Beyond Steinem’s Feminism

On January 14, Ishmael Reed asked us to consider the story of Ma and Pa Ferguson, the corrupt Texans whose tale of local political hillbilly corruption resembles that of Hillary and Bill Clinton. In 1923, the story goes, Miriam Ferguson became “to clear his name and restore the family’s honor” in the wake of her husband’s scandalous impeachment. It was an apt comparison, a funny one, but there were other aspects of Reed’s essay that were less funny and every bit as familiar.

In castigating Gloria Steinem for shilling for the Clintons in the New York Times, Reed claims:

Many minority feminists, Asian-American, Hispanic, Native-American and African-American, contend that white middle and upper class feminists’ insensitivity to the views and issues deemed important to them persists to this day.

Truly, Steinem deserves the criticism she has recently received for her efforts on the Clintons behalf. In my piece in the current Counterpunch newsletter, I explain why Hillary Clinton is a bad presidential candidate, for feminists and for everyone, and how Steinem’s professed reasons for her endorsement of Clinton are totally implausible. However, in attempting to denigrate Clinton and elevate the struggle of black people against white women, or black women against white women, Reed is fighting a battle of former times, already lost by everyone involved.

The issues of race and class, and to some extent, sexuality, rocked the second-wave feminist movement of the 1970’s to its core. The movement, which had been sustaining an impressive amount of national unity on most of its core issues, saw fragmentation as women who remained marginalized despite tremendous cultural and legal gains called into question the class privilege of feminism’s spokeswomen.

As the Reagan economy took shape, the feminist movement bore up under the pressure to compete; indeed, the movement’s own success primed the market for a more seamless integration of female laborers. Women of color, openly gay women, and poor women were getting left behind as the values for which second-wave feminists fought were scrapped by feminism’s beneficiaries in favor of economic conformity.

So, second-wave feminism splintered in large part due to the questions about race and class that its successes failed to answer. Unlike Reed, I read this failure as an aspect of the movement’s integrity, of its unwillingness to steamroll marginalized women. Despite its failure to capture mainstream media attention, the seeds of feminism have spawned consideration of our society’s priorities and their impact on women. Women, and many, but not exclusively white middle-class women, are on the front lines fighting against the “war on drugs,” which disproportionately impacts women of color; harsh criminal justice policies, which terrorize poor communities; and addiction and sex abuse, which are rampant throughout America. The Reagan economy won, but many of its detractors are women of all colors, who are defending each other.

Contrary to Reed’s characterization, Susan Brownmiller did not “[imply] that Emmett Till got what he deserved”. In her 1975 bestseller Against Our Will, which helped revolutionize America’s political and legal conception of rape, Brownmiller extensively considered rape’s impact on women of color. She also ran a tremendous risk in publishing her analysis of the lynching of Emmett Till, wherein, far from excusing his murder, she explores “Southern white man’s property code” and its effect on the racist, sexist rape dialectic in the latter half of the 20th century. The chapter devoted to this subject is fascinating. Brownmiller’s risk, of course, was to be portrayed as Reed portrayed her as a racist. But if people, including white women, can’t point out the extent to which male bravado, chauvinism, and sexual violence are on a continuum, and the toxic potential when race is introduced, then how can we hope to understand many of the atrocities of the Iraq war? How can we seriously analyze patterns of economic inequality and their relationship to sexual violence and harassment?

Sadly, there is little evidence that a feminist “movement” exists today. Reed is correct in his assessment that racism is a driving force in America. But there is no evidence to suggest that white feminists are the main perpetrators of this ugliness, just as their disunity with black feminists is more indicative of the movement’s absence than of the inability to work past a long-standing racial rift. Today, there are examples of black and white feminists working in isolation, and examples of them working together.

In the wake of Steinem’s op-ed, young feminists on the blog tracked comments from feminists of color, who refuted Steinem without denigrating feminism or distancing themselves from it. They pointed out that Steinem is out of touch:

Ultimately, however, Steinem’s piece (intentionally or unintentionally) draws a line in the sand between people of colour and women, essentially disregarding the everyday racism faced by Black and Brown people, and claiming the Oppression Olympics gold medal for women. Further, by casting the debate as between Black men and White women (despite her imperfect creation of Achola Obama), Steinem renders the woman of colour invisible, reaffirms the binary Black-White paradigm of race, and demands we take a side in the epic battle between race and gender. Is it no wonder, then, that women of colour have long felt alienated by feminists like Steinem? Where do we fit when we’re being asked to choose between Obama and Clinton as a metaphor for race versus gender? And how are we supposed to react when an incorrect choice labels us as “less radical”?

And …

After reading Steinem’s Op-Ed I felt invisibleas if black and woman can’t exist in the same body. I felt undocumentedas if the history of blacks and the history of women have nothing to do with the history of black women.

While Reed’s criticisms of Steinem (her trivialization of black American’s struggles to vote; her indifference to Clinton’s decisively anti-feminist stands on a number of political issues including the Iraq war; her “hypothetical” black woman) and the Clintons (dismantling of welfare; the war in Iraq; general scumminess) are fair, his generalization about feminism is not current. His failure to recognize feminism’s growing inclusiveness is to deny existence and agency to the poor women and women of color who have worked hard to be included.

Similarly, Reed is correct in revealing the disparity in the media’s portrayal between Bill Clinton’s deplorable, systematic sexual harassment of women working for him (“Bubba was O.K. because when he placed Kathleen Wiley’s hand on his penis and she said no, he withdrew it”) and its depiction of Clarence Thomas, who also took no for an answer. Apart from this disparity, however, there exists a much larger, much more compelling issue: despite his offensive behavior, Thomas was confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court. He didn’t get a fair shake by the media for “knowing that no means no,” and he didn’t need one.

I remember feeling my stomach drop as Senator Alan Simpson dramatically brandished a quote from Othello (“Good name in man and woman, dear my Lord, is the immediate jewel of their souls: who steals my purse steals trash; ’tis something, nothing; ’twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands; But he that filches from me my good name robs me of that which not enriches him and makes me poor indeed.”) during the Clarence Thomas hearings. In that moment, I knew he’d be confirmed: for outing Thomas, Anita Hill was Desdemona, Emilia, and Iago all wrapped into one. Fortunately for the right, the wounded Moor in Simpson’s analogy would eventually rise again to penalize poor people in favor of corporations and infantilize women by compromising their abortion rights. Thomas’ confirmation and Clinton’s presidency are totally unsurprising in a country where, as one recent study proved, 42% of female federal employees surveyed reported being sexually harassed at work during the last two years. There are more similarities between Clinton and Thomas’ success stories than there are differences.

The same thing can be said of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama’s reception in the media. Reed levels lots of criticism that betrays more an ax to grind than a serious analysis:

An example of the problems that Barack faces as a result of there being few blacks having jobs in the old media occurred during an appearance by a white woman reporter on “Washington Journal,” Jan.14. So pro-Hillary was this reporter, Beth Fouhy, that one woman called and said that she thought that this woman was a Hillary spokesperson, before noticing that she was from the Associated Press. Obviously the media have been infiltrated by Steinem’s legions.

I don’t know Beth Fouhy, but the last time I checked, being female didn’t make someone a feminist, and Barack Obama is no media foe. In fact, Barack Obama has been received by the media with open arms. For every fawning feminist, there’s a sneering sexist; for every liberal, a bigot. In engaging in sex warfare, Reed legitimizes the race warfare he decries, and distracts attention from the shortcomings of both Clinton and Obama on matters of policy. As for the Clintons’ “smear campaign,” they smear anyone who gets in their way. It’s tough to imagine that Obama was blind-sided.

Ultimately, the “white feminist vs. black man” debate has engendered exactly the kind of unproductive backbiting that will serve to reinstate the Reagan/Bush legacy, right-wing rhetoric in the service of regressive economic policy. While dissent and historical inquiry are essential, portraying today as if it were yesterday is disingenuous. There are plenty of people, men and women of all backgrounds, who are working hard in the face of economic injustice to promote a progressive agenda. Unfortunately, they get little airtime. And, increasingly, they have no one to vote for.

R.F. Blader can be reached at