It’s not just you. Feminism does seem to be getting weirder. On one hand, an increasingly diverse chorus of academic, pop culture, and male voices is claiming the F-word label. On the other, it can sometimes look like this diverse set of voices — each with its own set of demands and priorities — will doom the movement through internecine warfare over everything from abortion to hashtag activism. But many roads have diverged in feminism’s yellow wood throughout its history. Being at a crossroad doesn’t mean that feminists should be paralyzed by fear of making a bad choice or going in a “wrong” direction.
To Salamishah Tillet, a cultural critic and professor at the University of Pennsylvania, feminism itself is a crossroad, because it is an intersection — where structural oppressions embedded in gender, race, sexuality and all forms of difference collide. For women of color and others for whom intersectionality is a way of life, feminism has and should always be that crossroad. As we look to the future with all these new feminists joining the ranks, the key question is: how can we honor, learn from, and draw upon the experiences of all kinds of women in order to form coalitions and move feminism forward? Recently, we’ve started to hear some answers. Judith Shulevitz and Rebecca Traister, senior editors at The New Republic who wrote a recent cover story on the future of feminism, each offered two potential areas of common ground that could provide cornerstones for coalition-building: easing the exploitation of caregivers and mandating paid family and sick leave, respectively.
In a conversation at New America NYC, Tillet, Shulevitz, and Traister took on two of the most divisive questions confronting feminists today, questions that seem poised to threaten feminism’s foundations and its future: how to combat sexual violence against women and girls and how to situate or address celebrity feminism, embodied by Beyoncé and Sheryl Sandberg. These are two women who, according to moderator and Jezebel founder Anna Holmes, “make people’s heads explode when it comes to feminism.” While affirming that sexual violence is feminism’s sine qua non, Shulevitz raised eyebrows on the panel and in the audience by drawing distinctions between “campus rape” and “true atrocity” abroad. Even when her co-panelists objected, Shulevitz insisted that campus rape is “of a different order” than forms of sexual violence experienced by women outside the developed world. Traister countered by expressing her uneasiness with making such comparisons, which she said imply an unproductive difference between similar things instead of including both on a spectrum of systemic oppression. Tillet drew from her experience as a survivor of rape both on campus and abroad in Kenya to insist, “This moment [in which campus rape is generating media and policy attention] was so hard fought.” She gave special recognition to the foundation of global and national activism and organizing that has culminated in today’s younger women using Title IX as a new weapon to insist on safety and redress as a form of parity required under the law.
On the subject of celebrity feminism, Traister, who admittedly “hates talking about Sheryl Sandberg” and “doesn’t want to make her the face of feminism,” identified the most radical feature of Lean In as its insistence on an equal partnership that does not include stay-at-home parenting. Tillet, who in a few weeks will deliver the guest “Beyoncé lecture” to Michael Eric Dyson’s class on Jay-Z at Georgetown, offered a key insight on celebrity feminism: she suggested that because of their celebrity status, women like Sandberg and Beyoncé are forced to become “icons” at the stage when other women are still figuring out their own feminist identities (“The Feminism 101 moment,” interjected Traister). Wouldn’t it be a more interesting story, Tillet asked, if Sandberg revealed ways in which not calling herself a feminist affords women like her privilege in male-dominated worlds like tech? Picking up on celebrity feminism and the much-discussed question of who should get to speak for women, Shulevitz had one of the most-Tweeted lines of the night when she declared, “What I’m sick of is editorializing. What I’m looking for is pamphleteering. I want women to be writing manifestos.”
The final question from the audience echoed the panelists’ palpable frustration about where feminism is and whether it’s helping women in tangible ways. “I’m 63,” this audience member noted, “and I want to know what you’re going to do by the time you’re my age to get us there.” For Traister, potential for change lies in what she observes as the mass social shift in the “absolute remaking” of the family (the subject of her forthcoming book).
“Getting us there” also requires finding new sources of fuel to power feminism’s engines. Tillet, like one of her mentors, Gloria Steinem, draws energy from inter-generational collaboration with fellow feminists. The answer to so many of feminism’s trickiest questions, she indicated, lies in the ability to use those collaborations to create and circulate powerful narratives, and to renew them again and again and again.
Jane Greenway Carr is an ACLS Public Fellow and Contributing Editor at New America. She holds a PhD from NYU, where she has been a lecturer and done research at the intersections between U.S. literary and cultural history and social and political activism. This piece was originally published in New America’s digital magazine, The Weekly Wonk. Sign up to get it delivered to your inbox each Thursday here, and follow @New America on Twitter.