Feminism and the Left: An Interview with Linda Martín Alcoff
In this book many of the authors have fruitfully incorporated gender issues into their visions for leftist coalition-building. However, those of us who engage in feminist theory and political activist work on behalf of women have too often seen discourses about gender eclipsed by other leftist political agendas. Frequently gender becomes an afterthought, an add-on to the central issues, something that can be trotted out when it is especially convenient or suits other political aims.
This has happened for a wide variety of reasons. In order to get at such critical issues, I thought it important to close the book by having a discussion with a well-known scholar and friend, Linda Martín Alcoff, who has worked hard throughout her career to articulate relationships between theory and practice. Alcoff has repeatedly attempted to build coalitions that include gender as a key term while also recognizing the critical intersections between gender and other forms of oppression. In point of fact, as her work seems to suggest, gender may be the most important of such terms since it readily impacts all of us doing work on the left.
In the early 1990s I had the pleasure of watching Alcoff’s activist and scholarly work in action as we fought together to challenge the growing violence against women on college campuses. Too often young women were afraid to speak about their experiences, to press charges within a legal system that seemed to favor the perpetrator, to fight against universities’ desire to keep violence against women quiet so as to not affect enrollments. We believed then as we do now that the voices of survivors of sexual assault are critical voices on the left that have the power to challenge dominant, oppressive discourses. As we engaged in such work as well as other political activism we have realized and experienced that silencing of gender issues emerges not only from conservative factions but frequently from groups espousing critical political rhetoric that possesses many aims with which we agree. Leftist discourse has too often been among these. As a result, at times feminists and leftists have had real difficulties articulating common goals.
In the following interview with Linda Martín Alcoff I invite her to discuss the current state of feminist studies in the United States, how she views the history of the specific relationship between feminism and the left, how this relationship has played itself out in her own life and scholarship, what problems have emerged around our attempts at coalition-building, and how we might build more productive relationships between feminism and the left.
Laura: I know that this is an impossible question. Of course, I am going to ask it anyway. I wonder how you would characterize the current state of feminism in the United States—the most significant fractures and problems that are dominating our current landscape?
Linda: It is not so difficult to see what the current state of feminism is, but it is certainly difficult to diagnose the most significant problems that are holding it back. The current state is one of paradox: feminism is steadily growing in influence throughout the culture even while it is under increasing attack—and increasingly effective attacks—by powerful elements in the government, the media, and the culture industry. That is, to the extent that feminism can be defined as the belief that women have equal rights over their life choices as men do, and that women are as capable as men in every sphere of life, each successive generation of women shows more and more evidence of holding these beliefs. Women students now outnumber men students in higher education, and women are entering the professions, especially law and medicine, in steadily rising numbers. The high divorce rate which anti-feminists blame on feminism may be due to feminism but in a way they won’t admit: women are divorcing men when they are in unhappy marriages more often now because we can more easily support ourselves and our children than in the years before equal employment laws gave women any protection against discrimination on the job. Thus, women are widely coming to reject sexist views about our incompetence and inferiority and more often refusing to accept adulterous or abusive husbands. The changes in women’s views about ourselves has a necessary impact on the views our children have about women and men, thus influencing the next generation.
But this gradualist cultural evolution is being attacked on many fronts. The media has defined feminism as a victimology and thus represented women who simply believe in their own competence as anti-feminists rather than feminists. Thus anti-feminists are trying, and often succeeding, to claim that they are the true feminists because they refuse to label women as victims. They characterize the movement against sexual violence as promoting victimization although our struggle, as you and I know, has been to end women’s victimization. Instead of supporting this struggle, anti-feminists belittle the epidemic of sexist violence women of all ages face, repudiate affirmative action as coddling, attack cultural analysis and criticism as the imposition of political correctness on freedom of thought, and insist that the true victims are white males who are made to feel guilty about their “natural” aggression. The word “Feminism” thus continues to carry negative connotations, as it always has; it is just that the specific connotations adapt to the times to maintain their efficacy.
Also important is the erosion of women’s reproductive rights, which has a multiplied effect. Women who are forced into motherhood without having the economic and emotional resources or support that motherhood requires are then often bound into a life dictated by the necessary strategies for short term survival. Their ability to participate in community building, political leadership, union organizing, or other social reforms is severely curtailed. Feminism has maintained a slim majority of support in the general population for legal abortion, but has been unable to mobilize this support in order to force medical schools to teach how to perform abortions or to provide free birth control in the schools or to have a full range of reproductive services available to poor women, rural women, or simply to women in every state.
Thus, the problems here are legion. The culture industry has tried to coopt feminism to the extent it can sell women running shoes at the same time that it has commodified and exploited women’s sexuality for tremendous profit and pushed sexist representations of women to new lows in the “Bachelor” shows and the “Man Show.” The new “cool” is to be “politically incorrect” about women. There is no mainstream equivalent to these shows that promotes feminism: all women are given are the cable networks that give us “chick” flicks (movies about relationships since women are the ones whose job it is to make relationships work) and fashion advice.
If we look at the ideological landscape, there seems to me to be two critical sites where feminism needs improvement, and both have to do with the domination of a liberal, rather than a left, approach. First, the public face of feminism has all but given up a moral voice. Instead, arguments for reproductive rights, employment opportunities, etc. are all made in the name of freedom of choice, that is, freedom of choice within a private sphere understood as contrasted to the properly public sphere of government regulation. This is because the Republicans have basically won the battle to portray pro-active government policy—with the exception of the military of course—as guilty until proven innocent. Because the private sphere of individual choice is thought to be the only proper arena for moral decisions, liberal feminists cannot make their demands from a moral argument, except to invoke the morality of individualism. But this is both inadequate and unnecessary, as well as wrong! It has been proven woefully inadequate to counter the moral righteousness of the anti-abortion activists with a liberal claim about choice: if one truly believes that abortions are always immoral, one will be motivated to thwart them under any conditions or risk losing one’s sense of oneself as a moral person.
The kernel of truth in the right wing Christian movements is that the masses of people want to be moral, want to believe they are moral and want a sphere of their life dictated not by selfishness, convenience, or avarice, as the market promotes, but by morality. Liberals have made a huge mistake in ceding the moral ground to the right, and liberal feminist academics have sped this along by trashing “moralism” or any discourse of the “should.” I am not advocating that we opportunistically use moral arguments because that will appeal to people, but that we acknowledge that our best arguments are moral ones, and that we be up front about it. Religion can be left in the sphere of private choice, but morality cannot be sequestered to the private sphere without contradiction, since the very argument for privatizing morality is itself an argument based on giving the highest moral valuation to individual autonomy. Here, I think a left social analysis is much more persuasive than the liberal one. Liberals believe that we can keep the government out of the business of legislating morality, but as Marx argued, governments and economic forms of organization are what make morality possible, and will make some moral choices possible and others impossible or nearly so. Since the promotion of some moral value is impossible to avoid, what we need to do is make this process democratic and accountable, rather than trying to avoid it altogether.
The second critical site I would mention concerns the sphere of gendered labor. The primary reason why women remain so far behind men economically is because of the gendered division of jobs and the devaluation of those jobs deemed female. With around 80% of women who work working in jobs associated as female—such as sewing, caring, healing, teaching, and cleaning—there will never be pay equity until either these job descriptions are radically revised or the true value and difficulty of these jobs is recognized in their pay scale. The liberal plan to open up the professions to women is having an impact only on a small minority of middle and upper middle class women. Whereas workers in nursing homes and daycare centers—two of the sites where women without degrees can readily obtain jobs—are generally paid so low that they will qualify for government assistance if they are doing the jobs as single moms. These jobs are as dangerous as coal mining—nursing home workers are routinely bit and infected with bacteria, and must lift large amounts of weight on a constant basis—and as difficult as any factory manager’s job—can you imagine having fifteen two and three year olds for ten or eleven hours a day five days a week?
Here, the left is sometimes as big of a problem as the liberals in redressing such difficulties that millions of women face. The left continues to tend toward a class reductionism that undercuts its ability to develop the kind of cultural analysis one needs to understand a gendered ideology operating to structure the work force. Thus mainstream feminist activists who are almost always liberal are focusing on the upper strata of women workers, and leftists are focusing on an undifferentiated class, leaving the majority of women workers out. I would make two exceptions here: in the academy, there has emerged a tremendous amount of excellent research and analysis on gender and work, on the ways in which transnationals make use of sexist ideology and socialization patterns to increase levels of exploitation, and on how immigrant sweatshop workers are fighting back, and so on. Second, a significant sector of the labor movement has also caught on to the ways in which race, sex, and immigration status operate to produce what are called “ascriptive class segments,” which dictate one’s position within the working class. Some unions have thus begun targetted organizational drives and focused on developing contract specifics that can redress some of the existing hierarchies of pay among workers.
So I would suggest that these two arenas—the need for a moral discourse of feminism and the importance of addressing the reforms needed where most women actually work—are the most critical sites for work if we want feminism to advance beyond some of its current stalemates.
Laura: How would you describe the current and historical relationship between “feminism” and “the left”?
Linda: As you know, this question, of course, depends heavily on how we define the “women’s movement” and “the left”. Both have been too often located in white majority groups and never in minority majority organizations. Most scholars of the history of the women’s movement, for example, still tend to locate it as a white women’s movement, thus neglecting the black women struggling within SNCC or the Urban League, for example, on issues and programs that address women’s and girl’s empowerment, or the Latinas of Mecha who put fighting sexism on the agenda of the organization. Such “minority” groups are not the primary ones understood as part of the “left” in this country either. Moreover, we often don’t include within our understanding of the women’s movement the labor organizations that are struggling for the empowerment of traditionally female associated jobs, like nursing or teaching for example, even though these organizations reach out to hundreds of thousands of working class women, helping them to become organizers and leaders, and engaging in collective struggle to demand a fair valuation of such derided jobs as nursing home care or day care. Instead, the media focuses on feminists who are working to integrate the elite golf clubs.
And it is precisely because of these mistaken characterizations that good working relations among groups, and the collective understanding about how our various agendas might be united, is held back. So the first thing we have to do is rethink how we sometimes think about where “the left” and “feminism” exist. I think we need to look simply at where women are engaging in struggle, even if it is not in an organization devoted solely to women’s concerns, in order to make a fair assessment of where feminism is at these days. And similarly, we need to look at where challenges to the current economic hierarchy are taking place—wherever these are—to make a fair assessment of the left.
Academics sometimes want to justify ignoring such a broader range of groups and activities on the grounds that these groups do not have a left or feminist articulation of their aims. They may not be self-identified as leftist or feminist, but this does not mean that they are not quite aware in sometimes very sophisticated and detailed ways about who is in charge in this country, how this group exerts its will over the population, and what it will take to make social change. I strongly believe in the importance of theory and the need for some people to spend some serious amount of time doing theory; I am, after all, a philosopher. But I also believe that political theory can be found in many places beyond the books named as such. And not just political aspirations; I do mean theory here. For example, look at Horace Campbell’s book Rasta and Reistance, and Tony Bogues new book Black Heretics, Black Prophets on the black radical tradition in which he draws from Ida B. Wells and popular cultural movements.
So in this sense feminism and the left can be traced through organizations but can also be thought of as a social movement or cultural revolution well beyond any institutional location. The women’s movement, in any case, has always been comparatively decentralized as a point of principle. In thinking about the important question you raise—on the relationship between feminism and the left—we will have to give a variegated answer contextualized to which left and which feminism, and explore a variety of relationships between a variety of locations of class and gender struggles.
Laura: How has your own relationship between “feminisms” and “the left” played itself out in your own work and life? How has it impacted you personally, politically?
Linda: I believe my experience is quite representative of many women of my generation who became politically active in the early 1970's, having been profoundly influenced and radicalized by the social turmoil and collective action we witnessed as we were growing up in the 1950's and 1960's. As soon as I left home, I became involved in both feminist and broader left-wing activity.
When I left my small town in Florida and went to college in 1973, there was a real mass movement still, with many different kinds of organizations on and around the campus. Much of what we called the “organized left,” which meant the variety of Marxist-based groups, was castigating the women’s movement in those days as “bourgeois feminism.” I remember many long arguments we had over whether women such as Golda Meir or Indira Gandhi could be oppressed, or whether the struggle for women’s rights so formulated was in essence a struggle for a bigger piece of the pie at the capitalist table. The arguments were about whether bourgeois women suffered sexism, in which case sexism was not reducible to class. Leftist men from the New Left often thought that the only women who were oppressed were working class women, so there was no reason to focus on specifically women’s rights. Feminism was also called bourgeois because it was not calling for the overthrow of the state, and instead it was focused mainly on reformist demands like legal abortion and equal pay. And self-defined feminists were engaged in a lot of local work around the creation of women’s healthcare centers with a feminist orientation toward educating and empowering women in regard to our reproductive lives, or battered women’s shelters or rape crisis centers to provide a safe space for women suffering from the so-called “random” male violence that still dominates the news. These reform efforts at institution building were responses to the very real crises that were happening in our communities, but some of the privileged student leftists, both white and of color, looked down their noses at such work for not being radical enough. While these leftists were critiquing us in meetings, these feminist college students or ex-students were going into working class communities to provide critical services that no one else would provide.
I don’t mean to disparage the critique here too much—one could argue, rightfully, that the state still does not provide such services in most communities. Feminist reform efforts can become like the tradition of women’s volunteerism, serious work done without much recompense to clean up the ills of the current patriarchal oligarchy. Indeed, our focus must be changing the nature of the power structure in this country or we will be forever working to clean up the disastrous effects of low wages, underemployment, materialist greed, and other problems endemic to the current social system. But male leftists were too often in those days belittling of feminist reformist work, and the charge of “bourgeois feminism” was certainly not applicable to most local women’s groups who were not devoting their time to integrating the elite golf clubs. Moreover, in the work accomplished by the Feminist Women’s Health Centers, the Rape Crisis Shelters, and the Shelters for Battered Women, feminists were retrieving women from an oblivion of oppression who could then become more fully active in leading their families and communities. Leftists used to ask where the women were when they called meetings; if they had opened their eyes they would have seen that the women were at home struggling with the difficulties of daily life in a woman-hating society.
So at that time there was still quite a lot of overt sexism on much of the left: masculinist leadership styles, a gendered division of labor in the organizations, and campus programming by the self-identified left rarely focused on gender oppression. I was on the Advisory Board of the Center for Participant Education, a free university such as were springing up in several places around the country, where the goal was to make the intellectual resources of the university free for people from the community. I was a campus activist and assumed that I had been invited onto the Board to help run the organization, but I mainly was asked to do filing, answer the phones, and put up posters. The only program I was asked to organize was for International Women’s Day (I brought three different female left-wing leaders to campus). I also used to sell left wing pamphlets regularly on campus at a table set up in the student center, and among those that we sold were pamphlets from the socialist republic of Albania that talked about the glorious contribution women could make to socialism in reproducing the next generation of socialist workers. At that time, that was the sorry state of the left.
In this context it was understandable that many women who were galvanized by a dawning recognition of women’s oppression began to drop out of male-lead groups and joined, or created, feminist groups, bookstores, healthcare centers, abortion rights organizations., etc., where they could avoid having daily arguments about the legitimacy of these demands and where they could avoid having to deal with sexist men. These were probably mostly white women but not all were white or middle-class: there was a variety of class politics represented in various feminist groups, for example, between NARAL ( National Abortion Right Action League) which at that time took a very narrow focus on maintaining legal abortion, to R2N2 (the Reproductive Right National Network) which had a broader agenda of reproductive right so they could fight against sterilization abuses f poor women of color and the right to have children as well as the right not to. Rather than lumping all the feminist groups together we need to do a class analysis.
Although I was active in some of these feminist groups I myself moved toward more broad-based organizations whose announced aims were radical social change in every arena of U.S. society. I wanted to have a sense that I was engaged in a larger struggle against interrelated problems. I was very angry about US imperialism in Central America, which moved straight from Vietnam to El Salvador using non-U.S. ground personnel to avoid an anti-draft movement at home. And I was very motivated to fight the anti-black racism in the South where I had grown up, a racism one could feel every day. I was also concerned about class exploitation, and these concerns no doubt had to do with my own particular history, being related to poor rural southerners, being half-Latina and connected to a country with its own legacy of U.S. imperial domination (Panama), having had the experience of being not-quite-white within a family where there were some white racists, and having grown up during the period when the ugliest Jim Crow one could imagine transitioned into a partial integration with limited results.
But the left wing organizations that I was drawn toward took the position that women’s oppression had to be dealt with now. While some radical groups in those days believed that raising issues of racism and sexism were “divisive” if one wanted to focus on uniting the working class, and we needed to basically wait until “after the revolution,” there were also groups that argued for making the struggle against the oppression of women a central feature of all struggles. And in one group, for example, the leader of the entire southern organization was a white working class woman, Lyn Wells, a former SNCC and SSOC organizer, and the leader in Atlanta where I was living at this time was an African American working class woman, Betty Bryant, who came out of the Mead Strike. These women were very clear about the need to oppose sexism and criticize masculinist styles of leadership, and this was the leadership that the men of the organization had to answer to. This demonstrated to me that the organization took “the woman question” quite seriously.
Like many other young feminists, I was attracted to the left organizations that had broken with the traditional Communist Party USA, which had historically been the largest socialist organization and which had played such a powerful role especially in the 1930's in organizing for unemployment benefits and for racial solidarity, because I was disturbed by the CP’s uncritical support of the Soviet Union. The USSR, it seemed to many of us, did not pursue women’s equality very vigorously except to get women in the workforce, thus doing nothing about the double day the women then faced or about male chauvinist attitudes and lack of participation in housework, and they also did not push female political leadership in a significant way (Cuba was a better example, we believed, but few of the satellite socialist states in Eastern Europe seemed any better on issues of gender than the USSR).
In the 1970's and early 1980's, at least some of the radical groups were trying to engage in serious large scale efforts, that would unite labor and anti-racist and community based poor people’s struggles into a common agenda. Many, many mistakes were made in this effort from which we can learn (there is a great new book by Max Elbaum, Revolutions in the Air, finally doing just this). But most important was that some of these radical groups, unlike others then and now, were trying to break out of their political marginalization. They were more interested in widespread political mobilization than maintaining the absolutely pure “correct line.” Such groups were well worth our energy and commitment, despite their shortcomings.
Laura: What particular problems do you think have emerged around our attempts at coalition- building along these lines in both activist and scholarly circles?
Linda: I would say that there are two main problems that have stymied coalition building: (1) sexism on the self-identified left, and (2) a co-optation of feminist demands toward less radical reforms. Let me speak about both of these in turn.
Progressive and socialist groups have been largely unable to theoretically articulate a persuasive account of the oppression of women or the steps needed for our liberation, and have not spent much effort at doing so. The standard accounts of the past—Engels, most especially—have few adherents today. There has always been, and today there is a strong revival, of what we used to call class reductionism: the idea that class exploitation causes women’s oppression and therefore we don’t need to talk about sexism directly. Mobilizations around class issues will take care of sexism. As you know, very few feminists believe this, for one thing because of the example of socialist states (and there are of course arguments about whether they were ever really socialist, but I’ll put that aside) in which women’s condition was not improved much if at all. And most of the theorists who have been working on class have realized that one cannot approach class as an undifferentiated grouping—class position is always mediated by race and gender, the work force is totally stratified by race and gender, and thus we need a much more sophisticated analysis that will be responsive to the particular conditions of a former slave society and a patriarchal society that adapted itself to capitalism.
Feminist theorists and activists have had two very positive influences on the left today. First, they have persuaded most people that organizational structure is a political issue, and in particular a gendered issue. In other words, the sexism of an organization may be found not in its mission statement but in its organizational style. Certain organizational leadership styles value male abilities over female and render women’s leadership styles invisible. So women may be the absolute backbone of an organization and receive no credit for being so (see Karen Sachs’ excellent work on this). The contribution of radical feminism and lesbian feminism has been especially important in experimenting with different forms of organization, developing consensus models, small groups, affinity groups, non-hierarchical structures, and promoting decentralization. The current movement against global capitalism has clearly learned a great deal from this, and learned the benefits of decentralization and small group efforts, and their successes in closing down parts of cities during meetings of the IMF and World Bank have been directly due to learning these feminist lessons. Decentralization works brilliantly to maintain a project because there is no “head” to cut off, no “body” that will wither when the head is cut. Multiple sites of struggles with multiple styles, methods, focal points, and even political priorities is a strength, not a weakness. But seeing this requires that we attack directly the old style male aggression of internal competition for leadership, and call it out for what it is.
Also, feminists focused on concrete practice and personal life where sexism is often so manifest that women are barred from effective participation because of their unequal burdens in the home. Sometimes, of course, this political critique of the personal sphere became excessively narrow, as if there was only one right way for a household to be organized or for people to act, dress, and even speak. This spawned the original critique of Political Correctness, which was an internal self-critique within the left before the right-wing ever took this up and distorted it. But the original claim that “the personal is political” had a core of important truth in pointing out that men who espoused social justice and never did the cooking and cleaning at home were politically bankrupt, and that our practice communicates our theory better than theory alone ever can.
Thus I credit these radical feminist efforts at organizational reform and political analysis of the personal with having a wide influence that has yet to be acknowledged. Today in the anti-war movements the affinity group is the norm, and there is almost always an effort to pay attention to process and not just outcomes. Even the right wing militia movement has discovered the advantages of radical decentralization and small groups! To some extent this is just old-style anarchism in the tradition of the Narodniki in Russia or the Bakuninists in France, but this tradition has been adopted and adapted as well as developed and used more effectively by women’s groups than anyone else in the recent past. There have been the Lesbian Avengers and the Guerilla Girls, who avoided having public leaders and instead maintained their anonymity, and many, many smaller local-based groups who are experimenting with truly democratizing styles of work. The point is that these are all lessons that some of the left has learned from women’s groups and need to learn more of if they want to transcend the sexism within.
In regard to class reductionism, I think the theoretical contributions of feminist social theorists and social scientists has been very important and has become very influential. What this work has shown is that, although women’s oppression is certainly beneficial to capitalism, still, it cannot be explained entirely in reference to the economic forces of capitalism (as if it were an ideal type), but needs to be explained also in reference to a pre-capitalist sexual division of labor. It is not clear, e.g., that the so-called “family wage,” wherein women workers are paid less than men on the theory that their wages are not supporting a family, is necessary to capitalism; in so-called free enterprise zones like the maquilladores, we are seeing women workers hired first and given more cash income than their male partners. Capitalists are trying here not to overcome sexism but use it for their own ends once again, viewing women workers as more pliable, less resistant to bad working conditions, more vulnerable because of their family obligations, and so on. Class reductionists can neither adequately explain these patterns nor propose ways to address them: we need an analysis that will make sexism and racism and colonialism as important as class in understanding current forms of economic oppression.
I would also suggest that the ideological power of the nuclear, patriarchal family which is enjoying such a comeback cannot be explained entirely in terms of its functionality for capitalism alone. Capitalism is always embedded in specific cultural and historical conditions. There are some real benefits for working class men which have to be faced such that their opposition to sexism will not be entirely supported by their class position. In academic work many feminists have consequently turned to explorations of history and culture to unravel the seeds of sexism; I constantly hear some leftist men saying “where’s class?” This question usually indicates an implicit class reductionism, and their inability to think about what class is in these more complex ways.
The other main problem between feminism and the left that I listed above concerns the co-optation of feminist demands. Without a doubt, there are class politics among much of organized feminism, and we need a class analysis of how various groups articulate their agenda and their priorities. Mainstream women’s groups of the 1960's demanded entry into professions, the elimination of sexism in hiring and promotion and wages, a relief from the double shift at home and work, legal access to abortion, more daycare, more social supports for raising children; and an end to discrimination against lesbians in the workforce and the terror perpetrated against lesbians on the streets.
Most of these demands have been won for upper class and upper middle class women. These groups have entered into many of the main professions in substantial numbers, such as law and medicine. There are federal protections of equal pay when women are doing the same exact type of work as men. Abortion remains legal and it remains accessible for women with money. Relief from the double day can be gained by upper and upper middle class career women through paying for very expensive daycare, by bringing in au pairs from Sweden or El Salvador, and by paying working class women to clean their homes for terribly low wages.
This kind of cooptation, in which the demands of the 60's are allowed for the upper classes and the restriction of these benefits to the upper classes is justified on the basis of market conditions, the incompetence of the poor, etc., has also occurred with other demands from the 1960's such as environmental demands and quality of life demands: if you are rich enough you can buy clean water, air filters, organic range-fed chickens, travel to scenic parks, and send your child to a school with lots of money for the arts.
But this isn’t feminism and it shouldn’t be called as such. As bell hooks says, if feminism is for all women, then it has to be about revolution, it has to be left. Teaching this lesson to young women today who are serious about wanting a feminist future can be an uphill battle. The struggle against the global oligarchy seems completely utopian and unrealistic to most of them, and thus they will sometimes settle for a feminism that replicates social stratifications as long as it integrates women fully at each level. And while the left remains sexist, young women will not be attracted to left organizations and movements, and they may find the sexism on the left only confirms their fatalism about significant social change. We must fight this fatalism.
Laura: You sound fairly optimistic about feminists’ ability to build more effective, long-lasting bridges between feminism and the left. Not all of the leftist feminists among us are so hopeful. Tell me how you came to this view.
Linda: I am not so fatalistic first of all because I have great hopes for the labor movement in this country. The AFL-CIO has largely learned its lessons about racism and sexism: the new work force is variegated, and the union movement must adapt or die. Many of the activists in the labor movement today have realized this, and have incorporated anti-sexist, and anti-racist and anti-homophobic workshops in their shop steward training, have enforced an affirmative action that preferences hiring women and people of color as new organizers, have enforced a quota system to ensure racial and gender representation at their conferences and national meetings, and are aggressively pursuing the unionization of traditionally female and nonwhite sectors of the labor force. The labor unions have clout, organization, resources, and the ability to reach out to millions of regular working folks. It is not all rosy, and the struggles against sexism and racism within are still often very difficult, and there are losses as well as gains. But the old union movement led exclusively by white male craft unions answering to the needs of only the top strata of workers is increasingly becoming a relic of the past.
Unions are not the panacea: they do not put forward a socialist agenda. But they do what is today much more important, in my view: they help to bring out the truly rich and untapped resources of democratization through creating new leadership and ensuring enough of a standard of living that people are not so desperate that they can do nothing else but focus on survival. We who are left-wing and feminist intellectuals, almost always middle class, will not be the leaders who will show this country how to fulfill its promise of social justice: those who can show us the way are emerging today out of these local struggles, like the Justice for Janitors campaign, the campaign for nursing home workers—so many of whom are women of color—and other local but significant campaigns.
I am also very hopeful about the newly emerging and growing anti-war and anti-global capital movements. There are better organizational structures than in “my day” in these groups, there are many women in leadership, there is an awareness of the problems of sectarianism, and there is often good communication between U.S. groups and groups outside the U.S. who share a common agenda. Now is not a time for fatalism but a time for action.