How a Fractious Women’s Movement Came to Lead the Left

from The New York Times,

Feminism brought the opposition together. But how long will that last, and how many converts can it win?

It was, somewhat unexpectedly, one of the largest mass demonstrations in American history. Millions of protesters — estimates range from three to five million — took to the streets of Washington, Los Angeles, New York, Palm Beach, Fla., Boise, Idaho, even Fargo, N.D. Sister demonstrations were held in Thailand, in Malawi, in Antarctica. The energy of almost every group alarmed or incensed by Trump’s election seemed to have poured into a single demonstration. That it happened on the day after his inauguration was not surprising. What was striking was that all these people had come together under the auspices of a march for women. Just two months earlier, the left did not appear to be a unified front. The polls had barely closed before the infighting began. Some blamed Hillary Clinton for ignoring Wisconsin, or the Democratic National Committee for boxing other candidates out of the primary field. Some blamed identity politics, which made working-class white voters “feel excluded,” according to Prof. Mark Lilla of Columbia. Others blamed white people, particularly the coastal ones who couldn’t get their heartland relatives on their side.

But a crew of bummed-out, angry women was still aiming its ire at Trump.

The opposite turned out to be true: Women led the resistance, and everyone followed. A march for women managed to crowd a broad opposition force onto its platform. In the weeks since the march, that energy has only spread. After Trump’s executive order halting travel from seven Muslim-majority countries, the march’s striking proof of concept — hit the streets, and a surprising number of others will join you — fueled more spontaneous actions in unexpected places: outside courthouses, Trump hotels, airport terminals, the offices of Senator Mitch McConnell. At each protest, you were likely to see a few pink cat ears poking out of the crowd, a reminder of the opposition’s first gathering. It seems unlikely that any other kind of march would have turned out quite this way. In this moment, it happened that “women” was the one tent large enough to contain almost every major strain of protest against Trump.

Those who know their feminist history might see a paradox here. The women’s movement has not always been a site for unity. It has been marked just as deeply by its fractures, failures and tensions. But more than a century of internal turmoil has also forced the movement to reckon with its divisions. Now, the question is whether it can bring even more Americans into the fold.

Clinton’s loss on Nov. 8 was a pivotal, identity-shifting moment in the course of the American women’s movement. In an evening, the would-be first female president was shoved to the side by what a sizable chunk of the nation saw as that classic historical figure: the male chauvinist pig. In parts of the popular imagination, it wasn’t just a loss for Clinton or for the Democratic Party. It was a repudiation of feminism itself.

In the eight years between Clinton’s first and second presidential campaigns, though, something shifted: Feminism became fashionable.

Feminism became increasingly popular, but in a very specific way — one attuned to the concerns of people with office jobs and time to spend online. The feminist priorities of this new media landscape tended to involve topics that middle-class women would experience firsthand: reproductive rights, catcalling, campus rape, professional opportunity, pop-culture representation. The writers setting its tone tended to be young women who were asked to produce large amounts of clickable copy, for not much money, in very little time, exploring feminist issues not through time-intensive reporting but through “takes” on the women already making news: the work-life balance of Yahoo’s chief executive, Marissa Mayer; the pay gap between Jennifer Lawrence and her male co-stars.

It’s not that women’s activist groups vanished or political organizing stalled. But it did become possible for an American woman to cultivate a relationship to feminism that was primarily consumerist: There were feminist TV shows to watch, feminist celebrities to follow, feminist clothes to buy.

y the time the 2016 campaign rolled around, Clinton wasn’t just permitted to run as a feminist — she was practically obligated to. Her messaging shifted accordingly. Years of women’s debating the right way to be a feminist had the side effect of forcing the first female major-party candidate to the left. In 2008, she argued that she wanted abortion to be “safe, legal and rare — and by rare I mean rare.” In last year’s debates, she stopped qualifying her support. “I will defend Planned Parenthood,” she said in one. “I will defend Roe v. Wade, and I will defend women’s rights to make their own health care decisions.”

Meanwhile, her campaign mimicked the aesthetics of the pop-cultural feminist mode.

Pop feminism, having been washed of its political urgency, was now being integrated back into politics at the highest level. The candidate who once shrank from feminism was positioning herself as an icon of the movement. Her image became closely aligned with two metaphors — the pantsuit and the glass ceiling — that speak to a particular kind of woman: a corporate careerist at the top of her field.

When Clinton lost, pop feminism suffered a crisis. As everyone pored over exit polls, some of the long-simmering fractures between different groups of women exploded into view. Ninety-four percent of black women voted for Clinton, but 53 percent of white women voted for Trump, perhaps more likely to see themselves in his vision of the world than in the pop feminism that fed Clinton’s campaign.

There has never been one women’s movement. It’s difficult, for example, to say that the American feminist project started in Seneca Falls, N.Y., in 1848, because black women were not invited to that convention. It’s hard to say that electing a woman as president would have been feminism’s crowning achievement, because the success of one woman does not naturally trickle down to all. The history of the women’s movement is one of warring factions and sharp self-criticism. But its 150 years of navigating internal disputes put it in a position to lead what seemed, at the end of last fall, like a highly divided left.

“The million-dollar question is: Can these feminisms live together under an anti-Trump banner?” Crenshaw said. “It happened for 24 hours all across the world.”

But liberals are not the only ones drawing inspiration from the protests. Flip to Fox News, click around conservative blogs or browse pro-Trump Twitter, and you can watch the demonstrations fuel a different kind of opposition narrative. After the march, Fox News set clips of rally speeches to foreboding music. Breitbart published photos with the headline “See what a massive, Hillary shaped bullet America just dodged?” The right-wing Media Research Center aggregated the most “vile and ridiculous signs.” Twitter exploded with anti-Muslim attacks on Linda Sarsour, who was called a “terrorist” who “loves ISIS.” When the annual March for Life hit the Mall to demonstrate against abortion rights, The Blaze called it “the real women’s march.” (The Women’s March did, at one point, remove the name of an anti-abortion group from its list of partners, after an uproar.) According to Public Policy Polling, 48 percent of Trump voters think the protesters who convened at airports to protest the travel ban were paid by George Soros. Trump tweeted recently: “Professional anarchists, thugs and paid protesters are proving the point of the millions of people who voted to MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!”

In the first weeks of the Trump administration, the factions that split over his election are deepening along the same lines. Each side seems oddly confident in its political position. Trump supporters call themselves “the silent majority,” while his critics identify as the “popular vote.”

For now, the factions of the left seem to have found an accord. But to regain any power in Washington, they will need to sway the center too — including some of those women who voted for Trump. The white women of the left, many of whom are just now finding their footing as activists, have been eager to dissociate from that group. Mention the 53 percent, and they’re quick to tell you that they’re of the 47. But of all the people who marched on Washington last month, they may be among the best positioned to reach across that aisle. “I know of no other time when it would be more important,” Barbara Smith, the black feminist and leftist, told me. “That’s not my work to do, but somebody ought to do it.”

The New York Times:

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