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Feminism Has Conquered the Culture. Now Comes the Hard Part

A debate on this unprecedented opportunity

Illustration by Marco D'Alfonso

Hi Judith,

I don’t think that in my lifetime (I’m 39) I’ve ever seen public, popular feminist discourse more robust than it is now. When I was in high school, college, and first in the professional world, feminism—or any open interest in what was once called “the women’s movement”—was totally scorned. I was raised in deep backlash days. Sassy-style feminism lurked on the margins, but there was little larger acknowledgment by my peers, and certainly not within mainstream popular culture or in politics, that gender inequity remained a relevant issue. When I was in college in the mid ’90s, you could be attending the vegan potluck for the Campus Leftists, and if you asked whether anyone there identified as a feminist, not a hand would go up. It felt like the stereotype of the hirsute, humorless activist had fully won out in the wake of the Second Wave.

These days, I never stop being stunned by the number of young women I see wearing “THIS IS WHAT A FEMINIST LOOKS LIKE” t-shirts. I know one high school student who recently read aloud a class essay on the gendered double standards of hooking up, another who acts in a feminist theater troupe. I should clarify that these young women are not the daughters of Feminist Friends I met at Feminist Education Camp: They’re just teens who have grown up in the early twenty-first century. And tuned-in young women don’tjust dwell in Brooklyn and Berkeley. In Dunkerton, Iowa, a couple of years ago, high school students protested a preacher who’d told them to stay virgins lest they “have mud on their wedding dresses.” At Duke, a class of undergraduates founded a blog called Who Needs Feminism? that receives contributions from around the world.

The conversation is getting broader, deeper, and more diverse every year. And a good deal of the credit for this goes to... the Internet, of course! Young people, no matter who they are or where they live, can simply follow a link to a story at Jezebel or Clutch or Feministing or Crunk Feminist Collective, and maybe that story is about Beyoncé, or about a protest over a transgender student being stripped of the title of Homecoming King, or about abortion restrictions in their state, and they find themselves immersed in media that applies a gendered lens to the world they live in. 

And because the media has become more participatory, they can enter the exchanges themselves. The result is raucous tussling over what feminism means in a contemporary context. Sure, sometimes it’s a maddening mash-up of activism and journalism, quick-tempered 140-character exchanges, and more huffing and puffing than action. But cacophony is endemic to social movements, and can be productive.

The Internet allowed for the through-the-night mass viewership of Wendy Davis’s Texas filibuster. It enabled the fund-raising efforts to support Shanesha Taylor, the Arizona woman who was arrested in March for leaving her kids in her car while she was at a job interview. A few years ago, after the Susan G. Komen foundation declared that it would not provide grants to Planned Parenthood, a massive online protest led it to reverse its position.

Meanwhile, there has been the rise of big-name women (and men) who make feminism central to what they’re selling. I hesitate to even bring up her name, so acrimonious are the divisions around her, but we’re clearly going to go there eventually, so we should talk about Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Lean In, her book about workplace inequity. And about Beyoncé, who in August danced in front of a giant, lit-up FEMINIST banner at the MTV Video Music Awards (VMAs), with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s definition of feminism playing in the background—an image I never could have conjured as a young person in the “I’m not a feminist, but ...” universe. There are comedians like Tina Fey, a Hollywood macher who has noted, among other things, that “the definition of ‘crazy’ in show business is a woman who keeps talking even after no one wants to fuck her anymore,” and there are male entertainers, from Louis CK to John Oliver, who speak often and incisively about gender.

Then there are the women working within other formerly exclusively male arenas. Three on the Supreme Court! They may be stuck in a numerically futile position, but all are eager to loudly rebuke and amend the dangerous decisions made by some of their male colleagues. There are women in Congress, including Kirsten Gillibrand, Elizabeth Warren, and Rosa DeLauro, who are presenting legislation about paid family leave, college rape, and sexual assault in the military, while state legislators such as Ohio’s great Nina Turner crusade against restrictions on voting and reproductive rights.

Of course that gets us to the seriously bad stuff, which I believe is tied directly to women’s increasing influence. We live in a world of ever-tightening constriction, in corporate America and in state legislatures, of the very liberties—enfranchisement, reproductive health care—on which women have built their contemporary power. The growing class chasm means that America’s women are offered starkly divergent scales of possibility. Some profit hugely from post–Second Wave economic, educational, and professional opportunities; others are pushed ever further from their rights as full citizens.

Speaking of which, I can’t end this missive without acknowledging this circumstance: The two people embarking on this exchange are white, educated, middle-class women who live in New York City. In this, we are demonstrating the ways in which public feminism has developed far too little, and are emblematic of many of the mechanisms that keep big-platform feminism narrower than it should be. Which brings us to a bigger question: Is this moment actually taking us somewhere new? Is it progress?

A 1970 March for Equality
Associated Press
A 1970 march for equality.

Dear Rebecca,

I’m sorry to say so, but I don’t agree that the state of the conversation about feminism is grounds for optimism. I mean, sure, it’s better to have the beautiful people think the word “feminist” is cool than to have them sneer at it. And there is something thrilling about watching Beyoncé stand militantly in front of a lit-up backsplash of the term at the VMAs—though it’s also jarring to have the word reduced to a fetish object by a high priestess of the misogynistic cult that is American pop music, especially when she has just finished a pole-dancing number.

But feminist Internet discourse doesn’t do much for me, no matter how robust it may be or how much money it gins up for the people and causes that happen to have gone viral on any particular day. People talk—and talk—about everything on the Internet, but that doesn’t mean the talk changes anything. Too much online feminist conversation bounces around in a giant echo chamber, a cacophony of exegeses of exegeses of exegeses, each offering a diminishing return to time invested in reading. (That’s my perspective.) On the other hand, it’s fair to say that a smaller portion of such writing is indeed very good. (That’s probably your perspective.) This is the eternal proportion of crap to real thinking on just about every subject in just about every medium in the world. So, to paraphrase the rabbi in an old joke: Maybe we’re both right.

Let me explain what I mean by good and bad. Good: One of my favorite feminist bloggers, Jessica Grose of Slate, who does sustained enterprise-reporting and bases her opinions on thoughtfully curated studies and data. Bad: ideological-purity-policing hashtag activism, as outlined in Michelle Goldberg’s excellent “Feminism’s Toxic Twitter Wars” in The Nation this January. Goldberg describes the preparations for a 2012 conference at Barnard on online feminism. Critics attacked its sponsors for holding the conference in New York and not paying for non–New Yorkers to attend, for not addressing this issue or that one. The hostile tweets and online comments got “so vitriolic,” wrote Goldberg, “so full of bad faith and stubborn misinformation, that it felt like some sort of Maoist hazing.” Goldberg ends with a lament from Anna Holmes, late of Jezebel, now of Fusion: The women’s blogosphere, said Holmes, “feels like a much more insular, protective, brittle environment than it did before. It’s really depressing. ... It makes me think I got out at the right time.”

Let’s turn to feminism itself. I’ve read your note twice, and I’m still not sure what you think its main causes should be. I think it’s necessary to prioritize, rather than just express general optimism or pessimism. A heroine of mine, Martha Nussbaum, writes that, if you care about human flourishing (a term she uses as shorthand for such things as access to health care and education, political and personal empowerment, a capacity to cultivate one’s creativity, and so on), then you have to ask: “Among the many things human beings might develop the capacity to do, which are the really valuable ones, which are the ones that a minimally just society will endeavor to nurture and support?” Another heroine is the political scientist Theda Skocpol, an expert on the politics of social change, who has shown, among other things, how much nineteenth- and early twentieth-century women did to lay the groundwork for the welfare state. I asked her what she thought about the welter of feminist issues abroad in the land, and she said, “Politics is about deciding what you’re going to emphasize.”

So let me lay out what I think we should emphasize. These issues are all bound up in each other, but for the sake of simplicity I’ll take them one by one.

1. Sexual violence. I think we’ve done a pretty good job fighting it in this country. I don’t know how to quantify this impression, but it seems to me that rape has never been as widely condemned as it is in the United States today. Obviously, too many people are still too confused about what rape is and too many women still don’t feel safe reporting it to the police.

But here’s something I’ve been noticing about the campus rape scandal, the most recent focus of media outrage. Most universities do a remarkably bad job of delivering fair treatment to everyone involved—victims and defendants. The entire process is fuzzy and arbitrary and all too easily swayed by external considerations, such as sparing the university from embarrassment. I don’t mean to dismiss the ugliness of frat-house rape; I’m just worried because I don’t hear a lot of talk about the rights of the accused. Due process is a feminist issue too, because if we don’t insist that rape be defined very clearly (as it is not on some campuses) and prosecuted fairly, we may find ourselves party to some pretty egregious stuff. All you have to do is remember how rape charges were used to persecute black men in the Jim Crow South to be able to imagine what overzealous and poorly regulated rape prosecutions could lead to.

Meanwhile, sexual violence remains horrific in many other parts of the globe, and that seems a more significant impediment to female equality than campus rape. Yes, you can sense inklings of awareness here and there; the local as well as international outcries about the gang rape of a student in India and the sexual assaults on Tahrir Square were heartening to witness. But, for instance, according to the United Nations’ 2014 Human Development Report, African women are nearly twice as likely to be the victims of sexual violence as women in low- and middle-income Europe. The report also points out that mass rape is increasingly common as a weapon of war. I wish I heard as much about that in the U.S. blogosphere.

2. Lack of equal opportunity for women. Equal pay for equal work, gender bias, objectification, the leaning in, the leaning out—there’s lots to say about all of these, but also no end of chatter about them, so I’m going to gloss over them for now. I’ll just say that I don’t think that successful individuals who happen to be female will or can do much to help women in the workplace and in politics, since the barriers to equality are more structural than personal. (I should exclude from this generalization women in positions to introduce laws or make judicial decisions.)

3. Systematic discrimination against caregivers. I’ve put this last, but I actually think it ranks first in importance. And I’m going to admit to some sneaking solidarity with the women of the ’90s. I’m sort of sick of the word “feminism.” If I had my way, we’d replace it with something less gender-specific, like “caregiverism.” That’s ugly, I know. We’d have to come up with something better. But “feminist,” to me, falls short of the meaning that Adichie describes in the clip played by Beyoncé: “the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.” We won’t achieve that kind of equality just by telling girls they, too, can be ambitious, as Adichie does. We have to go much deeper. We have to make it unacceptable to denigrate the work of care, which means challenging a hierarchy of values that goes back at least to the Ancient Greeks.

Feminists should become caregiverists as a way of establishing that the invisibility and unprotected status of caregivers is by no means only a women’s issue. It is at the very least a national one: The stark difference in the quality of the child care available to the poor and the rich perpetuates inequality and makes a mockery of the American ideal of meritocracy. Work-life balance (that odious euphemism!) must also be seen as part of a larger structural problem. Limiting work hours used to be one of the great causes of the labor movement; even as the working day has grown longer and longer, this issue has dropped off the agenda—for many reasons, among them the globalization of finance and just-in-time manufacturing, both of which make it hard to impose standard schedules. Nonetheless, without this broader perspective, we tend to think of our solutions to the problem of undone domestic labor as personal dilemmas—opting out, opting in—rather than as Hobson’s choices imposed on us by a shrinking amount of time available to do chores. Meanwhile, women who “opt out” pay a high price for the privilege. Ann Crittenden, in The Price of Motherhood, explains that college-educated mothers pay more than $1 million in a “mommy tax”—the earnings they lose while they pump out new little sources of labor and raise them by the sweat of their unpaid brows. (The figure is surely higher now; that book came out in 2001.)

I could (and will) get more specific about why I think caregiving should rise to the top of the list, but for now, I’ll turn this over to you.

Gloria Steinem (right)
Eugene Gordon/The New York Historical Society/Getty Images
Gloria Steinem (right).

Hi Judith,

I’m not sure we disagree about the challenges facing women and men today. Where we differ is in our attitudes to what’s being done to tackle them.

Let’s start with the Internet: You write that the talk-talk-talk of online feminism doesn’t do much for you. Fair enough! I acknowledged a degree of that frustration in my initial note. But I find it unproductive and frankly silly to wholly dismiss the value of the feminist Internet, especially since the Web may not make your toes tap, but it is the communicative tool of the generations following us; writing off the exchanges happening there is both disrespectful and risky. No matter how irritated you—or I—may be by some of the empty-calorie content of social media, it’s a tool that has been crucial to real-world political events, from the Arab Spring to Barack Obama’s election.

Your conviction that online feminist discourse isn’t worth much is a breezy dismissal of an awfully large and multifaceted phenomenon. In any social movement, there are approaches that provoke frustration; I had qualms about the usefulness of “Slutwalks,” for example. But your generalized scorn entirely writes off the value of contemporary organizing (as in the North Carolina exercise in civil disobedience known as Moral Mondays or the push-back against Komen) and of the airing of individual stories that shed light on issues related to gender, race, and class. What happened to Shanesha Taylor, for example—one of the viral causes / people you view as random and uninteresting—is symptomatic of the very inequities faced by the caregivers, mothers, and workers who you name as the number-one priority of feminism.

You voice confusion at my failure to lay out my own list of priorities. That wasn’t accidental. Feminism is a massive project; I don’t believe in the utility of ranking its aims. My view of its broadest goal is closest to your second priority: equality of opportunity. But inequality of opportunity is experienced in many ways: lack of child care, family leave, and equal pay protections; sexual and domestic violence; gendered, racial, and class prejudices within education; absence of respect for both paid and unpaid domestic labor, which you so correctly highlight; lack of equal representation in government and in positions of professional power; messages of diminishment sent by the entertainment industries; limits on access to reproductive health care; unjust policing practices and violence against people of color; the rock-bottom minimum wage and middle-class wage stagnation. The list is endless. These are all feminist issues, and there is no one person, group, or cause that is going to satisfactorily address them all.

Which is why I am dubious about pronouncements about what feminism “should” be concentrating on. It leads to the “How can you worry about X when Y is so much more pressing?” rhetorical dodge. Usually, I find, X and Y are both pressing in their own ways. I’ve been suspicious of this move ever since the feminist leader Eleanor Smeal asked me, some years ago, why I’d focus a story on the role of morality within the abortion battle when women were dying from fistula around the world. Yes, women suffer from fistula. But how morality has been framed within the abortion debate is also important; it’s part of the rhetoric that has led to the shuttering of clinics around the United States a decade later.

You seem to be deploying this tactic when you suggest that, while sexual violence in the United States is a problem, “rape has never been as widely condemned as it is in the United States today,” and that there should be more focus on international sexual violence. That evaluation doesn’t really take us, or feminism, anywhere productive. I mean: Sure, sexual violence is a persistently horrific problem around the world and rape has never been as widely condemned as it is in the United States today. But that’s a pitifully low bar, given that marital rape was legal in many states a few decades ago, and that the Centers for Disease Control have reported that one in five women have been raped in their lifetime; reported numbers are often higher for women of color. Sexual violence has not been adequately redressed, in the United States or abroad.

We agree about protecting the rights of the accused. I’m married to a criminal defense attorney who has defended many an alleged rapist and am keenly aware of problematic policing and prosecutorial practices. But again (fistula), it’s possible to care simultaneously about teaching men not to rape and about ensuring that those accused of any crime receive the full protections of our legal system. I don’t need to cast back to the Jim Crow South to imagine the unjust punishment of questionably accused individuals; I need simply pay attention to the rate and manner in which African American men are arrested and imprisoned in 2014.

 You write of your wish that coverage of international sexual violence and rape got as much ink as campus sexual assault, with a nod to “inklings of awareness” about the Delhi gang rape and assaults in Tahrir Square. I’m surprised by your impression that even the shallow world of popular media is silent on these questions. Sexual violence around the world is a focus of an enormous amount of media and political attention. This summer, at a global summit on sexual violence, Hillary Clinton spoke of how “rape and other forms of sexual violence are not inevitable in war, and we can end this scourge.” Delegates from 150 countries signed a pledge to end impunity for wartime rape. Make no mistake: Ending sexual violence as a war crime is a Sisyphean task, no matter how many activists, leaders, or celebrities (Angelina Jolie was a co-organizer of the summit) work away at it. But in your pessimism, I’m afraid you’re missing a lot of the contemporary conversation.

I have both patience and sympathy for your argument against the notion that “successful individuals who happen to be female will or can do much to help women in the workplace and in politics, since the barriers to equality are more structural than personal.” And yet even though the barriers are structural, that doesn’t mean that individuals don’t have any role to play. Big-name branding is not the be-all of a feminist revival, but the capitalist pole-dancers occupy mighty pop pulpits and their voices carry. I’d rather have those voices talking about feminism than not talking about it. By all means, let’s hash out the inconsistencies surrounding those figures: It’s healthy to consider the fact that a woman who puts FEMINIST in lights also informs men that, if they “liked it, they should have put a ring on it.” And yet past battles were fought by leaders just as beset by problematic contradictions (see, for example, the racism of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, or the homophobia and white middle-class myopia of Betty Friedan).

In turn, I’m also surprised by your lack of interest in the way the Internet might destigmatize feminism for young people. Surely some of these young people will leave feminism behind or disavow it. But others will become the activists, reformers, laborers, lawmakers, scientists, and businesspeople who shape the future. If they’re emerging from a youthful culture that has offered them (and their peers) some feminist context, they are far more likely to enjoy support for their work.

Further, I’m not convinced that trotting out examples of how bad things are for women is a compelling argument against the health of contemporary feminist discourse. Yes, things are bad for women (and men) for many reasons related to gender and power. That’s precisely why it’s so crucial that more people are talking about feminism, even if they’re just talking.

But I don’t buy that it’s just talk. Paid family leave used to be a third-rail issue. Today, we may be ages from federal legislation, but on Labor Day weekend, California became the second state to pass paid-sick-day legislation. Next year, New York could follow California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island in offering paid family leave, surely among the most crucial of policy advances.

Look, it’s important to acknowledge that plenty is grim and not devolve into empty-headed cheerleading. But it’s also important to acknowledge expansions of possibility, lest we get mired in a sense of futility—which never got any social movement anywhere.

Sufragettes circa 1900
Buyenlarge/Getty Images
Suffragettes circa 1900.

Dear Rebecca,

 You say optimism, I say pessimism—let’s move on. I’d love to know where you think we should go from here. I know you’re dubious about pronouncing on what “feminism ‘should’ be concentrating on,” but I can’t believe you yourself don’t pick and choose off the menu of causes you so thoughtfully and encyclopedically offer. I do believe in ranking them; to your assertion that prioritizing some feminist issues above others amounts to a rhetorical dodge, I’d reply that it can be an exercise in imposing philosophical rigor—and political focus.

Remember the Whos down in Whoville, from Horton Hears a Who, and the mean kangaroos who doubted their existence? “Call a big meeting. Get everyone out. Make every Who holler! Make every Who shout!” The point is that they had to do it together, with a single objective in view. “If you don’t, every Who is going to end up in a beezle-nut stew!”

Hi Judith,

No, I’m not wild about ranking priorities. But I agree that we are plagued by a lack of any clear-cut agenda. Earlier generations of activists have had some real legislative bull’s-eyes to shoot for: abolition, suffrage, legal abortion. Elaine Showalter recently noted that “a mass movement requires a clear goal, compelling enough to unite people across the dividing lines of race, class, age, religion, sexual orientation and ethnicity, and persuade them to work collectively to achieve it. The goal must be concrete and attainable, even if its ideological underpinnings are complex or contradictory.” Sure, no problem, Elaine! Let’s get on that. But seriously, she has a point. So here goes: 

Federally mandated paid family leave (and sick-day legislation): The nation’s failure to provide economic security to those who need time away from paid work to care for new children or ailing family members is both uncivilized and embarrassing.

Federally subsidized child care: Do not call me crazy; I am “idealistic.” Americans need accessible, affordable, quality day care to make both professional and familial universes more functional and humane. 

Federal equal pay protection: Obviously.

Raise the minimum wage: It could be done now, and it would have a direct impact on millions of Americans.

Repeal Hyde: Legislatively, this is one massive national project that I would encourage feminists of every persuasion to get behind. It surely doesn’t feel attainable right now, but nor did gay marriage 15 years ago. So I’m going with this one from the heart: One of the keys to socio-economic justice for American women across all classes and races is to remove the provision that has, since 1976, barred the use of federal funds to pay for abortion for women in need, including Medicaid recipients.

Heading into more symbolic realms, we should:

Pass the Equal Rights Amendment. I know, I know: It’s only 24 words, but those words are so sensible that it’s just nutsy that they are not in our Constitution. And the defeat of the ERA became so symbolic of the cessation of feminist advance that its adoption would send a message of resilience.

Elect a feminist woman president. I am not suggesting that feminists must rally around Hillary Clinton in 2016, nor issuing any kind of ovarian imperative to support a woman, any woman. I’m merely suggesting that the fact that we’ve only had men in the White House is no inconsequential thing—and that should feminists encounter a candidate with whom they largely agree, and should that candidate also be female, then a movement to make her president would be powerful and potentially unifying. And while I know that an individual atop a screwed-up government can only do so much, research suggests that the election of one female politician makes it more likely that voters will support female politicians in the future, which in turn inspires more women to get into politics, yadda, yadda. Again: I’m not saying it has to be Hillary.

Having laid out these big goals, I want to return to an exploration of why, so far, the well-intentioned energy of youthful feminism has been so diffuse and unfocused. One reason is that the Internet has permitted the conversations to become more diverse, thus increasing the number of perspectives: a good thing! But the less-good aspect is one that you edge toward in your earlier distinctions between “good” feminist media vs. “bad” feminist media. The writers you cited affirmatively—Grose, Goldberg, and Holmes—are, like the two of us, paid to think about these issues. Many young activists and writers are paid little or nothing for their advocacy work while laboring elsewhere to make a living. After all, Twitter is democratizing precisely because it invites everyone to produce content for no money!

We’re roughly the same age, Judith, positioned between the Second Wave, which preceded us, and the crowd of youngsters behind us. Perhaps it’s the scant decade between us—or maybe just our individual inclinations—that leaves you slightly more attuned to the skepticism I hear voiced by our elders and me slightly more sympathetic to the scattershot exuberance of the Internet kids. But mostly we both enjoy a good and distant view of both sides of a generational chasm. And here’s a pragmatic reality that that view makes clear: Young people don’t have money—to support their journalism or organizing or to build infrastructure. What money there is in feminism is both in the hands of older women—who, for some of the very comprehensible reasons you outline, remain wary of the loosey-goosiness of young feminism—and in the hands of wealthy women, like, say Beyoncé and Sheryl Sandberg, figures whom many critics would like to chase out of feminism.

To which I say: Please, ladies of all ages and capitalist profiles, don’t go anywhere! Let’s sit down and warmly discuss how we might all get along better! Because the movement needs energy from some of you, Web savvy from others, and cash from everyone who has some to spare. So if we could all just hear each other out, maybe then we could focus on some tangible goals.

Sandra Day O’Connor, Sister Terry Dodge, Oprah Winfrey, and Maria Shriver.
Associated Press
Sandra Day O’Connor, Sister Terry Dodge, Oprah Winfrey, and Maria Shriver.

Dear Rebecca,

There’s a lot to grapple with here, but time is short because I have work-life-balance problems of my own today—early school dismissal, children’s dentistry, the pesky critters will have teeth—and I can’t resist your provocation. So tell me. When have young activists and writers ever had money? For that matter, when have middle-aged ones, unless they’re philanthropist- activists like Arianna Huffington or corporate feminists like Sheryl Sandberg?

If you want action, you organize. That’s not new. You form pressure groups, take to the streets, work within the system or outside it. Money certainly helps make all this happen, but it has never been plentiful for outsiders trying to effect change.

If you want an open mike for women’s opinions, there’s the Internet. That’s also democracy in action, as you have so eloquently argued, plus of course it’s emancipatingly free. Yes, it has become harder to make a living as a writer of the sort we both admire—by the way, we have the Internet to blame for that—and yet I don’t feel as sorry for up-and-coming journalists as you do, since established ones are also losing their jobs. In any case, it has never been possible to make much of a living writing essays or books about political ideas: Almost everyone has almost always needed grants or day jobs for that.

For their part, yes, activists used to have unions to bankroll them, and no, unions aren’t what they used to be, but in this age of professionalized public-interest foundations, agencies, lobbying groups, etc., would-be activists still have access to decent paychecks. They didn’t, for example, during the Progressive Era, which arose as a reaction to the Gilded Age, the period in U.S. history most like ours in its extreme social inequality and immobility. Some of its most influential writer / activists were born into rural poverty (Ida Tarbell) or to families bankrupted, say, by a father’s alcoholism (the crusading novelist Upton Sinclair.) Al Smith, four-time New York governor and the very exemplar of the reform politician (despite those ties to Tammany Hall) was born and raised on the Lower East Side, the son of Irish immigrants who left school to work at age 13. Sure, it’s harder to agitate when you start at the bottom, but the key to being politically effective is to be loud, not rich.

Hi Judith,

A few things, starting with your question about when have activists ever had money: Money and class have often directly played into activism, in ways that have not always been pretty. In everything from fashions (short hair and dresses) to social freedoms (women walking unaccompanied on streets), marriage patterns, and economic independence, it has often been poor women and women of color who have pioneered revolutionary behaviors, usually out of economic necessity. But it’s often not until white middle-class women ape those behaviors (which turn out to be liberating) that they become discernible as revolutionary.

For instance: In the 1920s, the black writer Elise McDougald wrote about the liberating aspects of paid labor in new fields for black women in Harlem; a decade later, the black lawyer Sadie Alexander eloquently laid out the many benefits of female work outside the home. Yet it was 30 years later that Betty Friedan, a white middle-class woman addressing similar arguments to a white middle-class audience, was credited with kicking off feminism’s Second Wave. (I’m not endorsing this model, but rather countering your notion that past advances have existed outside a context of wealth.)

Often, it has been financially comfortable people who are most able to lend their time to organizing and opining, and not to scraping by. And I don’t mean to simply tag women here: Karl Marx was middle class; Martin Luther King Jr. was middle class; the Port Huron Statement begins with a description of Students for a Democratic Society activists “bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit.”

Of course, movements have also been led by people whose experiences of subjugation shaped their activism—Frederick Douglass, Fannie Lou Hamer, Dorothy Hughes—and by those whose devotion to agitation over money-making has left them struggling. But the nation’s economic structures have changed. Shulamith Firestone died in 2012 in her East Village apartment, which she rented for around $400 a month. It is no longer possible to live in the East Village for $400 a month—or East Bushwick, for that matter.

Things are bad right now for millennials—the very people who are freshly invested in popularizing feminism. Young people enter adulthood hobbled by unprecedented student debt, facing a paucity of jobs and lowered earnings and even worse prospects should they forgo college; they’re living with their parents, are economically barred from many of the cities that make organizing more possible.

You’re right that the Internet permits a new form of gathering—I think now you’re making my argument about its usefulness back at me! But let’s consider the efficacy of noise-making without funding today. The Supreme Court has just gutted the Voting Rights Act and created a post–Citizens United world in which voting has become harder and literally purchasing representative power has become easier. The impoverishment of youthful agitators is not same-as-it-ever-was La Bohème–ism. It’s a structurally supported impediment to altering the dynamics of power. 

So now who’s pessimistic? Though let me recover a smidgen of sunniness by saying that I believe that the restriction of freedoms for women, people of color, and poor people are the death throes of the old status quo. But it’s ridiculous to pretend that money and influence have been incidental to social movements: They’ve been pretty central. That’s partly why it’s important that we not throw the capitalists out with the bathwater.

Speaking of money and class, I’ve been thinking about policy advances: how they’ve worked in the past and about the likelihood that future concrete achievements will be offered up only alongside deeply destructive compromises. The 14th and 15th Amendments granted black men, but not women of any color, the franchise, creating a terrible rift between abolitionists and suffragists who had long worked in tandem. Fifty years later, Carrie Chapman Catt, the head of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, supported Woodrow Wilson’s entry into World War I, enraging her pacifist feminist allies, but probably ensuring the eventual passage of the 19th Amendment, which would allow them the vote.

Were we to imagine a future that included federal paid-family-leave legislation—to pick an example we both believe to be vital—we’d have to imagine the tolls that might be exacted in its passage. Consider that, when California recently passed its paid-sick-day legislation, it left out home health care workers. And remember that, when Social Security was created in 1935, it excluded domestic and agricultural workers. It’s not hard to envision a future paid-leave act that cuts out Americans who need it the most: shift workers, minimum-wage earners, home health care professionals. Such legislation could be a boon to gender equality for millions of Americans, but it could simultaneously crowbar open an even deeper class (and race) chasm between those it benefits and those it leaves out.

How do we move forward without simply walking straight into a repetition of history, in which victories tear apart the coalitions that make them possible? Is it feminist support of more economic populists like Elizabeth Warren? An intensive commitment to voting rights, to ensure that the government actually represents the diverse population it serves? How else can we realistically—and optimistically—prepare ourselves to get the work done without incurring major losses?

Activists protest then-IMF-head Dominique Strauss-Kahn after he is accused of rape in 2011
STR/AFP/Getty Images
Activists protest then-IMF-head Dominique Strauss-Kahn after he is accused of rape in 2011.

Dear Rebecca,

Let me tell you a story. During World War II, day care centers filled the land. You know why: America needed women to do the jobs formerly done by the men now fighting overseas. Newspaper stories about children left in cars and chained to trailer homes, along with the congressional testimony of female union members, convinced the government to fund the day care programs that would allow mothers to go to work. Congress passed the Lanham Act in 1940. It ultimately paid for 3,102 centers that enrolled around 600,000 children—not nearly enough centers, but nothing like it had ever been seen before.

The Lanham Act was not meant to be permanent, and in 1946, Congress ended its funding and most of the centers shut down immediately. In some places, however, the centers did not close. One such place was Philadelphia, because the mothers of that city wrote letters and petitioned and erupted in protests to keep at least 20 centers open. “If something isn’t done by next Thursday,” a woman declared at one City Council meeting, “we will have 200 women, with the children, in the balconies of the City Council’s chambers.” The women kept the centers alive for two more years. In 1948, when the city decided not to allocate any more money, 150 sign-wielding mothers buttonholed councilmembers at City Hall. The police kicked them out, but the women got a permit and returned. They had public sentiment on their side—“never before have readers exhibited such overwhelmingly strong support for a measure,” wrote Philadelphia’s The Bulletin—and by 1949, they had won an imperfect victory. The mayor agreed to fund the centers out of the budget from his own office. He couldn’t get the councilmembers to give public day care a single dollar out of the municipal budget. Nonetheless, ten centers operated well into the 1960s.

“Who were these women?” asks historian Elizabeth Rose, who tells this story in Mother’s Job: The History of Day Care, 1890–1960. “They always identified themselves as working mothers who used the child care centers ... and none of their leaders seem to have been publicly prominent in Philadelphia in subsequent years.” Rose speculates that they were recruited through the centers’ parents’ associations and met during pick-up and drop-off.

It would make a great movie, don’t you think? And it tells me that change doesn’t require professional middle-class activists. (Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying they can’t be the ones leading the way. I’m just saying they don’t have to be.) More than middle-class approbation, change requires rage, persistence, and on-the-ground organization. A thriving network of civic associations available for mobilization doesn’t hurt, either.

This is one reason I do not agree that federally subsidized day care is far-fetched or idealistic. (We have already come so close to getting it—think of the Comprehensive Child Development Bill of 1971, which would have funded universal day care had Richard Nixon not vetoed it.) I feel fairly sanguine that we could secure maternalist, if not strictly speaking feminist, social welfare policies in this country. But getting such legislation passed will require shoe leather and grit and tapping into existing pressure groups more than it will depend on elites talking to elites. It will come from grassroots organizations being willing to make compromises and unlikely alliances to get the necessary votes.

What kind of strange bedfellows might these be? Maybe Hispanic Catholics. Maybe evangelical church groups. Maybe the Bob Caseys of this world, or other Democratic candidates who fall afoul of Emily’s List by not taking the right position on abortion but who are electable and have views about health care, day care, and family leave that could help millions of women. I don’t mean to give short shrift to reproductive rights; goodness knows my life has been predicated on them. But if we’ve got to choose for now, I choose health care, day care, and family leave. For now.

One bedfellow I personally can’t stand, but you can, because you realize, correctly, that we have to take our friends where we find them: the ever-present Sheryl Sandberg and her brand of Davos feminism. Even if the COO of Facebook sounds completely tone-deaf when she brags about improving parking for pregnant employees, even if the so-called Lean In movement is a sham dreamed up by her book publicist, if she highlights the problem of unequal pay for equal work, well then, OK. Would the exclusion of mostly minority home health care workers and others at the low end of the pay scale from paid-sick-leave legislation be grotesque, unjust? Absolutely. Should we take the legislation if we can get it? Absolutely. We build from there.

I wonder whether, in the end, we’ve met in the middle: You sounded a whole lot more Eeyorish in your last entry than when you started, and as we go on, I find myself developing a Charlie-Brown-like hope-against-hope for change in my lifetime. You chuckle at Elaine Showalter when she says feminists need an attainable goal that will unify us across all our dividing lines, but I think she’s right, and I think “caregiverism” might well be that goal. What do I want? Would I like women to stop having to pay that “mommy tax”? Would like to stop paying it? Hell yes. Would I be satisfied, for now, with a deeply compromised version of a federal paid-leave bill or with state-by-state rather than federal funding for day care? Yes. (What is Bill DeBlasio’s universal pre-K if not New York City’s baby step in that direction?) We have to do what we can to make it possible for men as well as women to work and raise families at the same time, and we have to do it in the name of social equality and economic growth, not just in the name of feminism. This “is the big unfinished business of the women’s movement,” Crittenden once said. It’s a long way off, obviously, but yes, Rebecca, let’s get on it.