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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

What Liberal Feminism Leaves Out

As powerful individuals are celebrated, some women’s lives are treated as mattering more than others.

It’s a perfectly nice photo. Elizabeth Warren is climbing a flight of stairs with a young woman at her side. They look delighted and energetic. To the right and slightly in the background, Bernie Sanders is riding an escalator in the same direction. He looks a little tired. Warren supporter and health policy expert Esther Choo posted the photo on Twitter with the caption “Good lord this photo just hits me so hard.” The tweet was met with derision, as well as justified accusations of ableism—a person’s ability to take or not take stairs is hardly indicative of anything. Choo deleted it quickly. But many leftist feminists also responded with pure confusion. Brandy Jensen tweeted: “i would like everyone to start explaining what that picture of liz warren climbing up stairs is supposed to be a metaphor for pls.” Honestly, I have no idea. Before Choo deleted the photo, the tweet racked up at least 24,000 likes. It must have made sense to some people, I guess.

I hesitate to write about Twitter fights, because they’re stupid. Only 22 percent of the population uses Twitter, which is either a lot or a little depending on how you look at it. But I do think this incident lays bare a particular disconnect in feminism right now, between the increasingly divergent strands of liberal feminism and leftist feminism, between Warren supporters and Bernie supporters. I get extremely frustrated talking to my liberal feminist friends these days; I know they’re getting frustrated with me.

Many prominent liberal feminists have endorsed Warren. In the Guardian, Rebecca Solnit called her a “dream candidate.” After praising Warren’s upbringing in the “heartland” and her “tangible strategies for widening our distribution of income, healthcare, education and opportunity… she would be smart about the intersections of race, gender, class and the rest” Solnit’s essay veers awkwardly off-course. She writes:

My dream candidate would’ve been a woman of color with all these qualities, and my dreamiest dream candidate would be a woman of color with Medusa hair who could turn the entire Republican Senate to stone with a glance, but Warren is who’s left in the race, and she is magnificent, and superheroes from Megan Rapinoe to Roxane Gay agree.

As we say in feminist circles, this is a lot to unpack. From the objectifying comment about an idealized woman of color with “Medusa hair,” to the reduction-by-suspiciously-excessive-praise of Megan Rapinoe and Roxane Gay to “superheroes” rather than living human people, it’s pretty clear that Solnit herself needs to be smarter about the intersections of race, gender, class, and the rest. What happened to Solnit? I’ve long admired her work—Men Explain Things To Me is still essential reading as far as I’m concerned. What went wrong here? And why were liberal feminists, normally sensitive to microaggressions and quick to call them out, not bothered—as far as I could tell—by this essay?

If you’re trying to understand the various competing factions in feminism right now, it might make sense, oddly enough, to start with the TERFs. For those unfamiliar with the term, it means “trans exclusionary radical feminists,” aka feminists who refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of trans women as women. To a TERF, biological sex is all-determining, and gender more or less unreal. As Suzanne Moore recently wrote in a really execrable Guardian column: “The radical insight of feminism is that gender is a social construct—that girls and women are not fated to be feminine, that boys and men don’t have to be masculine. But we have gone through the looking-glass and are being told that sex is a construct.” There are lots of classic TERF misconceptions here, but to handle just one: While it’s true that social constructs aren’t physical truths, we like, live in a society, and it turns out that how we are regarded in terms of gender—which may or may not have anything to do with our biological sex—matters a great deal. The oppression of women may stem from attempts to control the means of reproduction in the deep mytho-historical past, but gendered expressions today are still heavily policed. And nothing is more heavily policed than violation of those gender norms; trans people experience housing discrimination, job discrimination, and disturbingly high rates of murder. In short, by insisting that boys and men are “not fated to be masculine,” but still can’t be women, you’re really insisting that there’s a limit to their gender expression: They can paint their nails and get a femme haircut but otherwise they’d better stay in their lane.

And that’s what TERFness is really about—policing the lane, getting to decide who counts as a woman and who doesn’t, who gets drawn into the ring of feminist solidarity and who gets shoved out into the cold. This is an old move in feminism, embodied by many early white suffragettes who fought for rights provided they went to white women only. Other feminists have extended sisterly protection to all women but sex workers (SWERFs), or all women but homewreckers (feminists during the era of Monica Lewinsky), or all women but the ones who wear torn fleece pajamas around the apartment all day and night (I’m just sure someone is judging me right now, and okay maybe it’s fair.)

I think what’s happening in liberal feminism is a distantly related sort of lane-policing and exclusion, though it takes on an unusually abstract and intangible form. The majority of liberal feminists are of course supportive of trans rights and opposed to TERFs; Warren has been endorsed by several prominent trans activists (other trans activists have endorsed Bernie). At an LGBTQ forum last September, Warren read aloud the names of the transgender women of color who had been killed in 2019. This is a practice “she pledged to do at the Rose Garden if elected” and further “said she would have a young trans person interview her nominee for secretary of education, and her platform includes plans to combat trans discrimination in homeless shelters, the foster system and nursing homes, and a grant program to fund organizations fighting the epidemic of murders.”

This is another quote which I think will make liberal feminists cheer and leftist feminists squirm. The plans are well enough, in theory, although a national housing policy such as the one proposed by Bernie Sanders might go a lot further to help homeless trans people than funding nonprofits to fight discrimination in homeless shelters. But pledging to read the names of murder victims in the Rose Garden…it would certainly bring attention to the plight of trans women of color, but it also seems like rather grotesque performance art, since it presumes that these murders will just keep happening, and at a disproportionate rate to the rest of the population. This makes me wonder how effective those grant-funded organizations “fighting the epidemic of murders” are really expected to be. And inviting “a young trans person” to interview a potential Education Secretary—which young trans person? How would they be selected? Why just one? How is this not well-meant but unseemly tokenism, much like Solnit’s praise for the dream candidate of color with her magical Medusa hair?

Tokenism is the necessary inverse of exclusion; it’s the inclusion of one, or a few, and a bar on the gate to everyone else. Most liberal feminists would, I think identify as intersectional feminists, and agree that tokenism is wrong and feminism should never be exclusionary. In a recent Nation essay, the feminist academic Suzanna Danuta Walters praised Elizabeth Warren as the first “intersectional candidate.” The title of the article was later changed and the article updated with an apologetic footnote about Walters’ failure to mention the campaign of Shirley Chisholm “as well as other 2020 candidates who used the intersectional framework before dropping out of the race.” When the essay was first published, these rather important facts had been left out.

This is a perfect example of where we find exclusion in modern-day liberal feminism—in the realm of the feminist imaginary, the world of the social construct. Even within a stated intersectional framework, there’s still a question of which women we choose to talk about, which women’s problems matter, and which problems are considered “womanly” enough to deserve the attention of liberal feminists. Certain issues and certain women—not by explicit agreement but implicit erasure—consistently get left behind.

2016 was the year of the microaggression. No one embodied this more completely than Hillary Clinton, who has endured sexist microaggressions for her entire career. Her experiences struck home for a lot of professional-class women who have also endured plenty of sexist microaggressions at work and at home. Elizabeth Warren too has been subject to sexist microaggressions during the campaign—yet professional-class liberals have found, to their surprise, that while they identify with Warren and she’s very popular in their social circles, she’s gained little traction outside of them. Certainly her popularity within those circles isn’t surprising: Warren is intelligent and professorial, and the wonky aura of her plans—whether or not they are, in fact, quite regressive or unworkable—gives her an air of competent technocracy. She’s also a person who told more than one university that she was Native, and allowed them to count her as a woman of color at a time when these universities—Harvard in particular—were facing heavy criticism for the whiteness of their faculty. Around the same time that Warren took the teaching job at Harvard, Derrick Bell, Harvard’s first tenured black law professor, was effectively fired for his protest over Harvard’s failure to hire women of color.

Why bring this up in the context of liberal feminism? Because Warren took someone else’s seat. She’s a white woman who let herself be called a woman of color in a way that provided cover for a racist institution to defend its exclusionary hiring practices. Last year, Warren took a DNA test to “prove” her Native heritage, an action decried by Native activists as inherently racist and unhelpful. If you’re a good intersectional liberal feminist, these incidents should bother you. Why, in that case, has it been common to see Warren supporters brush it off, ignore it outright, or say that she’s sufficiently apologized even though Native activists recently issued a letter asking her to go further and retract her claims entirely?

What’s happening here is that Warren’s candidacy, as a wealthy white woman running for president, simply carries more weight in the liberal feminist imagination than the women of color who could have been hired at Harvard Law, or the Native women like Rebecca Nagle and Twila Barnes who have spearheaded the call for true acknowledgment and restitution. Some of this mental weighting is just classic bias in favor of one’s preferred candidate. This happens all the time: Bernie’s supporters certainly express bias, and I know I’ve been guilty of it frequently. But there’s something slightly different happening here as well. If Warren is the intersectional feminist candidate, then, tautologically, she must behave intersectionally. And if, by the weird transitive properties of parasocial relationships, she isn’t a good intersectional feminist, then her supporters might not be either. If Warren committed and continues to commit racist microaggressions, then these crimes have to be so mild as to be quickly excused; if they aren’t, then her supporters could be micro—or possibly even macro—aggressors themselves.

The parasocial identification with Warren has taken some further curious forms. Political fandom is always embarrassing, but Warren’s supporters have praised her as fan favorite Hermione Granger; as the friend who will do your taxes; as the cool mom who will stand up to meanie Trump; as a considerate imaginary date (unlike a certain loud and stingy Jew). Having seen plenty of weird pro-Bernie memes and that Klobuchar comic (omg do NOT google it) I’m not really interested in judging, but I am interested in what’s missing. What’s absent from the picture of Warren as nerd heroine, imaginary friend, fighter mom, and perfect date? What’s being excluded from these pleasing domestic scenes?

Quite a lot, but I’m obviously alluding to foreign policy. When it comes to killing brown people in other countries, the vast majority of Senators and Congresspeople have absolutely trash records. Sanders’ foreign policy stances are better than most, and I mean that as faint praise. Warren has a relatively standard hawkish Democratic record; she casually supported the attempted coup in Venezuela, and said, as Israel rained down bombs in Gaza in 2014. “I believe Israel has a right, at that point, to defend itself.” She voted for sanctions on Iran with exemptions for humanitarian aid, and now, as coronavirus spikes through the Iranian population, has expressed surprise and dismay that the United States didn’t keep its word. (If anything proves she’s not Native, it’s that.) You might interrupt me and say that CIA coups, bombing, and sanctions affect everyone, not just women, so why is foreign policy a feminist issue? Because war is always a feminist issue. As the Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations reported to the Security Council in 2003: “Women and girls suffe[r] disproportionately during and after war, as existing inequalities [are] magnified, and social networks [break] down, making them more vulnerable to sexual violence and exploitation.” 

To be fair, Americans are generally indifferent to the bombing and immiseration of brown people overseas regardless of gender. But a truly intersectional feminism—like a truly international socialism—needs to be concerned with everyone, everywhere. I think one of the reasons that liberal feminists tend to concentrate on office microaggressions, media representation, and shitty boyfriends is that these problems are relatively easy to talk about. The fact that your clothes are made by impoverished women in factories in Bangladesh demands much more difficult conversations, and something beyond even those difficult conversations: activism, organizing, and systemic change. American women endure a great deal of misogyny. We also sit on top of a tower of misogyny, and refuse to look down.

Is it misogynist to ask Elizabeth Warren to drop out? By the time this article is posted, she may have already done so. On the night of Super Tuesday, when it was clear that Warren was doing poorly, even placing a humiliating third in her own state, the journalist Krystal Ball tweeted that Warren ought to have dropped out and endorsed Bernie Sanders. Writer Ijeoma Oluo replied “Warren is a legitimate and strong candidate. And honestly, asking our final woman candidate to drop out so it will be easier on the dudes is some sexist nonsense.”

If you’re a leftist feminist, you might be confused how it’s sexist for a woman journalist—or even a male journalist—to say that a woman candidate with no viable path to the nomination should drop out and endorse her closest political ally. Was it homophobic when Obama asked Buttigieg to drop out and endorse Joe Biden?

Symbolically, in the abstract, we would all agree a woman shouldn’t step down for a man. Of course, when we say “Warren should step down and endorse Sanders” we aren’t saying “woman should step down for man,” but rather that a woman with few delegates who has supported progressive policies should drop out and vocally endorse the male candidate with many delegates who supports similar policies, rather than stay in the race and potentially throw the election to a disembrained male centrist who likes to grope little girls. Yes, gender permeates this scenario, but in a much broader sense, with much more pressing consequences. It’s been clear for a while that modern liberalism seems to imagine politics as a prestige TV show, but I’m starting to think a TV show is too complex. What we seem to have, especially when it comes to liberal feminism, is a stripped-down, black-box play with figures in silhouette. There is only Woman (maybe 2-3 maximum) and Men, who are bad. None of them are people, just shapes. They’re costumes to embody. They don’t really exist, because politics is just an allegory for your life, and none of it is really, physically real.

But politics is, in fact, a thing that actually happens. Politics is the motion of power in real life. This is why leftists get so baffled when we see liberal feminists praise Nancy Pelosi for ripping up a speech she just applauded. To us, it seems like liberals aren’t absorbing the whole event; they were just watching the gif, the freeze-frame, the soundbite. The shadow-play of Woman Standing Up to Man, which is indifferent to context, and how often the woman has voted to pass the man’s legislative agenda, and why you should vote for Pelosi’s primary opponent, a committed activist opposed to the Trumpian agenda that Pelosi has sometimes quietly endorsed.

If you’re a liberal, and you’ve made it this far in this essay, you’re probably reading with some umbrage. “Listen, I’m a smart person! I pay attention to politics!” I’m not saying you aren’t, and I’m not saying you don’t. I’m saying that what we have here is a failure to communicate, a genuine divergence in understanding when it comes to what politics means and what it’s for, and more specifically what feminism means and who it’s for. Not the token Woman, the allegorical figure, the stand-in for everything legitimately shitty that happened to you at the office or with your abusive ex-boyfriend, but women, real women, women everywhere, who are sick and suffering and dying, and need your help. The way to help your fellow women is to exit the play and get off the plane of the imaginary. It might help to get off Twitter (honestly it would probably help all of us to get off Twitter). It’s important to make sure you’re thinking of politics as real, and of people as real; and to think “what is the best way to help the largest number of women? What policies will have the biggest impact on the most people? What’s the way that I can help enact these policies? How can I help ensure that no one is left behind?” It may be that you have to support a male candidate for president. It may be that, as leftist feminists have argued, a particular male candidate—perhaps paradoxically—has always been the strongest feminist candidate in the race. If you’re skeptical of a male candidate’s feminist bonafides, and you have a right to be, then the answer is to put in the on-the-ground organizing work and make sure that he lives up to his promises. It’s never enough to win an election and go to brunch. There’s no vacation for feminists until all women, everywhere, are liberated.

Correction: This article originally identified Esther Choo as having worked for Warren, based on this article. She has informed us that she did not work for Warren.

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