Can feminism be too inclusive? In my last column, I singled out abortion rights as essential to women’s equality and human rights. If women are legally compelled to carry every fertilized egg to term, and then (let’s be realistic) to raise those babies, they will always be slaves of their biology, and men will always have power over them.
But that’s an easy call. No honest person would say that forcing women to have babies at random, from menarche to menopause, is consistent with gender equality. But if you look at feminism more broadly—what do women need to flourish?—limiting it to issues of straightforward male supremacy doesn’t get us far enough: What about poverty, racism, war, the environment, anti-democratic regimes, the occupation of one country by another, capitalism? A Syrian refugee, an undocumented immigrant, a woman of color trying to raise her kids in a neighborhood with underfunded schools and hostile police—all suffer in specifically gendered ways that are nonetheless embedded in conditions larger than gender.
Once you widen the lens of feminism, though, how do you know where to stop? There are plenty of leftist women who say that you have to be socialist to be a feminist, that you can’t support a candidate like Hillary Clinton—which would surely come as a surprise to most of the women who voted for her, huge numbers of whom showed up for the Women’s Marches. There are vegetarians who argue that you can’t eat meat and be a feminist, both for ecological reasons and because the use of animals is the template for the use of women, and there are vegan feminists who think that vegetarians are sellouts. From global warming to the mass imprisonment of black men, it’s hard to think of a serious issue that doesn’t affect women as women. After all, women are half of the human race, and as intersectional theory reminds us, they exist in multiple simultaneous identities. So is everything a feminist issue? Must women save the whole world?
I don’t have a ready answer for that. It’s worth noting, though, that women are raised to put themselves last, and they have worked hard on all sorts of causes in which their own interests were submerged. It’s also worth noting that there are only so many hours in a day: We don’t ask other progressive movements to take on so many tasks, let alone expand their briefs to include feminist issues. Environmentalists don’t have to demand equal pay and affordable child care; labor movements aren’t expected to call for the abolition of rape culture; Bernie Sanders and his followers famously waved away as “identity politics” the desire of women and people of color to see themselves fully represented in government. Perhaps that’s a mark of those movements’ limitations; perhaps the women’s movement is simply more advanced and broad-based, and we are about to see a left led largely by feminist women. That would be fantastic. Or perhaps the women’s movement is at risk of diffusing itself in too many directions, and (as has happened many times in the history of the left) fighting the specific subordinations of women to men will be sidelined in the service of some supposedly larger goal.