a letter from feminists on the election
Two days after the Texas debate between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, a group of old friends broke out the good china for a light breakfast of strong coffee, blueberry muffins and fresh-squeezed orange juice. We were there to hash out a split that threatened our friendship and the various movements with which we are affiliated. In some ways it was a kaffeeklatch like a million others across America early on a Saturday morning–but for the fact that this particular group included Gloria Steinem, a co-founder of the National Women’s Political Caucus; Beverly Guy-Sheftall, director of the Women’s Research and Resource Center at Spelman College; Johnnetta Cole, chair of the board of the JBC Global Diversity and Inclusion Institute; British-born radio journalist Laura Flanders; Kimberlé Crenshaw, professor of law at Columbia and UCLA; Carol Jenkins, head of the Women’s Media Center; Farah Griffin, professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia; Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority; author Mab Segrest; Kenyan anthropologist Achola Pala Okeyo; management consultant and policy strategist Janet Dewart Bell; and Patricia Williams, Columbia law professor and Nation columnist.
It was a casual gathering, but one that settled down to business quickly. We were all progressives but diverse nonetheless. We differed in our opinions of whether to vote for Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama–our goal was not an endorsement. Rather, the concern that united us all was the “race-gender split” playing out nationally, in which the one is relentlessly pitted against the other. We did not want to see a repeat of the ugly history of the nineteenth century, when the failure of the women’s movement to bring about universal adult suffrage metastasized into racial resentment and rift that weakened feminism throughout much of the twentieth century.
How, we wondered, did a historic breakthrough moment for which we have all longed and worked hard, suddenly risk becoming marred by having to choose between “race cards” and “gender cards”? By petty competitiveness about who endures more slings and arrows? By media depictions of white women as the sole inheritors of the feminist movement and black men as the sole beneficiaries of the civil rights movement? By renderings of black women as having to split themselves right down the center with Solomon’s sword in order to vote for either candidate? What happened, we wondered, to the last four decades of discussion about tokenism and multiple identities and the complex intersections of race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity and class?
We all worried that the feminist movement’s real message is not being heard, and we thought about how to redirect attention to those coalitions that form the bedrock of feminist concern: that wide range of civil rights groups dedicated to fighting discrimination, domestic violence, the disruptions of war, international sex and labor trafficking, child poverty and a tattered economy that threatens to increase the number of homeless families significantly.