What Michael Moore’s Tweet Gets Wrong About Women And Feminism

By Jessie Daniels

Over the weekend, in an attempt to support Hillary and display his liberal ideology, Michael Moore tweeted:

His tweet has thousands of people retweeting it — but it’s wrong about women and wrong about feminism.

I’ve always been a fan of Michael Moore’s documentary films that side-eye American capitalism, but his recent embrace of what he imagines to be feminism in support of Hillary Clinton’s campaign is cringe-worthy. For one thing, Moore simply has the facts wrong about women. There were women involved in the Manhattan Project and the development of the atomic bomb. Women like Carolyn Phillips and the Society of Women Engineers built smokestacks. Women are just as capable of leading a genocide as men. Women can and do organize mass killings. And, from what the climate science tells us, the melting of the polar ice caps is not a gender-based issue, but is on all of us.

Moore’s understanding of gender is muddled by a culture that glorifies toxic masculinity. Sure, there is a culture of masculinity in politics and in the culture of mass shootings, and in plenty of other places that are harmful to living things. But it’s facile to leap from the destructiveness of toxic masculinity to a claim that women “never” participated in any violence or destruction. Moore’s claim mistakes the erasure of women’s accomplishments, even in dubious pursuits, for innate virtue.

Underlying this problem are two additional ones. First, the notion that women are inherently gentler, kinder, more peaceful, and loving than men is itself a form of sexism. And second, this notion is rooted in a history of racism.

What The Suffragists Got Wrong

Early suffragists in the U.S. fought for the vote because they assumed that women would vote as a block. Clearly, they argued, the world was a mess; men had created too many wars. It seemed reasonable to suffragists like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton that more women going to the polls would offset the war-mongering votes of men. Here is Anthony writing about Stanton: “[Elizabeth Cady Stanton] argued that not another man should be enfranchised until enough women are admitted to the polls to outweigh those already there.”

But once the 19th Amendment passed and (white) women got the right to vote, it turned out that gender was not a very good predictor of how women voted. Instead, class and race were what mattered most. White, middle-class women tended to vote in the same ways, for the same candidates, and for the same issues as their white, middle-class husbands on presidential candidates and later, on issues like civil rights legislation and school desegregation. Research has shown again and again that class and race are more reliable predictors of voting behavior than gender. In other words, women respond to economic and racial issues in much the same ways as men do.

The idea that “women” as a category are inherently more loving, kind, and peaceful is what is known in philosophy as essentialism. Essentialist feminism is what the suffragists were abiding by — and history has shown that it’s a flawed philosophy. Philosopher Elizabeth Spelman wrote a fabulous book critiquing the idea of essentialism. In it, Spelman questions whether or not “woman” is a sufficiently cohesive subject position from which to launch a social movement.

In other words, do we care about our identity as “women” enough to get excited about it? But this question is itself dangerously incomplete. Before we can talk about the essential nature of “women,” we must establish: Which women are we talking about?

The Role Of Racism

When the suffragists said “women,” they meant white women.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton — in the next breath after saying that “not another man should be enfranchised” — made clear which men she meant: “She did not believe in allowing ignorant Negroes and foreigners to make laws for her to obey.” And in the years after the 19th Amendment passed, many black women were disenfranchised from voting via racist state laws.

Before then and since then, notions of “kind and gentle” womanhood have been almost exclusively applied to white women — a notion that’s not only rooted in racist beliefs, but has actively perpetuated racism. The idea of a “virtuous” white womanhood was central to lynching; black men were systematically killed by the thousands in the U.S. because of the mythology of a “virtuous” white woman who had supposedly been attacked by a Black man. This is a central American myth that runs through our culture, from D.W. Griffith’s film, Birth of a Nation, to the wrongful arrest and prosecution of the young boys known as the “Central Park 5.”

In addition to being racist, this application of the “gentle and more peaceful” role to white women is not actually accurate. In fact, white women — the ones suffragists believed would vote more progressively — tend to vote more conservatively.

1920s women's suffrage postcard illustration of white woman (Source: Library of Congress)
1920s women’s suffrage postcard illustration of white woman (Source: Library of Congress)

In the 2012 election, Romney got 56% of white women’s votes. In 2008, McCain got 53% and in 2004, Bush got 55%. And, while there has been a lot of reporting this election cycle about “angry white men,” a poll from January 2016 revealed that white women are the angriest demographic. Among white women surveyed, 58% said they were angrier than they were a year ago, compared to only 51% of white men saying the same thing, and only 44% of non-white women and 32% of non-white men. This may explain why white women have not easily coalesced into support for Hillary Clinton. As recently as June of this year, Clinton was losing ground among white women voters, the one demographic that it might make sense for her to win over easily, if one were to subscribe to essentialist ideas about women.

A GOP nominee who continues to push against the limits of decorum and assault has, of course, complicated this, creating dilemmas for white women who generally vote Republican and prompting leaders of the Republican party to scramble to try and preserve this key demographic. As law professor Dorothy Brown recently observed: “It is virtually impossible for Trump to win without a strong majority of white women’s votes. Down-ballot and other Republicans cannot win elections without white women going to the polls and casting Republican ballots. Republicans are alive to this — they get it.”

But the fact remains that — contrary to Moore’s tweet about how “women” behave — white women tend to vote with a political party that supports amped-up national security measures, denies the influence of climate change, and opposes gun control. Conversely, as has historically been the case, and has been particularly true in this election cycle involving an openly racist candidate, minority groups are voting predominantly Democrat; in fact, black women are looking to be the least likely of all groups to vote Republican.

Moore’s tweet — like his new film, Trumpland — is meant as a show of support for candidate Hillary Clinton. But ultimately, it invokes a notion of monolithic feminism that has ties to misogyny and racism, and which is not rooted in fact.

The thought of a Trump presidency terrifies me, as it should everyone who cares about democracy or other human beings. But that said, I know that it is not white women who will save us from a Trump presidency — and neither will an essentialist “women have never . . . ” version of feminism.

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Lead image: Wikimedia Commons

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