The Slow-Cooked Sentence

White woman at the intersection

Rachael Conlin Levy

A sheet of paper taped to the door of the school promoted the formation of a feminist club for girls and boys. It was created in response to the election of Donald Trump, and its members met on the playground after school. I asked my 9-year-old son if he’d thought about going.

“What’s a feminist?” he asked.

Hmmm. This from a boy who’d walked in the Women’s March. I swallowed my disappointment (in myself), and explained that a feminist was someone who knew that women and men are equal. But in America, I said, people don’t treat each other fairly, and that’s why we marched.

“I’ll join that club,” he said.

Like many as of late, I’m trying to live my convictions. I know that my greatest influence is over the small and local — my children and my home. My son’s ignorance of the word “feminist,” yet his alignment with its definition, clarified this for me: As a mother, I had work to do.

Anticipation built in the days leading up to the Women’s March. I knitted pussyhats. I ordered foam poster board and giant Sharpies for the signs my family would carry. I packed a backpack with snacks and water. I wrote my cellphone number on the arm of my youngest in case he got lost. And I eagerly awaited the arrival of my oldest, who was at college but returning to march in her home city, Seattle.

My 18-year-old daughter’s critical embrace of feminism challenges me. Our conversations center on the expansion of and the need for feminism to include and prioritize the issues of marginalized women. My assumptions are questioned. My decisions reviewed. And on the morning of the march, my knitted hat rejected. She handed it back to me, explaining that she could no longer wear it after reading the opinions of transgender women who viewed it as divisive.

For me, the pussyhat was a political statement, a rejection of Trump’s predatory conversation about women, including the “grab ’em” statement that surfaced during his campaign. I knit my hat from hues of magenta, rose and crimson, and loved the power it represented. Fuck Trump, I thought, and fuck trans women who complain of being left out because they don’t have vaginas. Someone, long ago, tried to rape me because I have one. Now we’ve elected a sexual predator as president, a man who bragged about grabbing crotches. I pulled my hat low, shoved the extra into my backpack, and left for the march.

My daughter and I didn’t return to the issue. But in the days that followed, I read and reread an email from Fullfilling Parenthood coach Jenni Pertuset. She began this way:

If you’re not a white woman, forgive me for a minute while I use this newsletter to talk to those who are.

White women, many of us marched on Saturday to demand the world we want for our children. Most of us have come late to this fight, especially if we’re straight, able-bodied, and middle-class, and when we showed up, we may have disregarded other people’s children.

Are we turning out only when pussies are threatened?
Let’s fight alongside the trans and intersex and non-binary people whose bodies are on the line….

 Hmmm … Fuck Trump and fuck trans women. As a straight, white woman, I had work to do. I reached out to Pertuset and shared my response to my daughter’s objection to the pussyhat. Pertuset explained that what many viewed as playful and political was, for trans women, a symbol of a narrow definition of women based on biology. Her questions kept coming:

Are we relying on black and brown women to educate us?
Let’s pay people of color for their expertise when it’s shared.

Are we honoring suffragettes for winning the vote for white women?
Let’s stop singing their praises and acknowledge their white supremacy….

Pertuset further explained to me that objections had been raised over the hat’s pink color, which wasn’t a representation of the range of races. And in her newsletter, she challenged marchers to see whose fight we were joining.

Are we congratulating ourselves for a peaceful march?
Let’s examine the dress and demeanor of cops when the marchers aren’t mostly white women.

I applauded Pertuset’s newsletter for amplifying voices I’d ignored. Then I put it into action — reading and reacting to the news, calling legislators, listening to queer black feminist poetry, seeking viewpoints and new information that made me uncomfortable, (I might’ve even retweeted #reSister) — before a news analysis called it to a halt. Since when is being a woman a liberal cause? asked Susan Chira, gender issues editor at The New York Times.

The public face of resistance to President Trump began with a “women’s march.” An estimated three to five million turned out worldwide, brandishing signs like “Women’s Rights Are Not Up for Grabs” to deliver the message that to be a woman was to be against this president.

The leaders of these protests argue that women’s causes — abortion, contraception, economic equality, immigration, criminal justice — essentially demand liberal solutions. That leaves conservative women — those who support the president and those who don’t — out.

In Chira’s analysis of conservative women’s reaction to the march and the new feminist movement, she examined the challenge of bringing women who champion individualism to a cause built on unity through gender.

In my family are women whose life work embodies feminist concepts and women who are fierce advocates of free-market solutions and small government. In my family are women who’ve daily taken up feminist causes — cared for the sick, broken workplace barriers, survived sexual assault, battled drug addiction, protected our water, and built ladders to help themselves and others out of poverty — but not all chose to march with the millions. Is there a place for my family within feminism?

When Eleanor Smeal, head of the Feminist Majority Foundation, was asked if her organization planned to reach out to the 53 percent of white women who voted for Trump, she questioned the margin of error in the polls. “We don’t really know if we lost the majority or not, and I believe that we did not,” Smeal told The New York Times Magazine. ‘I think they’re with us.”

They’re with us. More American women (59 percent, up from 2012) call themselves feminists, according to a poll commissioned by the Feminist Majority Foundation taken Nov. 6-8, 2016. The number of men, like my young son, who’ve joined the club has risen to 33 percent.

But if feminism is to succeed, it must reframe itself in economic terms relevant to the working class, and consider conservative solutions to shared problems. Pro-woman policies in education, employment, health care and the judicial system benefit not only women, but also create stability for families as a whole, and raise the future standard of living for their children. Let’s look at the issue of paid maternity leave — which the majority agree is a good idea. (Of Republican voters, 55 percent support paid leave, as do two-thirds of the American public, according to economist Abby M. McCloskey.)

At the federal and local level, Democrats expand government employee benefits to include paid maternity leave, then held them up as an example to the private sector. And in some states, they’ve created new paid-leave programs funded with higher payroll taxes. On the Republican side, conservatives have proposed tax credits (for businesses who offer paid leave) to tax shelters for citizens (who put a portion of their paychecks into pregnancy savings accounts).

“There is another way: The government could provide a universal maternity-leave benefit, which would be of help mainly to new mothers whose employers do not offer paid leave,” McCloskey wrote in a National Review article. “But instead of paying for it through higher taxes or more federal debt, we could raise the money from reforming our existing social safety net.”

A conservative economist calls for maternity leave for all.

It makes political sense for feminist leaders to welcome the conservative whose pro-woman values manifest themselves in free-market solutions and small government. After all, most Independent women voters (63 percent) identify as feminists, and an overwhelming number of white women who voted for Trump have a problem with his treatment of women.

Feminism has 150 years of negotiating internal conflict. Our history includes suffragettes who believed in racism and classism, and second-wave feminists who refused to defend the rights of gays or blacks. Responding to single-issue feminism is today’s intersectional feminism, the crossroads where paths of poverty, crime and education meet those of race, gender and sex. The conservative woman should be invited to that intersection.

The New York Times Magazine reporter Amanda Hess wrote:

The white women of the left, many of whom are just now finding their footing as activists, have been eager to dissociate from that group. Mention the 53 percent (of white women voting for Trump), and they’re quick to tell you that they’re of the 47. But of all the people who marched on Washington last month, they may be among the best positioned to reach across that aisle.

The gesture might, like my daughter’s knitted pussyhat, be rebuffed, but I’ll extended it anyway, a rhetorical question inspired by Pertuset’s many:

Liberal white women, are we creating division and disdain for conservative white women because many supported Trump?

Let’s apologize for the condescension, then begin again. Let’s find places we intersect — a common goal, a shared worry — and move forward, for there is much work to do.

2 responses to “White woman at the intersection”

  1. Kyna says:

    Yes! Thanks for this. You, like Pertuset, provoke me to go further, think deeper, and keep marching.

  2. I’m glad for your companionship on this journey, Kyna.

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