I sometimes imagine a long-ago unicorn moment when a path appeared that, had it been taken, may have dramatically altered the lives of America’s working class, or what we now call the 99 percent.
In the mid- to late-part of the 20th century, the labor, civil rights, environmental and feminist movements were at an apogee, an emerging counterweight to the wealth extraction and concentration grinder of capitalism. Looking back, the potential was breathtaking.
Each group had their own issues, but beating in a collective heart was a vision of social justice, equality, workers rights, and economic security, a vision of a society in which capitalism and democracy worked hand in hand to provide opportunities for success and happiness to the maximum number of people and communities.
What might have happened if these groups had, for example, joined together to form a political party, demanded fundamental changes to the wage-based economy, and fought collectively for health care for all and other initiatives to promote the well-being of worker-majority?
Instead, it all fell apart.
Hindsight is twenty-twenty and seen through rose-colored glasses. I was barely alive in those years, and unquestionable progress was made on several fronts. But why did such magnificent potential fail to fundamentally alter the oppressive structures and thwart the means by which the powerful game the systems of capitalism to favor a few?
The reasons are complicated, but in part, within labor at least, the blinders of white male supremacy threw up obstacles, preventing these grass roots movements from coalescing to jointly realize a vision of a different type of society. Anti-communist hysteria didn't help, as it marked left leaning reformers as enemies of the state.
In light of today's declining influence of labor, extreme and ever-growing disparity of wealth and privilege, continued racial inequities, poverty and so much more, honest attempts to reckon with that past are emerging, as progressives try to figure out a path forward.
In her book Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto, Jessa Crispin examines this topic from the perspective of the feminist movement, looking back and forward at what we have wrought, where things took a wrong turn, and how we might move forward.
Crispin first reviews the history. Here is a little taste of Crispin's thoughtful perspective, colored around the edges by my own experiences.
The feminist movement initially coalesced organically around gender and worked hard to break down legal and regulatory constraints that limited financial and professional choices. (Remember not that long when women could not even get credit cards in their own name? Think Mad Men era.)
As barriers fell, women who had previously been denied entered the workforce in droves (although it is important to call out this this is largely a "white" feminist history, women of color historically have been employed, with fewer economic avenues to choose otherwise). The white feminist movement of the last 20th century celebrated the apparent reduction of barriers to working as a major achievement while looking away from the parallel economic reality that real wages for all workers were declining. Instead of demanding change, working to dismantle systems that oppress all workers, and to create accessible social programs focused on education, child care, income sharing, health care access, decentralized authority, and the like, we persuaded ourselves that accommodation and “leaning-in” to the existing system was somehow the same as changing the system. We reverted to our culturally-programmed desire to please.
"In order to make feminism palatable to everyone, they have to make sure no one is made uncomfortable by feminism’s goals…feminism has become fashionable, the actual feminist work of creating a more equal society is as unfashionable as it has ever been," Crispin writes.
The movement has now evolved into one in which ensuring at least an appearance that woman’s choices are not overtly constrained is marked as progress. Some women have been very successful in this establishment model, enabling them to live lives that not so long ago were open only to men. In other words, they have opportunities to accumulate wealth and real choices. But the vast majority of women (and men) do not. Is there value in being "allowed" to work a low-wage job with no health insurance or economic security? Is this really a choice?
“By fighting for your own way to inclusion, you are not improving the system, you are simply joining the ranks of those included and benefiting. You are doing your own excluding and exploiting. In other words: you, a woman, are also the patriarchy,” Crispin observes of women hovering around — or even above — the glass ceiling.
In later chapters, Crispin takes issue with the outrage culture of feminism, amplified by social media, in which an often-unintended insult can ruin a man’s life — referring by example to the Tim Hunt saga that shook the scientific landscape a few years back. She goes on to provide a devastatingly illuminating critique of a constraining culture in which marriage and children define a women's worth. "Romantic love isn’t just how we give meaning to our lives, it’s how we organize society.” In other words, the choice remains either to rely on men or to remain single, and the anticipation and dominance of this choice shapes us from adolescence onward. Above all else, we must be lovable, and ideally, more lovable (and sexier) than other women, according to Crispin.
Like many books that seek to re-imagine the future, Crispin presents a strong critique of the past and the present, but the prescriptive sections are less compelling. I did not find much of a manifesto here in any pragmatic terms. But that’s okay. The answers to counterbalancing the current dysfunction of capitalist structures are not obvious. And it's not really a job solely for feminism. Crispin has made a big enough contribution to identify the failures, to remind and inspire us of what the radical end of feminism can — and should — still achieve.
The prose is clear and strong, and appropriately — in my view — acerbic. However, a taunting tone aimed at, in essence, collaborators with the patriarchy, pervades some parts of the discussion, and the revolutionary fervor and associated language, could turn off many people, including women who might otherwise be engaged. For women on the inside, opportunities do exist to foster change. Does this tone relegate the book into the category of preaching-to-the-choir? Perhaps. Does that matter? Probably not. The choir could use some reinforcements right about now.
While I don’t agree with everything Crispin puts forward, I don’t need to agree with everything to find this book a powerful catalyst for the debate and discussion so deeply needed by feminists as we reconsider our individual actions and goals in the wake of widening divides across this country. Is it time to renew and reinvigorate the original visions of the glory unicorn days?
Yes, of course, but understanding what went awry helps to chart a way forward. This book provides a partial answer that may be relevant to other movements as well: we allowed ourselves to be divided, seduced, rewarded just enough to silence us and even turn against one another as our narratives were recast by the patriarchy, and then quietly neutralized. By now, we've learned enough to see what happened and to know that meaningfully dismantling oppression requires us to look beyond tribal self-interest or identity. Crispin nails it with this remark:
"Radical change is scary. It’s terrifying, actually. And the feminism I support is a full-on revolution. Where women are not simply allowed to participate in the world as it already exists—an inherently corrupt world, designed by a patriarchy to subjugate and control and destroy all challengers—but are actively able to re-shape it. Where women do not simply knock on the doors of churches, of governments, of capitalist marketplaces and politely ask for admittance, but create their own religious systems, governments, and economies. My feminism is not one of incremental change, revealed in the end to be The Same As Ever, But More So. It is a cleansing fire."
Bold words and certainly more than words are needed. But words are a form of leadership, and we have to start somewhere. I encourage others to read this thought-provoking book.
Contributed by Kathleen McFall