I am a retired history professor and historian of women, a socialist, and a radical feminist. I know what feminism is, and I know it’s being co-opted. What is feminism? How is it defined? Feminism is the belief in equality for women. But feminism is being used now for unrelated, or even opposite causes, like war, transgender bathrooms, anti-Russia hysteria and political opportunism.
Large crowds of women descended on Susan B. Anthony’s grave in Rochester, NY, on Election Day 2016. Anthony’s grave, in what I saw as a desecration, became completely covered with “I Voted” stickers. I was not surprised to see Mayor Lovely Warren (Democrat) and Congresswoman Louise Slaughter (Democrat) prominently present, nor was I astounded that all of the women interviewed were voting for Hillary Clinton (Democrat and not really a feminist). So therefore I was also not shocked to learn that the whole long queue—at one point taking two hours to get through—was organized by local Democrats. What would Susan B. Anthony’s reaction have been to this purported homage to her struggle for equal political rights for women? As a self-proclaimed “revolutionary” for women’s rights, and a woman who always refused to support any “party not fully and unequivocally committed to equal rights for women,” I do not believe she would have welcomed a demonstration instigated in the service of a political party not fully committed to women’s equal rights, and definitely committed to endless war and global, capitalist-based inequality for women.
Anthony advocated egalitarian feminism (as opposed to so-called 19th century “domestic” feminism, limited to power growth within the family), as did her comrade Elizabeth Cady Stanton. They fought for equal political rights for women first, believing that women’s social and economic rights would follow from women gaining political rights, not without a struggle of course. They believed, like Alice Paul and the National Woman’s Party of the early 20th century, like the 1970s wave of feminists and (to a large extent) the weatherwomen of the 1980s and the Earth First! women of the 1990s and early 00s, that women are the same as men in intelligence and abilities (with exceptions in obvious physical strength, for some), but many also believed, paradoxically, that women are superior to men because of being inherently nonviolent and compassionate. Seeking male-female equality through various political, social and cultural means, has never been easy: it has always been met with, sometimes violent, resistance by the patriarchy.
Feminism has also been constantly thwarted by co-optation. The champion co-opter of potentially radical social and political movements, is the Democratic Party. In working on my present book on women political prisoners from the late 19th century to the present, I have seen it again and again. The American political system has nearly always been dichotomous, and the Democratic Party, especially in the 20th century, with its image and brand as “liberal” and “progressive,” became the party which absorbed labor unrest, black civil rights, and feminism. Once “feminists” are re-imagined as liberal Democrats, revolution (sorry Susan B.) and radicalism are done. I remember being part of a Seneca Falls ERA Conference/Celebration in 1998, and witnessing Hillary Clinton’s triumphal entrance into the city. My remark to the woman standing next to me about Bill Clinton’s questionable personal relations with women (not only affairs, but evidence of procurement, and possible assault and rape) was met with visible horror and a literal turning away from such sentiments. Hillary Clinton is also not a feminist, if that means actually working to help women in the aggregate gain equal rights and a better life—not as a First Lady, Senator, or Secretary of State. She definitely, as Barbara Ehrenreich has written, smashed the “myth of innate female superiority” when it came to advocating and wielding violence. Ehrenreich also notes Clinton’s “racial innuendoes,” along with her “free-floating bellicosity.” So plastering Susan B. Anthony’s grave with “I Voted” for Hillary stickers was not really appropriate.
I also had a lot of trouble reading that seven historians of women, some of whom I’ve always respected, signed on to a Boston Globe piece in February 2017, that equates the very early, and very brave, abolitionist/women’s rights advocate Angelina Grimke’s speech to the Massachusetts legislature in 1838, with Senator Elizabeth Warren’s (Democrat, MA) partisan attempts in the Senate to discredit President Trump’s choice for attorney general, Jeff Sessions. Warren had every right to do that, but it hardly takes the same amount of courage as being the first ever woman to speak before a hostile male audience on the serious subject of abolition. And, august women historians, Donald Trump (and the GOP) is hardly a picnic (although I personally think he perfectly represents what America is), but he defeated Clinton because she is very unpopular and apparently her campaign people bungled the PR/money necessary to win, not because (as the Democrats and the “deep state” and corporate media people who love them will tell you) “the Russians were targeting her campaign.” [!] Dear fellow women historians, where is your (credible) evidence? Your context? Your rational explanations for this Russian targeting? These are seven very good, very co-opted feminists. As is Terry O’Neill, former president of NOW, who, in the euphoria of the (Democratic) March for Truth in Washington last summer, complained that her “entire mission” of electing “good, progressive feminist [Democratic] candidates to office “ is going to be ruined because “a hostile, foreign government has installed a puppet as president of the United States.” Seriously?! Seriously co-opted.
Feminism is also co-opted and mocked by popular culture, in so many ways. You have ugly sexist humor at the Oscars in 2013 via host Seth MacFarlane singing “We Saw Your Boobs”—which, right now is all you will see of 99% of supposedly privileged female celebrities, the female body being objectified and reduced yet again to sex object, even though we 70s feminists fought so hard to change all that. We have denials, in mass media magazines, of college rape culture, in spite of vast evidence to the contrary, with, in 2014, Rolling Stone throwing their investigative reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely relentlessly under the bus for her (pro-women) story on the University of Virginia’s rape culture and (ironically) the denial of its existence by university authorities and ( surprise!) the police. Women’s status/image/power in the culture have been rapidly sliding backwards since the 70s and 80s. Even feminist pop icons like Wonder Woman, have been co-opted.
In a way, Wonder Woman also represents the contradictions of radical, egalitarian feminism. Her creator, William Moulton Marston, wanted to show female superiority, and so placed her origins in all-female Amazon society. I’ve—as a feminist—always loved the idea of Amazon society, whether as historical reality (there is evidence) or Greek and Roman myth. In both cases, Amazon society is a women-run matriarchy, led by strong, capable women warriors, warriors who did go to war for more than self-defense, although they apparently were always up against stronger armies. Marston’s superior Amazon society was also, although featuring women warriors, a peace-loving society. Hence Wonder Woman was tasked to bring her superpowers to the service of a peaceful world: she would save the world from violence and evil. She was also a female superhero, personifying Anthony and Paul’s feminism whose “ideal is strength,” as did the Amazons of history and myth.
So now we have Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, the movie, and again, feminism is co-opted, this time in the service of what Glen Ford of black agenda report calls the War Party. The New York Times’ review of “Wonder Woman” said the movie highlights Wonder Woman’s “sacred duty to bring peace to the world,” although admitting it took a lot of killing to do it. There is, therefore, this Orwellian “war is peace” aspect to the film. The Wonder Woman I knew and loved was never this bloodthirsty, seeming to revel in the violence and the fight. She was always the strong character—female superhero!—she did not, as goddess and superhero, have an equal and/or romantic relationship with Captain Steve Trevor, always portrayed as weak and in need of rescue. I also had a problem with the actress Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman, a woman, in real life, very much in the service of Israeli aggressive military might, even when that might was turned against the children of Gaza in 2014. Wonder Woman here, as Jonathan Cook recently wrote in an excellent piece on Mondoweiss, is disguised as someone practicing “humanitarian intervention,” à la neo-liberal imperialists like Hillary Clinton. Wonder Woman, in this movie, is promoting aggressive western military domination. Amazonian feminism, women warriors ruling their own world, or a superhero woman saving the world without bringing more violence to it, is co-opted.
The ideal of feminism is being muddied on numerous fronts. Jeremiad writer, and a hero of mine, Chris Hedges, recently wrote of transgender women accusing “radical feminists” of being “patriarchal” for defining women as someone born female, with the requisite equipment, and then unfairly excluding people who choose to changeover. Well—why do you want to join an oppressed group? (How many transgenders are we talking about?) And women are an oppressed group. Ask single mothers who cannot make ends meet. Ask all working women who (according to NOW) make between 47 to 73 cents, based on class and race, to the male dollar? Ask women who suffer catcalls, insults, workplace harassment, and an alarming rise in domestic and campus violence, and violence in the military and from police. Ask women who remain out of the Constitution, with no Equal Rights Amendment in sight, without equal protection (Title IX is for federally funded schools and sports teams and see how equally that works), without equal political representation, without a decent, strong, respectful image in the culture. We have a thoroughly militarized, patriarchal culture—discounts to servicemen, “thank you for your service” on entertainment talk shows, Air Force flyovers at football games, camouflage clothing everywhere—and huge military budgets for the huge imperial/global/capitalist enterprise that is America—bipartisan, backed by popular culture, and co-opting feminists in its service. Oh, we need feminism, real, radical feminism, to fight a patriarchy that is alive, well and thriving.
Linda Ford is a retired history professor, living in Madison NY. She is the author of Iron-Jawed Angels: The Suffrage Militancy of the National Woman’s Party, and is currently finishing her new book, ‘Women Politicals’: From Mother Jones to Lynne Stewart.
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