing for everyone all the time.

Sometimes those fights overlap; sometimes they are mutually exclusive; and sometimes they are in conflict.

It makes no personal difference to a man who is not the target of misogyny if a president is elected on its back—but it does make a difference to women (even those who don’t care), because not only has misogyny not been repudiated, but has in fact been reinforced as a winning strategy.

For active feminists who are on the frontlines of fighting sexism every day, bringing themselves to cast a vote for a candidate who has used misogyny is a tacit approval of the strategy. Even if there are good reasons to vote for that candidate, it is still a self-defeating vote in some measure. It’s not just holding one’s nose and voting for an imperfect candidate; it’s swallowing one’s principles and pride and casting a vote that unavoidably consents to misogyny as a campaign tool.

It might not make any difference to the soul or the future of a man casting the same vote. It will make a practical difference to women.

Likewise, the presumption that who is the best candidate, what is the best campaign strategy, and which are the best policies for “the nation” from the perspective of privilege does not take into account that best is subjective—and “the nation” rarely gives all its members equal consideration.

5. More rights for “everyone” means more rights for women.

Like “the nation,” when we hear that something will be good for “everyone,” it generally means it’s going to be good for straight, white, able-bodied, wealthy men—and hopefully lots of other people, too! The problem with this paradigm is that it’s usually espoused by the people with the most existing freedom and opportunity, who are looking to procure more for themselves, or restore something they’ve lost, as with this election, in which progressives hope to restore Constitutional liberties eroded by the Bush administration.

Who wouldn’t be on board with that, right?

Well, feminists are on board with that idea, but what’s happening is that the pressure to support, at all costs, the candidate most likely to realize that goal has the capacity to force feminists to compromise what they think is right as feminists to support what they think is right as Americans. If restoring lost liberties means tacitly supporting sexist rhetoric and pandering to rightwingers who don’t respect women’s right of bodily autonomy, that’s not a net gain for women—even though it is a net gain for men.

That’s why holding a firm line against misogyny is so important: Progress depends on people being progressive, which necessarily precludes the mockery, belittlement, and/or exclusion of historically marginalized groups. Otherwise, we end up with a new political situation that may benefit the already-privileged without compromise, but is just the Same Old Shit for everyone else. And once maximum privilege has been restored, there is little incentive to yield any to lift up the rest of the boats, despite years of promises to the contrary.

There are too many progressives who view social change like conservatives view economics: Make everything as splendid as possible for those at the top and the benefits will “trickle down” to everyone below.

Well, it’s bullshit when we’re talking about tax cuts, and it’s bullshit when we’re talking about equality and opportunity.

Feminists know that—and if we’re beginning to feel resistant to being played like suckers every election, if we’re increasingly unwilling to play the equivalent role of the disaffected evangelicals who keep voting Republican as though the leadership will give a rat’s ass about them someday, can you really blame us?

We make fun of those people.

Shaker CE said in comments yesterday, “Knowing that the alternative is worse actually makes it harder for me; it just reinforces that sense I often get from some Dems, including Sen. Obama in this cycle, that they think they can do whatever the fuck they like to me, because I don’t have any other option. The worst part? They’re right.”

They are right, unless we go somewhere else. This isn’t a treatise to convince anyone to do so—but it’s an explanation for why a feminist might, why it’s a legitimate choice, and why, if that means the Left isn’t a picture of harmony, it’s not our fault.

The reason the Left is discordant isn’t because of our standards; it’s because there are so many bigots with no benchmark for success but winning—even at our expense.

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2 comments on “Feminism Friday – Calling Out Fellow Progressives for “Sexism Prevents Unity on the Left”

  1. As a preface, I make this reply as someone who considers himself a feminist. I do understand why “sexism prevents unity on the left” should never be used as a metod of silencing feminists, and it’s coming from someone who already agrees with your overall point – that not voting for the Democrat IS a legitimate choice. That said, I think your #2 point is easily the weakest of the bunch.

    The compromise of everything else to protect this one thing is particularly problematic for feminists because being a woman is not a cause.

    When I read this, I have to ask if you notice the incongruence here: to many people, what it seems like is that you’re excusing feminism as One Thing that it’s okay to compromise everything else for. (This is not really addressed by #3.) Especially your point #2 comes across this way.

    When you bring up democratically-elected theocracy, or feminist-benevolent American dictatorships as not being axiomatically impossible, I have to assume you’re speaking hypothetically. And as long as we’re speaking about what’s possible in principle, I think it’s fair to start asking questions like:

    -Would you vote for a more-feminist candidate if it meant they started a war?
    -Would you vote for a more-feminist candidate if it meant instituting a mandatory state religion (assume the religion in question is not being used as a vehicle for sexis/misogyny)?
    -Would you vote for a more-feminist candidate if it meant replacing the judiciary with military tribunals?
    -Would you vote for a more-feminist candidate if it meant the rapid despoiling of the environment?

    Et cetera, et cetera. Though it’s, as you say, historically unlikely, none of these hypothetical candidates are axiomatically impossible, and axiomatically these terrible side effects could occur in a way that doesn’t place women in a relative disadvantage to men.

    Certainly in practice, the converse of #2 IS true: weakening democracy means less power in the hands of women, and more in the hands of men.

    It makes no personal difference to a man who is not the target of misogyny if a president is elected on its back

    I take umbrage at this, as a straight, white, male who cares about his female family and friends and does, actually, take sexism that hurts them very personally.

    Male privilege isn’t a ‘shield’ from the damaging effects of sexism; that’s the wrong metaphor. Men still get hurt by it, it’s just reflected, secondhand, like the light from the moon, or secondhand smoke. And at that lower level, it’s possible to ignore sexism in ways that aren’t possible when you’re the direct target.

    I think it’s a much stronger argument to say: “Sexism prevents unity on the left…SO STOP BEING SEXIST!” Which is to say: what prevents unity on the left is sexism itself, not ‘pointing out sexism’. Saying how it’s ‘not our fault’ is a weak frame to argue from, compared to ‘it is YOUR fault.’ I agree with your major point, but I don’t agree with the way you make it.

  2. MH, just so you know, the author of this piece, Melissa, isn’t active in the comments threads here. I asked her if I could crosspost her Feminism-101 series and she agreed, and this is part of it. So I can’t speak for her intent when she wrote a particular line. I can however make a few observations:

    * Your first objection is to Melissa saying that “being a woman is not a cause” as special pleading for feminism. Liss is far too careful with her terminology to write “woman” when she means “feminist”. There is a careful distinction being made there which you seem to have missed.

    * This particular piece was written back when the race for president looked very different, and should be read with the front-runners (and intra-Democrat sniping) of February kept firmly in mind. I published it nonetheless because I thought it still had a general application to political choices around the world (I’m Australian), but that aspect of it (particularly the male pro-Dem pundits who were sniping at women not supporting their favoured candidate) should be kept in mind.

    That said, I think this is a strong point:

    Male privilege isn’t a ’shield’ from the damaging effects of sexism; that’s the wrong metaphor. Men still get hurt by it, it’s just reflected, secondhand, like the light from the moon, or secondhand smoke. And at that lower level, it’s possible to ignore sexism in ways that aren’t possible when you’re the direct target.

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