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Feminist Infighting

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There is a lot of discussion about "feminist in-fighting" of late, spurred by the election. Jessica Valenti of Feministing.com is doing a piece on the subject for The Nation. Here is my response to her query:

1. The fact is there have always been many "feminisms," but one dominant, more visible Feminism, which is essentially comprised of the needs, views, and philosophies of straight white women with a certain degree of privilege. Now we can add "and of a certain age" to that list. Women of different backgrounds have been speaking to this issue of exclusivity for decades, and their critiques have been voluminous. The lack of resolution of these critiques is currently manifesting in an exacerbated form, and labeled "infighting." There are no new issues on the table. For example, my mother, Alice Walker, did not create the term "womanist" in the late '70s because she was feeling creative. I did not offer the concept of Third Wave in the '90s because I wanted to inject a catchy phrase into the Feminist discourse. And, many "mainstream" women did not reject the Feminist label in the '60s to present because they don't know what Feminism really is.

The complaints brought against Feminism include racism, classism, ageism, out of touchism, and a certain tendency toward First World arrogance. There has been an enduring wariness in communities of color specifically, about Feminism's mantra of independence rather than interdependence with male family members and the world at large. This would include Feminism's ambivalence about motherhood, marriage, and domestic life in general. This would include Feminism's divisive and ultimately unhelpful commentary that women need men like fish need bicycles (women need their grandfathers, fathers, sons, brothers, etc. for a host of reasons too lengthy and obvious to list here). This would include Feminism's dismissal of religion itself based on its patriarchal leadership. This would include Feminism's characterization of young women who don't fall in line with the Feminist status quo as naive and ungrateful. This would include Feminism's short-sidedness that will ultimately undo the work of their anointed protegees.

Simply put, if Feminism was Wal-Mart, and had as many decades-old unresolved grievances against it, it would have long ago been bankrupt.

2. What we see in this election is the zenith of the decades-old struggle between women of different sensibilities seeking empowerment, enfranchisement, and their rightful share of the resources available. The issue at hand has to do with Feminism's (not feminism's) inability to respond adequately to the claims brought against it. If, for instance, the leadership had taken the aforementioned critiques, including those in my 1995 book To Be Real seriously, many younger women might not feel so alienated from a movement that achieved so much for them. Women of color at large might not still be skeptical of what they perceive to be Feminism's true agenda -- to empower the few and not the many. Men, many of whom would be allies to feminism's cause, would not feel attacked, rejected and alienated from a movement that held great potential benefit for them as well.

The rise of Women for Obama then, to some extent has to do with Feminism's creation of a vacuum. This is why, for instance, a Wal-Mart would "go green" at the insistence of its customers. If Wal-Mart did not respond to the messages of its base, its base would go elsewhere. To a consumer environment that better suits their sensibilities an aspirations, perhaps. The same could be said about Feminism.

3. Overall, the response of Second Wave Feminist leadership has been a stubborn insistence that it has already accommodated the aforementioned views and critiques, and that if people would just understand the "real" history, this would all be cleared up. There does not seem to be an understanding that this very response is problematic, insulting and trivializing to those who have brought forward these concerns. It is not that this diverse community of challengers is ignorant, it is that they have surmised the landscape to find many of their concerns and reservations confirmed. It is no secret that, just as middle class blacks have benefited the most from the civil rights movement and the rest are either impoverished or in jail, so have a certain group of women been the primary beneficiaries of Feminism.

To continue the analogy, if Wal-Mart claimed it had made the switch to green, but the products on its shelves were, in fact, not reflective of that claim, Wal-Mart would lose the faith of its customers and again, over time, be forced into bankruptcy.

4. Based on the above, I am not entirely certain that the calls decrying Feminism's death are incorrect or even undesirable. Perhaps a Feminism that has not responded to the needs of its constituents needs to die. Perhaps Obama is unintentionally killing feminism and facilitating the rise of "feminisms." We shall see. He has clearly addressed the issue of ageism. Young people are not marginalized in his campaign or team of advisors. In fact, young people of all backgrounds have come out in support of his message by the hundreds of thousands. This generation has yet to do the same for Feminism.