Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Is the future of feminism Meg Whitman, Carly Fiorina and Sarah Palin ? Or is it Hilda Solis, Mary Kay Henry, and the Coalition of Labor Union Women?

Last week I read article after article about the rise of Republican women, sometimes framed as a triumph for feminism. According to this storyline, the feminist message is now so mainstream that even Republican women embrace women’s empowerment.

I had an experience last week, the annual awards event of the Philadelphia chapter of the Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW), which convinced me that the future of feminism lies in a very different direction.

I was honored to receive an award (for my service as past president of Philadelphia NOW) in the company of women who have done so much to improve the lives of women who have not been the primary beneficiaries of the feminist movement, working-class and low-income women, who are disproportionately women of color.

The extraordinary successes of the feminist movement have not been shared equally. Women with economic/educational advantages have advanced in the professions, business, and politics. Of course there is still a glass ceiling in American life, but as Hillary Clinton famously said, “there are now 18,000,000 cracks in the glass ceiling.”

The cultural change has been so pervasive that many affluent white men have been willing to make room for their daughters--the same men who have fought economic policies which would provide opportunities and a robust safety net for the majority of women.

And it’s not just the men of corporate America who block measures that would improve the lives of the majority of women and who demonize low-income women. Whatever you want to call their brand of female power, Republican women like Whitman, Fiorina and Palin clearly do not embrace the feminist goal of equality for all women. From Joan Walsh’s recent Salon article:

I was disgusted by a horrific Whitman anti-welfare ad that was straight out of Ronald Reagan's 1966 campaign. It was demagoguery: She promised to make welfare recipients seek and take jobs – as though California never passed its own historic welfare reform legislation, doing just that, way back in 1986. It was repellent to listen to her demonize welfare recipients, the vast majority of whom are women and children, at a time when California is already slashing services.

This is sure not my kind of feminism! The definition of feminism has always been contested terrain, and now that even Sarah Palin calls herself a feminist, confusion reigns.

Right wing feminists have argued that however society is structured, women should be equally represented in positions of power. A much more inclusive definition of the feminist project demands equal opportunity for all women and a robust safety net available to all women. We’re not going to get that with Republican women at the helm.

That said, I acknowledge that having women like Whitman and Fiorina in positions of power does normalize the idea of women holding top jobs-–in that sense, it’s a positive.

Much has been made of the fact that two women, Barbara Boxer and Carly Fiorina, will be competing against each other to be senator from California. Something potentially far more significant got very little attention: two women, Mary Kay Henry and Anna Burger, were the contenders for the presidency if one of the countries largest labor unions, Service Employees international Union (SEIU).

Mary Kay Henry, Newly Elected President of Service Employees International Union

This is not your father’s labor movement. SEIU represents the fastest growing sector of the labor movement and its members are increasingly women, particularly women of color.

Also, we now have a real friend of working women, Hilda Solis, heading the Department of labor:

Granted, the labor movement is far from perfect and I certainly had my problems with the teachers’ union which represented me, but the rise of women in the labor movement may have far more significance for the lives of most American women than the political victories of Republican women like Whitman and Fiorina.


  1. If Phyllis Schlafly was at the height of her tricks today, she'd probably be trying to call herself a "feminist," too. Yuck.

    I think the solution lies more in demonstrating what feminism means through our (very progressive) work.

  2. Good point Erin!
    I'm looking forwrd to meeting you in person at the NOW conference

  3. You treat this subject with so much more maturity than I! I waxed sophomoric on the Palin brand: Proverbial Pageant Feminism. And I went on a smashathon with @feministhulk. You set a much higher standard and I salute you!