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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