“I’M A WOMAN, VOTE FOR ME”
Why We Need Identity Politics
UNDERNEATH THE LARGEST GLASS CEILING in New York City, Hillary Clinton’s campaign planned to celebrate victory at the Javits Center, on election night 2016. I gathered there along with thousands of others to witness Clinton make history as the first female president of the United States.
In the lead-up to the election, polls had the former senator and secretary of state leading reality-TV star Donald Trump by at least 4 to 6 percentage points. The New York Times gave Clinton an 85 percent chance of winning. As an editorial director at Mic, an online news and culture website for millennials, I had also planned for a Clinton victory, assigning a dozen or so stories, and had written and revised a two-thousand-word piece about this big, albeit fraught, moment in feminist history.
We all know how this story goes. At around 10 p.m., CNN called Ohio for Trump. The mood at Javits turned grim, but viewers held out hope. Idaho and North Carolina followed, and then the tipping point: Florida. By now, small groups of women were sitting on the ground crying; hundreds left the building in droves. Amid the chaos, I realized I had to make my way back to the office. We had to rewrite everything. Donald Trump was going to be president.
The intact glass ceiling at the Javits Center turned out to be a metaphor even more apt than the Clinton campaign could have imagined.
The 2016 election wasn’t just a loss for Clinton, it was a loss for feminism. Not only did the first female candidate from either major party lose, she lost to an open misogynist—someone who called a former Latina beauty queen fat and was caught on the record bragging about grabbing women by the pussy. Despite that the election played out like a morality tale gone wrong, in which the smart girl who had done her homework loses to the class clown who barely shows up for school, in its wake progressives seemed to bristle at discussing the role sexism and racism played in it. Instead, they openly debated whether the campaign—and the left more generally—had focused too much on “identity politics”: on Clinton being the first viable woman candidate for president and catering to minorities and their concerns, instead of speaking to the economic anxieties of the white working class.
Born of the civil and women’s-rights activism of the 1970s, identity politics seeks to recognize and organize around the complex and interwoven ways race, class, gender, immigration status, and sexuality, among other factors, impact how life is lived in America—and who has access to the American dream. Both a political and intellectual movement, identity politics offers a critique of privilege and the ways it is meted out. It has been pilloried by critics on the right and left who say its focus on difference is divisive. At the heart of the debate is the fundamental question of how we conceive of ourselves as a country: Do we recognize that different groups of people experience unique challenges based on their identity and organize around and embrace those differences, or do we ignore them in service of a more universal, uniform understanding of Americanness?
Clinton’s campaign banked on the former, speaking directly to the interests of women, people of color, sexual minorities, and the disabled. Her campaign’s rallying cry—“I’m with her”—was a clear reminder that she was the first woman presidential candidate for a major party. In what would come to be regarded as a tactical faux pas, Clinton dared to refer to Trump’s supporters as “deplorables” for their regressive views on race and sexuality. In the third presidential debate, she ardently supported the right to an abortion: “I will defend Planned Parenthood. I will defend Roe v. Wade, and I will defend women’s rights to make their own health care decisions,” she said. In a powerful ad, she juxtaposed shots of women, people of color, and people with disabilities with footage of Trump denigrating these groups. The campaign included women and people of color in senior positions, and the mothers of Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner appeared at several campaign stops, after Clinton personally met with the women and promised to advocate on their behalf.
This is not to say that Clinton had always done right by the communities she courted during the election. When her husband was president, she supported the passage of NAFTA, which some have argued exported well-paying American jobs; the 1994 Violent Crime Control Act, which is credited with fueling the mass incarceration epidemic that disproportionately impacts black men; and the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, Bill Clinton’s attempt at welfare reform, which is known for leading the way to criminalizing and stigmatizing welfare recipients. Her own ties to Wall Street—whose subprime lending practices caused the housing crisis, which disproportionately impacted the black community and its decades of progress in financial growth—dogged her as a candidate.1
After Clinton lost the election, criticism of her campaign’s approach came swiftly. In a much discussed op-ed for The New York Times, Mark Lilla argued that “American liberalism has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force capable of governing.” Lilla’s views were reinforced by liberals also warning of the electoral consequences of following Clinton’s strategy. In a Washington Post op-ed, John B. Judis wrote that the left “overestimated the strength of a coalition based on identity politics.”
Echoing similar sentiments, Senator Bernie Sanders regularly criticized Clinton for failing to focus on issues of class. “We need a Democratic Party that is not a party of the liberal elite but of the working class of this country,” Sanders said in March. “It’s not good enough for someone to say, ‘I’m a woman! Vote for me!’” he said at a rally in Boston after the election. “What we need is a woman who has the guts to stand up to Wall Street, to the insurance companies, to the drug companies, to the fossil fuel industry.”
Sanders is right in suggesting we need more than token references to identity to galvanize authentic support from voters, but it is important to remember that most identity politics are about class. And Clinton did talk about class during her campaign—about equal pay for women, paid family leave, increasing the minimum wage, a fair tax system, and revitalizing American manufacturing. She proposed a $10 billion investment fund to encourage companies to produce goods in America as well as tax credits to help revitalize areas devastated by deindustrialization. “Manufacturing is coming back,” she said during the campaign. “My job as your president will be to do everything I can to create more good-paying jobs, to get wages rising again for American workers and families.”
Exit polls also failed to substantiate the claim that Clinton’s campaign didn’t speak to economic anxieties in the electorate. Black women—the poorest demographic in the country—voted for Clinton at a rate of 94 percent. According to an analysis of exit polls by The New York Times, 53 percent of Americans making less than $30,000 per year voted for Clinton versus 41 percent for Trump. In those same exit polls, 52 percent of voters who listed the economy as their top political issue of concern voted for Clinton (as opposed to 42 percent who voted for Trump).
To suggest that progressives move away from identity politics, in the service of a broader “American” narrative, is also to suggest that we ignore the heavy-handed role that sexism played in Clinton’s loss. In both her 2008 and 2016 presidential campaigns, people critiqued her voice, her demeanor, and her appearance. She was considered “untrustworthy,” while her opponent, who wouldn’t release his tax returns—the first candidate ever to refuse to do so—was supposedly a straight-talking, no-bull breath of fresh air. The press and the public became fascinated with Clinton’s private server and leaked emails, both used to bolster the argument that she played by her own rules. Meanwhile, Trump was caught on the record repeatedly lying about everything from the unemployment rate, to his own tax plan to ultimately refusing to disclose his own tax documents. But Clinton’s critics persisted—they just didn’t like her.
Lost in the hubbub of debate on the left over identity politics was that Trump, too, ran a campaign based on identity, but it was white identity and white fears. During the election cycle, he deflected criticism of racialized language as unnecessary “political correctness”—a derisive term used to describe liberals’ attempts to express sensitivity toward minorities. An outgrowth of identity politics, political correctness has become an obsession of thinkers on the right and left who are focused on the impact of “PC culture”—or rather, on students running amok on college campuses demanding gender-appropriate terminology who have simply hamstrung the progressive movement. Left-leaning writers like Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt have caricatured, prior to the 2016 election, “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” as evidence that today’s college students are intellectually coddled. New York magazine columnist Jonathan Chait called PC culture “exhausting,” that being held to the standards of political correctness is difficult and ineffective and therefore tiresome. These critiques first came from staunch conservatives: in his 1998 Illiberal Education, author Dinesh D’Souza argued that political correctness impairs free speech, preventing society from talking openly about “brutal truths.”
Trump built his campaign around speaking those “brutal truths,” which gave way to the rise of the alt-right and other white ethno-nationalist sentiments in the 2016 election cycle. He stoked fear of the “other” when he proposed a ban on Muslims entering the United States. He aggravated class anxieties by insinuating “illegals” would take jobs and used that fear to push forward the idea that we need a bigger, taller wall to keep Mexicans out of the country. As Laila Lalami argued in The New York Times, Trump won the votes of the white majority on a campaign that “explicitly and consistently appealed to white identity and anxiety.”
Senator Sanders made the claim that not all Trump supporters are “racists and sexists and homophobes and deplorable folks.” Yet a series of studies suggests that they share a fear of and antipathy for the “other.” In The Nation, Sean McElwee and Jason McDaniel published an analysis of a survey from the Cooperative Congressional Analysis Project and found that fear of diversity made voters more likely to vote for Trump. In an analysis of data from American National Election Studies, political scientist Philip Klinkner found racial resentment was a key motivator in voting for Trump. He told Mehdi Hasan at The Intercept, “whether it’s good politics to say so or not, the evidence from the 2016 election is very clear that attitudes about blacks, immigrants, and Muslims were a key component of Trump’s appeal.” Trump galvanized existing racial animus by stoking fear of America’s increased diversity to bring out white voters in droves.
That Trump’s explicit appeals to white identity and resentment were considered legitimate rallying cries that supposedly united an unheard working-class base, while Clinton was called divisive, suggests that calls for “universality” generally mean centralizing white, male experience. Whereas the experiences of people of color are marked as nonstandard, white identity—white concerns, sensitivities, anxieties—is taken as representative of the whole; anything that deviates from that identity is “diversity” or “difference.” In practice, it is impossible to have a liberal politics devoid of identity: to eschew identity politics is to ignore the experiences and concerns of a vast segment of American society. Take, for example, how we conceptualize the plight of the working class—politicians are focused on coal miners and factory-line jobs, not the retail, fast-food, or health care industries, which employ predominantly working-class people of color.
From a tactical standpoint, identity politics may be alienating to working-class voters who see their privilege as earned and that the cause of their economic stagnation is due to competition with other lower classes, such as working-class people of color or immigrants, as opposed to a system that privileges the rich. But the answer is not to shy away from uncomfortable truths about race, gender, class, sexuality, and disability. As the country grows more diverse—by 2050, whites may well become a minority of the population—these truths become harder and harder to ignore.2
Beyond the necessity of grappling with identity on the left, much of the successful political organizing in recent years has been rooted in identity. The robust, extensive, and complex Movement for Black Lives’ rallying cry is based on identity: “Black lives matter.” Not only have activists been successful in changing the public conversation on race and the criminal justice system, they got the presidential candidates to talk about policing practices and have brought out protesters against racially motivated violence in droves. Immigrant-rights organizers have focused their efforts on communities targeted by racial profiling. These coordinated efforts led to record-high turnout at protests, like the one at New York’s Kennedy airport when Trump issued the Muslim ban and the May Day protests in 2017. And of the many “isms” impacted after the Trump election, sexism was the target and the organizing principle for millions of women around the world who participated in the Women’s March protests the day after the inauguration.
Identity-based organizing is our best tool in the fight for equality. Granted, it’s not always easy. Within each of these communities there are robust, sometimes difficult, and sometimes agonizing discussions about the fickle borders of identity. What issues should be included? How can we include all of these issues and still stay focused on a common goal? How do we prioritize our agendas with so many different factions involved? But those questions shouldn’t divide the left; instead they pressure-test beliefs and ensure the fight for justice and equality is expansive, creative, and inclusive. For example, considering how the fight for trans rights is an important part of the feminist movement doesn’t weaken the feminist movement but instead strengthens it, forces it to be more comprehensive and truly inclusive.
And it is exactly those conversations that need to enter the mainstream political discourse rather than our hiding from them in the service of a false narrative about America. How do we navigate a world that gives us Beyoncé’s groundbreaking album Lemonade, a tribute to black women’s sexuality, and the rise of the alt-right? We live in complex, sometimes mind-numbingly confounding times and the only way to understand them is to understand each other: the good, the bad, and the sometimes extremely ugly.
It is in service to these complex conversations that Kate and I put together this anthology. In the chapters ahead we have curated some of the strongest voices writing at the intersection of feminism, identity, and personal experience with their own identity to meditate on what we lost that fateful night in November 2016 and what lessons we can take from it. In “Country Crock” Sam Irby writes beautifully on being a queer, working-class woman of color who moves to Trump country. Reflecting on her travels in Ghana, Jill Filipovic shares a gut-wrenching story about a young woman she meets in her travels and how her life may be impacted by Trump’s unleashing of the global gag order. In “Beyond the Pussy Hats” Katha Pollitt makes it plain how we can lose our abortion rights in Trump’s America. Zerlina Maxwell reflects on her time as a black woman working on the Clinton campaign in “Trust Black Women.” Jessica Valenti shares her feelings the day after the election in “Permission to Vote for a Monster: Ivanka Trump and Faux Feminism,” and the inimitable Cheryl Strayed, in “She Will,” discusses how she felt after Clinton lost. Meredith Talusan, in “We’ve Always Been Nasty: Why the Feminist Movement Needs Trans Women and Gender-Nonconforming Femmes,” makes the case for how we have an opportunity to redefine gender in the women’s movement and we should absolutely take it.
In the end, diversity is embedded in America’s social fabric. Hillary Clinton might have lost the election by way of the electoral college, but she won the popular vote—so more people across the country supported her vision of America than Trump’s. And Barack Obama, our first black president, won twice. We may not see eye to eye on the political positions of these candidates or how the details of identity politics play out on the national stage, but coalitional politics—recognizing and fighting for the diverse needs of many—are our best shot at building a progressive future. It will be our ability to draw from, incorporate, and celebrate our differences that will truly make America great.
ARE WOMEN PERSONS?
“The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her.”
—FROM THE DECLARATION OF SENTIMENTS, SIGNED AT THE FIRST WOMEN’S RIGHTS CONVENTION, SENECA FALLS, NEW YORK, 1848
I AM AN ATHEIST, a pragmatist, and a staunch proponent of better living through chemistry, but the 2016 presidential election made me downright superstitious. Especially about dead women.
The morning of November 8, I arrived at my polling place wearing a suffragette-white pantsuit, my hands bedecked with rings belonging to my late mother, mother-in-law, and grandmother. Not all of them were fans of my politics or outspokenness, let alone Hillary Clinton’s, but I still wanted, arguably needed, them all in the booth as I voted for her. Having given up the faith I was raised in long ago, I no longer believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic Church, the resurrection of the body, or even, on a bad day, the forgiveness of sins. But the communion of saints—the idea that the dead remain more or less available to take your anguished calls—has always been the hardest part of the Apostle’s Creed for me to let go.
Another thing you should know about me: I am not an easy crier. Generally speaking, my brain alchemizes strong emotions into excessive stomach acid, insomnia, and decades-long grudges rather than tears. But the 2016 election, bizarre and unprecedented in so many ways, made me cry early and cry often. Periodically throughout the daylight hours of November 8, I tortured myself by checking the live feed of Susan B. Anthony’s grave in Rochester, New York, where lines of pilgrims snaked around headstones, waiting to place their I VOTED stickers on hers. Every time I checked the live feed, I came utterly undone.
I cried thinking about all the original owners of the jewelry I wore; about Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Matilda Joslyn Gage; about Ida B. Wells and Mary Ann Shadd Cary and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper; about Sarah Winnemucca, Mrs. S. K. Chan, Jeannette Rankin, Adelina Otero-Warren, Shirley Chisholm, and every other dead American woman who publicly insisted that live American women deserve full political equality. Every time I thought about Dorothy Howell Rodham—born the year before women got the vote—dying just a few years before her daughter become the first female nominee for president from a major party, I sobbed.
I cried as I voted, of course. After casting my ballot, I adorned one white lapel with my I VOTED sticker and the other with a trio of Hillary Clinton campaign buttons that extolled her nerdy virtues: SHE USES BIG WORDS. SHE BELIEVES IN SCIENCE. SHE DOES HER HOMEWORK.
She is running against Donald-Fucking-Trump, I kept telling myself as I reloaded the feed of Anthony’s grave; cried; checked Facebook for pictures, of other pantsuits, and stickers, and hopeful smiling children in Hillary shirts; cried more; and generally did everything but concentrate on work for even one hot minute. She is going to be president.
* * *
In 1873, Susan B. Anthony was tried and convicted for casting a vote in the previous year’s presidential election.
Anthony’s attorney, Judge Henry Selden, cross-examined election inspector Beverly W. Jones, who testified that he and other members of the Board of Registry were ultimately persuaded that Anthony was entitled to register to vote. They did have some misgivings about it, though.
“What was the defect in her right to vote as a citizen?” asked Judge Selden.
“She was not a male citizen,” Mr. Jones testified.
Refusing to pay the $100 fine levied against her, Anthony argued that the U.S. Constitution already guaranteed her right to vote under the Fourteenth Amendment, the first clause of which defined citizens as “all persons born or naturalized in the United States.” Never mind the second clause, which referred specifically to the right of “male citizens” to vote. The language that instructed states to count former slaves as full citizens (or go without representation for that portion of the population) seemed broad enough to elevate born or naturalized women of almost every race and ethnicity1 to voting citizens. All persons, it said.
“The only question left to be settled now,” said Susan B. Anthony, “is: Are women persons?”
It wasn’t a new or original argument. Three years earlier, Victoria Woodhull—the first woman ever to claim to run for president 2—had delivered a memorial to Congress on this very subject. Whereas women are citizens, and whereas the Constitution prohibits abridging the privileges and immunities of citizens, and whereas the Constitution also takes precedence over state laws when the two are in conflict, women already have the right to vote, QE-motherfucking-D.
It was a clever argument, but one only necessitated by the failure of the feminist movement’s earlier plea to lawmakers: “Please, please don’t write the word ‘male’ into the U.S. Constitution.”
* * *
Having supported Hillary Clinton in both 2008 and 2016, and having been politically sentient (if only just) during Bill Clinton’s presidency, I am well aware that enormous chunks of the left—let alone the rusted-out, heavily armed, no-fucks-to-give right—loathe her beyond all reason.
Oh, they’ll tell you there are reasons, and they’ll list those reasons, the same ones, again and again, ad infinitum. Post the mildest praise of Hillary in any public forum, and you might as well have voiced an incantation from a dusty old grimoire—the spirits you’ve unwittingly summoned will immediately descend upon your Twitter, Facebook, comments section, blog, lunch table, local pub, or office. They will explain that Hillary Clinton is a warmongering neoliberal liar who gave speeches to Goldman Sachs executives, and she can’t connect with the average voter, and she doesn’t care about the white working class, but she also doesn’t care about people of color. In fact, she doesn’t care about anyone except herself, and once she cried and once she had cleavage, and her butt and ankles are too big, and her laugh is too loud, and her face is too expressive, or else impassive, and she couldn’t keep her husband satisfied, and she’s probably a lesbian, and don’t you think she looks a bit peaked and NONE OF THIS IS SEXIST WHY DO YOU KEEP TRYING TO BRING SEXISM INTO IT WHEN THE RATIONAL, NONEMOTIONAL POLITICAL POINT I’M TRYING TO MAKE IS SHE’S A ROTTEN CUNT.
But even if all of that were true—hell, even if she killed Vince Foster3—she was still running against Donald Trump! Could the left really not get it together to vote for her on those grounds alone?
Of course not. To ask the question was to invoke a new horde of trolls whose guiding principle is that the American president exists to provide individual customer service. “She hasn’t done anything to convince me that she deserves to be president,” they’d say, as though reading her website, attending one of her gazillion events, or, say, checking Wikipedia was too much to expect of a voter wondering what the most famous woman on earth was really about. “She can’t base a whole campaign on not being Donald Trump!”
Really? Why not? “If I win, Donald Trump will not be president” is a fucking great campaign slogan, if you ask me.
When I consider those who disagree, I’m tempted to throw in a rhetorical, indignantly italicized “Who are these people?” But the thing is, we know who they are. They’re white men. They’re white women who will do anything to maintain the protection of white men. They’re a few sexist men of color. They’re stone-cold racists. They’re people who would never say and maybe don’t even think that they’re racist. They’re people who would back anyone who says, “If I win, Hillary Clinton will not be president.”
That’s how much they hate her.
How much they hate us.
How much they hate, in some cases, themselves.
Donald Trump is how much.
This didn’t come as a surprise to me, exactly. I’ve been a public feminist going on ten years now, so I have some experience with being publicly despised. Steve Bannon, Milo Yiannopoulos, Richard Spencer—did you just hear of those guys for the first time during the period of endlessly dawning horror that followed Trump’s victory? Because they’ve been harassing outspoken women for ages, not to mention outspoken people of color, trans people, Muslims, and Jews, whether or not they’re women. Men on the left can be nearly as relentless in their petulant demands for attention if you make a political choice they disapprove of, such as supporting an imperfect female candidate. So I’m not going to give you some “This isn’t the America I know” bullshit. This is absolutely the America I know.
If you’re an intellectually honest American, at some point you have to find a way to live with the knowledge that this country was founded on genocide, slavery, and misogyny. Every majestic national park was stolen from a murdered and exiled people. Some of our most beautiful historic buildings were constructed by the hands of human beings brought here in bondage. Nearly every “Great Man” we celebrate was raised by a woman working for free, then married to another woman who kept his house and raised his kids for free. This is the America we all know.
It’s okay to admit that. Like a harried mother, you can feel a bone-deep attachment to this country of ours and be furious at it simultaneously. I love you, America, but I do not like your behavior one bit.
I’ve been a U.S. citizen for forty-two years, during which time I watched in horror as George W. Bush was elected by a vote of the Supreme Court; as we invaded Iraq and Afghanistan; as the religious right clawed away at reproductive freedom, state by state; as the Tea Party became a serious force in Republican politics. By now, I have seen so many videos of African Americans being extrajudicially executed by people sworn to serve and protect, I don’t even know what the point of filming them is anymore. Evidence? What are the chances that the murderers will even be indicted, let alone tried and convicted?
I’ve come to believe that the real purpose those videos will one day serve is to show future generations how violently racist we were. As history, their existence, and the overall lack of resulting change, will make sense. Our descendants will tell a story about us: in the olden days, Americans were deeply invested in white supremacy. In the olden days, the police could beat black people to death and never be held accountable. In the olden days, there was resistance—people marched on Washington and on their own city halls, people wrote scathing op-eds and carried handmade signs and called their representatives and tried to be a little kinder to their neighbors. But it was never quite enough, because America was just so racist, just so violent, in the olden days.
They won’t be wrong, any more than we are about Manifest Destiny, about the Trail of Tears, about slavery, about the Chinese Exclusion Act, about the Three-Fifths Compromise, about Jim Crow laws, about “separate but equal,” about the Bisbee Deportation, about the National Origins Formula, about lynching, about the Mexican Repatriation movement, about Japanese internment camps, about the Zoot Suit Riots, about redlining, about Operation Wetback, about murdered civil rights leaders, about everything our parents and grandparents and founding fathers either committed or suffered under before we were born.
They won’t be wrong. They will just be too slow to connect the dots, to remember Faulkner’s famous line from Requiem for a Nun: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
* * *
“To women this government is not a democracy,” wrote Susan B. Anthony.
It is not a republic; it is an odious aristocracy—a hateful oligarchy of sex; the most hateful aristocracy ever established on the face of the globe. An oligarchy of wealth, where the rich govern the poor; an oligarchy of learning, where the educated govern the ignorant; or even an oligarchy of race, where the Saxon rules the African, might be endured; but this oligarchy of sex, which makes father, brother, husband, son, the oligarchs over the mother and sister, the wife and daughter, of every household—which ordains all men sovereigns, all women subjects, carries dissension, discord, and rebellion into every home of the nation.
The astute reader will note that an “oligarchy of race” as described would be rather more endurable for the Saxon than the African. This is the problem with reading most white “first-wave” American feminists: even the ones who, like Anthony, began their activist careers in the abolition movement are prone to such casual, thoughtless racism.
And the generation that came after Anthony wasn’t even casual about it. Whatever progress Carrie Chapman Catt helped make toward securing the ballot for women, she will always be the person who argued—in hopes of persuading Southern states to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment—“White supremacy will be strengthened, not weakened, by women’s suffrage.” That is not a real fuckin’ ambiguous statement. (Nor, sadly, was it necessarily wrong.) And it makes me distinctly uninterested in preserving Chapman Catt’s legacy in any way other than exercising the franchise.
I understand why many feel similarly about Susan B. Anthony, who took money from the white supremacist George Francis Train to found a radical newspaper, believing the ends for which she used it were more important than the windfall’s provenance. She advocated, at times, for basing the right to vote on education, suggesting that those too poor, or poorly connected, to access opportunities for formal learning were less deserving of a voice in our democracy. And her lifelong bestie was Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who famously wrote, “Think of Patrick and Sambo and Hans and Yung Tung, who do not know the difference between a Monarchy and a Republic, who never read the Declaration of Independence … making laws for [white feminists] Lydia Maria Child, Lucretia Mott, or Fanny Kemble.” There wasn’t a lot of concern in the feminist movement then about throwing immigrants and uneducated black men under the bus to promote a certain class of white woman. Many would argue there still isn’t today.
Still, I have an enduring soft spot for Anthony, in part because I’m skeptical of attempts to separate ourselves so cleanly from the olden days of feminist history, and in part because she’s often maligned by today’s feminists for things she didn’t actually screw up. At least, not entirely.4
In 1869, leadership of the American women’s rights movement split into opposing camps over their response to the Fifteenth Amendment. (You know, the one right after the one where a bunch of men wrote “male” into the U.S. Constitution.) The camp that would become the American Women’s Suffrage Association, led by Lucy Stone, argued that the urgency of passing a Fifteenth Amendment to guarantee men the right to vote regardless “of race, color, or previous condition of servitude” was too great to keep arguing whether “sex” should be added to the list. They chose to support the amendment as written, and work on a state-by-state strategy for ensuring women’s right to vote. But the camp that would become the National Woman Suffrage Association, led by Anthony and Stanton, refused to withdraw their demand that the amendment guarantee universal suffrage. They guessed, correctly, that if they couldn’t pass it then, it would be decades before women’s franchise was secured in the Constitution.
At some point during this contentious period, Susan B. Anthony said and/or wrote: “I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work or demand the ballot for the Negro and not the woman.” I’m not sure where she said that—it’s hard to find a citation with a Google search, because the first several pages of results are all articles and blog posts about how Anthony was essentially an irredeemable racist who shouldn’t be honored or celebrated in the twenty-first century. They all seem to lead back to a passage from the book Divided Sisters: Bridging the Gap Between Black Women and White Women by Midge Wilson and Kathy Russell, excerpted on a page about black women and the suffrage movement, hosted by Wesleyan University. I’m sure the printed book has a citation, but the website does not, and my editor is eager for me to finish this essay, so I’ll simply stipulate the point: Yep, that sounds like Anthony! But the key words in that quote are: “and not the woman.”
Susan B. Anthony loved women with all her heart. (Yes, probably in bed, but also everywhere else.) The motto of the radical newspaper she would found with that dirty white-supremacist money was “Men, their rights and nothing more; women, their rights and nothing less.” In A Brief Biography of Susan B. Anthony, Stanton recounts her friend’s stock answer to nosy questions about her romantic life:
She has often playfully said, when questioned on this point, that she could not consent that the man she loved, described in the constitution as a white male, native-born, American citizen, possessed of the right of self-government, eligible to the office of President of the great Republic, should unite his destinies in marriage with a political slave and pariah. “No, no; when I am crowned with all the rights, privileges, and immunities of a citizen, I may give some consideration to these social problems; but until then I must concentrate all my energies on the enfranchisement of my own sex.”
The comparison of married white women’s lot to slavery is one more thing that endears few contemporary feminists to Anthony (or to the lengthy list of nineteenth-century white women who also made that analogy). It is the plain truth that nothing but slavery is like slavery, nothing but lynching is like lynching, nothing but genocide is like genocide. Some things should never be diminished to the status of metaphor.
Similarly, white women’s problems in the nineteenth century should never be diminished to the status of white women’s problems in the twenty-first. One can acknowledge an unbroken line of white supremacy through the feminist movement, as through all of American history, without pretending that white feminist concerns have remained static. Married women in the nineteenth century were legally the property of their husbands, who could beat and rape them without consequences. If they tried to leave, they would likely not be awarded custody of their children (who were also their husbands’ property). They would have few job opportunities and zero social status if they managed to obtain a divorce, which was extremely difficult.
If you were white and married a kind man—as Elizabeth Cady Stanton did, by her own account—your suffering was reduced substantially. But you still might die giving birth to one of your many babies, and you still did not enjoy the rights, privileges, and immunities of the white men you married or the ones you raised from infancy. Meanwhile, if you married an abusive man, you were trapped in a home with no autonomy over your own body, constant fear of physical and mental anguish, an expectation of 24-7 unpaid labor, no legal recourse whatsoever, and no means of escape.
This was the context in which Susan B. Anthony developed her feminist principles: Men, their rights and nothing more; women, their rights and nothing less. To her, accepting the Fifteenth Amendment as written meant accepting, for the umpteenth time, that women’s rights were not as important as men’s—including, crucially, black women’s rights.
The History of Woman Suffrage, a project initiated by Anthony, Stanton, and Matilda Joslyn Gage in 1876, is a six-volume, 5,700-page attempt to document the journey from the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 to the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920—fourteen years after Anthony’s death. Working from their own memories, journals, letters, articles, and boxes of papers donated by their contemporaries, these women set down the arguments and agreements, setbacks and triumphs, that drove the movement they devoted their lives to. There were omissions, to be sure: notably any contribution from Lucy Stone, who declined to offer one when asked. But reading the History, one is struck by the authors’ apparent good-faith effort to create a comprehensive, painstakingly nuanced document. The fight over the Fifteenth Amendment is told in transcripts of heated convention discussions and letters representing multiple viewpoints, as well as a collective narrative mostly written by Stanton.
Consider this excerpt from that narrative’s explanation for the NWSA’s refusal to support the Fifteenth Amendment unless it guaranteed universal suffrage:
Having served the Government during the war in such varied capacities, and taken an active part in the discussion of its vital principles on so many reform platforms, women naturally felt that in reconstruction their rights as citizens should be protected and secured. They who had so diligently rolled up petitions for the emancipation and enfranchisement of the slaves now demanded the same liberties, not only for the white women of the nation, but for the newly made freed-women from Southern plantations, who had borne more grievous burdens and endured keener sufferings in the flesh and far more aggravating humiliations in spirit, than the man slave could ever know. And yet Abolitionists who had drawn their most eloquent appeals for emancipation from the hopeless degradation of woman in slavery, ignored alike the African and the Saxon in reconstruction, and refused to sign the petition for “woman suffrage.”
These are not women who were pissed off at black people getting rights before they did. These were women who were pissed off at white men. Specifically, progressive white men. Progressive white men who soapboxed about the plight of women under slavery but did nothing to help those women advocate for themselves once freed. Progressive white men who convinced progressive white women to put all talk of women’s rights on hold during the war, who promised that later, they would fight tirelessly for their sisters’, wives’, and daughters’ deserts as citizens, then kept moving back the date at which they’d get right on that. Progressive white men who did the political math and figured out that adding 2 million former slaves to the rolls likely meant adding 2 million voters loyal to the party of Lincoln, but enfranchising women would risk canceling out their own votes.
I know those progressive white men. I called them down every time I voiced my support of Hillary Clinton, first in 2008 and then in 2016. They were the ones who insisted that Bernie Sanders was a “more feminist” candidate than Clinton, who explained with exasperated condescension that they were eager to elect the first woman president, just not her. They were the progressive white men who swore they would vote for Elizabeth Warren—perceived to be an ideologically correct woman—right up until she voiced her support of Hillary Clinton. After that, Sanders-supporting protesters began demonstrating against her, and graffiti reading “#JudasWarren Sellout” appeared in the famously feminist town of Northampton, Massachusetts.5 I know that to this sort of progressive white man, the right time for women is always some day in the future, and the right woman candidate is always the hypothetical one.
I can’t stand those guys, and I have a full complement of voting and property rights. I can only imagine the fury that must have roiled in Anthony’s guts every time one of them told her to wait her turn.
Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were racist. So were Lucy Stone and the members of the AWSA. So were all the progressive white men of the time. So was Frederick Douglass, who cheated on the dark-skinned, illiterate wife who helped him escape slavery and bore his five children, with a white, European intellectual. So am I. So are you, if you’re American. Systemic racism isn’t something you can opt out of; it’s only something you can consciously resist.
Noting the overt racism of people lionized for their contributions to American liberty is one form of resistance, and by no means do I wish to discourage that. I only want to encourage two other things alongside it: First, noting equally the sexism of both our forebears and our contemporaries, the patriarchal system from which none of us can fully opt out. And second, resisting oversimplification as strenuously as we resist hatred.
I didn’t sob watching people put I VOTED stickers on Anthony’s grave because I wish to hand-wave away a legacy of hatred in order to enjoy an intergenerational white-girl-power moment. I sobbed watching that because whatever else Susan B. Anthony fucked up, she tried so hard, for so long, to secure equal rights for women. And more than a hundred years after her death, so-called progressive white men are still telling women we need to step back and take direction, telling us we’re lousy at movement leadership, telling us to vote with our brains instead of our vaginas. I sobbed because so-called progressive white men, whenever they decide to cede a tiny bit of power, always seem to make black men and white women fight each other to the death over that scrap of influence—from the Fifteenth Amendment battle to the 2008 Democratic primary. As long as they keep those two groups in competition with each other, trapping black women in between them and erasing all other people of color, they will never have to cede more than that tiny bit.
* * *
Being an intellectually honest American means finding a way to live with the knowledge that every generation through the present day has relied on unpaid and underpaid labor, the self-sacrificing love of women, to keep this country upright.
In her 2015 book, Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?, Swedish journalist Katrine Marçal describes Western society’s prevailing wisdom about economies: to wit, that their engine is always and only self-interest. The baker bakes, the brewer brews, because that’s how they get people to pay them money, so they can buy the things they want. Conveniently elided from this butcher-baker narrative are the caregivers, the cooks, the cleaners. The mothers. The wives.
For the butcher, the baker, and the brewer to be able to go to work, at the time Adam Smith was writing, their wives, mothers, or sisters had to spend hour after hour, day after day minding the children, cleaning the house, cooking the food, washing the clothes, drying tears and squabbling with the neighbors. However you look at the market, it is always built on another economy. An economy that we rarely discuss.
That hidden economy, which still exists today, is one of love. There is self-interest, certainly, in all of these women’s endeavors; for their trouble, they get shelter and food. But you don’t do any of that—the mind-numbing care of small children, the endless repetition of cooking and laundry, the indignity of having a mind as fine as any man’s and no opportunity to exercise it—without love. Either love for the owners of the dirty underwear and the sticky little hands, or love for people whose survival depends on the pittance you make for doing it.
Almost three hundred years after Adam Smith was born, women still dominate the “caring professions”—teaching, nursing, social work—and are scarce in positions of financial or political power. Married women who work full-time still do substantially more cleaning, food preparation, and child-engagement tasks than their male partners. And when professional women’s work becomes too time-consuming, the care of children and the household isn’t shared more equally with male partners, but outsourced to other women, frequently poor women of color. It is men who are raised to participate in a strict economy of self-interest. Most women could never afford that.
In a long interview with BuzzFeed’s Ruby Cramer that ran ten months before the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton—in her usual maddeningly nuanced, sound bite–unfriendly way—tried to explain what consistently drives her, regardless of political vicissitudes. Writes Cramer:
Her words are slow and deliberate and she takes the conversation to this discussion she’s been trying to talk about, to bring up on the trail, as she is again ensnared in a campaign that’s more difficult than expected, in an election dominated by the language of anger and fear.
“I am talking about love and kindness,” she says.
I believed her.
A lot of us believed her.
Progressive white men, summoned time and again by the mere mention of her name, never did. Hillary Clinton was a cold fish, a war hawk, and a hateful liar. Their objection to her wasn’t sexist—unlike progressive white men of yore, these men deplored sexism! They would never repeat the oppressive mistakes of the olden days.
They just did not care for that woman. Is all.
* * *
On the evening of November 8, while we waited for election results to roll in, I drove to Seneca Falls with my husband. I had promised to file a response for The Guardian within three hours of the networks calling it, and I was going bonkers trying to fill the time before then. I am a reasonable enough person to understand that Rochester, ninety miles northeast of my central New York home, is too far to drive on a weeknight to visit a stranger’s grave in the dark. But I am not too reasonable to demand a forty-mile journey to honor the ancestors. Even if I couldn’t make it to Anthony’s grave, I was determined to put my I VOTED sticker somewhere more meaningful than a garbage can or the bottom of my purse.
As I stood outside the small, unassuming Wesleyan Chapel, where the Seneca Falls Convention took place, a strange woman came up and threw an arm around my shoulder. She was with two girlfriends, all of them around fifty. They’d been planning this night for months, driven by the same desire I had to pay homage to women who never lived to vote legally, who never could have imagined such a thing as a female president. A light rain blemished our white jackets and blurred our faces, but none of us could stop smiling. We radiated love.
“It’s really happening, isn’t it?” the woman with her arm around me said, and before I knew what I was doing I turned to give her a full-on hug. Or really, to take one—the hug I couldn’t get from my mother or my grandmother or mother-in-law or Susan B. Anthony. The communion of saints I no longer believed in.
“It’s really happening,” I agreed.
When I got back home, I changed out of my pantsuit to gear up for watching the final election results. One by one, I dropped my feminist talismans back in the jewelry box.
Bye, SHE USES BIG WORDS.
Bye, SHE BELIEVES IN SCIENCE.
Bye, SHE DOES HER HOMEWORK.
I put on yoga pants and my Hillary sweatshirt, and continued writing the essay I’d already started, about what it meant that we finally elected our first woman president. All I had to do was wait for the official announcement, so I could file my piece and go to bed.
A couple of hours later, I was sobbing harder and more hysterically—I use the term advisedly—than I had since my mother died.
We had not elected our first woman president. Hillary Rodham Clinton, I realized with fresh sobs, would never hold the position she worked so hard to achieve, the position she deserved infinitely more than her opponent. Worse (sob, blubber, snot), there was no obvious woman on deck to run next time. Sure, there were a few female contenders for 2020, but no one with even half of Clinton’s experience, no one vetted even half as thoroughly. As with the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, women might now wait generations before our shot would come around again.
I began writing a new essay for The Guardian. It began: “My country hates women, which is bad enough, and pretends it doesn’t, which is worse.”
* * *
In the car on the way back from Seneca Falls, before the unthinkable went thunk, I asked my husband if he had learned anything from this election about how our country treats women.
He thought for a moment, then said, “Anyone other than Hillary would have given up ages ago, rather than take that kind of abuse. That’s why there’s never been a woman.”
He wasn’t wrong. To date, there’s never been an American woman who could fully transcend the relentless, crushing resistance that comes with wanting more for herself, or for her country. But there have been many who, out of deep respect for themselves and love for their fellow women, grew old and died trying. Susan B. Anthony was one of them. Hillary Clinton will be one of them. If I have to, I guess I will, too.
I’ll do it for love.
Copyright © 2017 by Samhita Mukhopadhyay and Kate Harding