Almost everything I know about feminism I learned from my mom. She struggled to take care of me as a single mother, working nights in a convenience store for years before landing a better job in a factory. I knew about the way that she was passed over for raises by the boss who sexually harassed her, while doling out pay increases to the buddies he drank with. For a time she would get up at 4 in the morning so she could make a 6am shift, and I will never forget the morning when she had a meltdown looking for a piece of lipstick, frantically turning the house upside down. I couldn’t understand why she was so upset and naively urged her to calm down. Then she snapped: The men at the plant, she said, would not be nice to her or work with her if she wasn’t wearing makeup.
Here was a person who did her best to provide me with an education and a happy life on barely more than minimum wage, who cooked healthy meals, tried to go to community college, scrimped and saved and made nothing but wise financial choices, but could never get off the treadmill of poverty. Meanwhile, at each turn, sexism undercut both her self-confidence and earning potential. This was also the 1980s, the age of the welfare queen and Reagan’s war on the poor. My mom had been a reliable Republican, like many working-class white Southerners of the time, but I saw how she began to doubt her loyalty to the GOP when Vice President Dan Quayle decried Murphy Brown’s choice to be a single mother on the popular CBS sitcom. Overworked, underpaid, sexually harassed and badmouthed as a threat to the nation’s moral fabric? That was one insult too many.
In any case, I resolved early on to try to resist patriarchy and misogyny, at least as much as I knew how to. It’s nearly impossible to be a man in our society and not take advantage of the privileges of a Y chromosome, or to subscribe to sexist notions on one level or another. Even the most progressive men ought to realize this is the case. I feel our generation is making some progress, at least in the realm of personal life; most of the husbands and fathers I know make a much greater effort to share equitably in childcare and other than family responsibilities than their fathers or grandfathers ever did, whether or not these men consciously identify as feminists per se.
On the other hand, though, I think sexism is nearly as pervasive as ever. We may be a long way from the era of Mad Men, but ideas about fundamental differences of gender have proven more enduring than some may realize. Feminism remains a bad word for many, inflected with a pejorative tone of Limbaugh’s “feminazi.” I teach history at Georgia State University, and whenever we discuss movements for gender equality in the 1960s, the conversation often turns to gender essentialism. Even the most outspokenly liberal or progressive students at times express views about innate differences of gender that are not too different from the conventional wisdom of sexism’s Don Draper heyday. Female students remain careful to qualify their comments in class by noting “I’m not a feminist, but…” Feminism, it seems, still has an image problem, even among the younger generation.
This is to say nothing of the assiduous and wide-ranging assault on women’s rights, particularly reproductive freedom, that has unfolded across the country in the last decade. Indeed, even as progressives have won victories on gay rights and healthcare in recent years, advocates of reproductive rights have been almost entirely on the backfoot, as state and local governments have done everything to make abortion inaccessible except to ban it outright. Feminism, then, not only has an image problem but also a practical, strategic one.
My good friend (and sherights editor) Lindsay recently asked whether campaigns for women’s rights suffer for being framed specifically as women’s rights. Are “women’s issues” getting marginalized in the broader political debate because they are perceived to be of concern only to women (and, more narrowly, only to feminist activists)? Lindsay and I both favor an approach to domestic political activism that employs the framework of human rights, i.e., choosing to discuss issues such as poverty and racism not as issues narrowly relevant to the poor or particular ethnic groups, but as violations of every human’s basic right to decent education, healthcare, safety, and due process. And it seems at least possible that progressives could frame “women’s” or “feminist” issues in much the same way.
For instance, in the story I opened with, it’s clear that my mom’s struggle could be understood as a series of wrongs against her basic human rights—and my own. Her rights to equal pay were violated as a worker, and her subsequent effort to join and organize a union at a factory where she later worked has ensured that grossly arbitrary mistreatment is more difficult under a union contract with a standardized pay scale and a grievance procedure. Her struggle to get healthcare was impeded both by her own low income and discriminatory policies that forced women to pay more for coverage (prior to the Affordable Care Act), a fact that caused her to suffer needless pain for medical and dental problems that were never addressed, and which caused me to lack treatment for conditions that continue to afflict me to this day. Poverty and sexism intersect here and affect not just women but the husbands and sons in their lives, while a truly open and equitable universal healthcare system might have rendered the whole issue moot in the first place (in short, a question of the human right to healthcare). And obviously, access to affordable, quality childcare and pre-K education would benefit not just mothers but fathers, children, and everyone else who is involved in the enterprise of family and parenting. Each of these problems affected my mom uniquely and disproportionately as a woman, but I believe it’s at least possible to imagine how political efforts to address them could be framed as broadly human or populist issues, rather than women’s issues alone.
Then again, defining the issues of greatest concern to women as not being women’s issues carries its own pitfalls. After all, as Lindsay put it, “women must be at the helm of the feminist agenda, especially when it comes to reproductive health and rights. After all, we’re the ones toting a uterus, ovaries and cervix…” And it is impossible to escape the fact that issues of reproductive freedom simply concern women far more directly than men, even if limits on the choice of whether to have a child do have serious implications for men—such as children a woman already has, whose own economic status may suffer if a woman lacks the option not have another child, to say nothing of the potential fathers involved.
Furthermore, there is the question of whether feminists—men or women—should retreat from a bold assertion of women’s rights and interests. To me, this smacks a little of the unfortunate climate of the 1980s and 1990s, when conservatives and liberals alike used the invidious notion of “identity politics” to portray those feminists, people of color, and gays and lesbians who only sought fair and equal treatment as somehow pursuing a course of self-interest to the detriment of others—or, at least, caring only about their “own” issues and no one else’s. Even some on the Left decried so-called identity politics as distracting attention from issues that really mattered, such as economic inequality. In fact, equality for African-Americans or the LGBT community ought to subtract nothing from efforts to ensure fairness for working-people and the poor; these causes should instead complement and support each other, if we only focused on our shared convictions for equality and social justice rather than differences that our more imagined than real.
Finally, and perhaps most important to my mind, is the fact that sexism and misogyny underlie so many of these problems in ways that are often underrecognized—and that need to be targeted specifically. Our discussion of poverty, of course, has always been structured by metaphors of gender and patriarchy, as when conservatives decry “welfare queens” and insist that the solution to poverty is for women to keep their knees together. The economic travails of men, particularly black men, has often been cast as a function of their inadequate manhood, since these men (allegedly) refuse to work and take on responsibility (and authority) as fathers in a traditional, patriarchal families. I also personally believe that much revulsion toward homosexuality is rooted in misogyny. Any time a man is derided as someone’s “bitch” or perceived as feminine in any way—the worst possible offense for a man, since femininity equals weakness and inferiority—the metaphorical structure of inequality that undergirds violence and injustice everywhere from the workplace to the prison system is reinforced in ways that hurt not just women but men, privileging those who are, by and large, already too privileged.
So I would conclude that misogyny must be front and center in our efforts to work for a better society, for men and women both. It seems impossible to abandon the concept of “women’s issues,” even if we, as feminist women and men, work harder than ever to insist that abuse of women’s rights is a wrong against universal human rights that harms men, women, and children. The overarching message of progressives ought to be, as always, that we’re all in this together—and we all ought to be prepared to identify as feminists without qualification or apology.
About the author: Alex Sayf Cummings is an assistant professor of History at Georgia State University in Atlanta. He is the author of Democracy of Sound: Music Piracy and the Remaking of American Copyright and co-editor of the blog Tropics of Meta.