What, exactly, has happened to feminism?
If Joanne Lipman's peculiar rant in yesterday's New York Times about why women should only blame themselves for the lack of gender equality in the so-called "post-feminist" world was not enough to inspire this question (see Historiann for extended commentary), read today's paper. A front-page story by Mark Leibovich features former Clintonista Dee Dee Myers wagging a finger at President Obama for playing sports with men. Forget it that a grown woman who calls herself Dee Dee, and whose job description seems to be pundit, is accusing the President of not taking female people seriously. Forget it that Dee Dee would know better than anyone that it is not always a good thing for the President to relax by playing with girls.
No, I am going to lay those issues aside and cut to the chase: who the President plays basketball with has nothing to do with key feminist issues like the right to choose, equal pay for equal work, violence, homelessness, child care, health care, social security, welfare or institutional discrimination.
That's right, you heard it here first. Back in the 1970s, feminists never really cared about whether the boys had a tree house or not, they cared about whether men were running the world and ruining women's lives from the tree house. Gender segregated social spaces, while they reinforced male privilege, were in fact only an effect and a fringe benefit of what virtually all men, of all social classes and political convictions, believed prior to women's liberation: that it was their natural, biological, divine and constitutional right to run the entire world and keep all the money, jobs, property, education and power for themselves. Men, as well as women, were encouraged to believe this by law, theology, psychiatry, and science. These fields were almost exclusively male because of schools that admitted almost no women; global churches that gave women no authority to interpret scripture; political parties that didn't promote women for public office; unions that didn't organize women or fight for their right to work; and corporations, universities, police forces, law firms, construction projects, brokerage houses, fire departments and hospitals that didn't hire women. Men hung onto their exclusive right to run the entire world until feminist politicians, attorneys and grass-roots activists (as well as male politicians who suddenly got it they could be elected by actually serving the interests of women voters) forced them to give it up by making gender discrimination illegal.
To return to the New York Times for a moment, what seems really sexist to me is the article itself. For narrative flow, Mark Leibovich relies on crude gender stereotypes of boyish boys who play sports and do guy-guy stuff; meanwhile the girly-girls at the White House plan showers and tea parties that the menz are excluded from. Describing Obama as a "an unabashed First Guy’s Guy," Leibovich notes that since he was elected the President "has demonstrated an encyclopedic knowledge of college hoops on ESPN, indulged a craving for weekend golf, expressed a preference for adopting a `big rambunctious dog' over a `girlie dog' and hoisted beer in a peacemaking effort."
Can I just say, Mark, that aside from the fact that they rarely get elected to anything, this would describe a lot of lesbians I know too? Or Sarah Palin?
OK, you might ask, what is Leibovich's take-away political point in this story? It is that "women" (the word feminism does not appear) will not trust the President to respect them or take their issues seriously because, when not with his wife and children, he socializes primarily with men. "While the senior adviser Valerie Jarrett is undeniably one of the president’s closest White House confidantes," he writes,
some women inside or close to the administration complain that Mr. Obama’s female advisers are not as visible as their male colleagues or, they suspect, as influential.
"Women are Obama’s base, and they don’t seem to have enough people who look like the base inside of their own inner circle,” said Dee Dee Myers, a former press secretary in the Clinton administration whose sister, Betsy, served as the Obama campaign’s chief operating officer.
Is the point of the story to remind us that Hilary Clinton is not President? Enquiring minds want to know.
For Myers, "looking like" -- or what I would call proxy politics -- would be an acceptable substitute for serious policy commitments that might promote women's rights and/or proof that they exist. But hold your horses, my friends! You might remember that Bill Clinton looked like a feminist, and he filled his administration with women. But as it turned out, he treated individual women badly (including his very intelligent and capable wife, now Obama's Secretary of State), and promoted economic policies that were bad for women around the world. Recently I made an argument that it was a strategic error to mistake the mere inclusion of "people who look like me" for intellectual and institutional transformation, but I've got to say, Valerie Jarrett and Dee Dee Myers sure don't look like me. If Obama hired Nan D. Hunter of Georgetown Law we could get closer to someone who "looks like me," but to really nail it you would have to go for....oh, a gas station attendant in a Cold War film noir.
But to get back to politics, women's liberation, as a movement, relied on structural critiques for its great successes, not social critiques or gender essentialism. The idea that men who are in the company of other men are inherently incapable of reaching conclusions that are good for women is not a correct feminist analysis, or a logical one unless you believe in universal male stupidity, and it gives a great many men a big pass for a long history of discrimination. Feminist history teaches that one can, theoretically, trust a president who is not, at all times, accompanied by a simulacrum of "me." Why? Because who the President plays basketball or golf with (and I've got to ask, I know I have bad knees, but how many women over 35 are actually competing to be bumped and stomped at lunch by a bunch of menz?) does not need to be an issue, as long as the President works effectively with people -- women and men -- who take gender equity in all spheres of life seriously.
Like much of what passes for the media's coverage of national politics, Leibovich's article masks social commentary as political news and by doing so, drowns the potential for a feminist agenda in symbolic issues and hurt feelings. In the 1970s, feminists like Ruth Bader Ginsburg of the ACLU understood that breaking the barriers that kept women off the basketball court and out of the policy-making room required lawsuits and legislation, not socializing. By turning feminist ideas into pragmatic political action, they changed laws and policies that prevented women from access to all forms of work and education. Gender-segregated social space became important to feminist attorneys, not in and of itself, but when it facilitated the exclusion of women from participating equally in work (holding business meetings at men's clubs), or when women paid equal dues for unequal access (private athletic clubs, where women were barred from swimming so that men could swim in the nude or restricted to tennis and golf reservations in non-working hours.)
True, men often countered challenges to exclusive social spaces and schools by waxing eloquent about the importance of male-only spaces to manhood itself, justifications that feminist attorneys countered by pointing to the critical role these spaces had in corporate decision-making and professional networking. So I admit that social space and political space do overlap, and if competent, willing female Congressional aides had been overlooked when Obama's people were picking golf and basketball companions (the article presents no evidence that this is the case, only that it might be) I would be a little pissed. But I would probably still care more about the President's position on DOMA, ENDA or the Helms Amendment. What is wrong with sex segregation is when the men involved actually believe that women are not in the room because they are less intelligent and capable, not that men (or women for that matter) might play some pick-up hoops in between a foreign policy meeting run by Hilary Clinton and a skull session on the health care bill run by Kathleen Sibelius.
What this article best illustrates, once again, is not a political problem, but a distressing standard for what counts as good journalism in what is purportedly one of the nation's finest newspapers. Other than the fact that I am sick of the New York Times pandering to its right-wing critics by criticizing the President for something -- anything! -- and pandering to the soft news market with human interest stories about politicians, I would like to point out that in this post-JFK, post-Clinton, post-John Edwards moment, this feminist Democrat sleeps better at night knowing that, when not with his family, Obama relaxes by playing competitive sports with the boys, and is not wasting political capital that might otherwise be spent on health coverage for women and children on schtupping interns, videographers and campaign volunteers. As a feminist, I think that this is not only better for "women," but for the United States, and perhaps the world.