The drumbeat for Senator Dianne Feinstein to resign has reached a kind of dull fever pitch. Aside from the open secret of her cognitive decline, the California Democrat was “working from home” for three months straight due to shingles, holding up President Biden’s judicial nominees in Washington, D.C., at a time when women are dying like it’s 1973 all over again. Now Feinstein is back in the Senate, looking and sounding completely decrepit. There’s absolutely nothing feminist about defending her nonexistent “right” to remain in office, no matter what Kirsten Gillibrand tries to argue on CNN. Yet there is a double standard at work here, and leftist men in particular would do well to check themselves.
At 89, Feinstein is the oldest sitting US senator, first elected to local office before women could even open a bank account on their own. Watching her decline into the long goodbye is a sad coda to a career of historic significance: first female mayor of San Francisco, first female US senator from California, first female member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. She’s a lodestar for every woman in politics still fighting for just a shred of the respect that’s automatically afforded to their male peers, who do precious little to acknowledge the sexism they benefit from.
That includes men who identify as feminists, like Bernie Sanders and his minions on the “dirtbag left,” who are happy to swarm Feinstein on social media. This is not some fringe group, but the drivers of multimillion-dollar podcasts like Chapo Trap House, which preach vulgarity as a politics in itself. These are the guys proclaiming their socialist bona fides the loudest while shitting all over progressive giants like Elizabeth Warren for failing to endorse Sanders in 2020, filling her Twitter timeline with snakes, and making crass jokes about women they disagree with. They claim that of course they’d vote for a woman, just never that woman. They have more in common with the plurality of Sanders voters who consistently cited Biden as their second choice than they’d like to admit. That’s a fact that bears repeating: With some exceptions, polling in 2019 and 2020 repeatedly showed that way too many male Biden and Sanders voters would sooner vote for the other male candidate than any of the women in the race who had more in common ideologically with their first choice. I wonder why?
Of course, that excludes those who refused to vote for anyone but Bernie, to which Sanders responded—correctly—that his supporters should vote for the man he often called “my friend Joe.” But he didn’t lift a finger to shut down the sexist vitriol on social media directed at Warren and her supporters on his behalf, barely and half-heartedly even acknowledging it, and admitting only after she dropped out that “I think women have obstacles placed in front of them that men do not have.” I wrote about this at the time, suggesting that Sanders’s tepid response cost him support from politically aligned women, and offered up a script for why he needed to affirmatively reject the misogyny being floated in his name. This might all seem like old news, but I’m still hung over from the whole ordeal (and I suspect many other women are too).
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Most recently, he has yet to acknowledge that his advice to Democrats in the 2022 midterms to lay off abortion and talk more about the economy turned out to be demonstrably wrong. Sanders’s policies may be feminist, but in terms of leadership, he’s the floor—possibly the basement—of what similarly minded men should aspire to.
Sexism on the left isn’t a new problem, but it’s a stunning one considering that leftists often take feminist convictions for granted. Perhaps that explains the lack of a national figure we can hold up as an example of male feminist leadership, or the fact that the D.C. branch of the Democratic Socialists of America is predominantly male. It’s a huge problem for leftist women forced to fight these battles on their own, and who often find their work overlooked amid the Bernie Bro discourse (although if you piled on Warren by tweeting “#womenforbernie” in response to the CNN report detailing their private 2018 conversation about women’s viability as presidential candidates, you have some reflecting to do). And it raises the hackles of women outside the movement when these same bros spread bile about the undeniable achievements of women they oppose. As one podcaster said about Hillary Clinton: “She never really cracked the glass ceiling. She more like fell down the glass staircase.” This is what Democrats like Nancy Pelosi are responding to when they dismiss calls for Feinstein to step aside as sexist. That’s not feminist leadership either, but it’s grounded in a historical reality that’s very much alive today, especially when leftist men feel overly entitled to police women in public life.
So what does actual leadership look like for men on the left who consider themselves feminists? For one thing, sit out the Feinstein pile-on if you threw snakes at Warren. This is not your fight. More broadly, understand that the test for whether something is sexist isn’t just if you’d say or think or apply the same standard to a man—it’s the gendered effect. When Pelosi et al. wrongly bemoan the fact that they never hear the kind of criticism about Feinstein directed toward their male colleagues (John Fetterman, anyone?), what they’re really speaking to is the idea that frailty and illness in women leaders are received differently than they are in men. Remember when Sanders actually had a heart attack in the middle of his last presidential campaign, and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez resuscitated it by endorsing him? There’s ample research on the public perception of aging in women, and feminist men should acquaint themselves with it. In the meantime, if your feminism manifests itself in declaring what isn’t sexist more often than calling out what is, you’re doing it wrong.