Valenti’s Accidental Truth
“Amassing professional power at the expense of other women isn’t feminism — it’s self-interest.”
Jessica Valenti, normally of The Guardian, has published an article in the New York Times, The Myth of Conservative Feminism in which she re-ups an argument she has been making for a few years: feminism is not a movement for all women but for certain women. To all of the everyday feminists who say, “feminism is just about equality for women” or letting women choose their own path, Valenti says that you are wrong. You need permission from feminists like her to claim the term.
From her more specific list of feminist rules back in 2014, when she seems to have recognized the threat to elite feminists, When Everyone is a Feminist, Is Anyone?:
So once and for all: Can you be an anti-choice feminist? No. A Republican feminist? Unlikely. A feminist who thinks that the issues of importance to women of color or gay women or trans women or disabled women aren’t “feminist issues”? To quote Flavia Dzodan, “My feminism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit” — and I’m not interested in bullshit.
Feminism is a movement for gender justice — for social, political and economic equality of all women — and one that recognizes the complexity of women’s identities and the intersection of oppressions. It can’t be negotiated otherwise.
As suggested by its top billing in her list, abortion continues to be a — or the — major sticking point between left-wing feminists and the women they claim to be acting on behalf of. But it is not the only area where the feminism’s elite have butted heads with the common woman. Many things prominent modern feminists have done has not been popular or very supportive of women in general. Which is why we are here, at this moment.
The movement became unpopular for it’s strict rules. This happened early, after the Second Wave. By the 80's “I’m not a feminist but…” statements were seen in magazines and interviews. Thus, some feminists talked about the movement being more open. They touted women’s “choice,” not just in the abortion sense, but in how to live their lives.
Valenti worries that the movement became too open in an effort to increase popularity. She owns some responsibility for this. Look back to 2014, a few months before Valenti worried about feminism being too open in the “is anyone” article. It was the year that Beyonce performed at the Video Music Awards against a “FEMINIST” set.
Beyonce’s performance was muzzled, splayed, headless, and otherwise sexually submissive — but it had “feminist” “literally in bright lights,” which enthralled Valenti at The Guardian. She loved celebrities claiming the title. Then, after making a rather stunning argument that the problem with Taylor Swift’s understanding of feminism isn’t the objectifying nature of twerking, but that Swift stole the dance moves of women of color, as in, women of color are the ones who twerk, she called for feminism to be a fight for social justice for all groups.
In a reply back then, I explained some problems with her strategy. Change will not be accomplished by using entertainers as homing beacons for would-be cool kids to fill out the feminist ranks. Cultural revolutions are accomplished by a few leaders with a commitment, not masses of people following the herd. Furthermore, Valenti misjudged cool:
Feminism is no longer “the f-word”, it’s the realm of cool kids: Beyoncé, Lena Dunham, Amy Poehler, Kerry Washington and Joseph Gordon-Levitt all call themselves feminists. And just this week, after years of equivocating, Taylor Swift came out as a feminist.
Surveys come out with some regularity, reporting numbers ranging from about 60–75% of respondents refusing to ID as feminists, and Valenti got excited that Joseph Gordon-Levitt claims the term? These are the cool stars she hopes will lead newly swollen ranks of feminist followers on to social justice?
Right. They are using what little credibility the term has to increase their own sales.
Beyonce is beautiful and selling it while she’s got it. Lena Dunham? By the ratings, Girls was a dud, held afloat by fawning media, which was fawning because the show claimed to be feminist — even while it was ugly. If that is feminism — I don’t want it for me or my daughters. Wavering latecomer Taylor Swift used the term as a boost, too. Based on the news coming out of her consumer products and her record sales, her popularity seemed to have peaked, and so her PR team probably thought that having Swift call herself a feminist would give her a reboost. It was professional opportunism, and we can argue about whether it helped Swift or not, but it did not help the feminist status quo any more than Beyonce selling albums by singing about bondage or blow jobs did.
Hollywood stars’ claim of feminism didn’t bolster feminism. It further confused it. Radical, pro-sex, domestic — if you tried to Venn diagram modern feminism, you’d end up with a chart that looked like a nonsensical mashup of surrealism and pointillism. It has no consistent usage, no consistent practice. It means whatever the speaker wants it to mean. Feminism isn’t just dying from waning popularity, but from a lack of meaning. And “Feminist” “literally in bright lights” won’t fix that.
Plus, Valenti says things that do not remind people of the things she expects. Take this statement from the NYT article:
Amassing professional power at the expense of other women isn’t feminism — it’s self-interest.
Valenti seems to lean toward political power when she says professional power, with her examples of Gina Haspel at CIA chief and Suzanne Scott at FoxNews (and again Nikki Haley does not get a mention). What comes through is Valenti’s attempt to say that high-achieving conservative women can’t be feminist, which ends up slandering the feminist status quo because that is a very broad catagory and because elite feminists come off, accurately, as all about preserving their professional power.
She unintentionally nails the truth: amassing professional power at the expense of other women — like trashing mothers at the office, quietly killing family-friendly work arrangements, sacrificing our children, shaming women for their choices including education, or sustaining cliche parenting assumptions — isn’t feminist.
The Tyranny of the Queen Bee
Women who reached positions of power were supposed to be mentors to those who followed, writes Peggy Drexler-but…
And this is the ultimate problem for Valenti and the rest of the elite feminists: while the broad reading of feminism is muddled and meaningless, their narrow reading of feminism is simply not popular enough to amass the necessary power to affect change. While the doctrines of elite feminism — abortion and an equality of sameness — are not broadly popular, equal opportunity and freedom to choose, are. The right to define the term “feminism’ will belong to the women who act for equal opportunity and freedom to choose. And there are more of us than there are of them.
Part of this article is adaped from a response I wrote to Valenti’s 2014 article about Beyonce, which appeared in PJMedia in the fall of 2014.