“There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.”
– Madeleine Albright at a Hillary Clinton rally in Concord, New Hampshire, 2016
In the past week, icons of second-wave feminism Madeleine Albright and Gloria Steinem have openly chastised women who betrayed their sex by supporting Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary elections.
Albright alleged that younger women take the achievements of their fore-bearers for granted and fail to take responsibility for continuing the gender rights revolution. Steinem, for her part, complained that young women voters support Sanders because they see it as an opportunity to meet young men.
As expected, female Sanders’ supporters lashed back that it is anti-feminist to suggest that they had allowed their libidos to cloud their political judgment or that they should determine their vote solely based on gender loyalty.
This debate echoes recurring tensions that have shaped the history of the feminist movement. It begs the question, what might the founders of feminist thought make of this controversy?
Would first-wave feminists have supported a female president?
Nineteenth-century founders of feminist thought were far from unanimous in their calls for women’s rights. Many would have rebuked the notion of a woman holding public office, let alone being chief of state.
When it came to the issue of political rights, early feminists were deeply divided. The more radical elements of the feminist movement, such as Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Angelina Grimke insisted on full equality for women, including suffrage, rights to divorce, equal pay and full social inclusion, while moderates simply sought redress to the extremes of gender inequality that robbed women of legal protections and equal access to education.
When the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention included women’s suffrage in its Declaration of Sentiments it created a fissure that weakened the feminist movement in the United States. Even Lucretia Mott, the keynote speaker of the Convention argued that the call for suffrage was too extreme.
In 1872, when Victoria Woodhull ran as the first female candidate for president of the United States she could not legally vote for herself, and while she no doubt inspired many other women to demand their civil liberties, she also shocked and upset radical feminists, like Anthony and Stanton who feared that such an extreme plea for women’s rights would alienate moderate sympathizers.
To be sure, many feminists who were in fact considered “radical” in their day—and even those, like Anthony who illegally exercised their right to vote—would have opposed a female president.
De Beauvoir, anti-feminism, and fighting the good fight
Simone De Beauvoir—who defined the “second-wave” school of feminist thought with The Second Sex— argued that sexism has been a pervasive and constant force throughout history, by which patriarchal institutions and values have been used to relegate women to a position of social, political and economic subservience or “otherness.”
Breaking institutions and customs that shored up male power was the only way for women to gain their human and civil rights, de Beauvoir argued. One might safely assume that she would have perceived a vote for a man as a vote for patriarchy and against women’s rights.
Second-wave feminists called for equal rights across the board and sought to advance women’s rights by putting women in positions of power: in medicine, in the academy and in government. Albright and Steinem are symbols of this movement and therefore naturally reflect the unflinching viewpoint that a vote for a woman is a vote to advance women’s rights.
Intersectionality: is our identity only defined by our sex?
However, this viewpoint was not without detractors. Revisionist black feminist scholars of the 1960s and 1970s rebuked the notion that women’s identities were solely influenced by their sex. In 1989, legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality to describe how a woman’s identity is informed by multiple experiences.
Intersectionality is most commonly associated with the competing loyalties that women of color feel as both women and people of color. This was epitomized in the USA by the controversy surrounding Anita Hill’s allegations of sexual harassment against Supreme Court Justice appointee Clarence Thomas—would their solidarity lie with a female victim of harassment, or with Thomas as a hopeful African American Supreme Court Justice? Yet, the experience of intersectionality also arises from different axes of identity formation, including class, region, sexual-orientation, age, capability, faith, and political allegiance.
Women of hybrid identities are not simply forced to choose between their competing allegiances, but form complex new allegiances that draw different elements from the multiple influences on their identities. Second-wave feminism’s failure to embrace this reality may reveal an underlying cause of the conflict between Steinem and Albright and the younger generation of Sanders’ supporters: they are different generations of feminists that perceive feminism differently. New wave feminists tend to embrace a more fluid construct of womanhood, that is informed by diverse experiences and social forces. Second-wave feminists fought for access to employment at a time when women’s jobs were advertized in a separate column in the newspaper.
Third-wave feminists may take employment opportunities for granted, even as they fight for their right to equal pay. And it is possible that third-wave feminists are more likely to believe that a democratic-socialist male president may be a better advocate for women’s rights than a democratic woman.
Non-western feminism: should we perceive ourselves as victims?
If it is not already painfully obvious, the concept of feminism is mired in western traditions and values: the Enlightenment concept of essential human rights, Republican principles of equality and liberty, existentialist freedom of choice and individuality, and maybe even a heritage of challenging illegitimate authority. Yet, these are not values shared by all of the world.
Pakistani anthropologist Saba Mahmood’s Politics of Piety challenged the notions that women who support patriarchal institutions are inherently endorsing patriarchal values or power. Mahmood’s exploration of the women’s mosque movement in Cairo reveals how Muslim women’s affirmation of their own faith served as a means of empowerment that is not evident when judged by western liberal values. Not all women of the world seek full gender equality or perceive themselves as victims of patriarchy.
If feminism is meant to advance women’s empowerment than it must find room to accommodate different women’s visions for personal empowerment. And this might mean acknowledging their right to vote against another woman.