06/12/2008 12:36 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Everybody Movement Is A Nobody Movement

In their article for the Huffington Post Wednesday, Shireen Mitchell and Adele Stan take me on for criticizing intersectional feminism. Their headline ("A Feminist Focus Includes Everybody") makes my case better than I ever could. "We feminists" they cite me as saying "are just too damed (sic) concerned about things that . . . aren't the oeuvre of 'white middle class women.' Things like civil rights, war and peace, and the fate of the planet."

In fact, I do assert that a movement that includes everybody and takes as its "oeuvre," a fancy word for "job," civil rights and war and peace and the fate of the planet is not in any meaningful sense a "feminist" movement - that is, it is no more a feminist movement than a civil rights movement or a peace movement or a fate of the planet movement. Being human, women are of course involved in every earthly undertaking. But why call it "feminist," rather than any of the other names? Worse, I contend, such an Everybody Movement is unlikely to achieve any of its ends, and certainly not such "oeuvres" as happen to involve women, should the title feminist have any meaning to the users after all.

Why is this? First, a movement that includes everybody cannot make a case for going forward for anybody in particular. The language totally muffles the act of choice and setting priorities. Thus, in the recent election, intersectionalists defined feminism to mean, as Mitchell/Stan say, world peace, because women, being human, are among victims of war. This meant that intersectional women didn't have to recognize that when they pulled the Obama lever rather than the Clinton lever, they were choosing the value of supporting a candidate who had not voted for the second Iraq war over the value of supporting a candidate with substantial symbolic value for women's aspirations to power. What's the difference? One is a commitment women share with men, animals, plants and the universe: peace. The other is a value that matters more to women than to other humans, animals, etc. The idea of a woman's movement was to take up things that matter more to women than, say, men. Before you rush to the comment queue, let me say clearly voting for Barack Obama because he did not vote for the Iraq war is a completely legitimate CHOICE. But it is a selection of a shared value over one that matters particularly to women. You cannot have both. Being a choice, people needed to be prepared to defend their choice, rather than concealing it with the slippery language of "intersectionality." Part of being a grown-up is being willing to defend your choices.

Nothing wrong with shared values, but if you're going to take on everybody's issues, you'd better be sure that they also take on the ones that mostly affect you. Otherwise, you are, as the game theorists so colorfully describe it, a patsy. Are the organizations of civil rights, war and peace and the fate of the planet taking on women's issues as part of their intersectional mission? As the old white man said, you could look it up. For my piece in the Washington Post, I checked the mission statements for the oldest, largest other civil rights organizations. The NAACP says nothing about women and La Raza says it is there for Hispanic Americans. In my haste I forgot about the fate of the planet, but, checking Greenpeace, they are similarly silent on the subject of feminism. The mission statement on the website of the National Congress of Black Women says they are dedicated to "African American women and their families." So what women are doing is, as mom used to say (even I am not THAT old), giving away the milk, when trying to sell the cow. Why should anyone give anything to feminist groups in exchange for their support, when the feminist groups are already supporting everything and "everybody."

What is the alternative to this self-destructive, but stereotypically "relational" female responsibility for everybody's issues while everybody else is just focused on their own? Ironically, Mitchell's and Stans's own meeting place - the National Council for Women's Organizations., an umbrella organization for groups which have interests that are sometimes different and separate as well as intersecting, but often compatible, is an answer. The very example Mitchell and Stan use as exemplary intersectionality was called the "Women's Coalition for Dignity and Diversity in Media." Brava! But there is a difference between making alliances between groups with interests useful to your own when they serve your interests and making yourself an "everybody" movement. Because if you are an everybody movement, it is immoral and violative of your mission to ever say no to anybody. Sometimes interests diverge. And there lies the crux of my disagreement with "intersectionality."

According to Mitchell and Stan, this makes me an historically ignorant ("what history books are you reading?"), black bashing ("blaming black women"), inappropriately defensive ("White women short-shifted [sic]?") doomsayer ("empowerment, not entitlement") who did not learn the lesson of the pushback against Don Imus, after he demonstrated what was indeed a great example of intersectionality, "nappy headed ho's."

This line of attack on my analysis is not fruitful. First, I am aware that I am making arguments that not everyone agrees with, so I am unlikely to weaken my position unnecessarily by making factual errors, if I can help it. Happily, the internet makes a wide range of original material readily available. The easily rebuttable assertion that I have my facts wrong, which I address below, simply represents a desire that the facts fit the political conclusions Mitchell and Stan wish to reach. It's an old line, but worth remembering: you can have your own opinions, but you cannot have your own facts.

Moreover, it would be infinitely better if people of a different opinion addressed themselves to the opinions and analysis, rather than a toxic combination of groundless factual dispute and the Bloggers' disease, emoting. (Allegedly refuting my argument in the Washington Post, Jezebel's Maureen Tkacik deployed the legendary argument "News flash, Linda! We are women. We care about people. It's what we do!" Jen from Feministing's killer argument was "er, bullshit." I could go on.) Compare these examples with the detailed, smart, and still severely critical essay by Jill Filipovic on Feministe, which generated a lively and important discussion in the scores of comments that quickly appeared.

What history books am I reading, when I describe the breakoff of black feminist organizations from the mostly white feminist organizations? Well, the 1973 National Black Feminist Organization's Statement of Purpose: "The distorted male-dominated media image of the Women's Liberation Movement has clouded the vital and revolutionary importance of this movement to Third World women, especially black women. The Movement has been characterized as the exclusive property of so-called white middle-class women and any black women seen involved in this movement have been seen as "selling out," "dividing the race," and an assortment of nonsensical epithets. Black feminists resent these charges and have therefore established The National Black Feminist Organization, in order to address ourselves to the particular and specific needs of the larger, but almost cast-aside half of the black race in Amerikkka, the black woman." Reading the statement that the black, lesbian Combahee River Collective, from 1974 to 1980, produced (and which is still regarded by historians as of crucial importance in the history of feminism), "black women are inherently valuable, that...liberation is a necessity not as an adjunct to somebody else's but because of (their own) need as human persons for autonomy..." and "Eliminating racism in the white women's movement is by definition work for white women to do, but we will continue to speak out and to demand accountability on this issue." If these women did not see the original feminist movement as a "white women's movement," from which they needed independence, why did they use those words?

Of course Florynce Kennedy was there at the beginning, as Stan/Mitchell say, and good political science work has shown that black women embrace feminist principles in greater numbers than white women do. So, despite the belief by the Congress of Black Women and the National Black Feminsit Organization and the Combahee River Collective that they needed an organization of their own, these organizations and the mostly white organizations they left have much opportunity for coalition building.

In my article I bemoan the lack of coalition between black women and elite white women when Clarence Thomas was confirmed. In a particularly unhelpful throwaway, Stan and Mitchell assert, without citation, that the idea that race trumped gender among black voters in confirming Justice Thomas is a "myth," which has been "debunked by researchers from the University of Mississippi" raising class and cultural issues. Despite their lack of reference, through the miracle of the internet, I found an analysis, in the 1994 American Politics Quarterly, one of whose authors, L. Marvin Overby, was on the faculty at U Miss. I presume this is what they were referring to. According to Stan and Mitchell's own authority, then, all the professional political science analysis concluded that, in their words, "race trumped gender." (Mansbridge and Tate 1992; Garment 1992). "This was especially true," the authors continue, "of working-class and poor women, who felt little common cause with the ambitious and upwardly mobile Hill, were suspicious about the eight years it took her to raise the charges, and had doubts about the severity of the alleged incidents (Mansbridge and Tate 1992, 490; Garment 1992, 33)." (That class also divided women only supports my thesis about the necessity for focus and coalition building further.) Overby has lots of interesting and complicating data: Senators were guessing their professional women were more conservative than they were or at least were not afraid of their professional women constituents, etc. But the bottom line is whatever else was going on African American voters, who are heavily female, polled as supporting Thomas, were the most influential constituent group in the decisions of Senators coming up for election; a different coalition might well have defeated the nomination.

I could go on. Mitchell and Stan tout the brilliant campaign of the NCWO when Imus engaged in the quintessential intersectional act of insulting the black female Rutgers basketball team. Great work! But Imus insulted white women for years without protest - not just Hillary ("During a conversation with co-host Charles McCord and executive producer Bernard McGuirk on May 22, Imus admitted that he "wouldn't have a job based on stuff" he had said in the past, adding that, however, he had never had to apologize for insulting former President Bill Clinton and his "fat ugly wife, Satan."") but also newswoman Lesley Stahl ("A couple of years ago Imus angrily called her "a beat-up old bag" in need of a "facelift.") and, through his minions, unbelievably, Iraq hostage Jill Carroll ("Imus in the Morning executive producer Bernard McGuirk and co-host Charles McCord refused to apologize for their recent remarks about kidnapped journalist Jill Carroll. Because of Carroll's statements upon her release from kidnappers in Iraq that she was "treated very well" and "was not harmed" or "threatened," McGuirk claimed on the March 30 Imus broadcast that Carroll "strikes" him "as the kind of woman who would wear one of those suicide vests" to "try and sneak into the Green Zone," and added the next day that Carroll "is carrying [terrorist leader Abu Musab al-] Zarqawi's baby." McCord agreed with McGuirk on the March 30 program, stating that "[s]he cooked with them [terrorists], lived with them" and adding that "there is no evidence to suggest" that Carroll was not representing terrorists or insurgents with her statements.)

So although often, as Mitchell and Stan correctly assert, where there is sexism there is also racism, sometimes there is just sexism. Media Matters, which has been exemplary as a coalition partner, was all over the Jill Carroll story, but a Google search for the National Council of Women's Organizations/Jill Carroll turned up no hits at all. Where were all the perfect intersectionalists, or for that matter, the race-based civil rights organizations, when the Imus show was insulting these women?

Finally, Mitchell and Stan demand to know where I got the paranoid notion that someone said something about "banishing white older corporate women." Let me count the ways. Here"s Obama supporter Frances Kissling in the Nation: "Frances Kissling, the former president of Catholics for a Free Choice, attributes this go-for-broke attitude [by feminist Clinton supporters] to the mindset of corporate feminism. 'There's a way in which feminists who have been seriously engaged in electoral politics for a long time, the institutional DC feminist leadership, they are just with Hillary Clinton come hell or high water. I think they have accepted, as she has accepted, a similar career trajectory. They are not uncomfortable with what has gone on in the campaign, because they see electoral campaigns as mere instruments for getting elected. This is just the way it is. We have to get elected.' The implications of all this for the future of feminism depend significantly on the outcome of the primary, says Kissling. 'If Clinton wins, the older-line women's movement will continue; it will be a continuation of power for them. If she doesn't win, it will be a death knell for those people. [emphasis mine] And that may be a good thing--that a younger generation will start to take over.'" In the same article, one of the founding theorists of intersectionality, law professor Kimberle Crenshaw said "'Today you see things you might not have seen. It's clearer now about where the lines are between corporate feminism and more grassroots, global feminism,' says Crenshaw. Women who identify with the latter movement are saying, as she puts it, 'Wait a minute, that's not the banner we are marching under!'" And then just to pick a random musing from the blogosphere, there's blogger Jessica Hoffman on the diverse and inclusive institution as the Center for New Words' Women, Action and Media Conference: "I'm over liberal feminism. I'm over white feminism. I'm over professional feminism. I'm over feminism as a career, and the feminist celebrity, and a supposed feminism that has nothing critical to say about capitalism," etc.

The alleged factual errors dispensed with, then, what is left unanswered is my core argument about the salient strategy for those who care primarily about women's issues getting what they need, including from the male dominated progressive establishment. Here is today's installment on how people who aren't women think (from the New Republic's Noam Scheiber):

"The Observer also had this sharp observation from Rep. Artur Davis, a top Obama supporter:
In Mr. Davis' reckoning, there were left-leaning professionals who identified with Mrs. Clinton and passionately backed her--these women would never vote for a pro-life Republican anyway, he said--and more culturally conservative working-class women."I think she can help make the case to one cohort--I am not so convinced that she can help make the case to the other cohort because I am not so sure that cohort was voting for Hillary Clinton as much as they were voting against Barack Obama," said Mr. Davis.

Incidentally, this is the same reason I don't think there'd be a ton of fallout from putting Jim Webb on the ticket, despite the hair-raising statements he's made about women.

That is, the women most likely to be outraged by Webb are in that first group--left-leaning professionals who care too much about abortion rights and health care and the war to ultimately vote for McCain, or even sit the election out."

Mitchell and Stan castigate me for drifting toward supporting Clinton in the aftermath of the orgasmic sexism on MSNBC. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, they tell me, is not good political tactics. It's not? Sure has a hoary pedigree. Not to compare Matthews to Hitler, but for the general principle, as that old white man Winston Churchill put it when Hitler attacked Stalin, "if Hitler invaded hell I would make at least a favorable reference to the devil in the House of Commons." That great political theorist Jezebel's Maureen Tkacik might say such strategic behavior is not what we women do !! And The New Republic reminds us of how well that is working.