Women’s issues aren’t just ‘identity politics’

hillary_clinton_at_womens_leadership_forum

The post-election blame game is still in full swing: Who fucked up? Who can we hate? Who can we blame? Who let this happen? Its latest iteration is the charge that Hillary Clinton focused too much on “identity politics.” We’re told she alienated white working class voters by talking too much about race and sex, rather than in broad economic terms alone. Clinton’s very existence as a woman is framed as identity politics in and of itself, as this made her a “diversity candidate,” rather than, one presumes, simply a “normal” candidate (i.e. a man).

Characterized in this way, “identity politics” represent a form of political unsophistication — an easy way for people who are too dull or lazy to actually focus on the issues to make a decision by voting based on their identity. Susan Sarandon proudly declared she was above all this, stating, “I don’t vote with my vagina.”

A widely-shared article at Talking Points Memo, “Sanders Urges Supporters: Ditch Identity Politics and Embrace The Working Class,” quotes Bernie Sanders saying, “It is not good enough for somebody to say I’m a woman, vote for me.” In this controversial speech in Boston last Sunday, Sanders suggests that, while diversity in government is needed, it cannot replace focus on championing the working class as a whole.

In an op-ed at the New York Times, Mark Lilla claims Clinton made a “strategic mistake” in “calling out explicitly to African-American, Latino, LGBT, and women voters at every stop.” He argues this move caused white working class voters to feel “excluded,” which allowed Trump to win. Lilla warns, “If you are going to mention groups in America, you had better mention all of them.”

I’m not sure how a political candidate is supposed to mention all groups at all times, as they can only focus on so many issues per speech. Lilla’s argument relies on the idea that discussing these social groups appeals to “identity,” rather than political issues. Speaking purely in economic terms is thereby presented as serious and respectable politics, while speaking about social problems in terms of racism, sexism, xenophobia, etc. is framed as simply a shallow appeal to certain groups. “Identity politics,” used in this way, mostly serves to position issues not affecting white males as having less political importance. Unfortunately, within the Democratic Party’s post-election soul searching, the term has exploded in usage.

In an interview with men’s magazine GQ, Sanders made similar comments to his Boston speech, saying, “You can’t run a campaign — you can’t run a party — based on… racism, sexism, homophobia. You need to stand for something!” It’s funny how the interests of men always count as something, while the interests of women are just a bunch of hoo-ha, framed as self-obsession.

But being female is not simply “identity” —  it is a material and political reality. In fact, it is one of the most fundamental political realities informing the social organization of this world.

There are no headlines reading, “Sanders appeals to Walmart worker identity in speech denouncing the corporation’s corruption.” Yet Clinton is charged with baiting Latinos via “identity politics” by discussing her plan for immigration reform.

Rather than pointing out how reductive and belittling this is, many liberal publications have reacted to Lilla’s op-ed and Sanders’ comments by defending identity politics — claiming that all politics are identity politics or that Trump’s campaign was merely white identity politics.

However, Trump’s campaign strategy was not just an appeal to this demographic, but rather a leveraging of a culture war that has been steadily intensifying between the American conservatives and liberals. As Michelle Goldberg describes it in Slate, his supporters “opted for the politics of cultural revenge delivered by a billionaire in a gold-plated airplane.”

Lilla points to the contemporary gender identity movement as a prominent point of resentment of the liberal establishment. He writes:

“How to explain to the average voter the supposed moral urgency of giving college students the right to choose the designated gender pronouns to be used when addressing them? How not to laugh along with those voters at the story of a University of Michigan prankster who wrote in ‘His Majesty’?”

Lilla is not alone in this assessment. On Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update Colin Jost joked:

“The dating app Tinder announced a new feature this week which gives users 37 new gender identity options. It’s called ‘Why Democrats Lost The Election.’”

Goldberg writes that she “will not mourn the more illiberal aspects of social justice politics,” making a thinly veiled reference to the way gender identity dominates campus ideology, rejecting free speech in the process. She adds, “Maybe Everyday Feminism, the website that encompasses everything insufferable about social justice culture, will finally be revealed as an elaborate right-wing psy-ops campaign.”

The contemporary gender identity movement is perhaps the ideology most worthy of the “identity politics” label, as it’s entirely based on the valorization of the non-material self-identifications of individuals. Chillingly, Lilla suggests that the current focus on self-identity led, in part, to the surge in American white nationalism/white supremacism we are now witnessing. Lilla’s essay seems to have hit a nerve, and evoked a huge response, indicating there is truth in his arguments.

But ultimately, Lilla ends up adopting the liberal “obsession” he denounces by reducing politics focused on systemic issues like racism and sexism to little more than personal identities. He draws a direct line from feminist, anti-racist efforts to what he describes as the “narcissistically unaware” liberal youth and the “campus craziness” of gender identity politics mocked by Fox News and other conservative media outlets. This flattens out the contours of the conservative vs. liberal culture war, by lumping the old conservative opposition to women and minorities in with the very new regime of gender identity and its demands of political correctness.

This conflation blames women for “identity liberalism,” by suggesting that our focus on sexism turned out to be just a slippery slope toward the dizzying pantheon of “PC” identities (such as those officially recognized and protected by the City of New York: “androgyne,” “gender gifted,” and “gender blender”), which served to alienate many voters and aid Trump in winning. Like Sanders, Lilla characterizes women’s issues as “narrow” appeals to identity and “diversity,” and argues that a “post-identity liberalism” should instead appeal to “Americans as Americans.” The message to liberal women is basically: “Take one for the team and shut up.”

One would think being half of the damn population would make us more than some minor, divisive concern.

Women’s issues have been labelled “identity politics” for decades in order to belittle the feminist cause as politically unsubstantial/unimportant. In fact, the term first became prominent in American academia during its anti-Marxist ’80s in order to describe women as a fragmented group of individuals, rather than a class of persons with common class interests. Sadly, leftists have responded to Lilla’s critique by defending identity politics as if there is no other way to address issues like racism and sexism. But no matter how male politicians, leftists, and academics try to minimize our movement, writing women’s oppression off as frivolous, we know feminism is about much more than “identity” — this is a global political uprising.

Susan Cox
Susan Cox

Susan Cox is a feminist writer and academic living in the United States. She teaches in Philosophy.

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  • True dat.

  • Men vote for other men because of their gender all the time. We just don’t call it that… we understand that as “oh, he is just like me” or “he is relatable”…

    When women express that we identify with a female candidate or if we were to vote for a female candidate because we understand the context and double standards women face, we are accused of voting with our vaginas. If we do not vote for a female candidate, then this is held as proof of our “internalized misogyny” and people say that we don’t care about other women.

    Either way, women can’t win. Moral of the story: women were never meant to be part of the political process to begin with and any decision that we make will be penalized accordingly.

    Also, I think is rich that Bernie Sanders is implying that Hillary wanted people to vote for her because she is a woman when her entire career is just decade after decade of her trying to be a “normal” politician and the political process just beating the shit out of her with double standards and gendered expectations. Someone once said to me, “oh in 2008 she didn’t talk about her gender at all and now she talks about being a woman all the time”… like, yeah! That’s what happens to women. We are told that the playing field is fair then you begin to get penalized because you are a woman whether you want to admit it or own it or not. Hillary probably realized that the gendered expectations and double standards were there either way so she might as well talk about it openly… yet that was also criticized.

    Equally rich that Bernie Sanders is on this crusade now when towards the end of his campaign, they tried to argue that “his candidacy would also make history because he is Jewish” AND that this is coming from a man whose campaign was plagued with sexism, paternalism and misogyny. It *was* Bernie supporters who implied that Hillary was a “democratic corporate whore” and who threw dollar bills at the first major female candidate.

    BUT EVEN RICHER, that it took him literally months to deign Hillary worthy of his support and to get it, she had to make all sorts of concessions and compromises. It’s almost like him and his supporters wanted her to grovel for it (I wonder why that is?!) but it took him less than 12 hours to say he was willing to work and collaborate with the xenophobic, misogynistic, white supremacist lunatic *once and because* he now has power.

    What I am saying is, I’ve had it with Bernie Sanders and I cannot believe I was ever so sympathetic to a candidate who is so casual with his misogyny.

    Oh! And this is a really fantastic piece Susan, thank you so much for writing it! 🙂

    • Liz

      re: the required concessions and compromises…why that was just plain strategery, he was bravely pushing the Democratic party to the left! :eyeroll:

      seriously though I had Bernie’s number since one of the primary debates when he spat out “excuse me, I’m speaking” at Hillary Clinton. Dude’s a misogynist, and a big ol’ white knight…he’s loving this “savior of the democratic party” coverage.

      I would say “goodbye, Bernie!” but I’ve been horrified to see all the creepy-crawlies I thought were gone for good come squirming out to vamp for positions in Trump’s administration.

    • Wren

      TRUTH!! Honestly, I never liked Bernie because I come from the north country and lived in Vermont for a while. The holy trinity of the “urban” areas of Vermont is Phish, Bernie, and Ben and Jerry’s. God forbid you don’t like one or all. Bernie garnered cult-like worship even then from progressive dudes but seemed like an arrogant prick. And this election proved it.

      • fxduffy

        I can tell you’re no longer living in VT. And yeah not really “urban” anywhere in VT. Perhaps more than any other state, Vt stops at its border–thankfully, their “holy trinity” doesn’t make it across, except of course when one of them is opposing a woman for President.

    • Anthocerotopsida

      Amen!

    • lagattamontral

      You seem fine with US imperialism and warmongering though, although it would impact women in places like Latin American more than anyone else.

  • fxduffy

    It seems to me that racism and sexism only became rather dominating factors (not exactly issues at all) because Trump intentionally exposed himself as a racist, and perhaps unintentionally exposed himself as a sexist. In the circus atmosphere he orchestrated, all that his opponents could do is scream bigot and misogynist.

    As to term “identity politics,” it’s no coincidence that it was coined at the very moment that feminism’s second wave was cresting, and that its intent was to diminish its momentum. It has since been used in a multiplicity of ways, many of them obscure, to either trivialize or simply cast doubt on the “limited” organizational politics of a range of oppressed groups.

    Sometimes it’s used almost the way “liberal” or “bourgeois” were once used–that is, to show the distinction between the left and the center. Other times, it seems to be used like the term “cultural feminism” is, to trivialize and split feminism.

    In any case, when the accusation of “identity politics” is used against women or Blacks, the left/progressive is really going off the deep end, and undercutting its own posture of political inclusiveness. But thanks to postmodernism, which feeds in so well with this latest version of the left, it can cling to its lefty persona despite its shrinking base and elite male leadership.

  • Witch

    White men just want everyone to shut up and help “liberate” them from other, more powerful, white men.

  • Rebel13

    So true. And also, there are almost NO media outlets that have any leg to stand on in critiquing the problems with gender ideology because they have all been sucking down and spewing back the transactivist koolaid for years.

  • rosearan

    I have a lot of problems with the premise of this article.

    I have gone head-to-head on leftist blogsites with arguments that feminists don’t care about the impoverished women who can’t put food on their table, or that feminists don’t care about the women who are the victims of US bombing campaigns to effect regime change. I’ve gone head-to-head with right wingers who claim that feminists are cynical opportunists, who make money or gain political mileage out of demonising men.

    Yet, to use Hillary Clinton as a benchmark for latent misogyny in people’s political choices is a deeply flawed argument. A lot of feminists do not support Clinton for reasons that go way beyond feminism and their arguments should be respected.

    • susannunes

      No woman can call her a feminist and not support Clinton. Period. Jill Stein is a ditz, and she doesn’t count as a legitimate alternative.

      • lagattamontral

        Calling a progressive woman a ditz is deeply sexist.

        I don’t live in the US, so the fact that I don’t support imperialist warmongers like Clinton is irrelevant (obviously I think that Trump, who is also a racist, a misogynist and probably a rapist as well as the negatives he shares with Clinton, is even worse). I have been a feminist for at least 40 years. Don’t you dare say I’m not because I’m anticapitalist and ecosocialist. I’ve been involved in many feminist struggles in Québec, and support to international feminist encounters.

        • lutrislutris

          Not voting for Clinton is supporting Trump. This is just basic arithmetic.

    • Susan Cox

      What exactly do you think the “premise of this article” is? Where do I talk about Clinton being a benchmark for misogyny? This is an article outlining how the concept of “identity politics” is being used in the post-election blame game.

  • Meghan Murphy

    [This is a complete aside — I just wanted to let you know I tried to respond to your email but it bounced back 🙁 Just didn’t want ya to think I was ignoring you 🙂 ]

    • shy virago

      Thank you 🙂

      • Meghan Murphy

        Thank you for your kind email!

  • cday881@gmail.com

    The ideal will not be realised until the words ruling class, working class, man and woman become meaningless (or purely descriptive of biological sex)

    So women’s biological sex has little to do with their oppression?

  • rosearan

    I assume you mean ‘Excuse me, I’m talking now’.

    I clearly remember Jill Stein on a YouTube video saying to a couple of female Fox anchors (and I paraphrase): ‘You’ve asked me for this interview, so just let me speak.’ Surprisingly, the anchors quickly shut up.

    MSM anchors are notorious for butting in and overtalking. It’s all part of their brief to jangle and disorient any interviewee that does not toe the establishment line. Jill Stein is very savvy to this.

    Perhaps those female Fox anchors innately respected a woman who had the courage and confidence to put them in their place.

    More and more women are moving into the MSM media. Many, of course, are corrupted by the system. But just the fact that they are there is significant. Because of female MSM journalists, narratives about DV, rape, pornography, prostitution and so-called women’s rights are no longer being told from patriarchal perspectives (i.e. It’s up to us good men to protect women from bad men).

    So, let’s keep shouting to those who butt in and overtalk us: ‘Excuse me. I’m talking now.’

  • susannunes

    Sanders has a history of misogynist attitudes. Look it up. A leopard doesn’t change his spots.

  • shy virago

    Hi Rosearan,

    I wish it were as easy as you write. Clinton would have payed a big price to have interrupted Sanders, Trump or any man like that. Men have the cultural ‘right’ to silence women and it doesn’t work the other way around. If Clinton were being interviewed alone, it would have been different. Women have to play by different rules, and as this ‘election’ showed: as below, so above….

    • Wren

      Men constantly interrupt me to tell me what they think I should think or how they know better or how I should listen to their expertise or just to play devils advocate or for no fucking reason other than to stop me from saying intelligent things that they can’t keep up with. Then when I prevent them from hijacking the conversation they get angry at me for interrupting them. I fucking hate it more than anything.

  • cday881@gmail.com

    But the possession of a vagina and the capacity to bear children leaves women open to oppression.

  • A.E.M.

    I think there’s a more nuanced version of the “identity politics” critique that we should take seriously. Contemporary identity politics often won’t adjudicate claims of harm according to anything but identity groups–by its lights, whitewashed Asian roles in Marvel movies are more worthy of attention than the heroin epidemic among white males. This tendency fails to recognize that some harms are worse than others.

    Given this, I understand at least one strand of the current backlash against identity politics as a rejection of many progressives’ refusal to grant that some of their concerns are less morally pressing than some concerns of white males. Not as a rejection of the legitimate complaints of oppressed minority groups.

  • Tired feminist

    I remember her literally saying “I hate Brazilians” on a thread in the earlier version of Feminist Current (which I can’t prove because I lost the thread, but I couldn’t make this shit up even if I wanted), now pretends to care about Latin America. I’m as angry as you are.

  • radwonka

    im going to write it properly since my comment was deleted:

    “Feminists” who use straw man, insults and defamations are no feminists.

  • Benjamin Hennessy

    She sold out working class people of all stripes, not just white workers. She focused too much on appealing to centrist business minded Republicans who might have been wary of Trump, yet only paid lip service to minorities and failed to demonstrate a complex understanding of the issues they uniquely face.

  • polina

    It is not, but it can be. Same with sex.

  • polina

    I think you didnt understand neither my comment nor the article.