What Next for Feminism?

What Next for Feminism? January 3, 2017


Four Feminisms welcomes Kerry Connelly of Jerseygirl, Jesus to the blog! Learn more about Kerry here.

REBECCA BRATTEN WEISS, blogger at Suspended in her Jar (Catholic): Samar, the article you shared (“Feminism Lost. Now What?“, New York Time Dec 30, 2016) touched on a lot of the concerns I’ve had not only about the repercussions of the election, but about the role of feminism in our culture today.

KERRY CONNELLY, blogger at Jerseygirl, Jesus (Progressive Christian): I agree the article was quite thought-provoking — and one thing that really stood out to me was that it hardly touched upon the great divide between our black sisters and the way they feel excluded from the feminist conversation. I’ve slowly been learning this, and I have a lot more learning to do — but I think mainstream feminism needs to do better at making space for women of color. That article seemed to only prove the point.

SAMAR KAUKAB, executive director of Arete at the University of Chicago (Muslim): I found the article fascinating too. I was nodding my head to many of the points made, but I also came away from it feeling disappointed by two main things. First, that the article seemed to cast the success or failure of feminism entirely in light of the election, and second, a call was being made that feminism’s “success” rides on increasing opportunity for all women. I find that to be directly at odds with the feminism I’ve come to terms with, which is deeply rooted in a concurrent quest for justice. We can want both things. And to the point above about WOC feminists and the lack of inclusivity in mainstream feminism, I wonder what we do when we reduce feminism to its most “universal” notes, such as increased opportunity. What does that really mean?

Rebecca: That’s why I like that we’re talking about “feminisms” here. When we see how many different movements for justice intersect in different ways, and the different needs of women dependent on cultural context – and on the individual woman as a person, not a type! – it’s hard to say feminism lost or won in terms of just an election. I do think the fact that so many supported Trump shows how desperately needed our feminisms still are. I think of it not so much in terms of Clinton’s loss (because I have a lot of issues with her feminism) but more in terms of Trump’s victory and the horrible excuses people made for his words and actions.

Kerry: One of the things that really concerns me is internalized misogyny among women. This saddens me to no end. A friend told me the other day that she was horrified when women at Trump rallies wore signs saying “You can grab my &*$$“.  I don’t even know what to do with that. It makes me angry, to be honest, and I’m trying to not be so emotional. Samar, you make a great point about how this election alone does not define feminism, but I do think it highlighted its brokenness.

Samar: I agree, the issue of internalized misogyny is a big one and deserves a lot of further discussion. This election highlighted a lot of salient points about where feminism is in terms of cultural influence. At the same time, I’m also really interested in the article’s question about how you broaden the sphere of influences that feminism(s) have while still also speaking to its base. Which base and which audiences are we most concerned about expanding to? I’m really interested in far more discussion in the role that feminism or a lack thereof played in how women perceive their status in America today. A lot of people have brought up that Hillary’s form of feminism offends them – so what type of feminism is better suited at opening the doors to more women? Or maybe it’s not so simplistic.

Rebecca: I think that’s such an important question, Samar. It touches on a question that’s been making  me uneasy for a while. Once we accept that there are many feminisms, are some feminisms “more feminist” than others? It’s finally becoming trendy for young women to claim to be feminists, but I wonder whether this trendiness just means they can slap the feminist label on anything they enjoy, and then say “don’t judge my choices.” We want to be attentive to diverse needs and personal, cultural situations. But I am especially troubled by women who say “I’m a feminist and I voted Trump!” – or, for that matter, feminist defenses of sex work that seem to ignore the plight of low-income sex workers and focus only on the sex-positive tastes of the well-off women who enjoy it. Is there a dividing line between what is and isn’t feminist?

Kerry: Great questions, Rebecca — and I think one we need to dance around carefully. Because who gets to answer that question? Right? Privilege seeps into feminism just like everywhere else. And I have to be really careful not to allow my privileged sensibilities — for example, I’ve had many opportunities so I’ve never had to choose sex work to make a living — so is my view of sex work being filtered through that privilege? And is my feminism being filtered through my whiteness? How can I make space for other feminisms — and how can they make space for mine?

Samar: I agree – I think this is both the challenge and opportunity for women today. What kinds of feminisms can we make space for and at the same time what are the common shared principles that we can all lay claim to. As the author in the Times piece laid out, feminism shouldn’t be the province only of liberals or exclusive to those who can afford to ascribe to mainstream feminist ideals. At the same time though, I worry that by framing this as a crisis moment (as in Hillary failed) that we become utterly reductive. I guess what I mean is that if we talk about framing feminism through enhancing freedom for all women we can’t simply think that increasing economic opportunity alone will do this. That matters and it’s inextricably tied to policy reforms that are needed that enhance freedom but I think we can’t also afford to see that feminism is about reducing or ending oppression in all forms.

Rebecca: When we talk about feminism as an activism instead of an ideology, that lets us think of it not so much as a set of textual principles, but more in terms of personal acting. I’m tempted to invoke the ridiculously trite metaphor of a “journey,” too. We may be on different paths, or different stages of a path. I know my feminism has changed wildly since I first decided to be honest and claim the label about ten years ago. I need to remind myself about that when I find myself in sharp disagreement with other feminists. And when we can do that, and enter into dialogue, we all have the opportunity to grow. So that makes our feminisms more healthy, more rooted….but, how do we influence the culture around us? Also – even in terms of economics, there are such differences between the concerns of well-off women seeking to break the glass ceiling, and working-class women just hoping not to be evicted.

Kerry: So true. And whenever I’m thinking of sociological or political ideas like feminism, I always end up bringing it down to the personal, and activism. What am I personally willing to do about this? Because it’s not fair of me to ask an entire society to do something that I’m not willing to do myself. So when I think of it in those terms, it’s easier for me (although I’m not perfect at it by a long shot) to attempt to make space for the working class woman’s voice to be heard, for the WOC’s voice to be heard. It gives me the heads up to move over and give her the space she deserves on the platform. I think that might be the failing of feminism so far. Anyway, that’s what’s been on my mind a lot lately — I want to make room for other voices that are different than mine. And maybe that’s the beginning — just us listening.

Samar: That’s a hugely critical point, Kerry. In this political climate, the very act of listening may be radical in of itself no matter how meme-worthy that might seem. I think you’re right, when we’re talking about such a complex set of values, ideals, activism, policy issues, and so on and then add in the complexity of women’s identities, we need to be willing to make space for that kind of complexity. I’d like to see or hope that we can see that being more inclusive of white working class women doesn’t come at the expense of the challenges that black women face, for instance.

Kerry: Yes. Buy I’m not sure of how to do this on a level that matters. I can have personal conversations with my friends who are WOC or working class women, and hey, I do great there. (Hopefully). But how do we create this space on a larger platform? And is it even up to me as a white woman to do that? I think it is, but also wonder, am I stepping over a boundary I should be respecting? Am I just tossing around my privilege by always wanting to help and fix? I don’t know.

Rebecca: As uses of privilege go, I can think of far worse. But I know what you mean. It’s hard to know when I’m being an ally, versus when I’m unwittingly pulling the White Savior string. So indeed listening is crucial. But where? And how?

And then there’s the other issue – that we also need to be attentive to the voices of women who have internalized misogyny. But that’s so hard when they lash out at us just for being feminists at all. Religion comes into play here, because there’s so much anti-feminism in many religious circles, but we don’t want to just erase the identity of women who have accepted that their role is to submit, or be silent in the congregation. At the same time, their acceptance of that is really troubling.

Samar: How to be an ally and how to listen I think are very subjective things. I guess what I’m continuing to learn is that when I can, I should lift up and center the voices that are most relevant to a discussion. So for instance, it drives me up the wall when white feminists talk about the “plight of Muslim women” without even bringing in a Muslim woman who can authentically speak to the challenges and realities of her lived experiences. But more so, Rebecca, I think you raise a crucial point regarding the role of religion and how values are communicated and perceived by communities. Religious community members, at least from what I have seen in Muslim communities, often derive the prioritization of their values from our leaders and preachers. What isn’t often explained is how some of these values actually impact or affect women’s lives. So for instance when we are talking about issues like abortion or women’s leadership, we don’t often frame the question as what actually results from the policies we support in the name of particular values. Is it really the Muslim thing to do want women to continue to suffer in poverty or to limit their choices or any other of the many grave implications of the ways in which we prioritize what it means to be faithful?

Rebecca: On the issue of abortion, people think too little about social programs that would eliminate the demand for abortion, and think instead just about outlawing it – without considering whether in so doing they are merely replacing one injustice with another.

Kerry: Agreed. I think the patriarchy is an interesting dynamic, especially in religious organizations. It gives little thought to the ways in which women are actually impacted. I had someone a few months ago think I would get offended if he opened a door for me. “What would you say if I opened a door for you?” he demanded. I said, “I would say, ‘Thank you!’” We are so far beyond that discussion, and are desperately trying to tell the world that hey, our lives are actually being impacted here on a daily basis, in big and small ways, every day, and the “church” wants to shame us for wanting to open our own doors. Seriously, I get exhausted sometimes.

Rebecca: It’s the “straw feminist” thing again. They hate a caricature of us  – that is mostly their own creation.

I have to go tend to screaming children now, y’all – it’s been a great conversation; thanks for all the insights!

Samar: Likewise! My own children are letting me know that feminism be damned, they want a snack. Hopefully, they hear all of these things we’re struggling with and face a different world. It was such a pleasure as always and so nice to meet you, Kerry! Happy New Year to each of you and your loved ones!

Kerry: Thank you both so much! This was a blast. My husband is watching my kids….so maybe I’ll go grab a snack of my own 😉 Happy New Year to you both!

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