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Radical or Liberal in 2017?

Raina Lipsitz
November 19, 2017


by Raina Lipsitz

from the Autumn 2017 issue of Jewish Currents

WHEN I WAS 17, I yearned for the “real” feminism of my mother’s era, the kind chronicled in Susan Brownmiller’s In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution, which came out in 2000, during my senior year of high school, and Robin Morgan’s 1970 anthology, Sisterhood is Powerful, which I devoured that same year. I remember admiring how committed those women were, how they wanted to change not only their own lives but the entire structure of society. They weren’t questioning their husbands’ gender politics, they were questioning marriage itself. They were too busy rejecting the male gaze to worry about body image.

Radicalism was out of fashion at my well-meaning, progressive high school, especially in the relatively peaceful and prosperous 1990s. My classmates, male and female, were feminists of the equal-opportunity variety: the girls wanted careers as well as families, and the (straight) boys expected to have wives who worked. But there weren’t more than a handful of students who were committed to radically restructuring society or rethinking gender.

As one of the majority of young people in this country who view socialism more favorably than capitalism, and one of the 13.2 million people who voted for Senator Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic primary, I am, by some standards, a radical. Most of my views are shared by other people my age and younger, but they are not universally popular: 52 percent of Americans overall express a favorable view of capitalism, while only 29 percent approve of socialism, according to a recent poll. So while radical politics may be newly ascendant, especially among young people, its adherents remain in the minority, especially on the left side of American politics, which is still dominated by moderate Democrats. Radicals have enjoyed more success on the right, where they’ve managed to install Tea Partiers in Congress and Trump in the White House. “Radical” is simply still not an identity many Americans claim, perhaps because pollsters tend to divide us up into three broad, un-nuanced groups: liberal, conservative, and centrist, or Democrat, Republican, and Independent. (A large minority of Americans opt out of electoral politics entirely; over 40 percent of Americans who are eligible to vote, don’t.)

A persistent theme of the 2016 presidential election was that liberals and the “alt-left” have more in common than they think. “The two Democratic presidential contenders were certainly at odds stylistically,” Newsweek intoned in early 2016. “But on Capitol Hill, Clinton and Sanders were not as different as they might appear.” Yet schisms surfaced during the campaign that can’t be tutted away by comparisons of Clinton’s and Sanders’ Senate voting records, and it’s insulting to claim that their differences were primarily stylistic. Sanders, Clinton, and their respective supporters have profoundly different views of history, how progress is made, and how politics works.

In her youth, Clinton was a proud “Goldwater Girl”; as an adult, she is a moderate Democrat. She has said that her political beliefs are “rooted in the conservatism that I was raised with.” (She has also described herself as a moderate centrist and a “progressive who likes to get things done.”) Sanders has described himself as a socialist and an Independent throughout his life. Where he favors social ownership and democratic control of the means of production, Clinton champions “clear-eyed capitalism,” small business, and Wall Street. Although Clinton has earned a reputation for obfuscation and backpedaling, she and Sanders have both been pretty clear about who they are and what they stand for.

Liberals and radicals — much broader and more complex categories than Sanders supporters and Clinton supporters — are similarly divergent. Liberals are generally fighting for a kinder, gentler society, one that protects and cares for all of its citizens, including Jews, Latinos, black people, LGBT people, and women. They think this can be achieved by electing smart, tolerant, well-meaning people who will champion reforms. They believe society can be changed most effectively via the systems, institutions, and tactics already in place: capitalism, the presidency, Congress, and the Supreme Court; running for office and getting out the vote. They admire Ruth Bader Ginsburg so much, they memed her as “the Notorious RBG” (a reference to a rapper known as the Notorious B.I.G.). And for the past several decades, their primary political goal has been to stave off the big bad wolf of the Christian right via the dubious tactic of electing Democrats.

Radicals — a big tent that now includes critics of neoliberalism, Sanders-style democratic socialists, antifa, communists, and anarchists, among others — want to change the fundamental structure of society. They would rather abolish the Supreme Court than fetishize Ginsburg. Their preferred tactics include collective pressure, grassroots mobilization, confrontational street protest, and, sometimes, violence. Wanting to restrain corporations, reform our criminal justice system, and guarantee equal opportunities for women, as many liberals do, is different from wanting to end capitalism, abolish prisons, and do away with gender, as many radicals do. Radicals have certainly made progress in shifting the debate — thanks to Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter, every politically aware person in America now knows about income inequality, the 1 percent, and anti-black police brutality; thanks to Sanders’ candidacy, the push for single-payer healthcare has been revitalized — but we haven’t yet ended racism or smashed the patriarchy. (These things take time! It’s hard enough to elect a Democrat.)

BOTH THE PRIMARY and the election were marked by a strong public will for change. This was certainly true among young voters. Even middle-class, college-educated young people today cannot take for granted what many of our parents could: secure jobs with comprehensive benefts; incomes that increase with age and experience; the financial security to buy a home and retire at 65; a planet that had stable seasons and a generally benevolent climate. We were joined in demanding change by people of all ages, including high school graduates uninterested in college, and retirement-age people who can’t afford to retire. According to a 2016 poll, 64 percent of American voters agreed with the statement, “The old way of doing things no longer works and we need radical change.” Ultimately, however, a distressingly large proportion of these voters slaked their desire for change by voting for Trump rather than for Sanders; that so many wanted radical change was more an indictment of the Democratic Party than proof of socialism’s appeal.

Economic uncertainty can also, in fact, dissuade people from radical activism. When my parents, who were born in 1953 and 1954, were my age (I was born in 1982), they knew people who quit their jobs and promptly found new ones, weeks or even days later. I don’t know anyone my age who has quit a job, but I know at least a dozen who’ve been laid off or fired. Those who have been out of work, including me, have gone long stretches without full-time employment. If you’re not sure you can quickly and easily find a new one, you’re much less likely to quit the job you have — and much likelier to keep controversial views to yourself. Corporate bromides notwithstanding, in an era of job insecurity and Twitter-based firing campaigns, it’s increasingly unwise to “bring your whole self” to work.

In spite of the risks, however, my peers are more radical, and more socialist, than most members of older generations, as evidenced by our strong support of Bernie Sanders and our widely noted preference for socialism over capitalism. In 2016, Sanders earned significantly more votes from people under age 30 than Clinton and Trump combined.

THAT REALITY gave rise to generational tensions among feminists. Throughout 2016, well-known baby-boom feminists supported Hillary Clinton and smeared her opponents as misogynists and self-hating man-pleasers. This had been presaged during the Clinton-Obama primary race of 2008, when feminist writer Robin Morgan denounced female Obama voters as “young women eager to win male approval by showing they’re not feminists” who “can’t identify with a woman candidate because she is unafraid of eeueweeeu yucky power” and “fear their boyfriends might look at them funny if they say something good about her.” In 2016, Gloria Steinem similarly suggested that young women were supporting Sanders in order to attract “boys” (she later apologized).

It is an irony of contemporary feminism that radicals like Morgan can now sound downright reactionary. I felt betrayed when I read her 2008 piece: Here was a feminist hero denigrating young women who disagreed with her. Morgan thought supporting Clinton because of her gender was a radical feminist act, but to me and other young feminist Obama voters I knew, that was reductive, short-sighted, and even, arguably, anti-feminist.

Morgan might argue that the larger betrayal came from my own generation. By the time I was growing up in the 1990s, feminism had shifted from flame-throwers like Morgan to riot grrrls (feminist stars of the underground punk scene) — and then to the Spice Girls. As punk singer Kathleen Hanna, widely credited with starting the riot-grrrl movement, said of the decade in which I came of age: “Ally McBeal was cool; feminism was not cool.” Even at my progressive high school, few of my classmates were interested in discussing gender; fewer, still, in violating gender norms. I remember telling a female friend I was rethinking shaving my armpits; she told me she wouldn’t be seen with me in public unless I shaved.

The anti-feminist backlash famously chronicled by writer Susan Faludi extended throughout my adolescence and early twenties. As a group, and especially in the realm of reproductive rights, women have been steadily shoved backwards since the 1980s (in other areas, such as representation in government and business, they are simply stagnating). Rightwing politicians bear most of the blame for this, but so do capitalism and corporate culture. As Faludi wrote in a 2014 essay for The Baffler, “the old internal struggle within the women’s movement between collective change and individual advancement got decided long ago in the American marketplace . . . Those endless late-1960s debates within the women’s movement —What should come first, the overthrow of capitalism or patriarchy? — seem as quaint and dust-covered as the horse and buggy.”

The bracingly radical feminism of the 1970s I longed for as a teenager has by now been almost entirely co-opted or abandoned. How many young women today refuse to shave their legs? How many really, truly don’t care whether or not men find them sexy? How many want to end monogamy? How many want to live in women-only, lesbian separatist communities (as I briefly, and, to those who know me now, hilariously, considered doing my senior year in college) — and how many such communities still exist? How many young women today have outright rejected the institution of marriage, rather than trying to reform it from within?

ITS TITLE notwithstanding, Jessa Crispin’s 2017 book, Why I Am Not A Feminist, is one of very few radical feminist texts written in the last decade. It’s a vibrant, funny read and a blistering attack on what Crispin sees as the dominant feminism of our time: co-opted, corrupt, corporatized, toothless, and universal to the point of insipidity, “a decade-long conversation about which television show is a good television show and which television show is a bad television show.” Crispin decries “a feminism that does not require changing the way you dress, think, or behave” and, by emphasizing opinion, personal narratives, and lifestyle over theory and fact, “tells young feminists that they do not have to study their own collective and intellectual history.”

She and other radicals want to restore feminism’s power. “Feminism was always a fringe culture, a small group of activists and radicals and weirdos who forced society to move toward them,” writes Crispin. “It was not an overwhelming majority of women who became suffragettes, chaining themselves to fences, going on hunger strikes, breaking windows and throwing bombs. The overwhelming majority of women either didn’t care or wished the others would stop making such a fuss . . . It was always a small number of radical, heavily invested women who did the hard work of dragging women’s position forward, usually through shocking acts and words.”

This view of feminism differs strikingly from that of self-described feminist and former First Daughter Chelsea Clinton, who penned a children’s book in May 2017 entitled She Persisted: 13 American Women Who Changed the World. Here is how Clinton describes the labor organizer Clara Lemlich: “After her family fled poverty and the threat of violence in Ukraine . . . Clara Lemlich got a new job working in a garment factory. She wrote that the factory’s conditions made women into machines, and so she persisted, organizing picket lines and strikes that ultimately helped win better pay, shorter hours, and safer working conditions for thousands of workers —both women and men.”

In a scathing open letter published on the Lilith blog, Haley Kossek took Clinton to task for sanitizing Lemlich’s portrayal. Lemlich, Kossek wrote, was no “plucky, non-ideological girl” spontaneously moved to strike, but a dedicated organizer and Communist who was arrested, beaten, and blacklisted for her radical activities and beliefs. She was also a Jew fleeing antisemitic pogroms, not a refugee escaping generic poverty and violence.

Crispin and Kossek are not alone in their contempt for today’s studiously non-threatening, calculatedly universal, market-friendly feminism. “We should all be a $710 feminist T-shirt,” sneered my fiance when he heard about Dior’s obscenely expensive “We should all be feminists” T-shirt. These trends didn’t emerge from nowhere; radical feminist bell hooks sounded the alarm in her 1984 book, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, in which she suggested that feminist struggle should be reaffirmed as a serious political commitment, not a lifestyle or a brand. To this end, hooks argued, we should say “I advocate feminism,” rather than “I am a feminist.” While I find her solution less than optimal from a linguistic perspective — “I advocate feminism” doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue — I share her point of view. What good is a movement without a serious political program? Women need rights, not affirming T-shirts.

In part by retreating from the demands of their radical sisters — including free universal childcare, free abortion without condition, and government wages for domestic labor — liberal feminists have achieved many important aims, at least at the legislative level. But what have American women gained from equality under the law (which, without the never-passed Equal Rights Amendment, we do not have)? Equal pay has been the law of the land since President Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act in 1963, and nearly half a century later, President Obama was hailed for signing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, which essentially gave victims of gender-based wage discrimination more time to sue. But would any major feminist organization today say that women in the U.S. receive equal pay for equal work? Similarly, Roe v. Wade granted women limited abortion rights. Yet the right to an abortion is restricted in every state, very heavily in some. Today, that right means very little to women who can’t afford to travel to a clinic, pay for, or, in some states, obtain permission for, an abortion.

THE DIFFERENCE between liberal and radical feminists lies in how far they are willing to go to demand justice for women — and which women, and which rights, they are willing to defend. These differences are neither minor nor meaningless. Arguments about goals and strategy are critical to any serious political movement.

One such argument surfaced around the time of the International Women’s Strike in March 2017, when Emily Shire, a politics editor at Bustle with whom I worked in 2016, wrote a New York Times op-ed bemoaning her sense of alienation from a feminist movement she sees as increasingly hostile to Zionism. “As a proud and outspoken feminist who champions reproductive rights, equal pay, increased female representation in all levels of government and policies to combat violence against women, I would like to feel there is a place for me in the [Women’s Strike],” she wrote. “However, as someone who is also a Zionist, I am not certain there is.”

Shire’s key objection was to the portion of the Strike platform that called for “decolonization of Palestine” and the dismantling of “all walls, from prison walls to border walls, from Mexico to Palestine.” Why, she asked, “should criticism of Israel be key to feminism in 2017?”

It’s a good question, even if you disagree with Shire’s conclusions, as I do. Decrying the oppression of Palestinians strikes me as a reasonable litmus test for membership in certain leftist activist circles, but less so for calling oneself a feminist. Yet some emerging young radical leaders beg to differ. Linda Sarsour, a Palestinian-American feminist activist who helped organize both the January 21st Women’s March and A Day Without a Woman (an action in support of the March 8th International Women’s Strike) — events I attended and found inspiring — responded to Shire’s op-ed in an interview with The Nation. “When you talk about feminism you’re talking about the rights of all women and their families to live in dignity, peace, and security,” Sarsour said, adding, “You either stand up for the rights of all women, including Palestinians, or none.”

In theory, I agree with Sarsour, whose politics are much closer to mine than Shire’s. Yet I wonder how practical it is to expect or demand a truly global feminist movement. Don’t “women’s issues” vary dramatically country by country? Is it my responsibility as a white Western woman to try to liberate my Saudi/Mexican/Nigerian/Palestinian sisters from what I perceive as their cultures’ dominant patriarchal values? Or am I, as a feminist, obligated to defend, or at least respect, certain cultural customs and traditions precisely because they are practiced and valued by other women? Is there such a thing as a universal feminist position on, say, wearing a headscarf?

Ultimately, I wonder if it’s okay for American feminists to be specifically, and perhaps even exclusively, concerned with the treatment of American women — or if, as Sarsour argues, today’s feminism demands a broad, international perspective? Toward the end of the Nation interview, Sarsour declares, “You can’t be a feminist in the United States and stand up for the rights of the American woman and then say that you don’t want to stand up for the rights of Palestinian women in Palestine.” That may be the definition of feminism favored by her, and it appears to be ascendant among some young activists today, including quite a few Jews. But it is neither widespread nor mainstream in the U.S. And it’s not very market-friendly: High-end fashion companies aren’t lining up to sell $710 T-shirts with pro-Palestinian slogans.

I share Sarsour’s outrage at the abuse of Palestinian women. But in the examples Sarsour cites in her Nation interview, such as the mistreatment of a Palestinian woman at an Israeli security checkpoint, the woman was targeted because she was Palestinian, not because she was a woman. The question thus becomes whether feminism as a movement is responsible for confronting all human rights abuses, as opposed to focusing on those which — like abortion access, rape, domestic violence, and sex trafficking — disproportionately affect women because they are women.

I don’t have all the answers, but I’m glad we’re asking these questions. Radicals and liberals have serious and substantive disagreements, many of which were laid bare during the 2016 campaign and its aftermath. We all believe a better world is both possible and desirable, but we seem to have a different sense of how much change we are willing to fight for, and how much we can actually achieve. These disagreements don’t need to be neutralized or even resolved; they need to be hashed out. The future of feminism and democracy itself depends on it.

Raina Lipsitz writes about gender, politics, and pop culture. Her work has appeared in Al Jazeera America, The, Bustle,, Kirkus Reviews, McSweeney’s, Mic, The Outline, and Salon.