An Open Letter To Gloria Steinem On Intersectional Feminism

gloria lead


February 8, 2016


Dear Gloria,

I want to ask you what happened.

I held you up among my idols when I was a young radical. I read “A Bunny’s Tale” at 16 and was blown away by your courage and dedication. I met you once, at a luncheon for women in politics. One of my professors took our women’s studies class to hear your keynote speech. I got to shake your hand. I thanked you for everything you’d done to make my life possible.

So imagine my surprise, nearly two decades later, to find you stumping for Hillary Clinton by suggesting that the only reason millennial women overwhelmingly support Bernie Sanders for the Democratic nomination is that we want to impress men. It was so outrageously misogynist that you actually managed to shock Bill Maher. Your halfhearted apology a few days later called it a case of “talk show interruptus,” but you of all people should understand how much words matter.

“I don’t mean to overgeneralize,” you foreshadowed, “but men tend to get more conservative because they gain power as they age, and women get more radical because they lose power as they age. So it’s kind of not fair to measure most women by the standard of most men, because they’re going to get more activist as they get older.” Then you added, laughing at your own joke, “And when you’re young, you’re thinking, ‘Where are the boys?’ The boys are with Bernie.”

Really? When I was young, I knew perfectly well where the boys were. That’s why I chose a women’s college. I was thinking about equality and justice and revolution. And when you were young, that’s what you were thinking about, too. It was the ’60s, after all, and you had a movement to make.

But, Gloria, the movement you made, as amazing as it was, had some serious flaws when it comes to intersectionality (as you know, that’s the idea that fighting for gender equality alone, without also standing shoulder to shoulder on issues of race, class, and other kinds of oppression, isn’t enough—in fact, it’s not necessarily even progressive). I know you know that, because you’ve talked about how #BlackLivesMatter has affected your thinking.

Yet your sexist, dismissive words about millennial feminists and Bernie supporters suggest a growing chasm between your brand of feminism and the intersectional feminism that young activists have been leading the charge on. And your bias toward the Democratic Party’s brand of  insular, upper-class white feminism—the brand of feminism Clinton herself is so closely associated with—is evident in more than this one controversial statement.

In 2002 you joined other liberal feminists like Eleanor Smeal and Eve Ensler in calling for U.S. intervention to “liberate Afghan women from abuse and oppression,” a campaign that wound up providing ideological cover to Bush’s “War on Terror.” And when it comes to sex workers, you’ve argued that all sex work is rape and that sex workers should be rescued by the carceral state. In addition, though in 2013 you apologized for your 1970s position on transgender issues, during the Real Time interview you participated in transphobic humor with Maher, laughing at his comment that “the Woman of the Year has a dick.”

You did comment that young women today are “mad as hell,” but you seem to have forgotten about the movements on the streets right now. You love to talk about the radical young women who have been the initiators and the organizers of #BlackLivesMatter, like Johnetta Elzie and Alicia Garza, so how is it that you forgot about them when addressing progressive millennial feminists? How did amazing millennial activists like survivor advocate Wagatwe Sara Wanjuki, immigrant rights organizer Daniela Sazcek, and educator-activist Sabrina Stevens slip your mind?

As for older men becoming more conservative as they gain wealth and power—well, maybe that happens in your corner of Washington, but for the rest of the country, things aren’t so easy. The New York Times recently noted that “the share of prime-age men—those 25 to 54 years old—who are not working has more than tripled since the late 1960s, to 16 percent.” The unemployment numbers are even worse for Latino and African American men.

You’re not alone in adopting an approach to feminism that overlooks intersectionality. Unsurprisingly, it turns out that when you try to change history’s second most enthusiastic capitalist party, it usually ends up changing you. Princeton scholar Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s new book From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation analyzes this dynamic in detail to explain why having “Black faces in high places” hasn’t made life all that much better for ordinary people of color.

Take your friend Barack Obama. Once a staunchly antiwar, pro-Palestinian civil rights lawyer, he’s disappointed his voter base by failing to curb mass incarceration and police brutality, refusing to support civil rights protestors in Ferguson (he instead plugged My Brother’s Keeper, a program that would “inculcate more trust, more confidence in the criminal justice system”), supporting Israel’s brutal assault on Gaza, and drastically escalating NSA surveillance programs.

Unlike you or Obama, Clinton’s never been particularly left-wing. She enthusiastically participated as First Lady in an administration that expanded the death penalty and the prison system and made good on its threat to “end welfare as we know it”—all policies far to the right of Richard Nixon, and all while claiming to be progressive. She was hawkish on Iraq in 2003 and insisted that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Clinton proudly claims war criminal Henry Kissinger as her foreign-policy inspiration and mentor.

We’re also told that millennials’ dislike for Clinton’s polished, focus-group-tested image amounts to a sexist double standard—as if it’s not possible to oppose both the sexist beauty standard and corporate politics as usual.

Your “joke” came as young women are constantly being told we have to support Clinton because she’s a woman, as though having women in leadership equals an automatic feminist paradise. (You know, like Thatcher’s Britain!) “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other,” Madeleine Albright said—yes, the same Madeleine Albright who, as Secretary of State, famously claimed that the deaths of half a million Iraqi children were “worth it.” When critics suggested someone should tell Albright there are women in Iraq, Clinton all but rolled her eyes: “Good grief, we’re getting offended by everything these days!” she said. “People can’t say anything without offending somebody.”

Yet the women at the top don’t seem aware of how much racial and economic justice intersect with feminism every day. Mindy Isser, a 25-year-old labor activist from Philadelphia, points out that most working-class women are “constantly wondering how am I getting diapers, how am I paying for my child’s daycare, how am I getting my child to daycare? How am I working constantly for pennies? How do I make it out of this trap?” Isser adds that “these questions, all tied together, create resistance to capitalism, a system that doesn’t work for most women, doesn’t work for black folks, and most certainly doesn’t work for black women.”

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not won over by Bernie, either, and I sure as hell don’t believe he’ll overthrow capitalism by running on the Democratic ticket. But if the generation born to endless war, boundless student debt, toxic Islamophobia, and “I can’t breathe” is shunning Clinton in favor of someone who calls himself a socialist —and it is, by a 70-point margin as I write this—consider, please, that we might have better reasons than a desire to impress “Bernie bros.”

Honestly, Gloria, it kind of feels like you were negging us: telling millennial women they’re not good enough in order to get us to try to prove otherwise by supporting your candidate. It’s sad to see you using such tactics to erase and undermine a generation of incredibly smart, savvy activists.

The good news is that more and more of us are ready to change the whole system, and fewer and fewer are willing to believe that imperial feminism is the best we can do.

I’m still grateful for the path you blazed—but more and more, you and I are living in different worlds.




Lead image: Wikimedia Commons

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  • Sarah Grey

    Sarah is a writer, editor, and language nerd in Philadelphia. She edits books that aim to change the world; writes about language, food, and politics; serves hundreds of meatballs a year; and is raising her little girl to take on the world. Challenge her to a spelling bee—if you feel lucky.

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