Free Radicals, Part 3
May 20, 2014
In Parts 1 and 2, I talked about the basic differences between the radical and the liberal strains of feminist thought in this country. Now I’m going to illustrate them with an example from my own life. I’ll start by telling you about the time I got kicked out of feminism.
My excommunication came at the hands of angry readers responding to a Sacramento Bee column I wrote last year about women in politics. In it, I noted that I hadn’t voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primary. This is still, nearly six years on, enough to infuriate a certain segment of women activists. I noticed it during the campaign, the single-minded urgency some Hillary supporters had in their pursuit of getting a woman into that office no. Matter. What. There were moments when the candidate herself seemed nearly beside the point amidst the fervor to get her elected—her supporters weren’t just voting for Hillary, they were voting for the idea of voting for Hillary; they were voting to fulfill a promise they felt the women’s movement had made decades, if not a full century, before. It was as though Hillary the individual politician were electable based on the sheer number of qualified women who were passed over—who were never even in the running—in the generations leading up to her nomination. “It is time,” Hillary partisans told us, as though that were a reason rather than a wish.
Make no mistake, it’s a wish I share. I’m not made of stone, over here. Just because I passed on ‘08 Hillary doesn’t mean I don’t get dewy-eyed at the thought of an American woman taking the oath of office. I work in women’s advocacy, I’m a feminist blogger and writer; it’s pretty clear where my sympathies lie. I guess that’s why people who assume, based on aforesaid activism, that I was a Hillary supporter end up feeling disappointed, or at least perplexed, when they discover that I wasn’t. The conversations can get a bit awkward. “But you’re such a loudmouth,” (I’m paraphrasing) “It’s always sexism this and misogyny that, how could you vote against her?” Their assumption is that because I’m a feminist, voting in the first woman president must be at the top of my priority list.
The truth is, it doesn’t even crack my Top 5. There are so many other things I want feminism to accomplish more than I want the presidency: universal childcare, reduction of domestic violence and sexual assault rates, accessible reproductive health care in all 50 states . . . hell, I’d rather see more proportional female representation in Congress, because as gridlocked as everyone’s favorite deliberative body has become, I still think having more women in Congress would have a bigger policy impact than a female president. But when in conversation with ticked-off Hillary supporters I don’t bother to counter their charges of heresy, because I recognize that we’re viewing things through different philosophical lenses and so will always disagree—not on the merits of Candidate Hillary, but on the transformational value of a woman holding that office. They just have different priorities than I do, which is why I don’t get too offended if they think I’m a traitor or kick me out of the women’s movement or whatever. They may say “You’re a bad feminist,” (a charge I’d vehemently dispute if I took it at face value) but what I hear is “You’re a bad liberal feminist,” which is actually kind of true so I don’t argue the point.
I realized I was becoming a radical feminist about five years into my career in domestic violence advocacy. It was the job itself that radicalized me: there are few social issues that more vividly illustrate the limits of liberal policy reform than intimate partner violence. In the decades since 1945, when California became the first state to try to make “wife beating” a felony, thousands of pieces of legislation have been passed at multiple levels of government in an attempt to curb the pandemic tragedy of partner violence. Most of these reforms were instigated by the liberal or “women’s rights” wing of the feminist movement and we should all be grateful, because with those laws they built the foundation for lasting change. But the laws are not, cannot be, an end in themselves—after all, we enacted them with the intent of changing people’s behavior, not just to have them on the books or mete out punishment.
As it turns out, the complex pathology that is domestic violence can only be partly changed, only fractionally diminished, by passing laws against it. Policy reform and legal enforcement are necessary, but woefully far from sufficient. Domestic violence laws, I now believe, must be accompanied by large-scale education efforts aimed at changing the personal beliefs that help determine whether individuals enforce and abide by those laws or not. And while domestic violence is perhaps the clearest example of a problem that’s hard to legislate, I think the entire mass of problems we call “women’s issues” is rife with such challenges.
Check back for Part 4 tomorrow!