Opinion | Conditional Feminism

The easy thing to do is to take one glance at the Republican Party, from Donald Trump at the very top, who has found countless ways to insult, demean, and endanger women, down to Congressman Tom Emmer, who voted against renewing the Violence Against Women Act earlier this month, and denounce the GOP as the party of misogyny. There is something much harder to do, however, and that is to take a candid inward look at the DFL and to confront the sexism that exists in our own circles. The small remarks and gestures we often choose to conceal with the guise of “harmless joking”, nervous laughter, or an abrupt change of subject. The easy thing to do is to say “hey, at least we’re not as bad as them”. But we are the Democratic Farmer-Labor Party and we cannot very well shy away from hard, necessary work, can we?

Before moving forward I would like to make a key clarification.  When I first became involved in politics in my hometown in Iowa, in  far-right Congressman Steve King’s district, the progressive groups that welcomed me were safe-havens in a conservative region, among leftists, liberals, and democrats. A resounding majority of the people I encountered were self-proclaimed allies to feminist causes. Here in Minnesota’s Sixth Congressional district I feel no differently. I genuinely believe that most DFL-ers support defending women’s rights and fighting gender inequality. In other words, we should know better. We may not all have a degree in gender studies or a Gloria Steinem quote tattoo, but we should know misogyny and sexism when we see it. More importantly we should understand that being “not as bad as them”  just isn’t good enough, and it is these lapses of judgment and times of inaction that I will refer to as our collective “conditional feminism”.

It was back in Iowa, in my first foray into political organizing and the year leading up to the 2016 elections, that I began to notice this conditional feminism. I worked on the Bernie Sanders Campaign in Sioux City and the surrounding area, first as a volunteer and then as paid organizing fellow. Typically, discourse was centered around Sanders. At the time his policies were ground-breaking for a presidential candidate. Sanders openly supported single-payer healthcare, free college tuition, and taxing the super wealthy. His campaign gradually gained more and more support, and excitement surrounding his candidacy despite his previous status as a “political nobody” grew exponentially. But criticisms of Hillary Clinton, who was virtually guaranteed the Democratic nomination at the beginning of 2015, and her particular brand of neoliberalism were also a driver for many who became involved in the campaign.

Personally, I believed Clinton was flawed as a candidate. I saw her potential presidency as a continuation of the Obama years which had let Wall Street off scot-free after the 2008 economic crash, crushed hopes of positive immigration reform, and created foreign policy disasters that we are still paying the price for today. Many of the people I worked with shared these views and expressed them, which didn’t strike me as out of the ordinary. What shocked me was hearing these criticisms intermingled with unmistakable sexism. It was rare, but it did happen. Usually it was men. Men who would otherwise call themselves feminists. Men who, if asked whether they believed women were equal to men, would laugh because the idea of male supremacy was absurd to them. Yet there they were, using their dislike of a female presidential candidate to justify a crude joke, or a slur. Unknowingly they were creating doubt in their status as allies to women, doubt in what I had come to consider, perhaps naively, a safe space for women.

I was not alone in experiencing these doubts and insecurities. A number of courageous women across the nation came forward to say that they witnessed or were victims of sexism while working on Bernie’s campaign. Tragically, some women even experienced sexual harassment and sexual assault at the hands of other Bernie campaign staffers, (something I consider far beyond and far worse than a problem of conditional feminism) in 2015 and 2016. Now in 2019 Sanders has made crucial changes to the structure of his campaign, ensuring that more executive roles are filled by women and that a zero tolerance policy for sexist misconduct is strictly enforced, but our problem of conditional feminism persists and extends further than any one campaign or election year.

Recently, several women came forward to share their uncomfortable experiences with Joe Biden, a frontrunner among Democratic presidential candidates for the 2020 election. These women felt that  Biden’s physical touching had overstepped boundaries. Lucy Flores, a Democratic politician from Nevada, described Biden, whom she had no personal connection to, placing his hands on her shoulders from behind her, smelling her hair, and kissing the back of her head. She spoke of feeling “uneasy, gross, and confused” after this encounter with him.

Biden released a statement addressing these allegations of inappropriate touching saying that he would make an effort to “listen closely” and that  moving forward he would be "more mindful and respectful of people's personal space". This was, in my opinion, a typical politician’s response, vaguely apologetic,  cautiously unspecific, but respectful in tone. Thoroughly unremarkable.

The conditional feminism in this case I will attribute not to Biden, but to other Democrats. Regular, everyday, non-office holding Democrats. I saw dozens of otherwise wonderful DFL-ers and Democrats seem to break abruptly with their principles of feminism. “Believe women”, which has become a slogan of the #MeToo movement, seemed to disappear suddenly from their lexicon with slurs and crude language taking its place. I watched people who proudly attended women’s marches, who owned “nevertheless she persisted” merchandise, dismiss these women and their stories. These women who found the strength to speak against one of the most powerful and influential men of the Democratic Party, were referred to as “opportunists”, “liars”, “snakes”, “cold fish”, “frigid b*****s”. The parallels to the vicious misogyny witnessed during the Kavanaugh hearings in September of 2019 were startling, all the more so because this time it was us  not them.

Again, my trust, my sense of security in Democratic circles have been shaken to the core. Feminism that is conditional is fraught. Feminism that is contingent on your like or dislike of a candidate, of a person, is utterly inadequate and at a certain point, indistinguishable from outright misogyny - and misogyny has no place in our party.

Claudia ZavalaFeminism