Sen-elect Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., left, and Sen-elect, current Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis. walk together to freshman Senators luncheon on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2012. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Something strange is happening to feminists. We’re winning. The election gave us the re-election of a feminist-friendly president, a record number of women in Congress, the first openly gay US senator and wins for marriage equality in four states. There’s energy and interest on feminist issues the likes of which we haven’t seen in decades.
This shift comes to us courtesy of the perfect storm of sexist Republican missteps, a vibrant online feminist movement and a nation of women unwilling to move backward. But with the election dust settling, we should examine why we’re winning the culture wars and think about what to do next.
We got a hint of the tide turning in our favor when SlutWalks went viral. What started as one march in Toronto in 2011 turned into hundreds of protests all over the world, all battling the myth that what a woman wears has some bearing on whether or not she’ll be assaulted. Despite the tempting fodder—pictures of young feminists subversively dressed in bras, miniskirts and heels—the media largely got the message right. The marches also epitomized the emerging organizing strategy of young feminists: activism that’s largely self-directed and loosely organized; fast-moving micro-movements built organically and without institutional leadership.
The effectiveness of this approach was on display earlier this year during the Susan G. Komen for the Cure/Planned Parenthood debacle. Just days after Komen announced it would stop funding Planned Parenthood, an online furor forced the breast cancer foundation to reverse itself. Similar activism on a Virginia bill that would have mandated invasive transvaginal ultrasounds for women seeking abortions—feminists called it “state rape” on Twitter—resulted in the legislation being lampooned on Saturday Night Live, The Daily Show and other media. The law was eventually amended. When Rush Limbaugh called Sandra Fluke a “slut,” the backlash that ensued was also thanks to online action. The National Organization for Women and Planned Parenthood didn’t drive these campaigns; American women did.
Perhaps more interesting than the wins themselves, though, was the widespread media attention and cultural acceptance of feminist outrage. All of a sudden, women’s anger at the attempted defunding of Planned Parenthood or a male politician’s comment about rape wasn’t the mark of bitter “man haters”; it was an understandable reaction from smart, engaged women.
The shift was so stark that the Obama campaign was able to make feminist issues a part of its electoral strategy. David Axelrod recently told Politco that, “from May on, we were running a track that was specifically targeting women on women’s health issues, Planned Parenthood, contraception. It broadened out somewhat to economic issues, but primarily focused on those issues, and we maintained our support among women.” No doubt, the Republican Party’s sexist meltdown was also a tremendous motivator for American women. After all, there’s only so many comments about rape and birth control a gal can take.
On election day, the backlash against GOP extremism along with smart organizing by feminists culminated not only in women being the majority of the electorate but also in an 18 percent gender gap—the largest in reported history. The GOP underestimated how important issues like abortion, rape and birth control are to women—consider how many have ended a pregnancy or been assaulted—and reaped the whirlwind.
As gratifying as it was to see misogyny thumped at the polls, it should be noted that most of the feminist efforts over the past year have been defensive. Feminists have been fighting the attempted rollbacks of our rights for so long, we haven’t had the time, energy or resources to push for more progressive change. But now that we’ve averted a Romney administration, we have a chance to move from a defensive crouch to an active agenda. That shift starts with thinking critically about recent successes.
The activism that has gained us so much ground and cultural good will is undoubtedly a good thing, but it also reveals key gaps. When Virginia removed the transvaginal mandate from its legislation, for example, the requirement to have a “noninvasive” ultrasound remained. This means that low-income women will not be able to have abortions because of the hundreds of dollars an ultrasound can add to an already expensive procedure. Rush Limbaugh has been attacking women for years—notable women of color, especially—but it was Sandra Fluke who became American women’s “daughter.” It’s great that Richard Mourdock lost after calling pregnancy from rape something “God intended to happen,” but his opponent, Democratic Senator-elect Joe Donnelly, has a similar anti-choice stance, and believes that “life begins at conception.” Even the language of the “war on women”—while catchy and media-friendly—is exclusionary toward transgender people.
The successes that dominate the mainstream narrative on feminism largely center on the most privileged of American women, even when the consequences affect the most marginalized. And while symbolic successes—like beating Mourdock—are important, it’s more crucial that feminist actions make a difference in real women’s lives.
It’s the age-old feminist struggle of fighting for a politics that is progressive versus fighting for one that’s popular. But if there ever was an argument for an intersectional approach to feminism, the election provided a great one. Despite the well-reported gender gap, it turns out that white women as a whole voted for Romney. It was women of color who brought it home for Democrats and President Obama. Mainstream feminist organizations would do well to consider this when planning their next moves—not only because focusing on the most marginalized women is the right thing to do and the only way to build a comprehensive movement, but because it’s the most effective and politically savvy way as well.
Feminist organizations could also take a lesson from LGBT groups, which are preparing to push for marriage equality in more states. The Human Rights Campaign is even working to rank cities by their LGBT friendliness. A similar project on women could really make waves. We need to fight battles on our own terms, thinking about what big-picture successes might look like on rape, reproductive health and economic justice. And feminist funders should be strategizing ways to use online activism. Young feminists built the infrastructure that has given women the tools to turn their outrage into action, but they lack the financial and organizational resources to move forward on their own.
Most important, we need to keep winning. A generation of women is experiencing the excitement and solidarity that comes with hard-won successes, and this momentum can be channeled into an active, progressive agenda. There will always be resistance—the “feminazi” days are not over by a long shot—but we haven’t had a better opportunity in decades. It’s time to take it.
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