Lunchtable TV talk: Mrs America – Beginning to see the light

Standard

A decade and a half ago, when I hastily enrolled in an MA in gender studies program, I didn’t get very far because I wasn’t entirely convinced that the discipline was right for me. But I also wondered, foolishly, “Why do we need this discipline?” Although at that point I had done a lot of things in many different places in the world, my own life was untouched by the issues core to the equal rights cause. Or so I naively thought. First of all, it’s folly to think that the fight is ever over. It’s an ongoing tug-of-war, demanding vigilance. Secondly, it isn’t a fight only about me (duh). It’s a fight to maintain and build on what women who came before fought for and won, and a fight to gain ground — both in the fights that have yet to be won (equal pay, guaranteed rights to reproductive freedom, which are always in jeopardy, etc.) and in elevating the needs and voices of all women. Previous generations of feminism focused on white (and often heterosexual, middle class) women, ignoring or outright excluding women of color and trans women — completely failing to embrace intersectional feminism. In maintaining a narrow framework for gender equality, the movement has harmed and held back all women, doing the most damage to those ignored by this narrow focus.

As far back as the 1960s and 70s, the roots of this divide were obvious; its lack of inclusion, to some extent, paved the way for the defeats the movement suffered and provided a generous opening for more regressive and conservative forces in the form of anti-feminist backlash, ERA opposition and the right-wing hypocrisy of people like Phyllis Schlafly.  Following the turbulence of the 60s and 70s, Schlafly and co were quietly active, poised to ride the great conservative wave that characterized the 1980s, ‘defending’ the family, “traditional values” and a woman’s place in the home. I came to realize that my own dismissal of and indifference to gender studies and feminist theory parallels the careless and selfish approach Schlafly took to feminism, i.e. if it didn’t affect her, it was not a concern. (Never mind that it’s a fallacy to claim that these issues affected neither of us.)

In the recent TV production, Mrs America, which depicts the fight for, and ultimate defeat of, the Equal Rights Amendment, we’re introduced to Schlafly — an educated married mother — who ends up crusading against the ERA and growing an organization of other conservatives who supported her aims. Probably more interested in national defense and arms control policy, Schlafly’s first passion doesn’t seem to have been opposing women’s rights; she had hoped to be an active adviser on defense issues but was never appointed to the kinds of positions she sought.

Her ambitions, if not ironic, at least demonstrate her position of privilege: even if she left the home to campaign and left child rearing to hired help, she still claimed to “have it all”, demonizing women who didn’t aspire to do the same (that is, she espoused the primacy of family and home — and the freedom to work if time and husband permitted it). Her myopia failed to account for the myriad situations in which women — even those of her own conservative persuasion — found themselves. Why, after all, should a woman take a job from a man, or need a salary equivalent to a man, when she should be relying on a husband to provide? (Unless of course, like Schlafly, one considered herself uniquely qualified.) As Mrs America deftly portrayed: many of the women in Schlafly’s organization were struggling with abusive spouses, fear and self-doubt and an ambivalence toward the all-or-nothing interpretation of women’s equality. How would, or could, Schlafly’s worldview allow for  these differences?

Admittedly, this was my problematic thinking, too, which I’ve spent years working to undo. As humans, we’re often short-sighted and blinded by our own experiences and surroundings (as well as by those we do not have or have not seen). It makes us too comfortable and too ready to insist that if I don’t see it, it isn’t happening. It’s not as simple as that; I never claimed that women were not struggling or facing inequality. Yet I didn’t perceive that I experienced it — and this was both self-centered and wrong. I did experience it, but I was so indoctrinated into the norms of an unequal society that I didn’t see it clearly. Despite how sensitive I had considered myself to be, the feminist struggle — and feminist theory — felt superfluous. When I realized this bias, it became a mission to understand and empathize with the lived experiences and struggles of others and see the world and its challenges through those lenses in addition to my own. What a different world it is when seen this way. This is reason one why gender and feminist studies are essential: we must see beyond ourselves and build a community of action to move forward. We can’t do this if we don’t understand the history and what’s at stake for everyone — not just ourselves.

In Mrs America, I saw parallels to the 2016 presidential election and the Democratic Convention. The electric exuberance and humanity of the Hillary supporters created this false idea that passion and appearance would carry the day, and right up until the announcement of Trump’s victory, everyone was convinced Hillary Clinton would win in landslide to become America’s first female president. We all know what happened. Mrs America showed this kind of hubris in the feminist group, which underestimated both Schlafly and the mood of the American people. Ratifying the ERA seemed like a no-brainer, but the overconfidence bias gets us time and again. Passion does not make one’s desired outcome inevitable, particularly when one side has dismissed the other as unthinkable. In the US today, heading into the 2020 election, we’re in a similar place: it does affect us all, even the people who are mostly untouched by the daily disasters of the Trump administration.

Mrs America (and Cate Blanchett‘s outstanding performance) managed to humanize Schlafly and even show her hypocrisy as personal struggle without making her likeable. It also gave voice to many of second-wave feminism’s leaders, such as Betty Friedan (a fantastic Tracey Ullman), Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale), Gloria Steinem (a surprisingly effective Rose Byrne), and Shirley Chisholm (superb turn by Uzo Aduba), whose names and work I’m very familiar with but was shocked to find that the vast majority of people I meet, both my age and younger, have never heard of these women unless engaged in feminist studies. This is the second reason gender and feminist studies are desperately needed. This history and these names are not well-known enough outside of small academic and movement-related circles, and we can see how quickly rights gained can be threatened or stripped away, particularly in volatile social and political times.

The most remarkable achievement of Mrs America is in showing the journey of Sarah Paulson‘s character, Alice, a Schlafly friend and ardent supporter, who begins to see some of the hypocrisy and near the end of the series meets a number of the women on the pro-ERA side. Wandering through their “camp”, she is treated respectfully, kindly — she is surprised by the women’s humanity. She is also surprised, after belting out a rousing rendition of “This Land Is Your Land“, to learn the origins of the song:

Flo Kennedy (Niecy Nash): “You were up there belting out a Marxist song.”

Alice: “No it isn’t. It’s patriotic.”

Flo: “Exactly.”

Alice also realizes that she has been living in Schlafly’s shadow and in fear… While both sides claim to have advocated for a kind of choice (pro-ERA for total equality and anti-ERA for letting women retain their “rightful place as protected homemaker”), it becomes clear that the latter does not account or advocate for women who do not have the luxury of choice, and would offer them no options in making a decent living for themselves. Alice wakes up: she begins to find her voice, gets a job and revels in the fact that it was her choice — finally grasping that women’s experiences are not the universally white, middle-class, married, privileged scene she’s taken as the norm. No, in fact, the diversity of women’s experience necessitates having the freedom to choose.

Photo by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash

 

Women (“…only like me for my mind”)

Standard

I don’t really want to be told by old-guard “feminists” (or anyone for that matter) that my support for anyone other than Hillary Clinton is wrong. Or why it’s wrong. The voices of feminist leaders, such as Gloria Steinem and Madeleine Albright, trailblazers and leaders in theory and practice, are normally so measured and reasonable. While they have taken on the mantle of speaking for many in the past, which has been appreciated, co-opting the voices and choices of other women now is inappropriate. It is no wonder that women of all ages are angry. The idea that we should be told for whom to vote under any circumstances is egregious and over the line. To be told we betray all women by not voting for Hillary Clinton is feminist apostasy.

In defending Hillary Clinton and her candidacy for president, both women have pulled out the generation card and slammed the younger generation of women in what can only be called a sexist way by claiming that younger women’s support for Bernie Sanders stems from following the path where they might find boys at the other end. Not only does it imply that young women’s only concern is meeting, impressing and gaining the attention of boys – it discounts the well-reasoned support women of all ages have for other candidates. (And couldn’t the same have been argued so long ago when Steinem went to work at the Playboy Club in the service of getting an undercover expose? She was going to bat for true feminist causes but was doing so by “going where the boys are”.) I am not discounting the value of this work, but if looked at only on the surface, which is about how Albright and Steinem looked at young women’s political choices right now, they look about equal.

At a recent Clinton rally, Albright reportedly said, “We can tell our story of how we climbed the ladder, and a lot of you younger women think it’s done.”

I think anyone alive today knows that it is not done – not for women’s equality, not for racial equality, not for economic or social justice at all. We know that Roe v Wade is never a done deal. We know that there are still massive strides to take in getting equal pay. We know, in fact, that families – men and women both – are struggling with the consequences and sacrifices they have to make to have families. Women end up struggling more, on the whole, because of the inequalities at work and because of the biology of their having to be the ones to carry and give birth to children. That is not going to change, but society’s approach can.

So no, no one imagines that the work is finished. Yes, we may take for granted the work that has been done – for example, no one demanded that I get him a coffee when I entered the workforce. I took for granted that no one could have such an expectation of a professional woman (or man). An older colleague who worked in a technical capacity since the 1970s schooled me on my obliviousness and ignorance (she and her few female colleagues were often maligned this way or saddled with extra “women’s work” like fetching coffee or something that had no formal place in their work description). Perhaps it is good that people my age and younger grew up completely ignorant of the fact that it was once acceptable to make these kinds of petty demands of you just because you were the female employee in the room. But forgetting may, in fact, lead to complacency – and I suppose this is at the heart of Albright and Steinem’s argument.

But being complacent about how far we still need to travel to get to gender parity is not the same thing as making a conscious, well-informed decision not to support Hillary Clinton.

By not supporting Hillary, are people somehow not supporting all other women (as Albright implies, saying there is a “special place in hell” for women who do not support other women)? Are we obligated to support Hillary just because she is a woman, particularly when she has let her views, her talking points, her votes, her perspectives, shift casually to suit her purposes at any given moment – sometimes in ways that damage equality and grant favor to corporate over human interests?

Other than “Hillary fatigue”, the urge to fight against the sense of inevitability and her attitude as though it’s “her turn” now – I have to ask, “Does she deserve the support?” At this stage, no. If she ultimately gets the nomination, I will support her. She will still be better than whatever the alternatives are. Hillary is not my first choice because Hillary feels insincere, insubstantial and untrustworthy. It is not that she cannot get the job done. It is not because her views change because in fact, if someone’s views change and grow more nuanced, that is one thing. But changing to pander to the rising voices of the day – that’s disingenuous. Her time on the world’s stage has been so long and public that we have a very clear view of just how disingenuous she has been over the course of time.

While I very much support Bernie Sanders’s aims and like the idea of the US moving toward “democratic socialism”, I am a bit burned out on the whole idea that there are not more of Sanders’s ilk among younger politicians. I will vote for Sanders or Clinton, whichever gets the nomination, but the idea that we can be carried forward by the oldest of the Baby Boomers (in fact Sanders was born at the tail-end of the previous generation) is a sad commentary on the state of American progressivism. Clinton is a tired reminder of the old guard, and the Baby Boomers in general need to start handing over the reins already. I feel as though we took many steps forward with Obama in handing over responsibility to a new generation of leaders, but the only reasonable voice we have is an old man. (And the young politicians are snake-like zealots and anxiety-riddled, almost-human robots. Nothing remotely presidential… or sane.)