Please folks, talk to me. Is this reasonable? Does anyone else feel this way? Help me clarify here. This Blog is now open for immediate comments, without my mediation. Do it. Also, below is another site that seems to contradict much of what I am saying here. But if it is after the conventions, and Hillary is the nominee, I guess these thoughts will allow me to keep going.
My Woman Problem
I just read two fine books, Subversive Southerner: Anne Braden and the Struggle for Racial Justice in the Cold War South and Ella Baker: Community Organizer of the Civil Rights Movement. Both women inspire me and remind me of autobiographies of other radical women who do the same: Bertha Capen Reynolds, An Uncharted Journey, Gerda Lerner, Fireweed: A Political Autobiography, Emma Goldman, Living My Life, Heda Margolius Kovaly, Under a Cruel Star, and Maya Angelou, I know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I admire strong, brave women wherever they are: — whether they are the “Mother Heroes” of welfare rights, women trade unionists, or other strong radical women activists around the world and through history. This is real, at the heart of who I am and hope to be.
Likewise, U.Mass.Boston women students from many backgrounds whom I worked with always inhabited a “judgment free zone” in my heart. They wanted to learn with me, a self identified white radical atheist socialist feminist troublemaker. It was enough for me to love them from the beginning. without denying or trading on any privileges. These undeniable social facts about me simply needed to be acknowledged, challenged and used collectively to support students’ learning and life goals.
But in my political work away from U.Mass I held back from many white women, especially middle class suburban Christian women, including mainstream white feminists. I tried, but didn’t give them much wiggle room to meet the unstated but rigorous standards of acceptability required to become eligible as “potential comrades” — a cohort I so proudly claimed to seek.
I was not so tough on white men. After all, what could I expect? If they tried to be good guys I was open to working with them, in spite of themselves. Sometimes it didn’t work, but then I never minded an open conflict.
But I was not interested in trying to do political work with well meaning, seemingly comfortable white women who hadn’t been victimized by abuse or violence or something else, or who weren’t angry about it if they had suffered. At best, they were in denial. I wasn’t rude but I wasn’t interested. With N.O.W. types, or social workers, or other helping professionals trying to do good, I was especially bored. I simply wrote them off.
In 1970’s feminist criticism-self-criticism sessions I had owned up to this problem. Later, women in other settings criticized me for it. One League of Women Voters member even said she was afraid of me. I said I was sorry, and tried harder not to let my disinterest show. But it remained.
After all, I got class and economic injustice. There is a ruling class who steal and rule with no constraints — it takes a movement of all to fight them. And I always try to name and fight white racism as the toxic “disease of the public mind” that has infected white people in the US, It has killed, harmed and disregarded people of color, thereby fatally undermining whatever exceptional “greatness” this country could ever claim. I could be forceful, funny, moving and even humble when opposing such things.
Of course, I knew how unfairly and disrespectfully this men’s world treats all women, not only the poor and dark skinned women with whom I sought solidarity. But somehow my feelings about feminism remained a guilty problematic. Was it because I never really felt the same uncomplicated commitment to the cause? Why did I support the Equal Rights Amendment but without the passion it deserved? I wanted women’s leadership but why was I not as forceful in demanding it as I was in fighting cutbacks? Or, especially, why didn’t I try harder to support women, as women, when they got power at U.Mass. or locally? How could this be?
The answer, I guess, once again comes back to the personal. In 1970, I went with a friend to an organizing meeting of Bread and Roses, the radical women’s collective which launched Socialist Feminism in Boston. I left impressed by the women, the movement and the language. But still, my first response was, “I guess I can be a feminist — so long as I don’t have to love my Mother.”
After years of therapy I thought I understood. But now, for all my feminist talk and writing, why do I still allow this justifiable fear of the one mean woman who so un-lovingly raised me to block relationships with so many individual feminists, and even to the feminist movement as whole? I too easily find fault with bourgeois white professional women colleagues who earnestly “try to make a difference.” I once wrote a review where I called Eleanor Roosevelt a “sheltered pickle.” I distrust their words and deeds in ways that I never hold back from white leftists or African American and other non-white activists.
I hid my disregard for mainstream feminists behind solid class and anti-racist arguments. After all, so many feminists were so white, so privileged, so clueless that it was easy to withhold full support. Didn’t it makes sense to avoid working with white, middle class, straight Christian feminists given how their unacknowledged investment in their own privilege deliberately marginalized the voices of women of color, poor and working class women, and lesbian/bisexual/transgender women? Besides, women in power do not necessarily further any women’s interests and fact can be instrumental to women’s subjugation
But I do know that’s not the whole story. Somehow I just keep finding it hard to fully engage, to see women who present themselves first as feminists to be natural allies.
I now recognize my attitudes as an understandable over-reaction to my own Southern Baptist Mommy Dearest, yet it hurts to watch myself holding back. Must I still believe that dressing up for a non-radical women’s fundraiser to nicely celebrate “women’s progress” means joining Mother’s team, becoming a “good girl”?
I don’t feel that about other mainstream events to promote Healthy Boston or Community Arts, for example . I pick and choose, rationally knowing that there are lots of reasons to join with decent people, even if they don’t agree with all my politics, and aren’t comfortable being radical. It’s ok
After all, what’s the harm in voting for Bernie, while contemplating actually supporting Hillary as the Democratic nominee exactly because she would be the first woman President? She is, of course, the archetypal flawed, white neoliberal. She’s so proud of herself, so sure she knows better.. She still defends welfare reform; she thinks America is great, but can be greater. And I know I will be not-so-secretly proud when she wipes the floor in a debate with the Donald.
There, I’ve said it. It worries me that I even think this way about Hillary and the whole mainstream feminist project. I don’t have to like her, but, somehow I’m not proud of myself anymore for putting her down because she and her proud feminist supporters just assume I will, because she will be the first woman President of this this messed up country of ours. Oh dear……
2 thoughts on “My Woman Problem”
Thanks to both James Jennings and Margaret Rhodes for their comments. After I hear from other folks I will give a brief general response to keep the conversations growing. Ann
James Jennings and Margaret Rhodes Comment on My Woman Problem
JAMES: Thanks for sharing this. As I read it, just wondered if you might add a thought or two, re: how might Ann Braden or Ella Baker approach the Bernie Sanders campaign, today? This can give us an opportunity to tap these grassroots giants (who had relatively little to do with the two national parties—correct ?) in helping mold a social justice narrative, today…??? (And, in a certain way, protects their history of struggle from conservative or liberal revisionist history)
MARGARET: I think a great many women, not just socialist women, are ambivalent about Hillary–she is such a hawk and has changed her mind so many times and her husband gutted welfare and she wanted to do health care in a very elitist way, etc. etc. And on the other hand, what does a woman have to do even to be considered for President? She is tough and has to walk an incredible tightrope that men don’t even have to think about. But my point here is that the issues are a bit separate, yes?–your ambivalence towards mainstream feminism of the Steinem sort (she is better than Clinton) and your support of Clinton.
With James, I appreciate your sharing this. It clarifies allot for me. With Margaret, i agree that issues need to be separated.