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Pamela Haag Headshot

Remember When Liberals Were Feminists?

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Ron Suskind's brand new book, Confidence Men, portrays the Obama administration as an old boys club in liberal garb.

I've been waiting for this sort of book, and narrative, to emerge, because it describes within the administration a growing estrangement between liberalism and feminism that I've sensed percolating from the ground up for a while now.

There are plenty of feminists who think like liberals; there are also many liberal feminist organizations, such as the Feminist Majority and NOW.

While most feminists still think like liberals, it doesn't follow that most liberals still think like feminists. It seems to me that many don't.

My feeling as a feminist isn't one of being disowned so much as being only selectively and expediently owned, like that nerdy, uncool friend who doesn't get claimed in public, and whose gratitude for any scrap of attention from the boys is assumed, such that they know she'll be there come election time.

And, since any politician is bound to be more feminist than a Christian conservative evangelical, our fidelity is pretty much assumed. Where else can a feminist go?

In the late 1970s, things were different. You could argue (and I have) that feminism was the muse of the liberal conscience writ large. In 1977 The Nation saw great promise for feminism as the unifying worldview for liberals and the left. "The women's movement has become a bridge," they wrote, "between groups that represent very different social interests" within the liberal ranks. In a more prosaically tactical way -- and, for better or worse -- pro-choice donors filled liberal coffers. Liberals sounded the depths of notions like "equality" and justice through the treatment of women in the workplace and home.

It wasn't just that most feminists were liberals, but that most liberals thought like feminists, with intuitive ease.

Today, feminism is getting marginalized in the liberal conscience at just the moment when it should be more central to it. Geopolitics are often a proxy story of women's status and misogyny. Among many other examples, misogyny and the control of women is central the brutalizing views of the Taliban, al shabaab and other extremist movements; regional wars in Congo are fought through rape, an efficient weapon by which to weaken communities and shred the social fabric; authors Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn argue persuasively in their galvanizing book Half the Sky that lasting progress internationally hinges on the improvement of women's status.

Now, especially, we need a liberal conscience that understands that women's and feminist issues often are a, if not the, big issue at play.

Instead, liberals sound, think, act, talk -- and, if Suskind's correct, comport themselves -- less like feminists than before. Among other examples of feminism's newfound expendability, abortion rights were bartered in health care negotiations; the administration talks about a "good Taliban" and "bad Taliban" strategy; and, now, Suskind takes us inside the boys' club culture of the administration itself.

How and why would feminism recede in the liberal conscience at the moment when potentially it's more relevant to the liberal worldview than ever?

One reason (and there are many -- I'm just talking about one here) is tactical. In national campaigns from the 1980s onward, Democrats became fixated on the display and assertion of what I think of as liberal muscularity. This was an intuitive tactic to combat "bleeding heart" charges of weakness and a (too feminine) sentimentality toward society's less fortunate, or the non-millionaires.

This liberal muscularity campaign began in earnest when Michael Dukakis cartoonishly donned combat fatigues and a helmet and rode a tanker to inglorious defeat in the 1988 presidential campaign. He fooled no one.

The campaign for liberal muscularity continued with Bill Clinton's assertion of his no-mercy bona fides on a death penalty case, and his politically pivotal repudiation of Sistah Souljah in his first presidential campaign.

Then, John Kerry flanked himself with his Vietnam War comrades and marshaled the uber-virile Bruce Springsteen as stagecraft. And, while I didn't entirely share their view, critics of President Obama alleged vehemently and not at all unreasonably that his campaign and supporters committed routine, casual misogyny against opponent Hillary Clinton.

The tactical purging of the feminine in pursuit of liberal muscularity has diminished the place of feminism along with it. The skirmish in October, 2009 over President Obama's all-male basketball games and all-male golf outings seemed a relatively trivial intimation of the larger and more consequential trend that Suskind's work is now describing: it illustrated visually that liberalism and feminism aren't as close as they once were.

Maybe, as with any other long-term relationship, feminism and liberalism simply grew to take each other for granted. Maybe we feminists got lulled into a false sense of security that liberals are our natural, stalwart and obvious allies, and wouldn't display misogyny or old boys' tendencies. It's understandable, but a gravely simplifying loyalty and trust, if so, because misogyny is something that all of us can struggle with or exhibit -- whether male or female (women engage in women-hating, self-loathing, and sexuality-hating behaviors, too), and whether liberal or conservative.

It's all sadly ironic, this quest for Democratic toughness, because second wave feminism was a very muscular thing. It's one of the most successful anti-feminist gambits of the last three decades that it gets associated today with a sensibility of victims and not with the feisty, sexy heroism of the Gloria Steinem generation.

The opposite of victims, second wave feminists audaciously did something and, in the frontier spirit of American self-reliance, claimed responsibility for their own lives and happiness. A feminist story of heroic strength has gotten re-written into a sensibility of weakness -- as if to be a feminist is to be a whiner, buffeted passively by circumstance and mean men that we dully condemn and vilify at every chance.

Somehow the feminist rallying cry of the 1970s, "I am Woman, Hear Me Roar" has slipped into the misperception, "I am Woman, Hear Me Whimper."

The new generation of self-respecting young female liberals don't want to appear flaccid any more than newly-muscularized liberal males. Who would? Two very disparate sources -- one a woman in her mid-20s, and the other a liberal man in his 50s -- explained feminism's diminished urgency among liberal women in almost exactly the same terms to me: young women want to show that "they can take it" instead.

It's an evocative phrase. A man in his late recently 20s confessed to me that he was "appalled" by the shabby and sometimes marginally abusive ways that young women allowed themselves to be treated by men in public. They apply the calloused perseverance of the boxing ring to their own bad treatment, as if they can secure a prized status as one of the boys by not complaining. Everyone is so toughened up that they've forgotten what it's worth being tough for.

Undergraduate women at Yale University are fighting back, and claiming a hostile environment, after undergraduate male pledges paraded through a residential quadrangle chanting, "No Means Yes." But as Yale women tell it, this was only the final straw of a sad history of women "taking it" from men before this point, and tolerating an enervating, low-level din of sexual bullying, assault and disrespect at one of those Ivy League bastions, on paper, of the northeastern liberal intellectual elite.

If you raise the questions I'm raising here -- or that they're raising st Yale -- you'll look prissy, humorless or naïf as a liberal, to be inquisitively perturbed. You'll look stodgy if you dust off the feminist liberal chestnuts of women's "exploitation," "violence," "subjugation" or "oppression."

Still, I think we're beginning to notice the omission, and miss the old consciousness: with the wistful regret of the heartbroken, 1 in 3 of us wish we could have Hillary Clinton in the Oval Office -- surrounded not by the all boys' golf and basketball club, but by the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pantsuits instead.