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Who Cares for Feminism?

The rifts in feminism are not new; we've just been ignoring those working to understand them.

Feminism is always breaking down. Survey the literature, or read the news, and you’ll learn: It’s needy. It has unending demands. Feminism gets attention mostly when there’s a problem: a generation gap, a schism (and this is just this month). Feminism gets even more attention when feminism is the problem.

The typical newsreel of its early days probably starts in the late 1960s or early '70s, maybe with marches in the streets of Manhattan, women arm-in-arm demanding abortion no longer be considered a crime. Convenient, too, that the media was also headquartered there to record this. (This will come up again later.) They made good copy, even if its purpose was only to diminish their passion and commitment.

Zoom out, though, in those same years, to Harlem, to Detroit, to Watts. You'll find women demanding recognition of welfare as a women's issue. "Maybe we poor welfare women will really liberate women in this country," wrote Johnnie Tillmon, the founding chairperson of the National Welfare Rights Organization, in 1972. Selma James, the co-founder of the International Wages for Housework campaign, was in the United States at the time and got inspired by the welfare rights movement. "The movement for abortion was the biggest in the so-called women's movement," she said in a talk last week at Brown University. "But there was another movement. A movement from below."

Gloria Steinem's recent comments about younger women ignited a conversation about feminism's generation gap. (Photo: jewishwomensarchive/Flickr)

Gloria Steinem's recent comments about younger women ignited a conversation about feminism's generation gap. (Photo: jewishwomensarchive/Flickr)

James' reflections, which came as part of a day-long conference called Seizing the Means of Reproduction, cast the image of "feminism embattled" back several decades. Neither the welfare rights movement nor the Wages for Housework campaign were popular within (what we've come to call mainstream) feminism of the day. Both understood that the work they did in the home as mothers and caretakers was deserving of a wage. "The women's movement said this would institutionalize us in the home," James explained, "and we said, haven't you noticed how institutionalized we are?"

By the time their organizing efforts under the slogan "every mother is a working mother" began to get traction, feminism had already moved on. Frances Fox Piven, author (with Richard Cloward) of Poor People's Movements, also spoke and recalled that "the 1970s liberalization of welfare, which the [welfare rights] movement had a lot do with," was led by women of color, "raising children on their own, facing multiple stigmas." Their gains, she said, "set in motion the effort to 'reform welfare,' which of course made it much worse." After President Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act into law 20 years ago this spring, Piven said, the number of families with children receiving welfare dropped dramatically: 4.5 million in 1996 under the old Aid to Families with Dependent Children program, down to 1.7 million in the new Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program in 2009, and they continue to fall. Piven was critical, too, of how little this story was covered. "It was a national calamity we did not see."

Piven and James both considered what would have been different, had the women's movement been powerful enough to block Clinton's campaign to "end welfare as we know it," as he promised voters leading up to his second run at the White House. What had happened since the '60s, after decades of politicizing women's work and women's worth? A measure of success, and then, the '80s: Reagan, Thatcher, and all they ushered in, including a few women. "Women took the women's movement to mean their progress up the capitalist ladder," James said. "Nothing has changed but the gender of those who exploit us."

Their perspective on the welfare and care work fight, as two women who witnessed it, also reminded me of Nation senior editor Sarah Leonard's observation on contemporary feminism: "It is absolutely possible to fight sexism at work, come home, and abuse the help."

Considering those earlier decades and taking a longer view, you can also see the labor involved in taking care of feminism. This hard work is done despite the delicate and brittle image we get. And it is work. How much time have we spent or been asked to spend repairing feminism, listening to its contradictions, protecting it? That work, too, has value, though it is done for little reward. Is it still surprising, then, that care work is also one of feminism’s fault lines?

No moment can kill feminism, even if some moments can re-entrench the kinds of feminism we already might want to part with.

One reason why care work remains contentious is the emphasis on "individual, privatized solutions," which became "the public face of feminism" as Premilla Nadasen, author of Household Workers Unite: The Untold Story of the African American Women Who Built a Movement, described this history in her own talk at Brown. "Feminist liberation of the middle class" as it is currently configured, she said, "depends on the exploitation of poorer women."

What's especially pressing about this moment, Nadasen said, is now "all labor is coming to resemble household labor." Call it what you want, but the "gig economy," the "on-demand economy," the dominance of service work means that all our work is trending toward the work formerly known as women's work. This is our new reality, and it is more likely than many more of us ascending into traditional "male" positions of power. We've been told we'll rise up together, that women will break barriers for each other, that our not-being-like-men means we won't stand in each other's way. That hasn't worked, and now we can see: The glass ceiling is also a mirror, and it is made of the reflections of other women.

It’s tempting to give "older" women the blame for the "gap," the "schism," to say they are holding onto something so over for feminism, boring fights and dated language and all. For some older women (and how old?), that is likely true! There are also younger feminists whose primary concern with care work isn't how to restore its value, but how to get women's (presumed male) partners to pitch in (and then debate if it's OK to regard it as "choreplay"). What they have in common with their elders is a tendency to regard issues of economic inequality as separable from the politics of gender. What these feminists are really holding onto is power, or what power they have. They will continue to do that, no matter what words they use, or what evolution they say they've arrived at.

That power includes what you get by getting your story told. There's a reason we more easily remember abortion, not welfare; why we still look to the Manhattan blocks where media is made for evidence of feminist existence. By the time the word "feminism" crossed my lips sometime in the 1990s, it had been expressed to me as a problem, two-fold: The real struggle was over and also young women like me, we wanted too much and we wanted it wrong. That wasn't even Pat Robertson talking, either: He at least still thought feminists were powerful socialist witches.

The good news is there is no neat ending here. No moment can kill feminism, even if some moments can re-entrench the kinds of feminism we already might want to part with. I know a big death-blow, especially from the ungrateful youth, makes for a good story. But it neglects the feminists who keep showing up even when the cameras don't (free story idea: Maybe feminism really is like Manhattan: always way cooler when you were younger, and now what's with all these rich people?) and right now, neglect is the invisible part of the feminist story I keep coming back to. It's the reverse of valuing care. It's how we get the erasures that hand the victories to the few and how, without challenge, will elevate even fewer. Resistance, too, is about care.