My first marriage ended in divorce, and afterward, I was on food stamps, I had a state-funded medical card that gave me and my son access to medical care, and I was living in public housing. Today, I have an advanced education, a wonderful family and a career I enjoy. If this were the usual heartwarming, feel-good tale about single parenting and poverty, you might come away thinking, “Well, if she could do it, why can’t everyone else?” And you might expect me to say, “It was hard, but I learned so much, and I remember that time fondly.”
What I remember is hunger. And being afraid that I would lose my child because I couldn’t provide. It’s hard to take a rich woman’s children; it is remarkably easy to take a poor woman’s. But as a society, we treat poverty itself like a crime, like the women experiencing it are making bad choices for themselves and their children on purpose.
I am talking about feminist issues, though you may not recognize them as such. We hear about career advancement and dating while feminist and body hair and last names, but rarely does mainstream feminism center the conversation on issues that concern most women in this country. Can they afford food? Do they have access to health care? Are they safe in their homes? Do they have homes at all? Can they meet all of their basic needs?
Overwhelmingly, the answer to that last question is “no.” For a movement that is meant to represent all women, feminism frequently focuses on those who already have most of their needs met. All too often it’s not about survival but about increasing privilege.
According to a 2017 report by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, women are more likely to be food insecure than men in every region of the world. The United States Department of Agriculture reports that in 2018 households with children headed by a single woman were the most likely group to experience to very low food security – more than double the national average. The affordable-housing crisis disproportionately impacts women as well. Women earn less on the dollar than men doing similar work, which means households supported by women are paying larger-than-average proportions of income toward rent. Across a lifetime, this means much less disposable income and greater difficulty achieving financial security and independence. This is especially clear when you look at people in abusive relationships.
Alleviating women’s poverty is a critical feminist issue. Yet mainstream feminism has said little about the most recent plans to cut the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), much less the long history of slashing budgets on the backs of poor women. Pushing low-cost housing or other means of combating homelessness never seems to rise to the top of the agenda either. Sure, you can find a handful of articles, perhaps one or two activists bringing it up as a feminist issue. But there are no glitzy campaigns, no programs with catchy slogans backed by famous names. Instead of acting as a collective movement to improve conditions for all, mainstream feminism has largely treated hunger and housing as problems for someone else to solve.
The same can be said of gun violence, another feminist issue that’s rarely discussed as one. The presence of a gun in a domestic violence situation makes it five times more likely that a woman will be killed. Women get killed by these guns because they are available, because their partners are violent, because an accident with a gun is more likely to be fatal, because of a dozen mundane reasons made worse by the availability of weapons. I believe the only reason I escaped even worse injury – or even death – in one relationship is because my ex didn’t have a gun. Research also suggests that while the rate for boys is slightly higher, both male and female students who have been exposed to gun violence are more likely to drop out of high school than their peers. We can’t pretend that the education of girls abroad is important and ignore how many girls are undereducated or uneducated in America as a result of gun violence. And of course mothers bury their children because of gun violence.
If feminists care as much about gender equality as they claim, ending the poverty cycle and improving the quality of life for all women should be the primary focus. After all, for women who are struggling to keep themselves housed, fed and clothed, it’s not a question of working hard enough. They are leaning in, but not in search of equal pay or “having it all”; their quest for equal pay starts with equal access to education and opportunity.
It’s not that power isn’t important. Someone with power can change the lives of millions with the stroke of a pen. But it doesn’t make a difference if the person at the helm of this experiment we call America—or in any influential leadership role–is a woman, if that woman replicates the same oppressive structures that disenfranchise most women. A feminist perspective that exists without reckoning with the impact of race, class, gender, sexuality or ability is one that will spout all the right words but do nothing for the conditions facing women without the power to write policy or effect broad change. Replacing narratives about bootstraps and rugged individualism with ostensibly feminist ideology only works if feminism doesn’t rely on accumulating power and privilege for the chosen few while continuing to lean on the idea that some women can afford to wait indefinitely for safety and support.
Far too often, the few women who get to the top of the patriarchal heap have used feminism to get where they wanted to go, yet don’t seem aware that the political strength associated with feminism can be used for more issues than those that matter to them. They have chosen to take a seat at the table instead of trying to build new ones. Feminism has to serve the interests of all those it relies on to sustain it or it risks becoming a movement with no purpose for most, and an outright weapon against those it claims to represent.
From Hood Feminism by Mikki Kendall, to be published on February 25, 2020, by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2020 by Mikki Kendall