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Why Not a Women’s Party? 

Recent news about sexual harassment and violence have lit up every bulb on the political light string.  The most discussed include mainstream Democrats, like Harvey Weinstein; aggressive conservatives, like Roger Ailes; white-nationalists, like Donald Trump; and to left-liberals, like Al Franken and John Conyers.

It seems increasingly clear that gender and sexuality are separate from the left-right spectrum we usually use to understand politics.  Equally clear is that the the two major parties do not fully represent those of us who are on the down sides of gender and sexual hierarchies.

Perhaps it’s time for something new.  Why not a Women’s Party – or, hewing more closely to contemporary usage, a Gender Equality Party?

The idea sounds radical.  But in addition to the fact that Britain has had a Women’s Equality Party since 2015, the notion also has a distinguished pedigree in the United States.

After women’s suffrage, a wing of the movement birthed a National Woman’s Party.  This imperfect organization, almost all wealthy and white, tried to create an autonomous women’s political bloc.  The Party’s defining initiative, starting in 1923, was for an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the Constitution.  Parallel to the National Woman’s Party was the League of Women Voters, which operated within the major parties but was similarly dedicated to using women’s votes to change policy.

By the 1930s, activist women had mostly been incorporated into the traditional political parties.  Thousands became Democrats, thanks in part to recruitment efforts headed by female pol Molly Dewson.  Democrats made good on part, although not all, of the organized women’s agenda.

In the 1960s and 1970s, disappointment with male-dominated politics resurfaced.  White women complained that male activists wanted them to “put out” and make coffee for the cause.  Some African American women were fully accepted by black men fighting for civil rights.  But a variety of women of color feminisms emerged from the impatience women felt with posturing male warriors for Black Power, Brown Power, and Red Power.

Feminist anger from the period still crackles: Robin Morgan insisted: “No more, brothers.  No more well-meaning ignorance, no more co-optation, no more assuming that this thing we’re all fighting for is the same.”  Michele Wallace lamented: “Now that freedom, equality, rights, wealth, power were assumed to be on their way” for black men, many believed African American women “had to understand that manhood was essential to revolution – unquestioned, unchallenged, unfettered manhood.  Could you imagine Che Guevara with breasts?  Mao with a vagina?  She was just going to have to get out of the way.”

Feminists created their own organizations.  The National Organization for Women and National Women’s Political Caucus were joined by efforts for liberation beyond law courts and ballot boxes.  These efforts were nourished by organizations of politicized LGBTQ people and non-sexist men.

There were gender-based mobilizations behind Shirley Chisolm’s campaign for President and Hillary Clinton’s near miss.  Neither was independent of the Democrats.  Now, after Clinton’s loss and the nonpartisan opening up about sexual harassment, we can appreciate anew the value of building autonomous organizations for gender subordinates and gender rebels.

A Gender Equality Party faces challenges.  Most profound are the twin questions: what is its agenda?  And who are its members or subjects?  Feminists know that women’s political needs are inseparable from their race, class, geography, (dis)abilities, and nationality – and therefore not uniform or obvious.  Feminism today adds extra complexity by embracing women born as men and people who don’t identify with any familiar gender categories.

Challenges aside – why not give it a try?  A Gender Equality Party could serve as a spur to new thinking, reminding Democrats and Republicans that feminists, LGBT people, trans people, and their allies, are part of every winning coalition.  It might stop Democrats from throwing reproductive rights, and sexual and gender expression, off the boat and into sharky waters.

Theorist Juliet Mitchell claimed five decades ago that women’s was the “longest revolution” in world history.  Judging by the news from Hollywood and Washington, the revolution is still far from won.  Perhaps a Gender Equality Party can get us a little closer to where we ultimately want to be.

* This piece will air, in abbreviated form, as a commentary on Vermont Public Radio on Tuesday, December 12, 2017.  

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Felicia Kornbluh is an Associate Professor of History and of Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies at the University of Vermont.  She served for six years as Director of the GSWS Program at UVM and has also served as a Commissioner on the Vermont Commission on Women and as President of United Academics, the UVM faculty union (AFT/AAUP).  Kornbluh holds a B.A. from Harvard-Radcliffe and a Ph.D. from Princeton University.  Her books include The Battle for Welfare Rights (2007) and, with Gwendolyn Mink, Ensuring Poverty: Welfare Reform in Feminist Perspective (forthcoming, 2018).  Her articles have appeared in a wide array of academic and non-academic journals.   

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