Celebrating Linda Hirshman’s Legacy
On this episode of The Time of Monsters, Moira Donegan remembers a feminist giant.
My friend Linda Hirshman, a powerhouse feminist intellectual, died on October 31. For the last podcast of the year, I wanted to remember Linda, who was a frequent guest on the show (see here, here and here).
I loved talking to Linda both personally and on the podcast because she was such a formidable and fearless thinker, one not afraid to make people mad by challenging the unjust status quo.
To talk about Linda’s work, I’m joined by Moira Donegan, another frequent guest who was also very close to Linda. In fact, Linda had officiated at Moira’s wedding.
For the podcast, we remember Linda as a bracing writer and personality; someone willing to make bold, contentious arguments. We trace her trajectory from being a labour lawyer to a mid-career switch to philosophy and her final emergence as a much-read public intellectual. In particular, we focus on her famous and much-disputed American Prospect essay “Homeward Bound.” (This essay was later expanded into the book, Get To Work). This leads to a discussion of Linda’s interest in social movements and the law, as well as her theory of change which involves the bringing together of radical social movements and elites.
Linda was a very important figure in my life and I’ll miss her. Talking about her life and work with Moira gave me an opportunity to pay tribute to this remarkable woman and her vital legacy. Listeners might also want to look up Katha Pollitt’s own tribute to Linda.
Here's where to find podcasts from The Nation. Political talk without the boring parts, featuring the writers, activists and artists who shape the news, from a progressive perspective.
The mathematician Chandler Davis, who died in 2002 at age 96, was one of the notable victims of the second Red Scare. In 1960, Davis was sentenced to six months in prison for refusing to answer questions about his membership in the Communist Party. Davis’s lawyers defended him with the innovative legal argument that the First Amendment barred such questioning. While Davis lost in the courts, his legal battles were still an important effort in a larger battle to extend the parameters on political speech. Davis’s story is told in a new book, The Prosecution of Professor Chandler Davis by Steve Batterson. Siobhan Robert’s obituary for Davis ran in The Nation.
On this episode of The Time of Monsters, I talked to journalist Doug Bell, who knew Chandler Davis, about this book and Davis’s larger place in history. We take up the history of anti-communism and how it has limited free speech, the legal philosophy of Alexander Meiklejohn, and the reactionary Supreme Court's use of the First Amendment to expand corporate power.
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This transcription was computer-generated and may contain errors.
Jeet Heer: The old world is dying. The new world struggles to be born. Now is the time of monsters. This is the last Time of Monsters podcast for 2023. I want to thank everyone who’s been listening. We’ll continue in the new year. But you know, at the end of year, it’s a moment of reflection. And in, in particular I wanted to devote this podcast to someone who in the jargon of the trade was a friend of the podcast but also more importantly my friend and a friend of our guest the I’m talking about Linda Hirschman, who had frequently been on and who died earlier this year at age 79.
She was so frequently on that, like, you know within a few months before she died, I had emailed her asking her to come on. Again, because I, I love talking to her and she basically wrote me back, you know, Jeet, I’m dying. And this is, I found out later an email that she had sent to many people.
And it’s, it was a very bracing email, which I think is very characteristic of Linda. There’s none of that euphemism of I’m fighting cancer. It’s like I’m dying. And in thinking about Linda. Especially after she died, like, I, I thought, like, what an act of kindness that was, like, to, and very characteristic of her, and she had actually done to me what she had done to many other people before she died which is write long letters about what I meant to her and how much she appreciated me and I know from many other friends that she did this and it was such a a courageous death at the end of a courageous life so I wanted to.
Spend the this podcast talking about Linda and there’s no better person I could talk to than another friend of the podcast, Mara Donegan who’s also a friend of Linda’s. So let’s, we’ll talk about her work in a bit, but I, you know, like, I don’t think we’d be amiss in talking about her personality partially because the personal is political, but also I think the personality and the work goes.
I mean, in her work, she was a force of nature, and I think in her life, she was a force of nature. So do you want to talk about that?
Moira Donegan: Yeah, I mean, I think before we get into Linda’s work, which I agree with you is quite formidable it would probably be nice by way of disclaimer to say that I’m not a neutral critic or arbiter of Linda’s work.
This woman officiated my wedding. She was a dear friend and mentor to me at the end of her life. I met her and I think 2018 and we became. Fast pals in one of these rare intergenerational friendships because Linda was a person who, even as she approached old age, had a quite a young spirit and a real appetite for, for mentoring and cultivating friendships with younger women, in particular, younger feminists, right?
She, like, lived by example this Personal counter to what is often the head has often been the feminist tradition of like intergenerational intellectual antagonism. You know she didn’t talk about
Jeet Heer: that because that is so I’ve heard this from so many other people. I think Rebecca tracer mentioned this as well.
Like. She had really befriended a lot of younger people, especially younger women and this is at a time where I think there is a lot of intergenerational tension you know, as you say, it’s, it’s been characteristic of feminism for a long time, but the sort of, you know mothers and daughters issue, I think, has become especially acute in, in recent years with issues of trans identity and also, like, a deepening splits between liberals and the left and I mean, It is one of the things about her that she did not have that, that she she had disagreements with many other variations of feminism but her desire to be friend, mentor, and not in a condescending way, but an act to actually engage with the younger generation I think that is one of the highlights that I think of when I think of Linda.
Moira Donegan: It was one of the most intellectually fruitful. Friendships of my life. You know, I did not know Linda for very long. I was close with her for about, you know, four or five years. And she was the person I called when I had a naughty or like naughty or thorny writing problem or when I was faced with a popular consensus among other feminists that, that struck me as a little off or, or wrong headed.
And I could go to Linda And have a conversation that was welcoming and generative that did not merely reaffirm my priors but would allow me continually to see things anew. And you talk about Linda’s courageous death, and I do think she had a very good death. You know, she was somebody who Knew it was coming was able to confront her life and to reflect in the end at what must have been, I think, a truly very scary time.
On all of her, like, vast gratitude and survey, all life very well lived, and I think in those last months she acted with great courage and generosity towards those who loved her and she also lived a courageous and good life, you know, she lived a life in which she did not choxes calcify into in curiosity, as I think a lot of us are tempted to do as we get older.
Jeet Heer: Yeah, I’m already heading that way right now. So it is, it was good to have an example to know, like, you know, like I should have avoid these tendencies in myself. No, like exactly. So let’s look at the life and then they head towards the work because she actually became a sort of public writer or public.
figure late in life, even though she had a very accomplished earlier life as a lawyer and a sort of professor. So you know, I was born in 1944. So, you know, would have been coming of age be like in the 60s in that a wave of feminism worked as a labor lawyer initially, and I think that, you know, we’ll take this up later, but I think that’s a very crucial thing.
If you’re a labor lawyer, that, that combines two different things. One is the labor movement, the social movement of unions, you know, that makes. Labor law possible, but the other is like the legal system. And there’s ways in which, you know, those of us, especially maybe people are a little bit distant from unions or have a sort of sentimental historical knowledge, think of unions in terms of like strikes and things like that.
But, you know, a lot of the real victories. of American labor have been in the field of law, like to just like, you know, get legal recognition of union to get arbitration. A lot of what like labor does is protect recognize workers in the workplace as having rights. And that’s a huge victory because You know, in the prior to like, you know, the strengthening of labor unions in the 1930s you know, like the idea of workers having rights was, was like alien to, to the American legal tradition.
Like if you’re a worker, you’re kind of like a er to your employer. So, so, so, so, so as a labor lawyer, she combined these two things, like an awareness of, you know, the social movements. That allowed victory and then labor law. And then the power of the law as a structuring force in society and the power of institutions.
I just want to say all that to set this up. But, you know, later she, as a labor unions weekend, she became a law professor and then like In the era of George W. Bush, she made a huge splash with an article for the American Prospect, which is, was, I think, the beginning of the wider world becoming aware of her.
Even though she’s very accomplished as a lawyer, had argued before the Supreme Court on occasion, but this is like where she really became a public intellectual. So do you want to talk about that article?
Moira Donegan: Yeah. So, I mean, I think this is a great way to frame Linda’s career, right? She was an activist lawyer, right?
Which we were talking about the the merger In her intellectual life between radical and liberal impulses, right? I think that really originates, as you were saying, from this position being at the juncture of a social movement and legal system, right? And she understood the need. Yeah. Cooperation of liberals and radicals as a precondition of meaningful political progress.
And that is like the insight that I think guides the rest of her career. You left out that she’s also a philosophy PhD.
Jeet Heer: Oh,
Moira Donegan: she, you know, went from being a union side labor lawyer to being a law professor at the University of Chicago. And while she was teaching law, she also picked up a philosophy PhD and wrote a dissertation on Thomas Hobbes, right?
So this is somebody who is, I think, because of her Hobbesian insight very stark and pragmatic about, The preconditions for social progress and what is required for people to make themselves free. And she really brought that into her interventions and feminism, which began, as you pointed out, in 2005.
Right? So what you have to understand about the state of feminism in 2005 is that it was kind of, you know, in. It was like going to the Parthenon, you know, it’s like, you can see what it was, you can get an idea, but it’s not what it once was, right? The institutions of feminism had really been profoundly hollowed out.
This is the aftermath of Planned Parenthood versus Casey, which, you know, Linda was a cheerleader for that decision because it, it shifted the legal rationale for the abortion right to being one of equality. But it also allowed for, you know, if it was once the abortion right became about women and about doctors, it also became a lot weaker, you know?
So Casey also ushered in a lot more abortion restrictions. And that legal regime really depleted the resources of these big feminist institutions like Planned Parenthood, like NARAL now became just, you know, a shadow of its former self. And what had replaced the liberal feminist order, and, you know, what had sort of come in to replace the radical feminist tradition that had fallen apart in the 1980s after the sex wars, was this sort of discourse of choice.
Which was a sort of worldview in which women were oppressed primarily by moral judgments. About their volition, right? And this was a term we now call it choice feminism. Linda, in fact, coined that phrase, uh, but it was wielded particularly in the early 2000s around popular discourses about homemaking and withdrawal from the workforce by women and particularly by educated mothers.
This was a. You know, historically, it now appears to have been a somewhat minor trend. What really happened was that at about 2000, women’s labor force participation, actually, I think it was 1999, peaked at like 60 percent even. Men’s labor force participation is and has always been significantly higher.
Women’s peaked at about 60%. It has been going down ever since. It has been going down quite slowly, right? The advancements of women into the workforce in the post 1960s era are not being significantly reversed, but they are being eroded, right? And that was true, and it was something that people began noticing around 2005, and it was justified By a lot of popular discourses at a time in feminist terms as women making a choice, a morally unimpeachable choice.
To stay home with their kids, right? This was posited not as a return to patriarchal hegemony and not as a symptom of institutional and social forces that discourage women’s workforce participation and encourage their overburdening with domestic labor. It was positioned as actually a kind of defiant rebellion Against the supposed hegemony of feminism, right?
It’s like, look at us. We are brave, independent women defying these shrieking shrews who want us to go be career women. We know better. We are the true independent thinkers. We’re gonna go be wives and mothers. At home. Yeah, and then This was positioned
Jeet Heer: as rebellion. Yes, yes. And that’s such a characteristically American form of reactionary thought to recast support of the status quo as an is showing the man, right?
Like, you know conservative is a woman,
Moira Donegan: huh? Yeah, but the man in this case was like, I think specifically like personally Betty Friedan, you know, Overstatement of feminist power of their cultural influence of their institutional control was a characteristic of sort of thoughts about gender relations at this time.
It remains a characteristic of thoughts about gender relation at our time, right? But it was one that in 2005 had not quite been named as a bad faith misstatement of, you know, the social truth. And Linda made an intervention in the American Prospect. In an article called Homeward Bound, in which she named choice feminism, she critiqued it as an avoidance of moral judgment, right?
It’s a requirement for feminism to sort of be devoid of any kind of value judgments, right? To just simply throw up their hands and say, well, whatever women choose is ergo a feminist choice, which is a You know, a myopic syllogism that doesn’t bear any real scrutiny. And she said, no, no, actually, what women need in order to be free of patriarchal domination is material independence, right?
And I think she really took those lessons. From the labor movement, because she wrote in Homeward Bound and then in the ensuing book that came out of Homeward Bound 2005’s Get to Work, about marriage and about specifically the division of housework and childcare as a negotiation akin to the negotiation between a union and management.
And this is something that Linda said over and over, is that if you are a housewife, you are not, in fact, liberated from systems of domination and control. You’re certainly not eliminated from liberated from labor, because the housewife does have a boss. She has somebody who controls her working conditions.
She has somebody who controls all the capital. She has somebody who can dispose of her and bring in new labor if they so choose, and that’s her fucking husband. The boss is your husband, if you’re a housewife. This Is one of these feminist works. That is always introduced by people saying, listen, I don’t agree with everything, but it is one of the lessons that I took from Linda is that as a feminist, you should aspire to be one of these women who they go, well, I’m not defending her, but yes, because to get to that point, to get to that point, it means you have to have defied a conventional wisdom.
You have to have made people uncomfortable and to get to that, but. You have to have said something that has moral resonance, that evokes a truth of people’s lives. And so it became a book that people, many people disavowed, many people criticized it quite sharply. And also many people used it to triangulate against, so that they could move that so called Overton window back towards a materialist understanding of women’s oppression.
Ayyy. Articulation of women as a specific class with shared class interests and towards a moral defense of women’s participation in public life. This was a liberal prescription, but it was one that also really defied the liberal consensus around women’s rights and women’s social roles in the 20, 2000s, rather than the aughts.
Yeah. And it launched her career, not just as an academic, but really as a public intellectual.
Jeet Heer: Yeah, no, absolutely. Yeah. I mean, just look at her biography. Like, you know, that article made a huge splash. The book made us a big splash. And then she was like, you know, she appeared on the Colbert Report. She was like, you know, and she was like, hugely like lambasted.
She was on 60 Minutes. And they were like, she was treated by many people as a kind of That’s absolutely right. You know, demonic figure like, you know, she’s attacking like the family and motherhood and everything we believe. And also, I mean, to get to that point about the radicalism and how it makes people uncomfortable, like, like really criticizing, getting at like a lot of the choices that not just traditional conservatives make, but a lot of like, you know, like liberal elites have made You know, like basically accommodating feminism within patriarchy and within capitalism so I, I mean, like, it was like a huge splash and, you know, like, we should mention she went on to write, like other books, but, but, I want to emphasize, you know, like that that article Homeward Bound, and then the book that came out of it Get to Work I mean, that was the, like, the birth of a new Linda, you know, like, you know, beyond the, you know the, the philosopher, the academic, the labor union.
This is, she now became, like, one of the prominent, like, visible faces of feminism. And at a period where, as you said, feminism was sort of brought low, but then there’s also a kind of revival of feminism that’s already appearing on things like the, you know, the blogosphere, and she picked up on that, you know, which is like in a, you know, she’s already in her, like, 50s when she’s doing this, she’s like picking up on it.
Both the political crisis of feminism and these new, like, you know, embers that are igniting and the situation and then she makes this intervention, which also makes her a star, which makes her like a huge public figure. So we’ll talk a little bit more about the book, but do you want to say anything else about like her, her subsequent books?
Because I think we should mention, you know, she was quite you know, she came late to writing in, uh, public forums, but then she became. Quite a, an accomplished writer with important widely reviewed and widely read books.
Moira Donegan: Yeah, she was a prolific writer and a really impassioned one. The last time, one of the last times I saw her before her, she died, it was my wedding anniversary.
It was the first anniversary of The wedding to my, my wife Kat, which, you know, she officiated, she hosted our wedding in her beautiful apartment. And, you know, it was, it was a tiny affair, but she was, she made this event possible for us. And so on the anniversary, she wasn’t feeling very well. And we took her out to lunch, near her apartment, and afterwards we walked her back home and she sat down at her desk and started writing, and she wanted to write a book about, rupert Murdoch. And she was, you know, typing away happily up until, you know, really the very end. And she styled herself after Get to Work not exclusively as a feminist, although I would say primarily as a feminist. But as really a historian and theorist of social movements, right? She extrapolated a lot of her lessons from experiences in the labor movement to sort of try and reverse engineer prescription or a set of circumstances that make social movements effective and, and give them the opportunity to change, right?
And she identified a few sort of common themes. So, I mean, her first book after Get to Work was, I believe, Sisters in Law, which was a dual, biography, a sort of joint biography of Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the two, first two women on the Supreme Court and their, you know, sort of contentious relationship and differing views of the law broadly and of women’s civil rights law in particular.
But then she moved on to a book called Victory, which was a book about the gay movement that anticipated. The gay marriage rights victory before it happened and that traced the origins of the gay marriage movement from the pre Stonewall era up until the sort of marriage rights fight era of the aughts.
Which was really a story of a shifting movement and a story of the unity and, you know, alternative unity and disunity of liberals and radicals within the gay rights tradition, right? And something she identified, I thought, quite interestingly, In victory that is also visible in her subsequent work was the sort of moral insistence of entitlement.
Something she always said to me a lot. She’s like, she always said over and over the gay rights movement succeeded in part because it had a leadership that consisted of many cisgender white elite men to whom it was inconceivable that they would be excluded. From the realms of power, right? And you can understand that as a kind of narcissism obliviousness, you know, the obliviousness of privilege, or you can understand it also as a refusal to capitulate.
To the moral terms of oppression, right? And she sort of encouraged people to assume themselves to be entitled to power to understand the forces that excluded them from power. As personal slights to which they should respond with rage, you know
Jeet Heer: and that’s very tight. I mean, you mentioned the Hobbesian element of it, but I mean, it is this understanding of rights and power as coming from self interest that, you know, people organize around self interest and that you actually need if you want to advance a particular agenda, you need people who have a sense that it’s their own self interest.
To, you know have marriage equality. It’s their own self interest to have abortion legal. It’s their own and she doesn’t shy away from that. So I think that’s a very, I mean, we’ll, we’ll return to that, but I think that is a very important part of her thinking. Yes, this is, you know,
Moira Donegan: this is class, the cornerstone of Linda’s liberalism, right?
Is that she understood self interest as a positive force. She did not, indict it as morally suspect, which is true of, you know, a lot of thinkers on the left, and it’s often true, particularly of approaches to feminism that frequently try to indict women’s self interest and self interested action as sort of morally compromised.
She had sort of no patience for that line of argument. She understood self interest as a tool that could be wielded in the service of, like, a collective good, right? So that is Linda. That’s Linda the liberal. But Linda also sort of had these radical streaks, right, wherein one of the things she advanced was the idea that social movements should be driven not just by people who had a sense of entitlement, but by people who were willing, able, and forceful to claim the moral high ground and to sort of not cede the idea that their self interest is morally compromised, right?
So she talked about, very movingly, about ACT UP as a group that sort of rejected the Moral logic of homophobia, right? And of, you know, the condemnation of drug users that was being used to marginalize people with HIV. And she identified ACT UP’s strategic usefulness in part in their reframing of that moral cause.
And that was a really useful part of Victory. And then she saw the sort of similar argument being taken up by the gay rights movement, right? An absolute disregard, refusal to engage with. The, you know, spurious moral claims of the opposition to your inferiority and willingness to assert worthiness and righteousness of one’s own cause and to, and ability to convince others, the public and the outsiders, crucially.
As being a very important part. She also had kind of a union union bosses sentiment about the importance of institutions and organization. One of the things she always said in her histories of social movements is that they have to have weekly meetings to work. And, you know, this is a lesson that I think a lot of people on the left have taken from the right, right?
Like they are able to organize such large groups of people. So efficiently and with such devotion in part because they see them every week at church which is something that the left has not had. Right. Left does not have well, I
Jeet Heer: think that’s a very important part of her life. Like she. You know came of age when unions were strong and was a part of early career.
And then unions really were weakened after the onslaught of Reaganism in the 80s. And, you know, like union used to provide that service. Like they were, you know, people used to go to union halls and you know, like read union newspapers and, you know, they, it was the, it was the church of the left.
In a way that we haven’t quite been able to replicate, but, but, but exactly that, that respect for. The power of like the state through the law and of institutions. I mean, these are kind of like unfashionable, you know, thoughts on the left where there is a sort of glorification of both inchoate social movements and of sort of sort of anarchic organization horizontal organization.
But I mean, just as a, you know, Hobbesian realist, like. Like if you want to look at how things, changes happen in history, these are, these are the, you know, these are the forces that do it.
Moira Donegan: Yeah. She had. No patience, or at least, you know, she existed in contrast to an intellectual trend you see among leftists of like my generation, and I’m a millennial for those who can’t see me towards a distrust of law and distrust of the state, which is like almost a reflexive Position among a lot of people on the left, you know, they will endorse something like single payer health care but be very, very skeptical towards anything that could be characterized as no, like interpersonal regulatory schemes.
Right? And there’s a drive instead towards sort of self organized, autonomous mutual aid, right? And Linda’s insight or her belief that I think she took from Hobbes was that where there is no law, the strong rule, right? And this is central to her critique specifically of the family, right? As a place where in the, you know, feminism or, you know, what passed for feminism in 2005 the family was presented as a place where moral judgment could not extend.
Increasingly now you see ideas about the family and, and Private relations between men and women as a place where the law should not extend. This was a big left wing critique of Me Too, right? And Linda’s sort of Hobbesian realism asserted that without the law or without recourse to an external authority upon which, you know violence or money could be, could be called upon weaker people will not have their rights respected as a matter of course.
That they need a legal organizing principle to be able to appeal to even in private life. And that was where she saw the power of the law having a lot of potential. And that is where I think you really get to her affinity for Catherine McKinnon, which comes out in her. Book Reckoning from I think 2019.
Jeet Heer: Yeah, I’ll, I’ll, I’ll check that. But I think the, I mean, yeah, yeah, that, that, that that came a little bit later. Yes. Yeah.
Moira Donegan: So Reckoning was, um, her book about the legal movement against sexual harassment. I think people don’t really understand was not even a term that had been coined until I want to say like 1969 at Cornell, which not coincidentally was around the time that Linda was an undergrad at Cornell and was not recognized as a violation of civil rights law until 1987.
Right? Yeah, yeah. Ability to use the Civil Rights Act and the 14th Amendment to cognize gender based discrimination and to cognize women as an oppressed class was something that she was very interested in as a legal project, right, as not just an intellectual project or her career. the product of the second wave feminist movement, but as something that had to be enacted via these organs of the state, via these old men in black robes who had to be able to understand sexual harassment, not merely as an indignity, but as a violation of civil rights law.
And this was something that was, you know, it should be said almost a single handed Work of Catherine McKinnon, another thinker who, like Linda, has gone dramatically out of fashion and who has been subjected to some very pointed antagonism and who also can, evoke the kind of I’m not defending her, but, uh, triangulation that opens up room for more and different kinds of feminist thought.
And Catherine McKinnon was really, I would say the originator of Linda’s idea of the feminist movement as a legal project, right? And I wanted to talk to you about Linda’s response to Dobbs, right? Because Linda’s career. Was based on this idea that you could use the law and the law was the in fact most powerful and a facious tool available specifically for women, but really for all social movements, right?
And Linda sort of survived past the victories of the liberal legal movement. She, like, lived to see optimism for legal change sort of recede and for this other end of her prescription, the radicalism and the social movement end, to sort of take on more urgency. And I wanted to Hear
Jeet Heer: about yeah, I mean that that is interesting is that is actually the point where I sort of came into contact with Linda and we had exchanged emails and I had her on the podcast because it is yeah, precisely you know that I was interested in her as someone, you know who has a law based.
Theory. And then what happens, you know, when the law is basically in the hands of the enemy and there’s a couple of points to make. One is that she had been prepared for that moment for a long time. You know, one of the things she liked to say about herself is, you know, I’m the sort of Cassandra of feminism that, you know, she had been aware for a long time at a point where many people were in denial and thought like, you know, they would never do this, right.
They would never. overturn Roe. You know, like she was like, you know, thank you for a long time. Yes, they will, you know, and and then what do we do? After that. And I think this is the point where that sort of, you know left liberal juncture where she starts to move, think more along the left line of things.
The more the sort of social movement and organizing. And this comes through. I think it’s particularly if you think about her, like last published book, um, on the abolitionist movement where like, you know, you’re It’s significant that that’s coming at the time where, you know, like, there’s this massive legal regression on women’s rights so she’s thinking, like, you know, we’re in the same situation, you know, like, not to analogize in a dangerous way, but, you know, it’s the same situation as before the Civil War, of, you know, what happens when you have a reactionary movement that is so dead set against right and actually holds the commanding heights of power.
And that’s where she starts thinking about, you know, like the sort of I think a return to her labor roots of like organizing social movements and particularly social movements that work with parties, but against parties that are work with parties where outside parties and try to push.
Parties in a particular direction, just as the abolitionists push the Republican Party to radicalize you know, the, the need for social movements to hold accountable and also thinking like beyond the, you know, strictly like legal courtroom stuff about power in terms of executive power. I mean, one of the points that she made quite frequently.
Was, you know, like there’s a lot of stuff Joe Biden could do, right? Yeah, like in this recent case that just happened, the horrible case of, you know this woman in Texas you know, yes, yes, yes. You know, Joe Biden, if he wanted to, could send Air Force One down there to Texas and could say, like, you know, like I’m inviting her as president, you know, I’m inviting her to like, you know, fly with me and we’re going to take her to New York or California where she could have her abortion, right?
Obviously Biden being Biden is not going to do that, right? But if you can imagine, like, actually. Having the instruments of the state that you do have control over using their power. And that as part of a social movement that radicalizes and then, and then, you know, forcing the Democratic Party.
To look at the legal system and to realize how, what a dire situation it is that the, you know, the courts are effectively controlled, uh, by people who are certainly the enemy of, you know, female equality as well as other forms of egalitarianism. Yeah, I mean, it’s also, I think her project.
You know became a more sort of social movement abolitionist style project. And I think that’s in continuity with our past, but you know, like it represents a shift from, you know, like we’re writing biographies of, you know Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sandra Day O’Connor, right? Like it is more.
Yeah. So, so and I want to say something. I mean, there’s a lot of stuff about her work that’s very controversial. And like, you know, I, I’d want to return to get to work because, you know, there’s an argument like, well, why is she so concerned with, you know, these women who are in the sort of, you know, New York times, you know, social register you know, went to elite school and where they.
That why they aren’t working at big law firms. Like, why are you so focused on, you know, basically the 1 percent of women that have access to this education and wealth instead of the majority? And I think, you know, one could, the critical response would be say, well, this is just liberal feminism and it’s taking the system for granted and it’s not challenging things.
But I don’t think that’s actually true. And I think one interesting one could make is her with WEB du Bois where he you know, was operating a system of like where African Americans are an oppressed class within America you know, a colony within a nation. And if you’re the leader of an oppressed people his strategy was the controversial strategy.
was a talented 10th strategy. Like, we have to build up an educated class that will represent us and can, like, you know, fight the battles in the courts and in the institutions. And, you know, one can dispute that but I don’t think that’s a, like a liberal policy. It’s working within the framework of a liberal system, but it’s like trying to figure out what you can do as an oppressed class.
And I think crucially, Linda saw women. As an oppressed class. It’s not just about, you know, I want women to, like, have the first women Supreme Court justice. I want the first women astronaut. It’s like women are oppressed class and their freedom can only be won by winning power, actual power. And when actual power within the system that you have in the United States, and I would say like most Western countries, you will have to have You know, the people that have that elite power, who, who have that education, have that wealth, and they can, they, certainly, that doesn’t give you everything.
I mean, you, you had that even in the 19th century. You had some very well educated women, and women who were wealthy, but, you know, there was no social movement. You need both sides of the equation. You need people of, like, you know of your class, of the oppressed class, Who have, you know, wealth power in access to institutions, and you need the social movements to prod them.
And so I, you know, that’s working within the framework of liberalism, but it’s not, I think I see it as a left liberal project, not a strictly liberal one. You know,
Moira Donegan: Linda understood power in Hobbesian terms, right? I think you’re right that she understood women as an oppressed class. She took their oppression very seriously, right?
Yes. She understood it in material terms. Mm hmm. As something that is inflicted. Within women as this like sort of sub subordinated group within every other group, right? Within every like race, caste hierarchy, there is a subordinated group that is a female group, and they are subordinated in very similar ways or via similar logics up and down those other hierarchies.
Right? And this was Linda’s assessment, and she understood the problem. Of women’s oppression as something that could be solved by giving women greater access to power. And she understood power in very straightforward Hobbesian terms, not only as moral authority, but as money and violence. And, you know, this is Part of why she understood social movements as requiring both liberal elites and masses of disenfranchised radicals is because it requires both money and a capacity for violence.
She talked about this in very straightforward terms, right? And her sort of ideal social movement, which is something that we have not really seen. among feminists in the 20th century for a variety of reasons, but her ideal social movement was ACT UP, right? And ACT UP gets sort of historicized in some like glossy sentimentalizing terms, but what ACT UP was, was an alliance of those entitled white cisgender gay men, right?
People like Mark Harrington from Harvard and Peter Stanley, who was a stock broker who were allied with, Large groups of desperate people. Right? So what you had in Act Up that I think Linda saw as particularly effacious was this combination of the people who could go into the boardrooms with Burroughs Welcome executives and talk about the need to speed up these trials and expand the doctrines or that criteria for inclusion and to cheapen these drugs.
And then you could also simultaneously have an angry crowd chanting outside. Yeah, you need both that carrot and that stick up. She described it as a pincher of influence, right? Yes. The soft side and the hard side. Yeah. And you know, she said something that has stuck with me is that movements that try to affect change with only one side of this equation fail, right?
If you only have elite liberals, they are very easily co opted. They’re very easily bought off. They are very easily able to be persuaded to see themselves as identifying with and having more in common with those boardroom executives who might actually be oppressing them on the basis of another form of identity, right?
And if you only have the rabble, that provokes violent repression and it enables. The cause to be marginalized by the elites, as opposed to being sort of persuade enabling them to be persuaded of its moral righteousness, right? They can’t see themselves. They other them. They say those are, you know people unlike us.
And therefore they foreclose the access to power using what will be to them justified means of, you know, often Extreme brutality, right? And this is, you know, a prescription for alliances that are incredibly untenable. They were untenable and act up, you know liberals and the radicals don’t trust each other, often with quite good reason.
And so their ability to remain united is a difficult part of this prescription, right? It is very, very difficult to get these people who have You know, united in one oppression or one material condition, but might have very different lives and worldviews to stay on the same team when they are on the same team.
And when they act strategically they can be extraordinarily effective. And this is, you know, this is the prescription to her credit. She makes through almost all of her books. It is, you know, especially after. You know, sister in law when she moves more towards looking at her, her three books on social movements, gay rights abolition which was the color of abolition that came out in 2022 and reckoning about sexual harassment, you know, they are they are difficult alliances.
of pragmatic imperfection.
Jeet Heer: Yeah, no, no, absolutely. Yeah, no, I mean historically, uh, she was very aware of this and there’s something we had talked about on, on podcast, like, you know, the, the the difficulty of of that juncture. I’ll bet you, I, I think like in the history of feminism, the one time you saw that was with the the suffragettes where you both had, you know, these elite women like the sort of Pankhurst and then you had where, you know, lobbying parliament and other people were like, you know, blowing up mailboxes.
And so you have but, but, I mean, as you say, like for a variety of reasons it doesn’t quite get replicated. But, but I mean, I, I mean, I think as a sort of historical analysis of how change actually happens you know, within that liberal framework, I think that’s, I think her, her analysis like really holds up.
And one thing I would encourage people, you know On this podcast as well, I imagine our listenership includes both liberals and leftists, and there might be people from both camps that are distrustful of Linda for a variety of reasons, but I would actually encourage a sort of engagement of her work in its specific nature and in its ways of analysis, and it has sort of shades, and there’s ways in which all these conversations can head off in different directions.
I mean, you know, talk about Linda as a liberal. One interesting thing is I really feel like that 2005 article Homeward Bound and then the book that came out of it in some ways like the sort of conversations that have flown out of that have headed well beyond liberalism and now, you know, it has led to a revival of like very radical critiques of the family.
Of what some people call hetero pessimism and and, you know, like seeing the family forms as problematic and, and a lot of conversations on different sides about all that. So it’s, I think also a very fruitful body of work that lends itself to a lot of different uses.
Moira Donegan: Yeah, you know, we are talking before we started recording about this revival of left family abolitionist thinkers on the far feminist left people like Sophie Lewis and Emmy O’Brien and Asa Sarinson, like very, very interesting writers and thinkers who share Linda’s assessment of the family as a materially extractive Arrangement that, you know, sort of sentimentalizes what’s functionally labor exploitation, right?
And then has a lot of like ideological force in doing so, right? But Linda’s prescription. For this was paid work. You know, that’s she she was kind of like a weird bridge between Betty Friedan and Shulamith Firestone. You know, Betty Betty Friedan understood the family as a psychologically oppressive system.
Right? And Linda really understood it as a materially oppressive system. And advocated for, you know, material solutions, get your own money, get better bargaining power, be able to get the fuck out of there. And that is not really the prescription that’s being taken up by the left, right? The feminist left now is very, very distrustful of paid work very skeptical of sort of calls towards the career as either a material or a psychic site of personal betterment for women.
But. There is sort of a revived skepticism of marriage, even among more like mainstream, and dare I even say it, liberal feminists, you know, like my friend Liz Lenz who is You know, somebody who is pitching herself, I think, quite well as, you know, feminism for the heartland has a book about the glory of divorce that’s coming out this spring and divorce as sort of a liberating prescription for women in materially and psychically Unfulfilling marriages, right?
And you see also the revival on the far right of antagonism towards divorce of extra Exhortations to women to have a lot of children, to drop out of paid work and to, you know, devote themselves to hearth and home. And there is, I think, a rewing discontent over the family for which Linda’s work will be able to guide us.
I also think her prescriptions for social movements as something that should really be a, a, Unification of, you know, technocratic liberal expertise with mass groups of radical passion. I think there is a real opportunity to revive that model of social movements right now with abortion. You know, you have tons and tons of disenfranchised, desperate, angry people, as well as a depleted but large bureaucracy of NGOs devoted to reproductive rights in particular.
You know, feminism’s death is always kind of overstated there is frankly just too much insulted dignity among women for feminism to be extinguished permanently, you know, and people are very capable of seeing the injustices of their own, in their own lives and of articulating that, it is a matter of being able to harness those sentiments in effective ways towards social change. And, you know, you’re probably not going to agree with everything Linda says. I certainly didn’t. But I think she is productively challenging. She always made me think a little more robustly about whatever problem I was facing.
Jeet Heer: Yeah, no, absolutely. Yeah, that’s exactly the note I want to end on because she was a very bracing person and a very bracing thinker and writer. And it is something in my experience, reading with her and engaging with her, you know, always left things like, like with a renewed clarity and a new kind of understanding and you know, she was, as I said before, like kind of like a force of nature in that sense.
And I, maybe as a final note, I’ll, I’ll just thank you for being on. But also say like, you know, like I see a lot of Linda in you in the sense that I’ve always found you to be like such a valuable guest and valuable writer just because you also have that bracing ability to like, you know, like, let’s get to the root of everything.
Let’s put things, you know, like as forcefully and as clearly as possible. And so it’s, it’s so touching for me to see Linda’s legacy live on in you and in so many other people.
Moira Donegan: Oh, thank you, Jeet. You know, she was she was irascible. She was hilarious. She was impossible. She was brilliant.
And like me, she was a real piece of work. And I miss her so much. And it was such a delight to talk about her with you.
Jeet Heer: Yeah. Thank you once again.