We Need To Talk
Looking for some way to repair the feminist gender rift.
In response to Barack Obama's Philadelphia speech about race, Melinda Henneberger and I tried to imagine what a comparable speech from Hillary Clinton on gender might sound like. Because this all happened eons ago (in March) we erroneously believed that if Clinton were to deliver a speech about gender, it would address itself chiefly to the unspoken misperceptions and doubts simmering between men and women.
How young we were! How naive! If there is any reconciling to be done at this point in the Democratic primary, it's between women and other women. Sadder still, the rift that's emerged is between groups of women who want precisely the same things: Equality in pay and opportunity, freedom from harassment and violence, the right to control one's body ... a woman president. This is not the "mommy wars," my sisters. If yesterday's Washington Post chat between the XX Factor team and our readers is any guide, the growing split between female Clinton and Obama supporters makes the "mommy wars" look like a pillow fight.
Our readers are angry, and some of them are really angry. My colleague Emily Bazelon characterizes this generational split between the young feminists and older ones as "heart-rending," and it's true that this acrimony is far more personal and painful than the spitballs we used to lob back and forth with the women who think its wrong for other women to have their own IRAs. Right now it seems there is hardly a Democratic-leaning woman left in America who isn't feeling either bitterly sold out by her daughter, or henpecked to a scabby pulp by mom and grandma. Early efforts at reconciliation have been mostly symbolic. Some of the country's leading feminists published a sort of working paper in The Nation last February. The inimitable Jessica Valenti urged us all to use this rift to work toward a "better, more forward-looking feminism." Emily's List has just now released a statement that both celebrates Clinton and admonishes her supporters to "come together to take the White House in November" and "unleash the political power of women to help Democrats win at every level in 2008."
Most of us are hoping that today's outrage and recriminations will begin to fade in the months to come; that our great-aunts' threats to cast a ballot for John McCain—the man who voted against equal pay for women—will prove mere threats. But even if we can all manage to realign ourselves as likeminded feminists by November, it would be a mistake for us to skate past the Recent Ugliness without making an effort to address it. Having spent five months pounding on one another like men, it's perhaps worth now attempting to bridge the feminist divide like women. That would mean listening instead of shouting and recognizing the common interests that outweigh our differences.
The worst of the intergenerational bickering of the past months has resulted from a failure of empathy; a breakdown in our capacity to acknowledge that the experiences of others are as compelling as our own. In a sense, we have simply been doing battle over whose stories are more legitimate—the second-wavers or their Pottery Barn daughters— or whose perceptions of gender discrimination are more accurate. Forgive me for saying that this is an argument that is singularly unworthy of us as women. Aren't we supposed to be great and gifted listeners and connectors?
I recently got tipsy with a group of ferociously successful second-wave lawyers, each of whom offered up blood-curdling tales of being one of a small group of women in her law school class; forced to walk great distances—uphill in both directions—to find the single ladies' room on campus. They were never called upon in class (or they were always called upon) and denied clerkships and jobs and promotions explicitly because they were women. I can't describe how angry they were at the generation that followed for our failure to support Hillary Clinton's candidacy. They truly felt that they had passed our generation a torch and we peed on it.
Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate.
Illustration by Robert Neubecker.