Beyond Parity And Pronouns: A Socialist Feminist Vision For A Mass Movement
I am constantly trying to conceptualize what it means to practice socialist feminism. An unfortunate reality we need to confront is the inadequacy of the past two decades’ feminisms. A good example of this was the recent spontaneous adoption of the #MeToo social media campaign. For a day, maybe two, there was this really powerful connection. Not in being survivors — women already know that the majority of women in their lives have experienced sexual harassment or abuse. Rather that we stood together collectively as survivors with a voice. And for that brief moment, it was beautiful and genuine and strengthening.
And then it quickly spiraled out of control. First there were the hot takes and accusations, that #MeToo discriminated against men or transgender people or Black women or survivors who feel like they can’t speak. There were people saying that the hashtag was too triggering, and every woman seemed to be carrying everyone’s weights but carrying them alone. And then some men started posting #ItWasMe to admit to times they had committed or facilitated sexual harassment or violence and Leftist journalist Sam Kriss was called out by name and it all became too raw to handle. We muted our groupchats and logged off Facebook and the moment quickly dissipated. But as it dissolved you could hear some ask the question: what can we, or could have, done with this? What were the next steps?
I believe feminism should be a radical practice of love, as theoretically developed by bell hooks and Audre Lorde and other women of color. Socialist feminism can build on this radical practice of love by giving it an analysis in the context of capitalism. We have developed a few terms for this, but for this article I will be using reproductive labor. Reproductive labor is not simply the labor of pregnancy or even the labor of child rearing but rather in the abstract the renewal of life-process. As Marx wrote, without naming who or how it was renewed:
The ultimate or minimum limit of the value of labour-power is formed by the value of the commodities which have to be supplied every day to the bearer of labour-power, the man, so that he can renew his life-process. That is to say, the limit is formed by the value of the physically indispensable means of subsistence.
One form of reproductive labor that has received a lot of attention under the third wave of feminism is emotional labor. This is both the supplementing of and taking on of the emotional turmoil of those around them, often times created by the alienation of capitalism, the violence of racism, etc. That isn’t to excuse the practice: it is incredibly exploitative simply by the calculation that men rarely adequately compensate this labor. As others have written, liberal feminism proposes a solution of payment for emotional labor in ignorance of the fact that emotional labor often is paid, from restaurant servers to sex workers to allowance or wages given by one spouse to another.
#MeToo confronted an important question: what happens when women are asking of emotional labor from other women and for other women? Can emotional labor be socialized or collectivized? What does it mean to own the means of production for emotional labor?
I believe in a feminism beyond parity and pronouns. Not that I don’t advocate for both of those things, for the end of disparities in pay and so many other things between men and women, and for the respect of everyone’s pronouns and gender regardless of whether it is confusing or strange or different. But these things are not enough, and there is a cold formalism to them that I would argue exposes the lack of radical love. I have met plenty of people who respect pronouns while mistreating transgender people. I have met plenty of men who agree with wage parity but are totally fine with a world where some make millions and others make pennies.
That is why I was so happy that New York City Socialist Feminists chose the New York Health Act, our state’s equivalent of Medicare For All, as our primary focus. Healthcare after all is one of the oldest forms of reproductive labor — it is long past time that it became socialized in the United States (and of course the rest of the world). We often get asked whether we are bringing a perspective focused solely on reproductive healthcare like abortion and birth control. While that is certainly part of it, it is so much more. It is women being the primary decision-makers on healthcare in households. It is women being dependent on a spouse’s insurance. It is the gendered class division of the healthcare industry. It is 74% of survivors staying with their abusers for economic reasons.
And there lies a misconception about the radical practice of love. When you present the idea to some women, they may at first glance think it means practicing kindness to men who are being bastardly bastards. This is not the case, and it is especially not the case through the lens of socialist feminism. Starting with feminism, the radical practice of love is how we treat those within our communities. And it is love that can perfectly coexist with anger, disappointment, and frustration — the only thing it cannot abide is hate and its children of cruelty, cynicism, etc.
A socialist feminist radical practice of love goes one step further and proposes that we not only practice this radical love but that we seize the mean of social reproduction in order to practice it. I can think of few acts of radical love more powerful than the universal provision of healthcare to all. And with the horrific statistic about survivors from before, we can see the powerful potential of a socialized radical love to be liberating to those most oppressed under the gender division of reproductive labor.
So returning to the whispered question: what can we do with #MeToo? There is of course the example of healthcare that I mentioned and as DSA prepares to mobilize its 30,000 membership to achieve that, I have a great hope for a socialist feminist future. But of course that’s 0.0008% of the country’s population — we need something much larger. And that’s where the importance of mutual aid work comes in and particularly recruiting with a framework of radical love. Not charitable love (“You deserve healthcare”) but collective radical love (“With your help, we can win healthcare for us, for your family, for your neighborhood!”).
But what about the direct response to sexual harassment and violence? #MeToo did take the important first step, a collective social media consciousness raising very much in the feminist tradition. But the next step is to take those stories collectively and direct them towards an aim of socialized radical love. That can take many forms; here are just a few suggestions:
- mental healthcare coverage for survivors.
- community mediations on sexual harassment and violence and reparations for survivors.
- public infrastructure to decrease public sexual violence.
- sex education with a focus on consent and violence.
- training bystanders to intervene.
Each of these aims presents a strategy to organize. Public infrastructure gives people an opportunity to make demands of the state and shifts the understanding of what the state is and what the state could be if we were in control. Sex education gives people an opportunity to do intergenerational and/or cross-gender consciousness raising. Bystander intervention socializes self-defense from sexual harassment and assault. Community mediations socialize accountability and healing, all without engaging a carceral system that provides neither.
And all these campaigns provide a way to engage with critics as well. For example, for those who said #MeToo was problematic for leaving out men and nonbinary people, there is a place for those recognitions in comprehensive sex education or bystander training that maybe can’t be encapsulated in mere social media postings. It is of course risky and complicated: there’s a big difference between Black women justifiably upset about the failure of white women to act in solidarity with them against sexual violence and some dudebro screaming “Not all men!”
But it is worth the complications and risk. I made this joke when the Left was speculating about DSA’s recent surge in membership, but it is completely true: “Maybe the key to socialism is being nice to the people you’re organizing.” It sounds simple and obvious, but it is neither in a world with so many intersecting oppressions. But just because it is difficult doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. And as DSA has shown, as groups like the Black Panthers with their radical love of the Black community or the Bolivarian Movement with their radical love of the people of Latin America, it works. That is how we can make the #MeToo’s into a mass movement.