Feminism Is Not Doomed

Michelle Goldberg has written a lot of commentaries I genuinely admire. This column is not among them.

For the last couple of years, feminism has been both ubiquitous and improbably glamorous, its pop culture currency symbolized by Beyoncé silhouetted before a giant glowing FEMINIST sign at the 2014 Video Music Awards. On television, women went from ornaments to protagonists, starring in a slew of raunchy comedies in which men were often afterthoughts. Feminist polemics became a staple of fashion magazines. Female college students demanded standards of sexual consent that were often unfathomable to their elders. In my little corner of Brooklyn, ambient feminism appeared to influence the way fashionable young women dressed. They wore oversized shirtdresses or loose wide-legged pants and chunky shoes, clothes for doing things rather than displaying oneself. Last year, the New York Times ran a trend piece about hip young women rejecting thongs in favor of comfortable underwear. Female masochism, it seemed, was falling out of style. …

This is not a fashion column. Whether “ambient feminism” was influencing women’s wear outside of Brooklyn I cannot say. After some more verbiage on women’s cultural triumphs in the Big Apple, Goldberg gets to her point.

For 25 years, after all, Clinton was reviled as a synecdoche for unseemly female ambition. That’s part of what made her candidacy so fraught. If she’d become president, it would have been in the teeth of widespread male opposition; even the models that showed her winning had her losing the majority of men. She proposed policies that would have increased women’s power and autonomy at every level of society: equal pay, paid family leave, subsidized child care, abortion rights. For all her manifold faults, her election would have both signified progress toward gender equality and made more such progress possible. Before Nov. 8, it looked as if the arc of history was bending toward women.

Trump’s victory has obliterated this narrative. In many ways it was a fluke; had a few thousand votes in a few Rust Belt states gone another way, we’d be talking about Clinton’s popular vote landslide and the decisive defeat of Trumpian reaction. However freakishly contingent his triumph, it forecloses the future feminists imagined at least for a long while. We’re going be blown backward so far that this irredeemably shitty year may someday look like a lost feminist golden age. The very idea that women are equal citizens, that barriers to their full human flourishing should be identified and removed, is now up for grabs. A pastor warming up the crowd at a post-election Trump rally in Louisiana promised that with Trump in office, the White House would be a place “where men know who men are, women know who women are.” The massive power of the American state is about to be marshaled to put women in their place.

The rest of the column is pretty much about how far backward feminism will be blown. It doesn’t look good for Roe v. Wade and reproductive rights generally, but for women in large parts of the country outside of Brooklyn that’s been true for the past few years. And right-wing clergymen have been calling for putting women in their place all along, as well. You don’t hear them much in Brooklyn, but they can be pretty loud elsewhere.

A synecdoche in Goldberg’s context means that Hillary Clinton was the embodiment of all uppity women. That was true in the 1990s, and it remains true in some right-wing enclaves, I’m sure.

But Hillary Clinton is not all women, uppity or otherwise. She is a particular woman with a particular history who has been in the worldwide public eye for about a quarter of a century now. To see rejection of her as a rejection of all possible women presidential candidates trivializes both feminism and Clinton, I say.

I would argue that if anyone was rendering Clinton into a synecdoche of anything, it is the upscale urban women who identify with her. But the 2016 presidential election was just plain not a referendum on feminism. I’m sorry, ambient Brooklyn feminists, but people out here in Not Brooklyn Land actually are concerned about other issues.

There’s that income inequality thing. You may remember hearing something about it during the primaries. An Economic Policy Institute study released this year said that income inequality in the U.S. has reached levels not seen since the late 1920s. That is a seriously bad thing that’s having a real impact in peoples’ lives.

The United States is now the most economically unequal nation of all Western nations. Americans have considerably less social mobility than Canada and Europe. (Source.) The Middle Class is shrinking just about everywhere in America. Most Americans are one paycheck away from living on the streets. White working class people are so stressed about this, their life expectancy is in decline.

One can argue, possibly truthfully, that whites are more stressed about their economic decline than nonwhites because they had further to fall. One definition of suffering is that it’s what’s found in the space between expectations and reality. That, however, doesn’t mean that their stress should be dismissed as a vestige of white privilege. Being one paycheck away from the streets doesn’t feel privileged.

There is all kinds of data telling us that the biggest change in voting patterns between 2012 and 2016 is found in the Rust Belt states. These are the places where, 50 years ago, a guy could graduate high school, get a union job at the local factory or steel mill, and enjoy both job security and a cushy middle-class lifestyle, complete with a home, the occasional new car, and trips to Disneyland for the family.

Those days are gone. People are very stressed about it. And neither party, to be honest, has done much to give people any hope that the future won’t be even bleaker.

Along comes the 2016 election. Trump, the narcissistic con man, went to the Rust Belt and told people what they wanted to hear. But Clinton barely talked to them, and if she addressed their particular concerns at all, they didn’t hear it.

And she lost their votes.

Feminism had little to do with it. I don’t doubt gender bias whittled some votes away from Clinton, but it wasn’t to blame for her collapse in the Rust Belt states. That was the economy, folks.

It was also class. Class inequality is real, and getting worse, in the U.S. And upscale urban liberals are oblivious to it.

The mistake many upscale urban liberals make is that they assume the bigots who leave comments on Facebook, or the violent dimwits who showed up at Trump rallies, are representative of all Trump voters. Yes, Trump tapped into a vein of bigotry, including misogyny. But data tell us that many people who voted for Trump acknowledged he was a jerk. They simply judged — wrongly, I believe — that he was the jerk who might actually do something to make their lives better.

So reflect on that over your chai lattes, ambient feminists.

18 thoughts on “Feminism Is Not Doomed

  1. As I was riding into work today I thought about the shirt I gave my girlfriend for Christmas (silhouette of Bernie and the words 2020 hindsight). At the time I gave it to her I said Bernie is probably not the candidate for 2020, but we’ll have one. On the ride I was reflecting on the need for parties, and in particular on the need for a candidate to be known to voters. That led to Elizabeth Warren as the democratic nominee pretty quickly.

    when you consider that she will be a populist goad to Trump from the 99% for 4 years… she’ll have the voter ID down. and she’ll have a policy agenda that we can get behind.

    2020 could easily have a woman elected President.

  2. When a whopping 62 per cent of non-college educated (white) women voted for a misogynist President over Feminist Hope, Hilary Clinton, it unmasked how “ambient” or elite feminism had alienated the lowly-paid needed to prop up the services economy so the professional class can head-butt the glass ceiling. Evidence shows that inequality among women is rising faster than inequality among men.

    If it took a hissy fit from a gruff 74yo to be the true light on the hill for the ‘forgotten’ against “starvation wages” and crippling student debt, or a misogynist picking up on working-class anxieties, it is doubtful whether feminism’s “ambient” poster-girls cracking the glass ceiling will suddenly become Mother Theresa (e.g. then Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer reportedly banned employees from working remotely, which particularly impacted working mothers struggling with childcare).

    As pop icon Madonna succinctly put it in OUT magazine last year: “women are still the most marginalized group……still just trading on their ass”.

  3. Feminism is doomed as it exists today.  Consider this problem.  The Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. Obamacare) was almost doomed from it’s initiation by software that was poorly designed and did not work properly.  The DNC was hacked repeatedly, and information that was sensitive got into the wrong hands without a third rate burglary.  Email was a constant cloud over the party and the candidacy, and fogged any discussion of real issues.  Ira Glass, In Act One, points out the problem as a simple case of computer illiteracy. 


    You have to at least know enough to avoid pitfalls, know and respect the people that can give good advice, and have good computer judgement.  It is a problem for all of us, not just for this group. 

    One of my favorite sayings regarding “experienced workers” is that there are two kinds:  One has ten years of experience, and the other has one year of experience ten times. 

    • “The Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. Obamacare) was almost doomed from it’s initiation by software that was poorly designed and did not work properly. The DNC was hacked repeatedly, and information that was sensitive got into the wrong hands without a third rate burglary. Email was a constant cloud over the party and the candidacy, and fogged any discussion of real issues.”

      And what does any of that have to do with feminism?

  4. To answer Maha’s last question – when a man in government has a computer problem or a government program doesn’t run as intended, it’s an indication of a computer problem or a bad government program. Apply those same situations to a woman candidate and it’s obviously because women are inept.

    Driving while stupid applies to both genders, but a man who pulls a dangerous lane change will be cursed for his driving, while a woman wo does the same maneuver is at fault as a ‘woman driver’. This is a pervasive sexist attitude and I’ve been guilty more than once. But I’m getting better.

    I’m a fan of Liz Warren but it has NOTHING to do with her gender. Her positions on issues and her ability to articulate those positions make me a supporter. I was disappointed how many people were advocates of Clinton solely because of her gender. Gender is a lousy reason to vote for a man – and it stinks just as bad as a reason to vote for a woman.

  5. Hatred of feminism is the pretty much the same as racism. It gives mediocre white men yet another opportunity to resent having more honest competition to deal with (at least unconsciously).

    In the corporate world most of my female supervisors were pretty good, pretty cool. But two were not – either full blown psychopathic, or maybe believed they had to behave that way to be taken seriously, I dunno. I read somewhere that Hillary was generally seen as one of the good and cool managers by her various people. They liked her and thought she was smart.

    Apparently the Golden Oy was able to tap into more than just the white mediocre man’s angst. He got some women too. So… are we at ‘solve the human primate psychology mystery’ time again? (and shouldn’t the Clintons make it a mission or hobby or something to help their party figure all this out via a competent Lessons Learned? Where the hell they been?)

  6. Feminism, as I tend to define it, supports women aspiring to atypical roles.  I think this generally follows the way it was used in the text.  When taking on atypical roles (I suppose in Saudi Arabia driving a car is still considered an atypical role) , as Doug commented, they are subject to scrutiny.  Some of it is fair and some is not as he said.  I agree that one voting for Hillary just because she is a woman is as poor a notion as voting against her because she is a woman. 

    I mention it only as an idea, that some roles take a level of computer literacy and awareness as never before.  I mention it because a pattern might be indicated.  I was amazed that Ira Glass saw the whole email thing in a different way.  In a way, though, it indicated a void in the public sector, with which I was quite familiar. I just didn’t think it went that high up.  I like Elizabeth Warren because I agree with her judgement on many matters.  I would be more secure in my support if I knew her judgement in this area was good also.  Here lately I have had way too little security in upcoming good judgement. 

  7. But I heard her yelling about “removing barriers”. Of course, she never said what the barriers were, why they needed to be removed, who was impacted, and how they would be removed. And, just in case, she carries hot sauce everywhere.

    Damn, that should have played well in the rust belt. No wonder she didn’t even bother to show up to fight for those votes.

  8. Not really off topic, because feminism is under discussion – Carrie Fisher personified as Princess Leia the feisty, independent female leader. Her in-you-face defiance and devotion to a cause greater than herself was inspiring. No one can calculate how much the role she brought to life changed attitudes of women about women. And men had to adjust to a leading lady who’d tell you to your face that she’d rather kiss a Wookie than you.

  9. I like Liz Warren, but I don’t think she’s going to be the nominee in 2020. I am not even sure that she has any ambitions in that direction. I would point out that she isn’t a great speaker, that her portfolio of issues has been relatively limited and that she doesn’t seem to be wildly popular outside a slice of the the Democratic base. To my mind, that spells a loss in the primaries to someone with a wider range and more charisma. I also have considerable doubts that the Democrats are going to risk nominating a woman so soon after Clinton’s defeat.

  10. And to think, less than 40 years ago, the Women’s Equal Rights Amendment almost passed.

    And the coming 4+ years will be a series of vicious battles in the the realm of equal rights for women.
    t-RUMP – himself a misogyinist – has aligned himsel with the idiotic Men’s Rights Movement, and the “Christian” warriors, which both demand women follow “traditional” roles – aka: subservience to men.

    Abortion rights are being killed, maimed, or badly wounded, in states across this country.
    This will only get worse, as t-RUMP will allow the “Christian” right to give him anti-abortion judges to stock on the Federal Courts – up to, and including, the SCOTUS.

    To me, the right to control your own body is the most basic human right of them all. The right to having a choice for women is critical, because without it, anything else is either practically impossible, or downright impossible.

    To deny women a choice to either carry the fetus to term, or abort it, is to deny them any say in their own lives.
    It’s not ‘feminism’ to oppose what the Reich-Wing in this country is trying to do to make abortion virtually impossible, it’s “Humanism” to demand that women be allowed to control their own bodies.

    Women, and the men to who truly love and respect them and see them as equals, are in for the battles of our lives on this front! *

    Ok, I’m done preaching to the choir.

    *Sadly, it’ll be only one battle in the Reich-Wing’s war on the 20th and early 21st Centuries, and the progress made for people in the past 100+ years.
    They will assault everything from workers, to minority, to voting, to other human rights – like being able to marry the person you love, regardless of sexual orientation, religion, etc.

    Things long fought for, can be quickly lost. So, get ready to battle.

  11. NickT – If Clinton lost because CLingon is a woman, u are right. I think Clinton lost because Clinton is Clinton. Put up the best candidate,I say.

  12. yes they thought he was a jerk and voted for him anyway. Because controlling the scotus and women’s reproduction and economic independence is more important than than the good of the country. They are willing to accept a fascist kleptocracy rather than embrace equality. no fiddle for the poor white working class( majority of trump voters had higher incomes than Dem voters) they are jerks racists misogynists xenophobes who do not care where the chips fall as long as it is not on them.

    • aj — it’s true that Trump voters had a higher median income than Clinton voters. Looking at this factoid in a vacuum is misleading. If you look at precincts and counties that flipped from blue to red this year, they are overwhelmingly in places where people are feeling economic distress.

      Yet while Trump’s supporters might be comparatively well off themselves, they come from places where their neighbors endure other forms of hardship. In their communities, white residents are dying younger, and it is harder for young people who grow up poor to get ahead.

      Clinton enjoyed her highest vote margins in places like Marin County, California, where she got nearly 80 percent of the vote — high income (over $100,000), high property values, mostly professional people. However, it’s also the case that Clinton did much better with younger voters and with minority voters, and they tend to have lower incomes.

  13. Thanks for the link.  I am surprised someone would even consider the tampering as a possible major factor, and my comment was done in jest and frustration.  The moose, rocky, and our cold war associates just get a bit nervous about all of this stuff. 

    This was also shocking from a WOPO story: 

    …..why Democrats were not receiving more blame for allowing key accounts and servers to be breached.
    “Nobody by any way or shape is suggesting that that’s acceptable behavior,” Spicer said. “But I don’t believe once I’ve ever seen an interview where anyone at the DNC was ever asked a question about whether they take any responsibility for what clearly appears to be a lax effort on them to protect their own networks.” 


    Oh my.

Comments are closed.