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The pessimism of identity politics

By Nicole Colson | May 7, 2004 | Page 9

"FEMINISTS PUT out." "Left-wing chicks are hot." Sounds like something you would hear on the sexist Man Show--or a crude joke by shock jock Howard Stern. But these were slogans that a "Students for Choice" group at Columbia University in New York City used to build its contingent for last month's March for Women's Lives.

No doubt, these women's rights activists meant to be ironic--to catch people's attention by mouthing sexist slurs themselves, and show that, hey, young feminists have a sense of humor, too. But behind the not-funny humor lurks a real problem with the mainstream women's movement today: that many young feminists believe it's empowering to embrace derogatory terms and stereotypes--particularly those that define sexuality in the most narrow and oppressive terms.

At the height of the women's liberation movement in the 1970s, referring to women as "girls" was rightly seen as paternalistic and demeaning. Yet today, it's commonplace for young women to refer to themselves as "girls"--or worse--supposedly as a form of empowerment. That this is so commonplace among liberal and radical women--as well as among other oppressed groups, such as gays and lesbians--shows just how far to the right the social movements of the 1960s and '70s have traveled.

Whether or not young women personally feel "empowered" by sexist slogans, the vast majority of people aren't in on the secret. For most, the "if-you-can't-beat-them-join-them" jokiness comes off as an acceptance of sexism, not a challenge to it.

The idea that the oppressed can empower themselves by "taking back" derogatory terms is a hallmark of what's known on the left as "identity politics." At the heart of identity politics is the belief that the struggle against different oppressions can only be fought by people who face that oppression--and that the more "radical" or shocking the actions of the movement, the better.

This might sound left wing. But underneath the rhetoric and shocking actions lie a deep pessimism--and often a deep conservatism as well. Essentially, by "celebrating difference" to the point of accepting barriers among the oppressed and exploited, supporters of identity politics embrace their isolation from allies that could help in challenging injustice.

At the April 25 March for Women's Lives, feminist Gloria Steinem praised the diversity of the new wave of young activists finding empowerment through an expression of their sexuality. "Sometimes, the problem is us older folks don't recognize the form in which their activism comes," Steinem told the crowd. "We thought we had to cover up our bodies. They are saying rightly that they should be able to be nude and be safe."

Of course, young women should feel free to dress and do with their bodies as they please. But to equate this with building a political movement that has the power to challenge sexism is wrong--and a recipe for political retreat. This has certainly been the case with Steinem herself. Today, she trumpets the idea of a "revolution from within," rather than a political or economic one.

In the abortion rights movement as whole, as a recent Washington Post article found, many of today's young activists are quite open about their reservations--and in some cases, hostility--to more radical demands for abortion rights on demand. So, for example, 24-year-old Grayson Crosby--recently named one of the top 30 abortion rights activists under 30 by Steinem's Choice USA group--is convinced "of something previous generations didn't talk about: Human beings are hard-wired to create life and instinctively repulsed by the idea of destroying it, even when that's the right thing to do," the Post wrote.

Crosby's "hard-wired for life" rhetoric sounds eerily similar to paternalistic notions that equated women with being little more than baby incubators. Such arguments accept the terms of the debate as set by the right wing--above all, accepting that "morality" is the most important question.

In the 1960s and '70s, a much more radical women's movement generally recognized that the liberation of women revolved around questions of class and politics, not morality. Demands like free abortion on demand, equal pay for equal work, free child care and more spoke to the issues faced by working-class women.

Today, by contrast, the mainstream movement is dominated by the concerns of a small minority of middle class women. At the April 25 demonstration, former NOW President Patricia Ireland bragged from the stage that the march coordinating committee was more than 50 percent women of color--as she addressed an overwhelmingly white, middle-class crowd.

The veneer may sound radical. But the substance isn't--especially coming during a demonstration where the overwhelming message wasn't to build a grassroots struggle for abortion rights, but to vote for Democratic Party politicians. A truly radical movement would set its efforts toward mobilizing low-income and working women and men, people of color and unions to build a fight for women's rights that goes beyond the ballot box--and into schools, workplaces and the streets.

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