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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

As a Woman

When the richest and most powerful women say “as a woman…”, they alienate more than they include.

I cry as the mammogram technician places one of my breasts on the shelf for the x-ray. I apologize for being dramatic, I tell her it’s my first time and I’m feeling sorry for myself. She laughs and says, honey, we’re women. Go ahead and feel sorry. We‘re always suffering.

If you have breasts, you are supposed to start getting annual mammograms when you turn 40. I was only 29 for my first one, which, for me, could have been too late. Last winter, I found out I carry a mutated gene, shared by one in 400 people. Anyone can have it, but women are more likely to suffer: this gene increases the risk of breast and ovarian cancers. By age 70, I have between a 60-85 percent chance of developing breast cancer and a 40-60 percent chance of developing ovarian cancer. To prevent this near definite future, I will eventually have to get my ovaries and fallopian tubes removed, and be forced to welcome early menopause. I will also have to get yearly mammograms and MRIs; eventually I may choose to have my breasts removed. The past year has been marked by mourning in advance; the grief has felt like molasses, thick and slow and impossible to extract myself from.

But even with all of my fears—about losing my breasts and my ability to have a child and the constant possibility of more bad news—I have mostly just been preoccupied by health insurance, obsessed with the prospect that I may lose mine. I am lucky, for now, in that I have the kind of employer-provided healthcare that most people dream of. The problem is, of course, that I could lose it. The bill for my yearly mammogram and MRI would total $17,278 without insurance. The surgeries would cost at least $30,000 combined.

I, like other women, have been told that our fears around health insurance, or student debt, or climate change—and which organizations and politicians we support because of those fears—are emblematic of internalized sexism, the need for male attention, or just plain arrogance. After Trump won the presidential election, Suzanne Moore blamed his victory primarily on misogyny—and on the young women who supported Bernie. She wrote that:

“…we could also see the peculiar misogyny of young female Sanders supporters. They did not just think Clinton was a flawed candidate—she was—but akin to Satan. As they were getting Bernie’s face tattooed on to their bodies, they repeatedly told us that Clinton’s gender did not matter.”

And Gloria Steinem, breaking my teenage self’s heart, famously blundered, “And when you’re young, you’re thinking, ‘Where are the boys?’ The boys are with Bernie.” I wasn’t with the boys. I just wanted healthcare. All of these women say we should listen to women, but no one listened to me.

I want to be generous with these women, and give them the benefit of the doubt; I know what it’s like to be angry at other women. And after all, young women like us don’t know how hard it used to be for women to succeed politically—even Hillary Clinton was apparently punished for being too successful. Ellen Fitzpatrick wrote that Clinton had “built a sizable war chest through prodigious fund-raising from Wall Street donors and ‘super PACs,’ just as her male counterparts and opponents have always done. But her success in doing so has fueled charges that she is a captive of financial interests and all too willing to exploit a corrupt system of campaign financing,” i.e., all the politicians were doing it, but the woman politician was singled out for special blame. 

Most women don’t have a direct line to Wall Street—and we will never have the opportunity to be captives of financial interests, nor the opportunity to fail politically because of it. But we do know what it’s like to fail personally: to make low wages, to live with our parents long into adulthood, to rack up thousands and thousands of dollars in debt. But aren’t those personal failures political too? 

It’s embarrassing to write something so personal, and I’m buoyed only by the small kernel of hope that from it someone will grow to understand the political perspectives of some women— at least, this woman. In order to transform our identities and circumstances into political expertise, we are forced to parade our most traumatic moments, our most vulnerable experiences, all of the parts of ourselves that we’d otherwise keep private. In “Your Trauma is Your Passport” Yasmin Nair writes about how “women are not permitted to inhabit public spheres without having demonstrated at least some evidence that they have been physically and emotionally wounded.” This pain is the only way we are made legitimate. When we say “As a woman…,” we are asking everyone who is not a woman to fall silent and defer to the authority in front of them. As a woman, I am asking the same now. 

In 1851, Sojourner Truth delivered her famous “Ain’t I A Woman?” speech at the Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio. She said, “That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman?” Her speech was meant to expose the category of womanhood for what it is: a free-flowing grouping that spans geography, race, religion, age, genitalia—and especially class. She laid bare the immense differences between Black women and white women, those who experienced slavery and those who either profited from it or had the ability to ignore it. The obviousness of her words has since been obscured by those who use and twist their identity in the pursuit of power, or to uphold the status quo once they have it.

In 2016, when it was clear that Hillary Clinton would be the presidential nominee, she said, “This campaign is about making sure there are no ceilings, no limits on any of us.” I often wonder what glass ceilings mean to the women whose job it is to wash them. What are the limits in the lives of women who work at Walmart and McDonalds, women who are pickers at Amazon, women who make cocktails and serve dinner, women who care for seniors in nursing homes? What are the ways these women suffer? We already know some of it: stagnant pay, increasing rents, no retirement fund or health insurance, no ability to pay for their kids’ college, living paycheck to paycheck, slowly or even quickly falling deeper into precarity. What would it really mean for all women if one woman were to preside over one of the most unequal countries in the world?

There are 7.8 billion people on earth; 331 million people in the United States. Roughly half of these people are women. Prior to Covid, slightly over half of the American workforce were women, thanks to growth in the pink-collar service sector, which includes low-paying jobs like food service and child care. According to the National Women’s Law Center, “93 percent of child care workers, 66 percent of grocery store cashiers/salespeople, 70 percent of waiters and waitresses, and 77 percent of clothing/shoe stores cashiers/salespeople are women.” These jobs are some of the lowest paid in the country, most of which lack benefits like paid leave and health insurance. Many also come with unpredictable schedules, leaving workers scrambling. And yet many women are expected to provide for their families with these jobs—41 percent of American mothers are the primary or even sole wage earners in their households. Women are 63 percent of the workers who earn the federal minimum wage, which has been $7.25 for over 10 years. This is gender inequality, but it’s also just regular inequality. If the minimum wage wasn’t $7, women wouldn’t have to make so little—no worker would. 

I have been speaking primarily of cis women, but everything I have mentioned so far not only applies to transgender and non-binary people but is amplified in their lives. Transgender and non-binary people are more likely to be homeless than cisgender people, and they’re also more likely to experience unsheltered homelessness. One in five transgender people have been discriminated against in their search for housing, and more than one in 10 have been evicted unfairly. More than one in four transgender people have been fired because of their gender identity, and over 75 percent have experienced some kind of discrimination at work. The worst parts of our society are magnified in the lives of the most marginalized.

And all of this is not to say that women, transgender, and nonbinary people who struggle and suffer do not care about things like representation or political figures like Hillary Clinton, Kamala Harris, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It’s just that maybe some don’t have time to care because they’re busy worrying about paying their rent or feeding their kids. And others maybe just don’t care at all.

Still, just as women politicians and other public figures intend, we see ourselves in them. In 2016, I voted for Hillary in a public library in Durham, North Carolina. On the drive over, I made fun of all of the stupid women whose identities were wrapped up in her—all of the “yas, queen”-ing, all of the self-righteous personal essays about feminism (Virginia Heffernan called Clinton “light itself”). My boyfriend, who is a good man and would never make fun of women, mostly just listened. We got there in the evening, and the library was buzzing. Every poll worker was an older Black woman, and even though no one really said much, everything felt momentous, the walls felt alive, and everyone was laughing and smiling and seemed to feel genuine excitement and pride about what was expected to come. I felt sheepish for being so dogmatic and cynical, even though I believed myself to be right (I still do). Who was I to think I knew more than or that I had a right to a different opinion from women who were older than me, who faced more discrimination and material struggle than me, and who had most likely been through so much more than I had? But women with hard lives can be wrong too. As I filled out the little bubble for Hillary, I found myself thinking of my grandmothers, who led very different lives but both faced incredible difficulties, mostly on the basis of being women. And both, I thought at the time, would live to see a woman become the first President of the United States. I thought about how even though my life was nothing like theirs, we were all women and all three of us were doing this historic thing together, with millions of other women who maybe felt something stirring inside them too. I cried and became another stupid woman, swept up in the emotion, as women supposedly always are.

My friend Leslie has $150,000 in debt, the vast majority from student loans for college and graduate school. Every year she owes more, no matter how much she pays, which is never a lot because she makes $45,000 a year. She isn’t alone: according to the American Association of University Women, “women hold nearly two-thirds of the nation’s $1.54 trillion in student loan debt.” Black women bear the highest student debt burden, and according to the 2007 Survey of Consumer Finances, the median wealth for a single Black woman in America is $5, or less than one hour of minimum wage work. 

Hillary Clinton’s net worth is over $200 million. Kamala Harris’ is over $6 million. Elizabeth Warren’s is $12 million. For good reasons and bad, these famous, influential, and wealthy women are imbued with a sense of worth. What do these women have in common with my friend Leslie, whose net worth is in the negative hundreds of thousands of dollars? What do these women have in common with any woman who works for a wage, who can’t sleep at night worrying about rent or health insurance or their kids’ futures? Leslie, reading a draft of this essay, couldn’t pinpoint any similarities; instead, she offered “I guess the emotion I feel when I think about your story and my own is desperation.” Have Clinton, Harris, and Warren ever been desperate? When compared to the women who lead and the women who lean in, we are literally worthless. So, then, are the fears and hopes we have for health insurance, relief from debt, for a livable climate.

In Hillary Clinton’s book about the 2016 election, “What Happened,” she wrote about all of the ways Bernie’s beliefs and plans undercut her:

“We would propose a bold infrastructure investment plan or an ambitious new apprenticeship program for young people, and then Bernie would announce basically the same thing, but bigger.”

She goes on to share a joke about ponies and politics—Bernie thinks America should get a pony; Hillary asks how we’ll pay for it and how he’ll get Congress to agree; Bernie says that Hillary thinks America doesn’t deserve a pony; Bernie supporters pile on. Her point, of course, is that Bernie’s ideas—about fighting climate change, about free college, and of course, about Medicare for All—were pie in the sky, and Hillary was punished for trying to bring him back down to earth. She was reasonable and right; and he was a wrecker, and probably sexist.

Almost every night I struggle to fall asleep because I’m thinking about health insurance. It’s probably dumb because I’m lucky, luckier than most women in this country, and probably luckier than 99 percent of women in the rest of the world. I have a good job that feels mostly secure, which is more than can be said for the millions of women and other people who have been laid off since Covid hit. At the same time, everything is up in the air because of the pandemic and all of its ripples. Nothing feels stable, and if I lose my job, my insurance goes too. When I spiral, my best friend says in the worst-case scenario, she’ll divorce her husband and make him marry me so I can get on his insurance. Then I think about all of the women who have been divorced for less righteous reasons, and what has happened to them. In 2012, Doctors Pamela Smock and Bridget Pavelle authored a study entitled “Divorce and Women’s Risk of Health Insurance Loss.” They found that 115,000 women lose their private healthcare due to divorce, and more than half of them become uninsured every year. There are, undoubtedly, women who stay in dead-end or abusive relationships to prevent that loss. Women are potentially forced to choose between dying at the hands of their partner or from our cruel healthcare system. 

Feminism is often defined by the idea of “choice.” I would like to choose to wake up every day in a society that values me and all other women workers—to have a guaranteed union job, fair wages, social housing, healthcare, child care if I am able to become a mother. Instead, I am told I must choose between scrambling for access to those things, or dying. I could call this for what it is: anti-woman behavior—or sexism. And any other woman could tell me that actually I am the one being sexist for calling these things sexist: it’s my privilege talking; other women would kill to be in my shoes. I know this to be true and I also know that I am allowed to be angry about the ways I and other women suffer. And I also know that conditions for me and for all the women I love can become far worse than they are right now. My desire for a basic social safety net is, in a way, selfish: I want to have a good life. I believe that I deserve that. But I also want the same for everyone else—because I know that ultimately, we are all connected. It’s the same reason that higher union density means higher wages and better benefits even for non-union workers. A rising tide lifts all boats—and a perfect storm of a pandemic and economic recession could sink them. This is the basis of solidarity: if you fall, I could fall too. I am with every single working woman because I am a working woman too, and because I can’t have a good life without them also having a good life. I may suffer less than they do now, but because they are suffering, I am with them. And because they are suffering, I could lose everything and suffer more, too.

I don’t imagine I’ll have the same emotional reaction when I go to vote this year. My sentimental bubby is dead and my more matter-of-fact grandmother just wants us all to vote against Trump. But as we get closer to the election, pleas to shut up and fill the right bubble become more desperate; even (I hate to say it) high-pitched and hysterical. “If you don’t vote for Biden, you don’t care about women” is tossed around as if it’s true. Maybe it is. Everything is true to someone, and I don’t blame a single woman for feeling alarmed about a second Trump term, or even feeling some kind of connection to Kamala Harris. But 52 percent of white women voted for Trump in 2016, and we can guess that they probably care about themselves at least, and they are also women. I think those women are wrong, but I never said we should listen to women. Except while writing this. I care about myself too, and I want to live. 

If voting for Biden means we care about women, what does it mean if Biden himself doesn’t? Beyond the credible accusations that he sexually assaulted Tara Reade, and inappropriately touched (or sniffed) nearly 10 women—which, in a world that actually valued women, would be disqualifying enough—neither his climate change plan nor his jobs plan nor his healthcare plan nor his student debt plan go far enough to actually change the lives of all of the women who are suffering. How can anyone care about women when they don’t seem to care so much about unemployment, rent increases, evictions, or student debt? We are meant to accept that because Biden’s running mate is a woman, all women’s lives will improve—that the success will trickle down from one woman to the rest. I, and many women with much harder lives, have been waiting for a long time—to “be heard”; to have our lives changed by all of the women with power and wealth who wear pink to talk about “women’s issues”; to make choices born of desire and not desperation. My anger, my impatience isn’t about Hillary Clinton or Kamala Harris or any other particular woman who is powerful or rich or famous. My anger is about women hiding behind their womanhood to explain why they do things that are unhelpful, even harmful to women—the millions of women, the billions of women, not just the few who have managed to claw their way up. My impatience is about these politicians being able to say “I’m a woman” and expecting an audience with only ears and no mouths. My anger is about the millions of women who suffer every single day, who suffer needlessly but not always silently, who are women too.

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