Feminism Is Not Doomed

Michelle Goldberg has written a lot of commentaries I genuinely admire. This column is not among them.

For the last couple of years, feminism has been both ubiquitous and improbably glamorous, its pop culture currency symbolized by Beyoncé silhouetted before a giant glowing FEMINIST sign at the 2014 Video Music Awards. On television, women went from ornaments to protagonists, starring in a slew of raunchy comedies in which men were often afterthoughts. Feminist polemics became a staple of fashion magazines. Female college students demanded standards of sexual consent that were often unfathomable to their elders. In my little corner of Brooklyn, ambient feminism appeared to influence the way fashionable young women dressed. They wore oversized shirtdresses or loose wide-legged pants and chunky shoes, clothes for doing things rather than displaying oneself. Last year, the New York Times ran a trend piece about hip young women rejecting thongs in favor of comfortable underwear. Female masochism, it seemed, was falling out of style. …

This is not a fashion column. Whether “ambient feminism” was influencing women’s wear outside of Brooklyn I cannot say. After some more verbiage on women’s cultural triumphs in the Big Apple, Goldberg gets to her point.

For 25 years, after all, Clinton was reviled as a synecdoche for unseemly female ambition. That’s part of what made her candidacy so fraught. If she’d become president, it would have been in the teeth of widespread male opposition; even the models that showed her winning had her losing the majority of men. She proposed policies that would have increased women’s power and autonomy at every level of society: equal pay, paid family leave, subsidized child care, abortion rights. For all her manifold faults, her election would have both signified progress toward gender equality and made more such progress possible. Before Nov. 8, it looked as if the arc of history was bending toward women.

Trump’s victory has obliterated this narrative. In many ways it was a fluke; had a few thousand votes in a few Rust Belt states gone another way, we’d be talking about Clinton’s popular vote landslide and the decisive defeat of Trumpian reaction. However freakishly contingent his triumph, it forecloses the future feminists imagined at least for a long while. We’re going be blown backward so far that this irredeemably shitty year may someday look like a lost feminist golden age. The very idea that women are equal citizens, that barriers to their full human flourishing should be identified and removed, is now up for grabs. A pastor warming up the crowd at a post-election Trump rally in Louisiana promised that with Trump in office, the White House would be a place “where men know who men are, women know who women are.” The massive power of the American state is about to be marshaled to put women in their place.

The rest of the column is pretty much about how far backward feminism will be blown. It doesn’t look good for Roe v. Wade and reproductive rights generally, but for women in large parts of the country outside of Brooklyn that’s been true for the past few years. And right-wing clergymen have been calling for putting women in their place all along, as well. You don’t hear them much in Brooklyn, but they can be pretty loud elsewhere.

A synecdoche in Goldberg’s context means that Hillary Clinton was the embodiment of all uppity women. That was true in the 1990s, and it remains true in some right-wing enclaves, I’m sure.

But Hillary Clinton is not all women, uppity or otherwise. She is a particular woman with a particular history who has been in the worldwide public eye for about a quarter of a century now. To see rejection of her as a rejection of all possible women presidential candidates trivializes both feminism and Clinton, I say.

I would argue that if anyone was rendering Clinton into a synecdoche of anything, it is the upscale urban women who identify with her. But the 2016 presidential election was just plain not a referendum on feminism. I’m sorry, ambient Brooklyn feminists, but people out here in Not Brooklyn Land actually are concerned about other issues.

There’s that income inequality thing. You may remember hearing something about it during the primaries. An Economic Policy Institute study released this year said that income inequality in the U.S. has reached levels not seen since the late 1920s. That is a seriously bad thing that’s having a real impact in peoples’ lives.

The United States is now the most economically unequal nation of all Western nations. Americans have considerably less social mobility than Canada and Europe. (Source.) The Middle Class is shrinking just about everywhere in America. Most Americans are one paycheck away from living on the streets. White working class people are so stressed about this, their life expectancy is in decline.

One can argue, possibly truthfully, that whites are more stressed about their economic decline than nonwhites because they had further to fall. One definition of suffering is that it’s what’s found in the space between expectations and reality. That, however, doesn’t mean that their stress should be dismissed as a vestige of white privilege. Being one paycheck away from the streets doesn’t feel privileged.

There is all kinds of data telling us that the biggest change in voting patterns between 2012 and 2016 is found in the Rust Belt states. These are the places where, 50 years ago, a guy could graduate high school, get a union job at the local factory or steel mill, and enjoy both job security and a cushy middle-class lifestyle, complete with a home, the occasional new car, and trips to Disneyland for the family.

Those days are gone. People are very stressed about it. And neither party, to be honest, has done much to give people any hope that the future won’t be even bleaker.

Along comes the 2016 election. Trump, the narcissistic con man, went to the Rust Belt and told people what they wanted to hear. But Clinton barely talked to them, and if she addressed their particular concerns at all, they didn’t hear it.

And she lost their votes.

Feminism had little to do with it. I don’t doubt gender bias whittled some votes away from Clinton, but it wasn’t to blame for her collapse in the Rust Belt states. That was the economy, folks.

It was also class. Class inequality is real, and getting worse, in the U.S. And upscale urban liberals are oblivious to it.

The mistake many upscale urban liberals make is that they assume the bigots who leave comments on Facebook, or the violent dimwits who showed up at Trump rallies, are representative of all Trump voters. Yes, Trump tapped into a vein of bigotry, including misogyny. But data tell us that many people who voted for Trump acknowledged he was a jerk. They simply judged — wrongly, I believe — that he was the jerk who might actually do something to make their lives better.

So reflect on that over your chai lattes, ambient feminists.