Liberal Feminism Failed But Here's What Can Be Done

If second wave feminism had something to deliver to the next and future generation of feminists, it was a woman to the highest office of the land.
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If second wave feminism had something to deliver to the next and future generation of feminists, it was a woman to the highest office of the land. And last week, it failed.

Yes, there are several reasons why Hillary Clinton lost to Donald Trump in the electoral college, but as a third wave intersectional feminist, figuring out what happened with women is the only one that I care about right now.

In addition to issues like reproductive choice and equal pay for equal work, one of the core tenets of liberal feminism is the idea that women deserve and should have access to power and be in powerful positions. For the last 50 years, feminists have worked to change laws, shifted the culture and dominant narrative about women in the workforce, and trained and encouraged women to seek political office. However, none of this foundational work was enough to get Hillary Clinton elected. Here’s why:

The Women who Chose Race over Gender

A majority, 54 percent, of women voters voted for Hillary Clinton. However, fifty-three percent of white women across class and education levels voted for Donald Trump. This stands in sharp contrast to the 95 percent of Black women and 70 percent of Latino women who cast their ballot for Clinton. What this says is that when push comes to shove, one out of two white women chose their race, and the sure privilege it affords by their proximity to white men, over gender.

Black and Latino women voted as if their very lives depended on it. In many ways, it did. The threat of the deportation of immigrant families, the violence perpetrated against Black men and women, and the racism and xenophobia spewed by Donald Trump and his surrogates created an urgency among these two groups of women that they felt compelled to act upon in the voting booth.

In the days since the election, many pundits have worked overtime to dismiss the white women who voted for Donald Trump as Republican die-hards who would have voted for him regardless of their being a woman on the ballot. This is a cop out and disingenuous. White women who voted for Trump believed that they did not have much to gain or to lose by voting for Clinton. It was also about the deep and historic intersection of patriarchy and racism that I do not believe second wave feminists have been able to successfully grapple with or to address in a significant way.

The hard truth is that if White women would have behaved electorally like Black and Latino women, Hillary Clinton would be President.

Strong Feminist Institutions have all but Disappeared

In 1966 the National Organization for Women (NOW) was founded to advance women’s rights in both the public and private spheres of life. At its peak, the organization boasted more than 550 chapters and a robust budget that among other things helped to pass landmark legislation such as Title IX and the Violence Against Women Act. The organization was also a major influencer in national and state level politics. Today, this is not the case. The National Headquarters is struggling to stay afloat with a budget of less than $1million. And presumably, local NOW affiliates lacked either the funds or the muscle to mobilize a significant number of voters to tilt the race in Clinton’s favor.

The slow, but steady demise of the White House Project after Clinton’s loss in the 2008 primary election was also a problem. The collapse of one of the only Feminist organizations, besides Emily’s List, geared towards training and preparing the next generation of leaders, left a mobilizing and leadership vacuum that would have been useful this election.

The National Organization for Women and the White House Project are not anomalies, many other national feminists organizations and institutions are on life support or struggling to assert their relevance in a society that doesn’t deem their voices or perspectives necessary.

In a contentious election, strong institutions matter. Planned Parenthood, MomsRising, Emily’s List and other Feminists organizations did their part, but ultimately, there’s nothing like having institutions that were created for the sole purpose of propelling women into office or power.

You Can Run, Just Don’t Blame Sexism and Misogyny if You Lose

According to a Washington Post survey, 6 out of 10 men and women identify as feminists. Also, close to 50 percent of those surveyed said feminism was focused on change they would like to see [in society] and was empowering. A deeper dive of the findings, however, reveal that 46 percent of respondents said that the feminist movement unfairly blamed men for women’s challenges and a near equal number said that the choices women make, not discrimination, are the biggest factor in keeping women from achieving full equality with men.

What this says to me is that in theory people wholeheartedly believe women should be equal or have equal opportunity. However, when it comes down to it, whether or not a woman achieves equality is based on her actions or individual behavior. Stated differently, women themselves are to blame for not achieving parity with men, rather than the institutional and structural forces that make it harder for women, particularly mothers, to advance in the workforce or in society.

This thinking played out in the election as well. Many believed it was great that a woman was running for President, but few were able to concede that Clinton’s path to the Presidency was a bit rockier than any man that had come before her. Claims of sexism and misogyny were dismissed as complaints and she was encouraged to suck it up, to try harder. There was also a cognitive dissonance among many voters who were unwilling or unable to make the connection between a woman running for office and the impediments she faced while running because of her gender.

Being a Feminist is a Thankless Job

More than anything what this election has taught me and what I have known for quite some time now is that working to ensure that women and girls are not sexually harassed, abused, have access to the full range of reproductive health choices, are not blamed when they are raped, and have the opportunity to advance in their careers is a thankless job.

Although most are familiar with the advances and gains of women in society, very few are willing to do the work on the behalf of women and families to achieve it. I do believe feminists showed up to the polls and pulled the lever for Hillary Clinton, but that wasn’t enough to win.

I am not sure who the next woman to run for President will be or how long it will be until she does. However, one thing is for certain, there is a lot of work to be done between now and then.

Outside of the herculean organizing that will be necessary to ensure that the Trump Administration does not rollback women’s rights or gains, there is much work to be done within the feminist movement and in our respective communities. Specifically, I believe there is work to be done among white women. I’m talking about holding painfully honest and truthful conversations with mothers, aunts, cousins and friends. There are conversations about race, privilege, patriarchy, internalized sexism, and misogyny that should happen soon and without the presence of women of color. To be sure, women of color have their own work to do within their communities as well. All of it must happen simultaneously.

We should also work to rebuild and strengthen feminist institutions. The absence of strong, well-resourced national Feminists organizations hurt us this election cycle. As we work to rebuild institutions, we must also ensure they are inclusive and employ a solid intersectional framework.

For me, Hillary Clinton’s turn as Commander-in-Chief would have been both a symbolic and material win not only for women, but the molasses churn of a democracy that has never been fully representative of women at any level of government.

From the right to choose an abortion to violence against women to social welfare, the rights and well being of women, regardless of race, in America has depended on persuading men to see our point-of-view or to value our experiences. I look forward to the day when this is no longer the case.

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