September 10, 2014
So, we all know what didn’t happen after Hobby Lobby. Despite some initial outcry and a few dark predictions about the fate of women’s rights, advocacy groups never coalesced around a single, coordinated response to what was clearly an epically bad and far-reaching decision. But that doesn’t mean nothing happened at all; there was plenty of running around on Capitol Hill that week. Senate Democrats quickly drafted a bill to override SCOTUS and protect women’s health care access from future attacks based on the “religious freedom” argument. Feminist organizations, in turn, all lined up to praise the bill to the same media outlets they’d called to condemn the Supreme Court just days before.
That was all well and good, but the proceedings seemed rote to me, and with good reason. Despite the appearance of busyness, despite all the energetic signaling to women that their interests were being protected, no one involved—not the policy advocates, certainly not the politicians—actually thought they’d accomplish anything, because at that point there was nothing in the policy realm they could accomplish. The bill had absolutely no chance of passing Congress and everyone knew it, so the entire exercise was partly, if not mainly, for show. Americans have grown accustomed to this kind of pantomime, this imitation of activity, from elected officials. But, call me an idealist, I expect more from political advocates than the performance of activism. I expect them to try to do something substantive.
But for now, mainstream feminist activists are trapped, victims of their own success at forming strong partnerships and making cultural inroads. At this moment in its history, the feminist movement’s most expert and influential advocates are stuck in a strategic mode, the mode of public policy reform, that isn’t serving their current goals. If it seems like most of them haven’t recognized it yet, it’s because that’s the only mode of action they know; it’s the change strategy upon which their organizations are founded and their careers are based. Women’s advocates have spent the last 40-plus years cultivating allies, building bridges and learning how to work with established cultural institutions in education, politics and other social spheres. And as they’ve grown more adept at managing these partnerships, the big movement organizations have gradually evolved into cultural institutions themselves—in other words, they’ve become a well-integrated part of the society they’re trying to change.
This seems to be an unavoidable stage in all social movements’ maturation process. Once they succeed in making major changes to the culture, suddenly there’s something in society that they’re invested in conserving, as opposed to questioning, dismantling or reforming. Take the example of Title IX. Before it passed, feminists faced an education system that treated girls and women unfairly and was sorely in need of reform. After Title IX, the education system was marginally less in need reform, but still required major improvement. Only now, embedded within that flawed system, there were new scholarships and women’s athletic teams and other great things feminists wanted very much to protect. The very act of protection, the act of conservation, makes movement organizations more conservative by definition, even as they’re still trying to figure out how to enact social change and progress.
You can see how things might get a little tricky. You can maybe even see how dedicated feminist advocates could sit at a table with a group of political operatives they’ve spent years working alongside, and determine that the best response to an outrageous, anti-woman SCOTUS decision is to write a meaningless Senate bill. What were the immediate goals of those policy advocates when the decision was being made? Likely, they were to preserve relationships, to keep their places at the table, to continue to work within the political system they’ve become so expert at navigating. Advocates like this strategy for a reason; it’s familiar, for one thing, and also policy reform has worked brilliantly for feminism in the fairly recent past. But it just isn’t working right now, and it’s time for feminists to acknowledge that.
What was needed in those crucial hours after Hobby Lobby was for feminists to take up their old place outside the system and do what activists used to do best: make some noise, cause some trouble, wake people up to the threats we’re facing. Feminists knew how to do that, once. Can we learn to do it again?