The pitfalls of trying to get in with the male left

Continuing a longstanding tradition, Jacobin attempts to skewer radical feminism, but misses the point entirely.

Following in the tradition of Leftists Explaining Very Rationally That Women Are Doing It Wrong, Jacobin, America’s preeminent brocialist rag, published a piece by a graduate student named Erica West, detailing the failings of radical feminism. While no political movement (including radical feminism) is without flaws, in their desperation to take a watery dump on feminism, Jacobin chose to publish something ahistorical, manipulative, and mostly baseless, by a writer who appears to never have encountered an actual radical feminist in her life.

Namely, West blames feminists for the lack of solidarity between feminists and leftists, due to our being big meanies, our failure to prioritize their issues above those of females, in particular, our efforts to work with legislators to, uh, effect legislative change, and (the kicker) our confused class analysis. West writes:

“Plagued by a narrow understanding of gendered oppression and a misguided strategy for change, radical feminism ultimately fails to offer women a clear path to liberation.

These criticisms are odd to read in a publication that believes prostitution should be treated as a gender-neutral job (like any other) and applies the coded language of “moralism” to those who argue the sex trade itself is a product of a racist, capitalist, male supremacist world. Somehow, it’s only the political analysis of women that can be dismissed as a “moral uproar” or as some version of hysterical “pearl-clutching.” Similarly odd is the accusation that feminists don’t understand class, when it is leftists who refuse to apply their own analysis to the oppression of women, as a class of people. Our class analysis, which extends not only to capitalism (and white supremacy), but to patriarchy, is said to be “narrow,” while limiting that analysis to economics, one gathers, is “broad.” Half the world’s population is too marginal for leftists to consider, I suppose.

The first time I pitched an article to Jacobin, offering a feminist critique of prostitution, was in 2013. The editor expressed interest, but declined after consulting Peter Frase (who had written a piece helpfully explaining that “the issue with sex work is not the sex, [but] the work,” which I can only assume came as a great relief to every prostituted women living with PTSD, who could rest easy knowing their trauma was shared by baristas around the world) and Melissa Gira Grant (who argues that the greatest danger to women in prostitution is not the men who beat, rape, and kill them, but the laws that criminalize those men) who vetoed the thing.

No harm no foul. These aren’t our people, sisters. By then, my naivete at believing the American liberal-left would ever entertain feminist arguments against the sexual objectification of women with any integrity had pretty much come to an end. Indeed, this was one last test.

The left has abandoned women’s interests consistently since the dawn of feminism. Way back in 1830, working class women in France who were part of the Saint-Simonian socialist movement gave up on trying to work with their male comrades and organized a separatist movement. In the mid-1800s, male abolitionists consistently discouraged and even explicitly prevented women in the abolitionist movement from speaking out about women’s rights, claiming it was a diversion. The American radical feminist movement announced its departure from the New Left with a straightforward “fuck off,” having learned that no matter how much they supported male-led struggles, women were still going to be treated as sex objects, wives, and secretaries. This is not a new lesson. We try and continually fail in our efforts to ally with the left, because leftist men, for centuries, have shown us that our interests are unimportant — that we are unimportant.

In other words, radical feminists did not abandon the fight against capitalism, they abandoned the men who proved, time and time again, that their interest in revolution only extended as far as their dicks.

West argues that while radical feminists’ interest in fighting sexual violence is “admirable,” when women actually tried to do something to advance the fight, they went about it all wrong. Referencing Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon’s anti-pornography ordinance, which defined pornography as the “sexually explicit subordination of women,” West complains that the two feminists worked with some conservative politicians in an effort to pass the bill. But who, I wonder, are feminists to work with, if not politicians who have the power to pass bills? Should we consult with our “brothers” at Jacobin? Who would undoubtedly call us uptight cunts before going back to reviewing material for their Porn4Prisoners project?

In truth, Dworkin and MacKinnon worked with whomever they needed to — some of those people were Democrats, others were Republicans. And while West plucked what she hoped would be a damning quote from an op-ed by MacKinnon, published by the New York Times in 1990, she left out, quite literally, all the important bits. West writes:

“‘Among the many legislators with whom we have worked on the ordinance,’ MacKinnon enthused in a 1990 New York Times op-ed, ‘one is a political conservative. We were honored to work with her.’”

In fact, what MacKinnon wrote was:

“Among the many legislators with whom we have worked on the ordinance, one is a political conservative. She was selected by the Mayor of Indianapolis to get the bill passed. We were honored to work with her. The ordinance was originally sponsored in Minneapolis by a progressive white Republican woman and a black Democratic man. Wherever it is introduced, liberals and conservatives vote both for it and against it. If the right supported the ordinance, we would have a lot more resources, credibility, money and votes. We have found most conservatives far more uncomfortable with sex equality than with pornography.”

The ongoing myth, proliferated yet again by West, that radical feminists are “in bed” with the right only works if you are extremely lazy or dishonest to the core. Though MacKinnon said everything she could to dispel this particular slander, explaining, “Our ‘sin’ is in building a women’s politics that is as indifferent to left and right as pornography’s harm to women is,” West omits her words, adopting the narrative provided to her by her brethren.

What the left consistently ignores in their efforts to paint feminists as uptight, anti-sex, prudes, in cahoots with the right, is that their beloved pornography, their brothels, their cries to “Stay out of my bedroom, [mom]!” place them firmly in bed with the most committed capitalists and gun-toting, private property-loving libertarians, who promote privatization across the board and abhor state funded anything, whether it be health care, education, or day care.

West claims radical feminists got everything from class to the roots of women’s oppression wrong, chastising the movement for separating capitalism from patriarchy and for prioritizing the abolishment of gender. But feminists’ analysis of class as it pertains to women (that is to say, we believe women are oppressed as a class of people, by men, as a class of people) doesn’t mean we reject the notion of class oppression under capitalism. Indeed, radical feminists are continually baffled that, while so many leftists can comprehend the concept of class, in economic terms, they refuse to entertain the notion that other groups of people are also oppressed on a class basis. There can be more than one thing, and indeed, those things can be interconnected.

All that said, yes, feminists do prioritize the plight of women in their politics. Because if leftists can’t manage to address misogyny in their own movements, there is no reason to expect an end to capitalism will result in an end to rape and domestic abuse.

And speaking of misogyny, no leftist trashing of feminism is complete without a firm nod to the evil TERF — the woman who dares say “no” to dick, not only the “consensual” dick that has paid for the hour, fair and square, but to the dick in the women’s shelter, the girls’ locker room, or at the feminist organizing meeting.

West bravely argues against “banning” in all its forms. Whether it be Latina Abuse IV or the ever-harmless male who insists he is female, despite all balls. (We can only assume this anti-banning position extends to child pornography, and that the author supports the inclusion of white people in the political spaces of people of colour as well. How open-minded!)

West (and many others) may believe I am being very rude. Many will likely join in on calls to burn her. But the reason the left hates feminists as much as the right (though they may express their hatred in different terms) is because setting boundaries defies the rule of the father. Under patriarchy, women must be accessible: sexually and emotionally, as mothers, wives, and whores. To say “no” to men — no matter how those men feel about their male bodies or status as members of the oppressor class — to speak up at all, to fight back, or to tell the truth is to commit high treason.

West concludes with what a noob might read as a call to solidarity:

“While radical feminists posit separatism as a political strategy — and for some, the goal — socialist feminists understand that our power lies in our numbers. The division between working-class men and women, between cisgender people and transgender people — these fissures are detrimental to our overall aims. They only make us weaker and our fight against capitalism that much harder.”

But we’ve tried this already. For at least 150 years, women have put their energy, their time, their heart and souls into men’s movements. Women also believed that solidarity was possible and that if they worked with men towards an end to things like capitalism and racism, men would return the favour, and join arms with women to combat things like rape, domestic abuse, prostitution, incest, and sexual objectification. But they didn’t. They told us to sit down and shut up, and when we didn’t, they called us bitches, cunts, witches, and TERFs. Women were left with no choice to abandon the left — men are to blame for “these fissures,” not radical feminists.

So dear Erica, I suggest you take this up with your brothers. The left is more than welcome to put down their laptops, and take up the fight against sexual sadism in porn. We welcome their advocacy for and efforts to fund women’s transition houses. We will stand behind them when they start naming and shaming johns. We will support their decision to stop abusing their wives and girlfriends. We cannot wait for them stop hurling sexist names at those of us who don’t toe the line; denigrating the work of women who fought for our rights when we had none; smearing, blackballing, and no-platforming those of us who say “no.” Oh boy, won’t that be grand.

But we won’t be making the same mistake again.

Meghan Murphy
Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including The Spectator, UnHerd, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her dog.

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