Feminism and the Factionalized Left

I attended a panel entitled “1970’s Women’s Liberation Revisited ” at the LGBT Community Center in New York City last Thursday. Almost everyone in the room had been in the trenches 30 years ago. In the decades since, they had examined feminist issues from all angles. In their own ways, each of them had remained impassioned, committed and informed about the cause.

I envied their sense of belonging. Their sense of nostalgia. They were a unified group, cheering on rarely cited “real” statistics about women’s wages, clapping in shared frustration about the perversion of the term feminism, once connoting freedom and empowerment, but so often implying anger and aggression to the women who shun it today. The audacity and wisdom in the air invigorated us younger flies on the wall, gripping our notebooks and cameras, trying to take it all in.

But as the night progressed, someone pointed out that all of the panelists were white. And someone brought up ageism. And one woman talked about class, while another talked about the disabled. There was the woman who said that sex same marriage was not a step forward, and the woman who disagreed. And before long there was so much shouting, blaming, and interrupting, with the audience yelling, “Open the floor!” while the moderator urged them to quiet down, that Majority Report founder Joanne Steele stood up grinning, “This really brings back the 70’s. Go girl!”

It was like the 70’s in the sense that every representative of a subgroup felt that the feminist movement hadn’t been fighting enough for her. Noreen Connell, the former State President of NOW, tried to explain that there is no one centralized feminist movement. That all of us have to fight for women’s rights however and wherever we can. “There is a feminist subculture in all cultures,” she said.

But when the moderator wrapped up, a number of slighted audience members continued to argue with each other in their seats and the panelists on the stage. Many connected too, exchanged business cards, laughed, traded information about books and groups and rallies. There was more to catch up on than could have been covered in three hours. However, the sense of excitement and unity from the beginning of the night had disintegrated. What was left, true to form, was the factionalized left.

The right wing mobilizes their communities with military precision. They don’t share the liberal sensitivity to language and diversity. They aren’t paralyzed by political correctness and inclusiveness. There must be occasional dissent among their ranks, but it remains unseen. What’s evident is clear agendas and orderly execution.

It is not surprising that there are stylistic differences between the institutions, but with all of our compassion and good intentions, the left doesn’t focus enough on what unites us rather than what divides us. We project our feelings of marginalization and injustice onto each other instead of using those feelings to drive a movement that could elevate the rights of all.

At the beginning of the night Connell said, “We’re still frozen somehow in a set of issues we’ve inherited from the 1970’s.” Maybe it’s time to thaw.

Michelle Haimoff is a writer, blogger and activist. Her writing has appeared in PsychologyToday.com, The Huffington Post and The Los Angeles Times. She is a founding member of NOW’s Young Feminist Task Force and blogs about First World Feminism at genfem.com.

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  • rose0red

    The Feministing crew should put this on the front page. Great post.

  • opinionated

    You’ve got to be more inclusive if you want a more balanced voice. I’m glad it’s not an all white group, but, diversity and a balanced voice it is not. Are any of the feministing contributors over 35?
    Are any of them mothers?
    I’ve noticed that online /blog feminists tend to be under 40, maybe even under 35…30?
    There are not a lot of mothers expressing here, certainly not a lot of mothers of teens or young adults, adults etc.
    I doubt there is more than one or two grandmothers.
    For instance, that a contributer posted the photo of the little girl with the bag of Lay’s chips displayed a complete unawareness of what a feminist mother has to fight in todays society.
    It was a rookie, immature post that was defended by people in their 20’s, who’ve not been given the responsibility of a child,
    and it showed.

  • rose0red

    Regarding age: I think bloggers of all types tend to skew young. Let’s face it, it’s a time-consuming, low-paying occupation and not ideal for a person that is raising and/or supporting a family.
    That being said, there ARE older feminist bloggers out there, and feminist moms that blog as well. It would be nice to see one of them on the Feministing staff.

  • Marj

    I think bloggers tend to skew young also because we grew up with technology in a way that older generations didn’t. Blogging is more familiar to us. Even in my lifetime technology and the associated culture has advanced considerably (It seemed like everyone a year or more younger than me had a cell-phone in high school, when it wasn’t common in my peer group), I can’t imagine how it must look to someone twice my age.

  • rose0red

    There are A LOT of bloggers over 35.

  • rose0red

    It’s amazing what us old folks can manage, what with our stone-age upbringings.

  • Marj

    I never said there wasn’t

  • Comrade Kevin

    Here here!
    Age argument aside, I don’t know how many times I can say “disregard postmodernism altogether”. A structuralist-functionalist construct is what we need, unless we want to keep breaking into factions fighting for the oxygen in the room.

  • The Flash

    Color me cynical, but I think the right will always have better organization. The right is not about dignifying individuals’ choices, but about conformity. That means they can get behind a single message and, if it isn’t perfect for them, who cares? The ethos behind conservatism is of accountability for individual choice without respect for individual choice. As long as we’re worried about everyone being comfortable, instead of being ends-oriented about getting basic concepts out there in the world and achieving discrete goals, the Left will never have decent organization.
    Case in point: why isn’t the face of the gay marraige movement a conventionally attractive femme lesbian couple? Because it’s sexist to play to male fantasies? Hoenstly, if we can just get a few ballot initiatives passed/defeated in favor of gay marriage, who the hell cares?

  • KBZ

    It is the nature of politics that divided interests and factions will have to form a coalition in order to govern. The conservatives have the fiscal conservatives, the Christian/ social conservatives, the libertarians, the security hawks, the law-and-order types, etc. They generally agree on most things, but everybody has their pet cause or highest priority issue — gun rights, low taxes, Christian evangelism, anti-abortion, small government, interventionist foreign policy, harsh punishment of criminal activity, etc.
    It is no different on the left. We have feminist activist, environmental activists, anti-war activists, LGBT activists, race activists, disability activists, workers rights activists, poverty activists, etc. We all generally agree on each-other’s issues … but, everybody has their pet cause. Awareness of other issues varies, however.
    I think additional problems can arise on the left because of the nature of the activism is usually very personal, and based primarily on advocating for sensitivity and awareness. A Christian conservative who doesn’t care for guns is unlikely to say something thoughtless that will personally offend a gun-rights activist. A well-meaning heterosexual white feminist, however, is very likely to forget her privileges and to say something thoughtless that offends a homosexual, racial minority, or transgendered individual.
    The coalition of the left is more diverse, somewhat more fractured, and when even our political allies lack the sensitivity that we’ve trying to spread to the entire population, it can be more hurtful than if some random right-winger said something stupid.

  • emily1224

    Fascinating idea for the face of the gay marriage movement, it actually might be brilliant. Do you think it would work?
    Of course it does raise the question of whether the ends justify the means – or whether it’s better to be inclusive of all voices, even sometimes at the expense of “progress.” Maybe that in itself IS progress.
    The result of tearing down the notion of one homogeneous narrative CAN’T be that the Left never accomplishes anything of meaning again… can it?? But if not, what’s the solution?