Defending Senator Gillibrand: Calling for a More Inclusive Feminism

(Image via Wikimedia Commons)

(Image via Wikimedia Commons)

New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand ruffled some feminist feathers this past week by saying in an interview she’s “worried that the women’s movement is dead…there’s no functional movement where we’re working together and making sure all women are heard on all these issues.”Many feminists were quick to point out the recent gains in fighting back against abortion restrictions, fighting for equal pay, tougher domestic violence laws, and so on. It seems these feminists stopped reading her comments after the part where she’s worried the women’s movement is dead. The truth is, Senator Gillibrand hits the nail on the head. The feminist movement has been plagued by infighting and splinter groups since its inception. Feminism has not been inclusive to beyond rich, white, heterosexual women. As Jessica Valenti writes in Full Frontal Feminism, “unfortunately, when feminism is talked about, it’s still positioned from the experience of a white, middle- to upper-class, hetero gal. It just is. And if that’s the only way we think of feminism, then we’re essentially erasing the existence of any other woman who doesn’t function within those confines.” Audre Lorde said it is not these differences of race, class, and sexual orientation that separate us women, rather it’s our inability to include diversity: “Certainly there are very real differences between us of race, age, and sex. But it is not those differences between us that are separating us. It is rather our refusal to recognize those differences, and to examine the distortions which result from our misnaming them and their effects upon human behavior and expectation.”

Feminism, like most social movements, has been marred by ugly episodes of exclusion in its past. First Wave Feminism, known for its achievement of getting women the right to vote with the Nineteenth Amendment, was known to be racist. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, one of the leading voices of the women’s suffrage movement, believed white, educated women such as herself were more deserving of the right to vote than African-American men; she was also very dismissive of the plight of African-American women. Second Wave Feminism, which took place from the early 1960s to the early 1980s, was homophobic in nature. Betty Friedan, president of the National Organization for Women (NOW), reportedly referred to lesbian feminists as the “lavender menace.” Heterosexual feminists believed including lesbians would give credibility to the notion that feminists were man-hating lesbians and would cripple their ability to enact lasting political change. NOW also refused to include lesbians in its official platforms. This exclusion of lesbian feminists led to radical splinter groups that focused on removing male influence in society. Today’s feminism has been plagued by episodes of transphobia. Transgender women have been excluded from the conversation on how to advance women’s rights because they are not “women born.” The fact that there is a segment of feminism referred to as “trans-exclusionary” radical feminism (TERF) is abhorrent.

All this to say, Senator Gillibrand is right; feminism doesn’t have a unifying platform. That being said, there are many issues where all feminists can find common ground. Feminists can unify behind ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment because amending the Constitution to guarantee equal rights to women is something all feminists can agree on. Feminists can rally around abortion rights and affirming Roe v. Wade because you cannot be a pro-life feminist. Feminists can work for universal education for young girls and ending child marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM). While the women’s movement has been successful recently in fighting back against the onslaught of abortion restrictions, attacks on birth control, and lack of action on equal pay, we could take a lesson from the successful gay rights movement by uniting behind common causes to move progress forward.

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