One Dimensional Feminism and the Election of 2008

Advice to old fogies like me: Print the article up for easier reading 🙂

One Dimensional Feminism: Feminism and the Election

(This entry is one in a planned series of entries on what I’m calling  One-Dimensional Feminism. In One Dimensional Man (published in 1964) Herbert Marcuse argued that societal power—he was focused on capitalism—had new modes of domination facilitated by technology and the accelerated commodification of all modes of life. Domination could win by satisfying peoples’ desires as much as through repressing them; peoples’ aspirations could mesh with the interests of capital more fluidly than ever before. This enmeshment of the subject with forces of domination made society and its subjects “one-dimensional.”   “One dimensional society” refers to a societal order that establishes itself as inevitable: no other dimensions of reality are glimpsed through the solid edifice it presents of itself. Reality is flat because the dimension of the negative is foreclosed—reality appears only in its positive form. Today the “positive” is not only the foreground against which negative space is simply forgotten. The “positive” is also that inducement to positive-thinking, to putting a positive spin on everything including practices once seen as the conductive tissue of subordination (e.g. consumerism is now seen as in and of itself a form of subversion). Residual forces of negation (opposition and critique) are digested within a social order that makes these forces reappear in their positive and positively incorporated forms.  My project on One Dimensional Feminism explores this basic idea in relation to the hollowing out of feminism as a former force of opposition and negation (critique)and thus the way that new forms of patriarchal control—neo-liberal patriarchy—function to better assimilate the subject of feminism within the interests of a patriarchal system, and generally the interests of men as a social group.)

This is what a feminist looks like

The slogan represents the positive spin PR campaign to counter vicious “negative stereotypes” long defiling feminism over decades of vilification—e.g. Rush Limbaugh’s “feminazi.” But in countering “negative stereotypes,” it has also watered down its own negative, i.e. critical, dimension as the negation of what-is. Without this dimension, feminism goes flat, retaining only a fizz of its former fighting spirit. Thus the fizzy slogan, This is what a feminist looks like, easily adhered to the glossy surface of the most positive campaign in presidential history, morphing into: This is what a Feminist Looks Like: Obama.

The voting season is by definition a season of positive-spins but typically progressives cycle through with plugged noses for their least of the worst votes. In the 2008 presidential election, progressives were proud to admit that they had inhaled—they were positively giddy with the sheer rush that pulling the lever brought. Feminists, among the rest, lapped up the whole Obama-bromide like thirsty supplicants grateful for any taste of salvation.

Obama as salvific: Look at the Ms. Magazine inaugural issue.  The slogan, This is what a feminist looks like: Obama, captioned an Obama about to burst from plain-clothed attire to reveal his true super-hero colors. Feminists were thus dealing with the same limited deck of cards as the rest of the Left when they plugged into and plugged the fantasy of Obama as a stealth progressive—the inner Obama of decency and pure intentions, the Obama always already about to be pushed out from hiding by force of the “movement that put him in power,” the teleology of Obama-mensch. The Ms. Inaugural issue echoed that fantasy with the idea that a real feminist in Obama was just waiting to be expressed. (As some commentator quipped, since Clinton was the first black president a la Toni Morrison’s judgment, Obama was the first female president. In this case femininity was the trope expressing the fantasy that Obama’s superior intellectual skills, smooth tongue, and gentle comportment made him ever more the progressive contender against war-mongerer-manly McCain).

Hyde and Seek Feminism and the Stupak Amendment

The fantasy of a stealth progressive/feminist has fallen as flat as the “movement” that progressives think put Obama in power. Do Obama and the Democrat Party really look like feminism? Beyond merely “feminizing” Obama’s “appearance,” the magical symmetry through which Obama is like feminism-is like-Obama supports the wishful thinking that every anti-feminist act on the part of the Obama-Party counts as a “backstab” rather than one more step in a series of Dem conciliations to Right-wing demands. (This is not due to ideological weakness on the part of the Dems but rather ideological strength since their stances are fed by the same hand that feeds the Republicans—the corporate sponsors of each Party). Thus we have the example of the Stupak amendment to the health deform bill–an amendment which goes further than the Hyde amendment in restricting abortions and like Hyde it targets the poorest women in the process.

In 1976, Representative (the late) Henry Hyde discovered that restricting public funds (medicare) for abortion was his only route for an anti-abortion strategy. The passage of his amendment was a real bargain: poor women’s lives in exchange for the “rights” i.e. privileges of women who could afford abortions or insurance carriers that provided them. Every woman had the right to an abortion the way that any woman had the right to buy a BMW. Stupak thus extends the Hyde strategy (unevenly contested by mainstream feminist organizations) of dividing women along class (and race) lines. Stupak goes farther than Hyde in also threatening the rights/privileges of middle class women since even if a woman can purchase her own premium, her option of an abortion is precluded by all insurance-plans that are part of the proposed government exchange program. It should be noted, however, that the public option, even without Stupak, in targeting the poorest of the poor also singles them out for the kind of inflated, stigmatizing myths dumped upon the poor—especially poor women—by welfare-policies. This is partly due to the way in which any public option will be largely off the backs of middle class—and working class—tax-payers. Divide and conquer wins the day.

Despite the sordid history of abortion rights and public subsidies, women’s rights groups expressed surprise and betrayal at the passage of Stupak.  “‘It’s the feeling that you’ve been rolled,’ said Eleanor Smeal, of Feminist Majority,” in which case, as Katha Pollitt comments, feminists like Smeal “haven’t been paying attention.”

Smeal was onto something, though, when she told [Dana] Goldstein, ‘Here we are playing nice guy again, we didn’t want to make a fuss.’ Consciously or unconsciously, by not organizing in advance to insist on coverage of abortion, prochoicers set themselves up to be out-maneuvered.

They didn’t want to “make a fuss”: If feminists had watch-dogged—rather than tail-wagged at—Washington and showed an iota more critical analysis than they have, if, in fact, feminists had looked back a few months, let alone decades of similar attacks on women’s right from the “left” of the two-party system, they would have seen the Stupak-ification to come.

However, they watched as Democrats stood by while antichoicers kept contraception out of the reform bill’s list of basic benefits all insurers must cover. So much for the ‘common ground’ approach where we all agree that birth control is the way to lower the abortion rate.   (Pollitt)

Sunsara Taylor has pointed out that the very goal of “lowering the abortion rate” demonstrates submission to a Right-Wing Agenda; it submits to the fantasy that the Right-Wing is really interested in life—the life of the fetus—rather than—its main goal—the control of women. This goal and the accompanying fantasy is cherished by our president who a few days prior to a right-wing man’s murder of the abortion-provider, Dr. George Tiller called on his audience at Notre Dame to “lower the rhetoric” on “both sides” of the abortion “debate.”

The idea that the Right and Feminism can and should achieve “common ground” on the goal of lowering the abortion rates in fact lowers the level of thought involved and tends to preclude any political analysis that would clarify rather than obscure the meaning of the fight for abortion and reproductive rights as a fight against forced motherhood and its corollary in the forced sterilization of women of color, poor women.  The much vaunted common ground precludes systemic thinking about the real relationships between the Dems, the state, the right-wing, and women. Stupak is the fruit not only of the Catholic Bishops who were given a hand in shaping the health care legislation according to their own anti-abortion agenda.  It is also the fruit of a pro-choice feminism that kept quiet about the bishops, Stupak, and their relationship to the Dems.

Major pro-choice lobbying groups NARAL and Planned Parenthood basically laid low since the summer when these same organizations, and anyone on the Hill, first caught wind of the Stupak agenda, not to mention the behind the scenes work of Catholic Bishops.  Says Jane Hamsher of Firedog Lake, “On July 1, Stupak wrote a letter signed by 19 Democrats saying they would do just what they’re doing right now — holding the bill hostage.    And what did NARAL and Planned Parenthood do?  Well, they released a lot of statements echoing the President’s contention that the bill contained no abortion funding.  But that was never Stupak’s objection.” As for NARAL, despite “strong statements” and a petition demanding removal of the anti-abortion amendment, spokeswomen for the pro-choice organization declared the organization unwilling to as yet “draw a line in the sand” when it comes to supporting or opposing a bill that might end up including Stupak (Douglas).  This kind of stance is the predictable outcome of decades of concessions that have converted the legislative arm of feminism into the lobbying arm of the Democratic Party. (Consider the re-framing of abortion rights to an issue of “choice,” a Liberal capitulation to the myth that anti-abortionists are concerned with “life” and not, fundamentally, the control of women). The idea that feminism “looks like” Obama and thus the Dems in general, reflects the extent to which institutionalized feminism has established itself as ancillary to the state (the Party in particular) rather than as a site of contestation.

On the Campaign Trail of One Dimensional Feminism

Feminism’s ancillary status was cemented by the so-called “independent” media this campaign year—a media which created no public space of contestation when it came to its identity-politics take on gender and race politics (on foreign policy it was occasionally a bit more nuanced). This included Liberal/Leftist journalist Laura Flanders’ Grit TV, a TV show which showed no grit whatsoever in its coverage of feminism this campaign year.  For example, Flanders assembled a round-table on feminism and the election to take on—not the status of women, but the status of the Party in terms of how well the Dems were selling themselves to the constituency/voting bloc, “women.” The show was by no means unusual in its treatment of feminism or race as identity politics of the shallowest order—in terms of market-niche (voting bloc) identities on a par with a Bennaton frame of multi-culturalism.  How nicely such identity politics played for the King-Makers whose sleights of hand had already polished the path to the coronation of Obama with an injected sheen of faux-progressivism. Black skin could now, and once again, be branded—reified, marked, marketed.  Mesmerized by the spectacle of a black prince in waiting, progressives including feminists showed no ability or will to look through the myth—including the mythos of blackness– into what Obama was actually saying and doing.

The initial salvo for a one-dimensional identity-politic approach to the election came from the ranks of pro-Clinton women claiming Clinton’s gender as sufficient basis for claiming the Clinton vote as feminist. Many cited the childhood fantasy of a first female president. This fantasy coupled with outrage over the sexist handling of Clinton’s image by the media—and the persistence and permissibility of rancorous misogyny in all sectors of society—further fueled the idea of Clinton as a feminist’s only choice. However heart-felt, such thinking was shallow, if magical.  But the fizzy-headed “debate” that ensued did nothing to deepen the discourse, or bring it down to earth of actual political analysis. Claiming a race/gender division, academics in particular lined up to declare their allegiance to theoretically correct positions about “intersectional” approaches to race and gender. Even petitions along these lines were circulated to demand nothing—no action save a signature declaring some abstract allegiance to fuzzily articulated intellectual positions. This was the ultimate posturing at politics.

Altogether hollow, the feminism on display doffed a halo of righteousness granted by a theoretically correct line on “race.” In addition the discourse festooned itself with fluffs of theory-bytes: “What happened, we wondered, to the last four decades of discussion about tokenism and multiple identities and the complex intersections of race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity and class?” This is from the “Letter from feminists” sent to the editor of the Nation. It was all as if. . . . Somehow, if they repeated words like “multiple” and “intersection” enough times—and clicked their heels—license to stop thinking would be issued right away.  Which is to say that no where did the letter express a thought that came close to examining the “complex intersections” it hypnotically intoned like a mantra.

The template for this kind of theory-ventriloquy can be found in the widely circulated article by distinguished writers and activists, Eve Ensler and Kimberle Crenshaw  decrying what they call the “‘either/or’feminists [of the Clinton camp] determined to see to it that a woman occupies the Oval Office.” Theorist and legal scholar, Crenshaw and playwright creator of The Vagina Monologues, Ensler, are of course right to state that there is “a profound difference in seeing feminism as intersectional and global rather than essentialist and insular.”  The profundity of this difference is flattened however given the writers’ apparent unwillingness to address any number of specific, actual, intersectional and global feminist issues at stake in an imperial presidency no matter who is seated in the office.  For example, Obama’s intentions to bomb Afghanistan were openly declared during the time of Crenshaw and Ensler’s piece and he made good on his explicit promise to increase a bombing campaign launched (by Bush) in part to “save” women from the Taliban.  Given the state of emergency for women in Afghanistan it is also a minefield for urgent, critical, feminist opposition and theory.

However, in their piece, and ignoring any evidence, Crenshaw and Ensler declare that there is “one choice” and it is actually quite simple. It is not about the woman candidate vs. the Black male candidate. It is about the candidate who works to dismantle the bomb, rather than drop it; the candidate who works to abolish the old paradigm of power, rather than covet and rise to its highest point; the candidate who seeks solutions and dialogue rather than retaliation and punishment.

Really? The candidate who “rises to abolish the old paradigm of power”?  Is this the Obama who has been groomed for power from day one by handlers from the very old white-power-broker establishment including the Daleys of Chicago? Is this the candidate who solved the financial crisis of 2008 by serving huge hand-outs to the banks that fleeced the citizens who remain uncompensated? Dialogue rather than retaliation and punishment- does that account for his support of the death penalty?  And Who works to dismantle the bomb? Which bomb? Not the one that both candidates planned to lob against Afghanistan as part of their campaign promises.   And what about their joint-headed new war now in Pakistan? Obama’s appointment of Hillary Clinton as Secretary of bomb-lobbing discloses the truth of a two-headed monster of militarism already there to begin with and unconcealed within identical campaign promises.

A sleight of hand  in Crenshaw and Ensler’s piece distracts their readership from the fact that there is no there there when it comes to making a real argument. They make it appear as if by deconstructing one false either/or it logically follows that a true either/or will be disclosed. Yet the leap they take is a flight of fantasy, a leap in logic covered over by rhetorical finesse. No critical thinking is attempted here, let alone sustained.

The rush of taking a stance must have been tonic for feminist academics who were longing for the sharp, pungent taste of true political relevance. But the academy has not been good for feminism—though it has been good for the individual feminists who succeed within it. Induced career-tending has not proved to lend itself to brilliant intellectual breakthroughs—certainly not where political thinking is concerned. Career-tending and professionalism has tended towards the maintenance of the field in which one is disciplined—whether “interdisciplinarity” is claimed or not. As displayed on the stage of election discourse, Theory today is much like the spasms of a phantom limb—existing like twitches registering a once claimed, now amputated, intellectual arm of the feminist movement.  Ah but that’s part of another story of one-dimensional feminism and of how feminism’s “powers” of reasoning have diminished to the same extent that its intellectualism has gone baroque in its surface complexity of language-games. The faulty logic in Crenshaw and Ensler’s essay, for example, merely reflects a larger state of critical paralysis among feminists (and the Left). Little else but paralysis of thought can account for the zeal with which feminism displayed itself among the general pageantry of the election. (There are social and material conditions of this paralysis—it’s not the result of a pure will gone bad; I don’t have space to discuss these conditions here, but professionalism and its historical sources is one such condition).

Palin’s appearance on the campaign trail and the feminist reaction

Getting rid of Bush may have been an excuse for voting Democrat but not for making a spectacle out of feminist complicity with the campaign phantasmagoria.  The pageantry was of course richly embellished once Palin took the stage. The GOP’s last-ditch performance was brilliant—mostly for its opponents.  Dems and their supporters lit up with the specter of a more colorful enemy to compare its self with.  Palin was also a way for liberal/lefties to extract surplus significance for their own imaginary role on the stage of “history” this election. Finally, Palin was the surge for a feminism that had slipped into torpor once the “gender/race division” had died down. Feminists found new cause to join together and now, as a re-unified front, vest all hope in a Messiah Obama against the lipsticked distopia who with a blink of her manically winking-eye could bring Margaret Atwood’s Hand-Maid’s Tale to living, blood red, color.

For those unfamiliar with the novel, The Hand-Maid’s Tale augurs a world of fundamentalist patriarchy in which women have two choices—the breeder or the brothel (See Andrea Dworkin’s Right-Wing Women for analysis of the Breeder/Brothel model). But if Palin is a real enemy—and she is a real enemy—is the foe (the Dems) of our foe (the fundys and the Palins) automatically our friend??

Pro-choice leaders Kate Michelman and Frances Kissling in The New York Times show a flash of insight into the foe/friendship fallacy when addressing Stupak:

The Democratic majority has abandoned its platform and subordinated women’s health to short-term political success. In doing so, these so-called friends of women’s rights have arguably done more to undermine reproductive rights than some of abortion’s staunchest foes. That Senate Democrats are poised to allow similar anti-abortion language in their bill simply underscores the degree of the damage that has been done.

While they have insight into the fuzzing of boundaries between friends and foes of feminism here, they still cling to the illusion that the Democrats have “abandoned” a one-time pro-feminist (or pro-choice) platform, still ignoring real components of not only Obama’s platform (as opposed to rhetoric) but the long line of Democrat-sponsored sell-outs that preceded Stupak. 

The Stupak strategy is not stupid since it is likely instrumental to what I predict will be the bi-partisan re-legitimization and normalization of the Hyde amendment—a process aided and abetted by the silence of pro-choice groups as we saw below.  The prediction does not take rocket science given Obama’s initial concession to the Stupak agenda by promising that no government funds will be used for abortion (the existing template of the Hyde amendment). The most likely outcome of the House and Senate compromise over the Stupak amendment will be to peel back to the initial concession while celebrating this (celebrating Hyde!) as a victory for the Dems and for women. Worse, I predict that major feminist organizations like NARAL and Feminist Majority will claim the victory as their own.

Any such victory further seals “choice feminism” within its protective bubble of “phantasmic middle class whiteness,” (Wendy Brown, “Wounded Attachments”) even if some of those protected have brown and black faces. Privileged women can be at least fleetingly exempted from women’s oppression while calling this “exemption” “women’s rights.” These are the kind of intersectional race/gender politics that remained verboten except as sound-bytes within the elected arena of feminist campaign discussion in 2008. Is this what feminism looks like? Any vaunted victory for Hyde is also a Hand-maid’s Tale by other means than the outright fundamentalist—namely through procedural means of patriarchy. By “procedural” I mean the Kafkaesque maze of legal, legislative, professional procedures too banal and bureaucratic to see for the menace to women that they truly are. In many ways the foes of our foes—the Democrats—are the friends of our foes; they share “common ground” with regards to maintaining men’s and the male state’s control of women. What does feminism look like once it appends itself to this common ground in the name of fighting the Right? If alloying itself to men and their state is what feminism looks like, feminism itself is looking more like female subordination every day and through far subtler means than hitherto known. On this point I’m not altogether positive but (and) I feel nonetheless afraid, very afraid.


Kimberle Crenshaw and Eve Ensler, “Feminist Ultimatums: Not in our Name,” Huffington Post, February ,52008.

Emily Douglas, “The Notion: Will the Senate Stand against Stupak?,” The Nation, November 13, 2009.

Jane Hamsher (founder Firedog Lake), “NARAL and Planned Parenthood: Ineffectiveness Anti-Choice Democrats Can Rely On.” Firedog Lake, November 7, 2009.

Frances Kissling and Kate Michelman, New York Times Op-Ed Contributors: Trading Women’s Rights for Political Power, November 11, 2009.

Katha Pollitt, “Subject to Debate Whose team is it anyway?” The Nation, November 11, 2009.


3 responses to “One Dimensional Feminism and the Election of 2008

  1. Hi Kathy. Hope this finds you well. I linked this over at FS. It raises a substantial list of questions that are shouting out from that Marcusian negative space.

    One sticky issue it raises for me is the default assumption that there is a centralized remedy for the poroblems created by managerial centralization itself. If there are levers of power at the top, then the only way to change anything is to seize the levers… unfortunatley, these same levers (if you’ll indulge this awful mechanical metaphor for a moment longer) are simply never within the reach of radicals of any stripe.

    So we get bogged down in the politics of co-optation, of incrementalism (which is a far different thing than tactics). Voting for someone as part of changing the landscape for a specific tactical purpose – like exposing Democrats by putting them into office – is not the same as voting the lesser-evil to move things along some imaginary, perhaps delusional, continuum. Same action, different motive, and diferent follow up.

    I think you’re absolutely accurate in your description of feminists – whose devotion to women’s social emancipation I don’t doubt – who are operating on the continuum assumption. I’m suggesting that the core mistake is not misplaced faith in political personalities, but the failure to see how hierarchy of some kind inheres in centralization, administration, management itself. That’s why we DO get fooled again. Every time.

    It’s on the foundation of this axiomatic error (imho) that that we ourselves develop organizing hierarchies that inevitably lose the capacity for simple honesty as they fall into the game-mentality. Communists boosting Democrats. Feminists boosting Obama.

    Moreover it is manipulative, and it will always – at the end of the day – wreck credibilty, because the omissions and white lies we tell to get over the next hurdle come back to bite us on the backside.

    It’s an attractive delusion, because abandoning these unquestioned beliefs leaves us facing thre stark reality of our own debility, our profound weakness as a “political” force, and the impregnability of the as-is… for now.

    We inherited – however we define we here – this poison pill of faith in organization from our political ancestors on the left; and I might even suggest that administered/managed organization is a distincly male – and military – inheritance, a point that emerges from the historical background outlined in De Landa’s book, War in the Age of Intelligent Machines.

    On the topic of commodified resistance, which you and Marcuse describe very nicely, the deeper question may be philosophical. So long as the sovereign self – the basis of liberal acquisitive individualism – remains without a critique, the market will always be able to trump us by selling our resistance back to us as a lifestyle. This one gets very scary, as a bit of reflection will reveal. If the self is not sovereign, what is? If the self is not sovereign, then do we risk nihilism on the one hand or reactionary collectivism (like nationalism) on the other? We can marianate on that.

    There is an important place, imo, for the frumpy virtues of moderation and self-control, which radical feminists implicitly embrace, and which were and are attacked by “sex radicals” and other such charlatans, and by the market (all about self gratification, even if it is alienated and therefore deeply perverse), using guilt-by-association with religious fundamentalists, etc. By that, I don’t mean moderation and self-control by women, but by everyone. Anything as freighted with power and consequences as sex, money, et al, requires nothing less and possibly a lot more for us to behave ethically toward one another.

    S’pose I’ve said enough here. Thanks for this, Kathy.

  2. Hi Kathy. I followed the link over here from Stan’s blog.

    This analysis is absolutely amazing and I can’t wait to read the rest of it.

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