This past Saturday, I participated in Chicago’s Bughouse Square Debates, an annual event where authors, thinkers, and activists stand on literal soapboxes and, amid heckling crowds, argue a point in 15 minutes. My topic was, “Is there such a thing as a conservative feminist?” tied to Sarah Palin’s heartsinking claiming of the F word in recent months.* I went into the event pretty sure of my nuanced point of view–that people can be personally anti-abortion, anti-gay-marriage, anti-premarital sex, etc. but there’s no reason they can’t be feminists if they don’t actively impose their personal views on anyone else through legislation or policy.**
At one point, though, my “nuanced view” went to shit.
I came prepared to tell the story of Lauren, whom we met on Girldrive, a midwife who was determined to give power back to the woman in the birthing process, but who was vehemently anti-abortion and, at 23, was saving herself for marriage. Or the story of Katharine, who was a nun-to-be, and who called nuns the “ultimate feminists” because they shunned trivial materialism and devoted their lives to altruism.
I was all set to say that feminism is a negotiation, a constant struggle between the personal and the political, between convention and the future, and between universal human rights and partisan positions. That it was fucked up to leave conservative women out of the conversation, especially if they felt torn between their family’s traditions and their own reality. And then I was going to add a simple caveat: that capitalism needs to be humanized, that business needed to be regulated, in order to break down structural sexism.
I was a few minutes into the debate when a heckler cried, “But what if Lauren votes? What if Katharine gives money to a pro-business Republican’s campaign? What then?”
The heckler was right. Was I saying that a conservative woman could be a feminist, as long as she wasn’t politically active? It sounded bad–the feminist equivalent of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.
I struggled to explain. “Perhaps these women will push Republicans, and conservative politicians, to adopt more moderate positions. Perhaps their social values would help in some way, despite their fiscal views.”
But that didn’t sound right either, especially since I was about to explain how it’s nearly impossible to be completely, 100% pro-capitalism and also being a feminist. While some Feministe readers might be nodding their heads in agreement, this claim is far from obvious in the national conversation about feminism. For years, women’s rights activists have argued for more inclusion in the corporate world. There’s the iconic image of the 1980s business woman in shoulder pads and a power suit. Women entrepreneurs like Oprah are held up as feminist victories. Self-made female millionaires encourage other women to be economically independent, and blaze their own trail and not depend on men. Hanna Rosin described a typical Tea Party mama as an “übercompetent CEO, monitoring with vigilance her own family bank account, the local school bank account, and, as a natural extension, the nation’s.”
But there’s a difference between arguing for equality in capitalism, and trying to change our economic system as we know it. Feminism isn’t only about equality; it’s about believing that you can alter the status quo, and feminism has deep historical connections with socialism/Marxism/anarchism.
In a (very small) nutshell: the two opposing forces here are big government and the free market. A pro-business stance is pretty much always part of a Republican platform, undisputed. The Tea Party’s bread and butter is appealing to people who have lower-taxes, less-government, let-the-poor-fend-for-themselves mentalities. And so if you push for more corporate power, and less government spending, you’ll inevitably be cutting social programs and widening the pay gap. And the people who will be hurting the most is women and their families, and poor people and minorities and the disabled and pretty much everyone who’s not white, male and rich.
This connection isn’t news for readers of Feministe. This isn’t even news to mainstream feminists: they publicly endorse the lesser of two evils in this sense–the Democrats–although given the fiscal history of the Dems in the last 30 years, it’s pretty hard to even make that argument. But it dawned on me, as I stood on that soapbox: In 2010, feminists are afraid to talk about capitalism–specifically capitalism as it stands now–as anything less than a given. To them, it’s as futile a fight as trying to paint the sky green. Consider the recent back-and-forth about whether Sarah Palin is a feminist. Sure, she’s actively anti-abortion and cut funding for teenage moms and made women pay for their own rape kits. But she’s also the Tea Party’s patron saint–and given what they stand for economically, that alone should be a dealbreaker. Shouldn’t it?
Why haven’t mainstream progressives come out and said it? At some point, one’s views on social issues are not enough–that it’s simply not feminist to ignore or scorn the poor. It’s simply not feminist to put business in charge of running our country, or prevent people (women) from organizing so they can provide a living wage for their families. Seems simple, but it’s not really being said.
And how many Republicans are in favor of regulating businesses, of strengthening unions, of raising the minimum wage, of pouring money into social programs? Virtually none. As Ann Friedman pointed out yesterday, the new rush of women-headed conservatism involves all this mommy rhetoric, but in terms of policies helping working families, we hear either radio silence or opposition to spending. As she points out:
Where do these candidates stand on children’s health insurance? On family-leave policies? On consumer product safety? On early childhood education? We can make some inferences based on their anti-government talking points, but their campaigns don’t even touch on these issues. When they do weigh in, they offer opposition, not solutions. They’re against “Obamacare.” Against cap-and-trade. Against spending. The campaign website of Sharron Angle, the extreme right-wing challenger to Harry Reid in Nevada, was recently scrubbed of calls to completely abolish the Department of Education.
Let’s call these positions for what they are: a blind, religious devotion to corporations. An unwillingness to re-imagine capitalism.
I’m not an economist. This isn’t meant to be an entire structural analysis of how class and gender intersect. It just disturbs me how capitalism has become untouchable in our political environment, that the only thing getting debated feminist-wise by mainstream pundits is whether or not someone supports abortion, gay rights or other social issues. It pisses me of that socially moderate, fiscally conservative politicians like Olympia Snowe or Jean Schodorf get a (mainstream) feminist pass just because they don’t want to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Republicans often complain that liberals are tolerant of everyone except conservatives. The same complaint goes for feminists—that they’re constantly critiquing who can be in the club and who can’t. I’ve always been opposed to framing feminism as some sort of club, with a laundry list of rules and regulations. Not only does that ignore the fact that traditionally marginalized women feel excluded from the movement (as we learned last week on this blog), it also creates a dynamic of “You’re either with us or against us.” It blocks discussion. It leaves no room for complexity.
But after Sunday, I realized voting for a socially moderate Republican does no good–ever. It may protect some civil and reproductive rights we have now from being bludgeoned, but it does nothing to break down more structural inequities. No matter what, it turns a blind eye to economic policies that, as Ann puts it, “have, for far too long, been lost in the woods.”
At the end of my debate, an angry heckler shouted out triumphantly, “So you’re a socialist!”
I replied, “Well, kinda. And what?”
*I’m about to use the word “feminist” a lot in this piece…but that’s not without acknowledging that many progressives have long since given up on the term as a privileged-women thing, as a movement that is at least complicitly if not consciously participating in the oppression of others. I’m going to use the word, because I still think it has power and that’s the word that Palin and her ilk have been using. But generally I mean pro-woman, pro-social-justice in general, gender activist, etc.