A Primer on Excluding People

Jessica has a tremendous post on TPMCafe analogizing the DePauw sorority affair, wherein the national chapter kicked out 23 women who were nonwhite or overweight or too geeky in order to boost recruitment, to the mainstream feminist movement’s recurrent exclusion of under-30 women. She says,

Mainstream feminism may not be kicking any women out of the treehouse, but it’s certainly not lowering the ladder, either. Sure, we have our women’s studies classes and local NOW chapters, but the bulk of outreach done by mainstream feminists and women’s organizations is targeted towards those who already consider themselves feminists, or at the very least are politically engaged.

I used to think that this gap in outreach was just a backlash-tired movement unintentionally forgetting about women who feminists figured wouldn’t be interested anyway. But reading about the odd logic of recruitment spouted by the DePauw sorority sisters had led me to make a comparison that I’m sure many of my elders will find infelicitous—now I wonder whether the chilliness faced by many of my peers isn’t something a bit more insidious.

Maybe, just maybe, some feminists would rather that young women weren’t interested in feminism [emphasis in original] on a large scale—that way, the movement still belongs to them.

It’s a general symptom of any movement that doesn’t have clear standards of success that depend only on its own actions – e.g. “Win the next election.” When the movement can attribute successes and failures to social trends, it doesn’t have to do that much. The gradual closing of the gender gap in the US in the last 30 years has allowed the feminist movement to pretend post-1975 activism had anything to do with it; in particular, it’s allowed it to slack.

Katha Pollitt’s response to Jessica is a primer on how to exclude people and make the movement insular and ineffective. Her response to Jessica’s allegation that the feminist movement is excluding young women is the same response that the Democrats always use when told they don’t inspire anyone: “Start your own movement,” with a strong “stop bugging us” undertone.

In general, Pollitt rebuts not so much Jessica’s argument as the argument she thinks she should be making. Jessica’s demand for giving young women a seat at the table isn’t some personal power thing, a question of daughters criticizing mothers but mothers not allowed to criticize daughters. It’s a specific demand that the feminist movement stop being so ineffective. Think of her as the Markos Moulitsas of American feminism, without the sanctimony.

When Jessica delves more into specifics, she talks about a lot more than generational tension. The feminist movement engages in scaremongering about Roe vs. Wade, which just doesn’t inspire anyone considering that abortion has been legal in the US for 34 years. NOW’s action alerts are so slow that blogs like Feministing are typically months ahead of them. Organizations like NOW and Feminist Majority use a command and control structure that’s reminiscent of machine politics.

Instead, Pollitt responds with such generalities as,

There’s something else that bothers me, though, about your piece. It’s the way you shift from a critique of unwelcoming institutions to a general complaint that older, individual feminists should criticize you, yourself, in any way. How dare some have a problem with Feministing’s mud flap girl logo! And send you — horrors — e mails about it! As a constant reader of Feministing, I know that you and your co-writers are quite the blogo-battlers. You don’t have the all-inclusive, nonjudgmental, everyone’s-a-feminist POV you insist others take toward young women.

I’ll admit to only having read Feministing for 8 months. But there’s a big difference between being inclusive and having no opinions. Jessica and Vanessa are unabashedly sex-positive, to the point that Feministing was the only feminist blog except Majikthise not to take shit from the radicals on blowjobs. But Jessica has never censored radical commenters, not should she.

Ignoring the radical fringe doesn’t make one exclusive. On the contrary, Sister Souljah moments are often central to outreach whenever a movement has been tarred with radicalism. Criticism about the mudflap logo is too unserious to waste time on; the real outreach comes from convincing the average 21-year-old woman to be a feminist activist.

I’m not an especially mainstream feminist. On the issues I’m mostly with the movement – the only issues I split with it on are sexual assault and deadbeat child support, both of which are fairly minor – but I tend to loathe its general attitude toward things. My ideal post about abortion isn’t an unremarkable rant about trusting women, but a serious philosophical treatise about personhood or a public health-oriented post. And yet I’ve always felt welcome there, even when arguing with five different regulars all at the same time.

Granted, relative to mainstream feminism I’m on the opposite side as the radicals Pollitt insists Jessica take seriously. But, you know, the side I’m on has more than 90% of the population. Rovian tactics of appealing to the base and ignoring everyone who isn’t sufficiently radical may work when there’s a war going on and your side is perceived as the only one that’s strong on defense. In normal circumstances, it makes you lose both houses of Congress to a boring, spineless party.

If there are ideological differences between generations, they should be discussed as ideas, not declared off limits because the person who espouses them is younger (or older). You are doing what you accuse older feminists of doing — declaring your views unassailable simply because you have them. They say,”You weren’t there,” You say, “You aren’t here.” Okay, but you still have to make your case — plenty of young women, including young feminists, don’t share your POV. Your real beef with Ariel Levy, for example, is not that she’s too old and out of it to understand young women (she’s only in her early thirties). It’s that you don’t agree with her view that today’s sexual culture (girls gone wild, hooking up etc) is basically exploitation and exhibitionism packaged as feminism. I’m not saying she’s right or wrong, I’m just saying that “Female Chauvinist Pigs” presents an actual argument, not a mindless ignorant diss of young women by some old fussbudget who knows little about them. Fact is, a lot of young women agree with her and loved that book. It was really popular on campus.

Icons of Evolution presents an actual argument, too. Ariel Levy isn’t someone who tries very hard to be taken seriously, what with her equivocation of old puritanism with modern depravity. I’m not making any apologies here: the raunch culture is objectively better than the puritan culture. The culture of the 1990s accepts subcultures that can by and large escape mainstream trends in ways this of the 1950s never did. The virgin/whore dichotomy stops holding when one considers not just what shows on MTV but also what’s acceptable to people who watch MTV.

And, for the record, Jessica doesn’t just dismiss Levy without explaining why she’s so off-target. Writing in the Grauniad, she made a far more specific case than she does in a short blog post on TPMCafe that needs to encapsulate her entire critique of present-day feminist activism.

I’ve never had much sympathy for Kos, so comparing Jessica to him might not be the best analogy for her activism. But the Beltway Democrats who keep complaining about him annoy me even more than he does; Pollitt’s rant about Jessica sounds a lot like the cry of a DCCC organizer who’s concerned with the grave fact that he no longer has a monopoly on fundraising.

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