I Didn't Want Him Behind Bars. I Wanted to Pay My Medical Bills.
By Alexandra Walling
Art by Maïté Marque
Last spring, I called the man who raped me 14 years ago, and asked him for $10,000. At the time, I had $4,000 of unpaid medical bills and no idea how to pay them on my graduate school stipend. I had a stack of referrals to specialists for the severe headaches and terrifying episodes of weakness and fatigue that flared in sync with my PTSD symptoms. I had a dresser covered with expensive prescription medications for anxiety and bipolar depression and a health insurance plan that few psychiatrists in New York City would accept.
The previous fall, I’d helped organize a series of protests with the city’s Democratic Socialists of America chapter against Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court. In the months that followed, I put in long hours organizing against sexual violence with other socialist feminists. By March, I was burnt out and living with the worst PTSD I’d faced in years. In a moment of bitterness, I looked up my assailant, who I’ll call Dan, and saw he kept a blog, where he’d written about #MeToo. Specifically, he’d written about sending money to support women who’d come forward with #MeToo accusations in his community. Without pausing to think, I wrote him a quick email: I saw your blog. We have a history. Can we talk? A few minutes later, and much to my surprise, Dan replied. We scheduled a call.
When Dan’s face popped up on my computer screen five days later, I suddenly became calm. His hair was longer, but his eyes were the same. Even shaky with nerves, his voice was the same voice I remembered from the years we were college sweethearts and, afterward, friends. I knew him. I felt the need to set him at ease. We made small talk for a minute about our lives and our careers. Then I steered us toward the matter at hand. “It’s twelve and a half years on,” I said. “I finally want to use explicit language to describe what happened between us. When I describe what you did to me the first evening we were together, I describe it to myself now as a rape, and I wonder whether you would use the same words.”
When Dan stuttered and could not use the word rape to describe his actions, I was not surprised. “I’m having trouble coming up with clear language around intent here,” he said, not meeting my gaze. He knew he hadn’t asked for my consent, and he knew now I hadn’t consented. In a rush of words, Dan offered me restitution — money — for the harm that he had caused me. It was what I had wanted from him, and it wasn’t enough. Even if Dan didn’t feel like a rapist, I needed him to know a little about what it had been like to survive the violence he had committed on my body before I was ready to begin talking about making things right.
Dan and I met when we were teenagers. I was on a college visit, and he was a friendly sophomore who asked me to dance. When I enrolled at the college in 2006, I introduced myself to him again on the quad one evening after class. A week later, as the first big party of the year wound down, Dan invited me to his room with his upperclassmen friends. I was excited to be included by the older students and tagged along. Eventually, Dan’s friends left, and I stayed to listen to some music. I remember these events clearly.
What came after has become less clear with time. In the months after Dan raped me, I lay awake at night in my dorm room, repeatedly thinking about what he’d done to me, eyes staring into the dark. I can remember the exact angle at which the streetlight outside my window shone through the slats of my blinds. My memories of the precise manner and sequence in which Dan assaulted me have become fuzzier, like an old tape recording played and replayed until the picture is obscured by static. I remember a few images, the physical pain, and the nearly paralytic fear and shame that left me unable to put up more than a feeble resistance. I was hoping that if Dan could tell me his memories, my distorted recollections would become clear and certain. He was, after all, the only other person who had been in the room.
However, after 13 years, Dan’s memories were as fragmented — and inwardly focused — as my own. When I asked if Dan remembered the moment when I made some resistance, he replied, “I don’t remember that at all. I remember very little about your body language.” What Dan remembered, mostly, was what had been going on in his head. He’d been reading pickup artists before we met, and he said, “I was panicked for certain types of validation…I was extremely naive about the extent to which it was possible for people to just overtly give advice about how to, like, how to force sex and not have that unambiguously called out.”
I barely remember the days that followed my rape. In a confusing way, I had tried to explain what had happened to me to a college counselor after a mandatory sexual assault training for my dormitory floor. I don’t remember what words I used to describe my experience of unwanted, painful, and traumatizing sex. Still, I remember the counselor telling me not to be so uptight because sexuality was a normal part of growing up. I remember her giving me the advice to confront Dan one-on-one if I was still upset, and I remember that when I tried to follow that advice the next day after an evening class, Dan assaulted me again. In the aftermath of that second assault, I concluded that this must just be what sexuality was: If it was painful and shameful and disgusting, that must be what it was for everyone else also. I accepted my assault as normal and determined to make the best of it. If I could have a real relationship with Dan, I reasoned that my suffering would not be in vain. I dated him for two years.
In the years that followed our relationship, I dropped out of college three times and was hospitalized five times for self-harm and suicidal ideation. When I began dating again, some of my partners tried to help me cope with my trauma, but others used that trauma to exploit and abuse me themselves. The rape was like a whirlwind in my life: It picked up everything that had seemed stable, and when the wind died down, every part of me was permanently rearranged.
I told Dan all this and then, with my heart in my throat, asked him what he thought he could do to make things right. “Well, I can’t have the panic attacks for you,” Dan said. “But I think, morally, I’m on the hook for at least some substantial portion of your costs.” My stomach did backflips when I heard this. Although I’d been too nervous to ask outright, I wanted financial restitution, and I’d had a suspicion Dan would be good for a substantial sum. I vividly recall the summer after my freshman year when he visited me driving a brand new sedan bought with cash — the same model as the car my father had just bought, only my father had bought his car used and financed. When Dan graduated, he purchased a condo with the money remaining in his college fund. Unlike most survivors, I was lucky enough to be raped by a wealthy man.
I have experienced significant economic harm as a survivor of rape. I took out thousands of dollars in loans to attend my college, from which I never earned a degree. I have suffered from poor mental health for years as a result of trauma. I have faced unpredictable bills for hospitalizations and ambulance rides and regular copays for therapy visits and medications. It took financial resources from three generations of family members to meet these costs. Over the last decade, I estimate my total healthcare costs, at least partially attributable to having been raped, have totaled more than $30,000 — not including the student loans, lost jobs, and lost time.
I know my problems are not unique, even if the outcome of my conversation with Dan was unusual. Survivors of sexual violence, as a group, bear substantial financial burdens. Social scientists have quantified the lifetime costs of surviving intimate partner violence as much as $103,000 for women and $23,000 for men; costs for rape survivors are estimated to be even higher. Both acute and ongoing medical expenses are common, but survivors also incur costs from changing housing, dropping out of the workforce or education, and interacting with the criminal justice system.
Popular feminist approaches to addressing the financial harms caused by sexual violence have championed civil litigation and appeals to the criminal justice system. If a survivor happens to have been assaulted by someone without assets, a civil lawsuit won’t help them. Those survivors whose assailants have enough means to justify a civil lawsuit may find their ability to speak about their experiences sharply curtailed by the kind of nondisclosure agreements that have bound the former employees of ex-Mayor Michael Bloomberg and victims of the recently convicted Harvey Weinstein. The criminal justice system, meanwhile, is often actively harmful and notoriously retraumatizing to survivors of sexual violence. Victim compensation funds cap benefits at an average of $25,000 and are only accessible to survivors who quickly file police reports and cooperate with law enforcement.
In general, however, I object to the idea that any survivor of sexual or domestic violence should need to report the harm they experienced to the police, or bring a lawsuit, or describe their trauma in a GoFundMe to meet their financial needs. Survivors deserve a world where we can access necessary medical and mental health care, housing, and child care without having to prove we were harmed — and we deserve a feminist movement willing to fight for that world.
Nevertheless, as transformative as something like single-payer health care would be, deeper structural reforms are needed to eradicate the racism and sexism within the medical system, which harms survivors of sexual violence. The money needed to fund the networks of universal care and community support so desperately needed by survivors of violence might be found by divesting from police and prisons. As prison abolitionist Mariame Kaba has argued, by defunding the police we can simultaneously lessen the harms of police violence while also diverting much needed money toward real needs like physical and mental health care, education, housing, and good jobs. As for me, I’ve never wanted to see Dan in a cage, if for no other reason than it would be of no benefit to anyone at all.
In the end, Dan and I agreed that he would wire me $10,000 from his savings account, a sum that would clear my debts and leave me with enough money to see specialists about my worrying physical symptoms of pain and fatigue. Ultimately a neurologist diagnosed me with fibromyalgia, a chronic pain condition that disproportionately affects trauma survivors, and I began treatment. With a few clicks, Dan transformed the material conditions of my life. After I got off the call, I walked out into glorious spring sunshine and cried from laughing. Three days later, the money hit my bank account.
In the year after our conversation, I spent most of the $10,000 Dan sent me on health care. I was left feeling grateful, absurd as it is, for financial help yet furious that the lack of a social safety net in the U.S. meant I needed to ask my rapist for anything. I keep returning to what it felt like to put a dollar value on the harm I’ve experienced. I know that despite the substantial sum that Dan paid me, it will be only a drop in the bucket of the expenses I’ve borne and will continue to carry for the rest of my life. I chafe against the label “survivor” because, with my tangle of diagnoses and history of suicidality, trauma might be the thing that kills me after all — if it doesn’t bankrupt me first.
It has been 14 years since Dan assaulted me, and I have very little anger left for him. He harmed me grievously, but he has attempted to repair the damage he caused. I am still furious at the counselor who failed me when I tried to report that I had been assaulted, the student loan system that left my parents and me shackled to debt for a degree I never earned, and the health care system that rations care based on ability to pay its exorbitant prices. I am most furious at carceral feminisms, which have so little to offer to survivors with real economic needs. I have been a feminist since I knew what the word meant, but surviving rape made me a socialist.
Alexandra Walling is a member of the Socialist Feminist Working Group of the Democratic Socialists of America organizing to build a red New York City. She also studies comparative biology as a Ph.D. candidate at the Richard Gilder Graduate School of the American Museum of Natural History.
A Firsthand Account of a Back-to-School Season from Hell
By Sarah Leonard
Photos by Marilena Marchetti
Last spring, as the coronavirus swept through New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio resisted pressure to shut down the public school system and send home 1.1 million children and 75,000 teachers. Around March 12, teachers discovered a case of Covid-19 at the Crotona International High School in the Bronx. Administrators declined to close the school because the Department of Public Health didn’t have the case on record. But as more and more cases popped up in schools, unionized teachers organized sickouts, met with parents, and decried the dangers of de Blasio’s policy in the press — finally forcing the mayor’s hand. On March 16, he ordered a switch to remote learning.
Marilena Marchetti is one of the teachers who was involved in this effort. She’s an occupational therapist, a job that requires her to go from school to school to conduct assessments and do direct service work with special education students who have trouble reading or with motor skills. She’s also a member of the radical Movement of Rank and Filed Educators (more) caucus within the United Federation of Teachers. She has worked at the New York Department of Education (DOE) since 2014, and prior to that she spent two years working in Chicago public schools, where she participated in the Chicago Teachers Union strike of 2012. She is a socialist.
We talked in November, when New York City schools were partially remote. Marchetti had spent the summer organizing with parents and fellow teachers to keep schools closed and get resources for online classes until the virus was under control, but by September, de Blasio had declared a partial re-opening. A passionate fight gave way to resignation, and students began returning to classrooms on September 29. When I spoke with Marchetti on the phone, she was exhausted, disgusted, and near tears. “This is a depressive rage,” she said, “it’s like being numb and on fire at the same time.”
On November 19, as the city approached a 3 percent test positivity rate, the mayor shut down schools again. As of December, at least 79 DOE employees had died of Covid-19, including 31 teachers.
Here, in her own words, is Marchetti’s description of a back-to-school season from hell:
FREIGHT TRAIN COMING
“All summer, I felt like I was full-time organizing. I would wake up, get out of bed and open WhatsApp, start my computer, and I had this drive to protect the kids. I was so positive about this time because I felt like I was in Chicago again: I knew what a united, interracial parent-teacher-student education justice movement could be like, when parents are your comrades in fighting against the city. Then, the re-opening got handed down from the mayor.”
“The mayor’s plan was to show that it was okay to go to school, and therefore that it was okay to go outside and to restaurants. That was also the agenda of the business class.”
“I have this image of a freight train coming right toward us, and we’re yelling and the driver sees us — actually sees us! — but just keeps going. It couldn’t have been made any more clear to us that the mayor was going to prioritize profit over life. As a socialist I’ve always known this to be true, but if ever there was a time to test it… Are you really a human? Is there a heart in your chest? No, the laws of capitalism always prevail. The system won’t stop until your money stops.”
TRUST AND TECH
“Students got iPads if they needed them, which sounds amazing until you realize that these iPads didn’t have App Store access because the DOE didn’t want students to use them for anything other than school. They limited their capacity, which prevented us from actually getting work done. Most of my students have phones, and so it would have been beautiful if they had been able to set it up with the same password and sync across their devices, but god forbid we give families vouchers to get tech that can be integrated with what they already have and or let them download apps that their teachers would want them to have — the DOE has to control everything. I can’t have my kids download anything I’d want them to use but the DOE can track me because you can only log in with a DOE account. It felt like a tracking device.”
“My kids who are in sixth grade and below have visual motor delays that make it hard for them to write, and so an iPad is no different than a TV. Instead of this $800 device let’s send them crafts, Legos, something that helps them engage with their parents.”
“Then there’s the ‘free’ Wi-Fi — to access it you had to sign up for an account with your credit card. If you already owed money on another internet account then you were cut off. We drew attention to this and they changed it. But since there is no citywide free Wi-Fi right now the idea that any family can opt in to remote learning is a joke. I have students who don’t have Wi-Fi and they’re just not logging in to classes.”
DEATH AND DEPRIVATION
“One of my students lost two of his uncles, another lost her mother, and I’m relating to them over a screen. These kids need a lot more support than they are able to receive. They might not log in, they might not answer a phone call, and I might not be able to see the pain they’re in.”
“It’s sad because I’m always left thinking that I’m not doing enough, and that’s why a student isn’t showing up, but no — they’re on the verge of being homeless, or they don’t have Wi-Fi. How is my role going to be able to account for all that neglect and deprivation? The best way to improve educational outcomes is to improve other things: kids need tech equity and stable lives that aren’t impeded by chaos and lack of opportunity.”
RE-OPENING AND THE RACE GAP
“All the New York Times articles highlighting parents who wanted the schools to open felt like some kind of propaganda. My sense is that disproportionately whiter and wealthier students are attending in person. Friends teaching in the Bronx at schools without any white kids tell me that they have only one or two students in class. I see a lot of white kids at school, and I know that many of my students of color are at home.”
“We expected this disparity because kids of color face more death from the coronavirus. This mayor keeps saying that education means so much to poor communities of color, and it’s like, yeah, so does life, and those communities were hit so much harder. None of us bought the mayor’s narrative and that’s why the Times coverage was so disgusting.”
“I have a special needs student who doesn’t have Wi-Fi and has to go to school in-person, but she’s also very poor and her mom is like, ‘hell no, she’ll go over my dead body,’ because she’s afraid of her getting sick.” (Not long after our interview, the Times ran a major article with the headline: “12,000 More White Children Return to N.Y.C. Schools Than Black Children.”)
STRESS, OLD AND NEW
“The in-person work that I’m doing [during the partial reopening] is nice in some ways because the schools are not as crowded. It’s a much calmer, nicer vibe. Normally, we’re always yelling at kids in the hallway between classes: walk, don’t run; be quiet. When are we going to learn that this single-file line thing isn’t developmentally appropriate? That problem isn’t there anymore. It turns out getting ten kids to walk from one place to another is not hard.”
“Regents [New York’s state-wide assesment exam] has been cancelled for high schoolers. The tests skew everything and they turn teaching into coercion. Some kids don’t need coercion; they’re made for the test. But my kids have special needs. Getting rid of testing has eliminated a lot of stress.”
“Of course, there are new stresses: taking Covid tests, keeping the windows open, maintaining social distance. We’ve had to close a few times. If a kid wants to have lunch with me in my classroom I’m stressed out because they’re eating without a mask in front of me. What can I do? We’re working together; we have to eat. That’s part of my anxiety, which is like a depressive rage. I feel I don’t have a lot of agency and I’m so burned out.”
In early June, the New York City Health Department issued a cheerfully sex-positive set of Covid-19 guidelines. Despite mask mandates, lockdown orders and the recommendation to stay six feet away from most people, the city government said it was okay to have sex, and recommended getting “a little kinky.” One gay publication read it, not implausibly, as an exhortation to use glory holes, while to me it seemed to encourage masked orgies in the park.
It was heartening to see an American government body respond with practicality and vision to the erotic needs of its constituents. Such moments are too rare, and that’s why we need the legacy of Alexandra Kollontai, a political thinker who imagined a communist state that would do this for us every day. Kollontai wasn’t perfect — her particular ideas about pleasure were, as we shall see, very heterosexual and inseparable from the Soviet agenda of birthing more communists (on the latter point, while considering abortion a “fundamental democratic right,” she never emphasized it). But as political theorist Jodi Dean said in a recent lecture, “Alexandra Kollontai teaches us to notice that the most intimate aspects of our lives are collective.”
Born in 1872 to an aristocratic family, Kollontai was radicalized in her youth and spent the years before the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution organizing working women in factories serving the textile and tobacco industries. In her spare time she studied Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, August Bebel, Vladimir Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg, as well as many thinkers who are not as well known today, such as the Menshevik Georgi Plekhanov, Swedish feminist Ellen Key, poet and literary critic Nikolay Dubrolyubov, and German feminists Lily Braun and Clara Zetkin. Kollontai was best known for her politics, but like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose favorite lipstick sold out after she was elected to Congress in 2018, Kollontai was also appreciated for her style: She snuck into Europe on party business by persuading border guards that she needed to shop for the latest fashions. (Kollontai was known for her standout hats, but otherwise, her wonderfully thorough biographer, Cathy Porter, has characterized her aesthetic as one of “expensive simplicity”: form-fitting dresses, gray or brown hues, and a notable absence of whalebone corsets.) A renowned writer, she was also an orator, and wildly popular with working-class and peasant audiences.
As a minister in the Bolshevik government, she exhorted her male colleagues to support pregnant women and mothers at a time when orphanages and even streets were overrun with abandoned children. She advocated for free child care, paid maternity leave, an end to night shifts for mothers, equal pay for women, and the creation of special government agencies to oversee such policy changes. Although she would become the only member of the original Bolshevik cabinet to remain in government — and survive to old age — Stalin eventually tired of her dissenting opinions. In 1923 he sent her to Norway as the world’s first female ambassador, and she would later serve as the USSR’s ambassador to Mexico and to Sweden. She died of natural causes at the age of 80 with most of her revolutionary vision unfulfilled.
In spite of the wonderfully cheeky title of her 1926 Autobiography of a Sexually Emancipated Communist Woman, Kollontai never felt as if she’d achieved the ideal of communist love she’d written about her whole life. (Don’t be fooled by the title: The memoir is disappointingly lacking in salacious content or even good communist gossip.) As she recalled in the Autobiography,
The question rises whether in the middle of all these manifold, exciting labors and Party-assignments I could still find time for intimate experiences, for the pangs and joys of love. Unfortunately, yes!
I say unfortunately because ordinarily these experiences entailed all too many cares, disappointments, and pain, and because all too many energies were pointlessly consumed through them.
After the October Revolution, Kollontai briefly went MIA from her job as a minister in the new government. Her Bolshevik comrades discovered that she’d run off with her lover, fellow revolutionary Pavel Dybenko. The situation was highly relatable: Lust, longing, and emotional “drama” as Kollontai put it, can easily distract from important work. But Kollontai tended to put Soviet communism before her love life, perhaps out of self-preservation. Stalin imprisoned Dybenko and eventually had him killed.
Kollontai is now the focus of a small public revival, alongside the political revival of socialist feminism itself. Her work features prominently in Jodi Dean’s 2019 book, Comrade: An Essay on Political Belonging, and her ideas inform Kristen Ghodshee’s hit 2018 book Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism: And Other Arguments for Economic Independence. Kollontai was the subject of “Red Love,” a 2018 exhibition by artist Dora Garcia mounted at a gallery in suburban Stockholm, which itself spawned a lively anthology of writings by the same name.
In every job she held, Kollontai’s political enemies — communists in opposing factions, sexually conservative comrades, the Western capitalist press — deplored, misunderstood and mocked her ideas about sexual liberation and love. But those ideas are becoming more relevant than ever. “In striving to change fundamentally the conditions of life,” she wrote of communist women, “they know that they are also helping to reform relationships between the sexes.”
Kollontai was hardly the only Victorian thinker advocating sexual freedom for women and the end of conventional marriage. But she was one of the few to understand that such freedom must have a material basis.
For some feminists, she wrote in 1909, “The heroic struggle of individual young women of the bourgeois world, who fling down the gauntlet and demand of society the right to ‘dare to love’ without orders and without chains, ought to serve as an example for all women languishing in family chains…. The marriage question, in other words… is solved independently of changes in the economic structure of society. The isolated, heroic efforts of individuals is enough. Let a woman simply ‘dare’, and the problem of marriage is solved.” But, she said, free love should not be available only to the “heroic.” If introduced into society as it existed in 1909, she worried that rather than free women from the hardship of family life it would instead “shoulder her with a new burden — the task of caring, alone and unaided, for her children.”
Communism, she argued, could make “free love” possible for women by socializing housework and child care, as well as creating comfortable conditions for pregnant and nursing women. She envisioned — and even managed to implement during her time in government — maternity homes in which women were cared for during pregnancy and while nursing their babies. She also worked to ensure that all new mothers would be given time off. If women knew that the state would support them as mothers and provide for their children, Kollontai reasoned, they would be much freer to pursue and enjoy sex for its own sake (as well as to work and fully participate in building communism).
Kollontai wasn’t the only early socialist to imagine how sex could be improved by getting rid of capitalist individualism. In the early 19th century, utopian socialist Charles Fourier had delightfully absurd visions of democratized sexual arrangements, including a travelling “army of lovers” that would visit anyone in need. Even earlier, Welsh philanthropist and social reformer Robert Owen imagined communes organized around a form of group marriage. But of these thinkers, Kollontai was the most practical in considering how capitalism ruins sex for women — and how communism might make things better.
How did her ideas work out? Though she did realize some of her goals for maternity leave and maternity homes, Kollontai was derided for her theories of “free love” even by her fellow Bolsheviks. Kollontai noted with annoyance that the Bolshevik regime was no more sexually progressive than many liberal Western democracies in facilitating divorce, abolishing the concept of child “illegitimacy” and legalizing homosexuality (homophobic attitudes remained intact). And while the Bolsheviks legalized abortion in 1920, Stalin subsequently banned it in 1936 in order to keep birth rates up. Like many capitalist leaders, he faced future labor shortages and found Kollontai’s preferred approach — making motherhood easier and more joyful — expensive. Though Kollontai contributed to some important reforms, Soviet Russia in her lifetime was in some ways a libidinal failure.
Among her many problems with bourgeois sex, Kollontai indicts it for isolating “the loving pair from the collective.” She was concerned that couples would retreat into their own private life, away from the pursuit of a common good. Love under capitalism can be a private joy — or a private hell. Though Kollontai believed that communism would transform this experience, she could not say exactly how. “What will be the nature of this transformed Eros? Not even the boldest fantasy is capable of providing the answer to this question.”
She did suggest some principles. Communist sex, she thought, should be guided by gender equality and “an end to masculine egoism and the slavish suppression of the female personality.” Contrary to the teachings of “bourgeois culture,” human beings were not private property: “One does not own the heart and soul of the other.” Finally, she advocated for “comradely sensitivity, the ability to listen and understand the inner workings of the loved person (bourgeois culture demanded this only from the woman).” She did not mention consent, but it seems implied by her fury at rape and economic coercion. I think she would have regarded it as both an obvious precondition for sex, and a pathetically low bar.
In the context of a society built on “joyful unity and comradeship,” Kollontai argued that sex and love would be much better, and also matter less. She wrote,
The stronger the intellectual and emotional bonds of the new humanity, the less room for love in the present sense of the word…. However great the love between two members of the collective, the ties binding the two persons to the collective will always take precedence, will be firmer, more complex and organic. Bourgeois morality demanded all for the loved one. The morality of the proletariat demands all for the collective.
Kollontai observed that even though bourgeois love is by definition a private matter, it still advanced class interests. As any reader of nineteenth century novels knows, love and sex — and their regulation — ensure the orderly transfer of property and the consolidation of wealth. In earlier eras, the ideal of courtly love inspired knightly heroics. Kollontai argued that proletarians, too, should use love to further their own class interest. Rather than take comrades out of the public sphere, she believed that love should enable them to tap into a collective eros and more fully engage in working class struggle. If you’ve been part of a movement — or a protest or strike — you know this eros well.
The 1939 film Ninotchka, directed by Ernst Lubitsch, explores the tensions between love, collectivity, and comradeship with a screwball touch. It stars Greta Garbo in the title role as a Soviet operative in Paris, a character sometimes said to be based on Alexandra Kollontai — or more likely, as Aaron Schuster suggests in his essay for the Red Love collection, a parody of Kollontai’s communist sexual ideal. On the surface the film can be read as anti-communist propaganda: Ninotchka betrays her communist principles by falling in love with Leon, a European aristocrat, and discovers the sensuous joys of fine lingerie. She wins him over easily with her hilariously clinical approach to sex. “Chemically,” she tells her suitor, “we are already quite sympathetic.” As might be expected in a Hollywood movie, she is transformed by the relationship. In love with Leon, Ninotchka becomes prettier, happier, more feminine. She buys a ridiculously gaudy hat — perhaps a playful wink at Kollontai’s affinity for hats — which becomes a symbol of her seduction by capitalism. Before meeting Leon, Ninotchka had mocked that same item as a sign that Western capitalism was at death’s door.
But, as Schuster observes, there are ways to read this story other than as capitalist triumphalism. When Ninotchka gets drunk with her aristocratic lover — on champagne, which it turns out she loves — she makes speeches about the greatness of communist Russia and slinks off to the bathroom to organize the female attendants. As Schuster notes, the scene playfully upends the cliché about sexual desire being revealed through drink. Instead, he writes,
On the contrary, totally soused and out of control, it is comradeship-love that comes bubbling to the surface. This is Ninotchka’s deepest drive, her basest id, and her truest passion. The covert message of the film is, if you get drunk and let yourself go, if you overcome your inhibitions, if your id is allowed to run wild, you will be a communist.
The movie seems to place romance and communism in opposition. It’s clear that Lubitsch, like Kollontai, understands that exclusive, privatized bourgeois love is at odds with collective commitment. At one point Leon even starts babbling about exploitation, suggesting he could perhaps become a comrade. Ninotchka returns to Russia for a while, but longs for Leon. While at the end of the movie she seems to choose Leon over her commitment to Soviet Russia — a choice Kollontai would never have made — it’s worth noting that to lure Ninotchka back, Leon must conspire with her comrades to concoct a fake mission on her country’s behalf.
The movie leaves us wondering how Ninotchka can thrive without communism. Though she pined for Leon, might she not, in the long run, suffer the loss of collective eros even more? You might say we still don’t know. Or perhaps, hundreds of years into the capitalist experiment, we know all too well.
Liza Featherstone is a columnist for Jacobin and contributing writer to The Nation. She is also the editor of a forthcoming collection of Kollontai’s writings, which will be published by OR Books and International Publishers in 2021. This essay is adapted from her introduction to that volume.
Lux Interviews Ariella Thornhill About Teenage Riots and Unequal Pleasure
By Sarah Leonard
Art by Katie Shelly
Ariella Thornhill is a woman of many talents: an author, a contributing editor to Lux, and a host of The Jacobin Show. She’s now writing Socialist Sex Ed, a sex education book for teenagers, illustrated by Katie Shelly. She also has two kids, ages six and three.
Thornhill has a radical vision for what sex education could be: not just a rejection of conservative abstinence-only sex ed, but something that goes several steps beyond liberal efforts to make kids feel good about their bodies. She’s interested in a radical approach to how we think about bodies and hormones, and wants to talk to kids about the structural barriers that shape their access to care and pleasure.
Sarah Leonard What made you want to do this book?
Ariella Thornhill I had my son, he was around two or three, and I’d already taught preschool so I knew this was a normal time in kids’ development for them to start exploring their own body. I was talking to some friends of mine about sex education and how open we were going to be with our kids about certain details.
We read a book that was a cross-cultural study of the Netherlands and America, and it drew the conclusion that the Netherlands’ sex education led to more gender equality. It had suggestions, some of which were really great, like using the real names for your kid’s body parts — use “penis” and “vagina,” not “peepee” or whatever. Be honest with them about the pleasure their body can feel, and don’t make them feel alienated or bad if they play doctor or experiment sexually.
But some of these tips were only accessible to particular kinds of parents. For example: Give your kids permission to play doctor with other kids and talk to other parents about how “my child would like to ask consent from you and from your child to play this game.” Which would be great if you were in a community of progressive parents who had read the same book and were on board.
I realized after reading a couple of other books that, like most things, we approach sex education and sexual health with a liberal ethos, focused on changing a person’s values and moods. So rather than teaching kids about sex in an open and honest way, and then being open and honest about how it’s very difficult to afford getting treated for an STD, or saying that we need to organize to make sure everybody has the right to do what they want to with their body, it’s about celebrating your shape and your size and being positive about your sexual identity.
It’s interesting to me how conversations about race and gender have started to focus on the way that certain experiences and certain things are unavailable because of racial inequality or because of gender inequality. But when people think about sex, sexual health, sexual experience, pleasure, and fulfilling relationships, they don’t apply that same thing.
SL What does inequality look like when it comes to pleasure?
AT There’s a multiplicity of ways that pleasurable experiences can happen. And part of the foundation of pleasure is health. There are many studies that show that if a community is underinsured, then they have higher rates of sexually transmitted infections. That’s true with every illness, but when you look at illnesses that have specific implications for a person’s sex life, you can start to see ripple effects across the community. And when it’s a communicable disease that’s spreading and it’s an underinsured or uninsured community, it spreads much faster and it’s stopped way later than in another community. So that’s a really clear example of the ways that this can make sex inaccessible to certain people.
It’s also true when you look at sexual identity: People often don’t have the means to express themselves in a way that feels true to their gender or sexual identity, or make the kinds of connections they’d want. A lot of these things are only communicated or accessed through things that cost money, so the amount of money you have changes your comfort level, your ability to feel safe and connected, and your ability to be true to who you are. Without money, it’s also hard to have a relationship that’s casual, in the sense of feeling like the stakes within a relationship are low. They’re worried about whether they might have a place to stay. And so they may have to lean on a person for certain resources or not see somebody because they’re worried about how they’ll come off, if they didn’t have access to a shower or a hot meal.
In some cases, the relationship between pleasure and housing has been made very clear: During the welfare rights campaigns in the 1960s and 70s, women protested the fact that they were penalized for having men stay in their apartments or homes that were subsidized by Section 8 programs.
Or if a person has a disability, assistive technology like a sex toy might be almost a necessity for them to have sexual pleasure in a way that they can control. And for those people, if they can’t afford that sex toy, that’s a big deal. So there’s all kinds of resources and situations that change people’s sex lives.
SL One of the key experiences of being a kid is how powerless you are; it’s such a distressing part of being young. How do you deal with that in a book that wants to take on the structural barriers to pleasure?
AT I realized that part of what frustrated me about some of the books I was reading from a more liberal standpoint is that they often ignore that exact thing. So it’ll be like, “Shout your abortion and be proud. You’re taking birth control, be happy about your body. Don’t let an authority figure tell you otherwise!” But teenagers often don’t have control over those things. That’s a legal fact: They’re minors, and also many of them can’t drive. Sometimes they literally can’t do things that they want to do.
There is a kind of cultural production of teenagedom that is rooted in Hollywood in the 1960s, rooted in this idea of an upper-middle-class person with a certain degree of freedom from their parents and what seems like unlimited money. As a cinematic choice it makes sense because you have to flatten the world out so that the social drama is the only thing that matters. But it influences how people think about teenagers, and the more you dig into the real history of teenagers, the more you realize that they were the radicals at the front line of almost every movement for public space.
SL Give me some examples of teens at the front lines.
AT When you look at the protests in Chile or in Paris or the Arab Spring, a lot of people on the front lines are teenage girls or teenagers standing out there screaming at cops while holding the tops of trash cans.
The girl who kind of started the protests against segregated busing was a 15-year-old named Claudette Colvin, who was arrested before Rosa Parks. And civil rights organizers were like, “This is a great form of civil disobedience, but no one will be sympathetic to a teenager because they think teenagers don’t listen anyway. So we need an older woman.”
Another example that I love is the Sunset Strip curfew riots in 1966. (Mike Davis writes about this in his new book with Jon Wiener, Set the Night on Fire.) Elites were trying to sweep the kids out of the Sunset Strip and close down the music venues, but it was one of the only places that kids had to just go and be together. There was a protest by teenagers, and then a huge sweep where the police cracked down and started beating these kids, arresting them en masse. And the kids just fought back. What’s incredible about that movement is that after the crackdown, they talked to some Black Panthers and the Panthers were like, “This is what always happens in our community. We’re not allowed to be anywhere on the street.” And they talked to people in the Latino community, and the same thing was true. These kids were mostly working-class kids who would come in from the suburbs and hang out there. And they created this cross-cultural coalition that ended up creating an association to fight back against the developers.
I think every teen culture has had a group of leaders who get on the wrong side of the law; really it’s just a social impulse where they want to be together and make out or whatever else. But that needs to be defended! We have no public space for that. We have private spaces you can buy into. Although we’ve even lost the mall now.
SL Teenagers should get their own history taught in school. I think I would’ve felt more powerful. The thing that saved me from hating 100 percent of my life as a teenager was music, which after all is mostly made by people who, if not teenagers, are very close.
So tell me more about the specific things that you’re trying to do differently in this book.
AT Well, I have a lot of the traditional content — you know, “Your body is changing.” Part of the politics of the book is just in how I write it. I don’t write with gender pronouns. I try not to gender hormones, which is surprisingly common. And I try to show that most of these changes happen to every single person. And that includes ones that people think are sex-specific, like breast growth or a person’s voice changing or hair growth. A lot of people have that, regardless of their sex or gender, and knowing why is important to everyone.
And then I go through chosen changes, because this is a time in everybody’s life where they choose how they want to look. If they want hair to be on a certain part of their body, if they want to smell different, if they want to wear different clothes, if they want to take hormones.
SL Some readers might think OK, this is well and good, but if you’re talking about hormones and body parts and so forth without gender attached, how is that going to make sense to kids who were raised on mainstream language of gender?
AT That was difficult. But I am appealing to the natural and healthy narcissism of children, because they think everything’s about them. So what I do say in the book is: If you’re shaving, or if your breasts start to swell, you can do X, Y, and Z. I think it’s actually more confusing for kids to read books that neglect what people call gray areas but are in fact just commonalities. So if you are very proud of being a boy and you identify that way, and then you start to have breast swelling, which is really normal, you might feel unable to talk about or address or even think about it. And if you love your breasts and you identify as a girl, and then you start growing hair on your nipples and no one’s told you that can happen to you, you might feel really ashamed. And you may try to remove that hair in a way that’s really unhealthy. The point of the book is not to insist that everyone love everything that happens with their bodies, but rather to give them the tools to understand their bodies and make choices.
One of the biggest failures of sex ed is that it isn’t actual education; it doesn’t provide real scientific information. And in fact, it’s not required to by law in a lot of states. And it doesn’t help kids realize that everybody is managing their body all the time — adults are doing that constantly. These things are normal.
SL How do you connect these individual experiences with the big structural problems you were talking about?
AT Well, I talk about the structural barriers to managing those changes in the way you want. I have a whole section on acne, why it happens, and how you might treat it if you choose. I don’t want to alienate that kid who can’t afford those things. So the next section is like, let’s talk about why we have these standards of physical appearance. Let’s talk about how these things are exploited. And then let’s expand that and see how under capitalism, everybody is feeling this status anxiety. Everybody has a pervasive feeling of anxiety about their social value. And a lot of people don’t have any way to ameliorate it because we’re only offered consumptive choices. If you’re having self-esteem issues, it’s not just because there’s something going on in your head.
Also, the changes in your body are related to access to medical care. It’s about the rights that minors have in each state, the rights that they have in a medical setting, how they can learn to talk to doctors, their right to see their medical records, their right to request a different provider, their right to privacy, the right to seek care for sexually transmitted diseases without someone else’s consent. And then despite those rights, they should still be told that a lot of people don’t have access to these basic resources.
And so as not to be a complete and total bummer, I end with an explanation of how we can get it. The details of the U.K. vs. French vs. Canadian system are a little wonky to explain to kids in detail, but the basic premise and the fact that people organized to get those rights is not.
SL How do you write about sex?
AT Well, the thing about teenagers is that they talk about having sex all the time anyway. And I think the most important thing about teaching what sex feels like and what it should feel like is that if you encourage a person to connect with their own body, they’ll have a better understanding of their own pleasure. Then when something happens that they don’t like, they can tell you what it is. They will know.
I tried to describe some of that feeling, and I also tried not to center it in, “This is what your penis will feel like” or whatever. I tried to describe some of those feelings: Like, where can you feel this in your body? Can you feel this in your fingers? When you’re masturbating, think about where in your body feels good to you. It won’t just be one of the parts you’re touching. All your nerves are connected.
So I try to say, let’s break out of this idea that people just are fully sexual beings and you should know everything and it’s never going to be weird or awkward or funny or embarrassing.
We teach so much about consent and you’re supposed to say, “Yes, I want this.” “No, I don’t want this.” How can you know that? How is it possible to know that if you’re not encouraged to learn what you want and what you like, and how is it possible to know that if you can’t do that in a way where the stakes are low enough that you can try it out?
I think there’s this idea that, like, people come to sex fully formed. Like Athena springing from the head of Zeus or something.
SL I think she’s an eternal virgin, actually.
AT Yeah, and there’s nothing wrong with that. You spring from your dad’s head, you’re going to have some stuff to work out, you know?
SL One of the things you’ve said is that when you’re that age, you need situations where the stakes are low in order to figure your sexuality out. How would you describe a situation where the stakes are low?
AT So if you look at the Netherlands, they have great sex ed, they have clinics, you can get an abortion without parental consent with a physician’s consent. Most of their services are free. They have therapy available with a person who can talk to you about erectile dysfunction or sexual fantasies or having a different libido than your partner or sex you regret, which I maintain should be part of every sex ed curriculum in the world. So in that case, like if you’re a kid and you have sex with somebody, and something happens — say you get some kind of sexually transmitted infection — you can go to a clinic right by your school, and you can get treated for it for free. Kids commonly take advantage of that.
SL Say you have resources, like in the Netherlands. How do you also destigmatize getting care so that people use it?
AT I think that in the U.S. we have too much focus on destigmatizing things and not enough on giving you things. I don’t want to ignore stigma, especially in very conservative communities or religious communities that, for example, frown on vaccinations.
But it’s about access. It’s not like we have a huge abundance of abortion clinics and free clinics for treating sexual health issues and people just don’t go in them.
SL Do you see anyone organizing on this front?
AT I think anyone organizing for universal programs is doing that. They just don’t necessarily relate it to pleasure. So in the California teachers’ strikes, they were organizing for more nurses in schools. That is wonderful. That’s exactly the place to start. That’s something teenagers can do too. And then we should go further and say, “We should have free period products in every single school in the country, and we should have free birth control and the nurses can give it out — they’re nurses.”
SL I was curious if you see your project as being in a kind of feminist tradition. I’m thinking of something like Our Bodies, Ourselves.
AT I do think that it’s in a feminist tradition, if only because feminists seem to be the ones talking about pleasure and your right to understand your own body.
But I think a lot of these books in the past took for granted that institutions wouldn’t and couldn’t do what they needed and wanted. And I’ve seen this in a lot of other books, like, for instance, about midwifery and home birth. They’re responding to a horrible, horrible crisis in prenatal and postpartum care in America. I completely understand why an individual would find that comforting and helpful. With Our Bodies, Ourselves, you can take that information and you can say to your provider, actually I know about my body and this is what I need. This is a partnership, not a dictatorship. But in the end, it’s a DIY approach.
Then there are great comprehensive analyses of every single thing I’m talking about from housing to health care. One feminist demand has long been the need for private space, a room of one’s own. I’ve seen a lot of books that talk about that. I’ve seen a lot of books that talk about housing justice. I’ve seen a lot of books about intimacy and desire and talk about reclaiming those things and a person’s right to those things.
But I haven’t yet seen something that puts them together. Where does intimacy happen? Where does one feel able to be intimate? Where does one feel able to have desire? What are the conditions for those feelings? So I’m just trying to connect these, the personal to the political. And I think feminism has been doing that for as long as it’s been around.
On Anti-Racism, Private Property, and the Black-Owned Small Business
By Marian Jones
Critics and commentators across the political spectrum have been quick to dismiss Vicky Osterweil’s book In Defense of Looting, which examines the act of looting to uncover the connections between white supremacy, property rights, and police violence. Osterweil argues that looting is not merely a manifestation of collective anger but a demonstration of resistance to a political-economic status quo that has failed most people. She reminds us that uprisings, property damage, and criminal mischief are regularly expunged from the approved history of the Black Freedom Movement, which contained many incidents of sporadic rioting alongside the more respectable examples of nonviolent and civil disobedience. She documents how, in every era of United States history, stealing and destroying private property has been an essential tactic in attacking an economic system reliant on racial domination.
Since Osterweil advocates for looting, detractors have concluded that she must also endorse the destruction of immigrant-owned, minority-owned, and family-owned shops. In Newsweek, one critic mourned “all of those Black- and minority-owned businesses in Minneapolis” that saw “their businesses,” “their dreams,” reduced to ashes. In his review, Matt Taibbi dismissed Osterweil as a “Very Online Person” who “clearly has no idea what it is to work, to spend years squeaking out the shitty little margins of a corner store or a restaurant.” Others called her “terribly condescending,” also assuming she was “privileged enough to not need money.”
In a particularly pugnacious Q&A, the New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner asked Osterweil if she would still condone looting if “a white guy with a good job who’s been very fortunate in his life” raided “a Black-owned store… in the service of bringing down capitalism.” Osterweil was unmoved by the hypothetical. “Most of the things that happen during looting and rioting are happening in self-defense,” she maintained, claiming that damage done to small-business owners is retaliation for the violence that makes private property possible. “If we can think of property as the evil that we saw slavery as,” she reasoned, would we still feel empathy for “a small slaveholder being ruined by a fugitive running away because he only enslaved two people?” Chotiner was appalled by the comparison, but Osterweil argued that it was not at all absurd to view “property as part of those systems of oppression very, very directly.” It is “built on an unimaginably violent prison system, imperialist war, anti-Blackness to its core, and a murderous police,” she said.
In the interview, Chotiner and Osterweil exemplified two opposing positions we’ve seen clash repeatedly since 2016: those interested in reviving the Black radical tradition of the left and those resolved to pit socialism and antiracism against each other. For the latter, invoking the Black-owned small business is an old rhetorical technique meant to defang Black protests by shaming political action that falls outside the bounds of respectable activity. When the movement challenges the economic order, even progressive liberals can become staunch defenders of the status quo.
Chotiner’s rich white anarchist straw man pilfering Black-owned businesses is meant to expose leftists as hypocrites. The author of the Newsweek op-ed speculated whether Osterweil would attempt to justify her work in a room filled with people of color. If you care so much about racial justice, the argument goes, then why would you endorse destruction of property owned by people of color?
The question assumes that the left’s aim is the racial diversification of the existing system. In trying to call her out, Osterweil’s critics instead demonstrate the thinness of their own politics.
For liberals, meritocracy ranks high in the struggle to end white supremacy. By this logic, when individual people of color seek higher office or become a CEO, they are challenging white supremacy, no matter how they wield the power they’ve gained; likewise, the success of individual people of color as business owners is celebrated as anti-racist by definition. The preoccupation with entrepreneurs of color ignores the bigger picture — the exploitation, coercion, and subjugation of people of color have been instrumental and are inseparable from capitalism’s development.
Diversity is conceived of very differently on the left. Generally speaking, the left doesn’t view race as just an identity. As Asad Haider explains in Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump, race is produced by relations of power, and has been a tool used to justify systems of domination like convict leasing, segregation, disenfranchisement, and mass incarceration. Or, in the oft-cited words of scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore, racism is “the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.” For leftists, ending racism is therefore a matter of transforming the material relations that make race appear real.
For Osterweil, those material relations date back to American slavery — a point she tried to drive home to Chotiner. “Strong, explicit” racist ideology, according to Osterweil, “does not appear in the historical record in America until the revolutionary period, when the rights of man (and it is indeed man) became the defining philosophy of US politics.” If liberty and property were “inalienable” rights, how could the white slave-owning aristocracy explain the hundreds of thousands of persons dispossessed of all independence and property? Racialization, a long and complicated historical development, helped justify the distinction between slave and master.
Looting is unpopular precisely “because it is often a movement’s most radical tactic.” It assaults certain deeply-ingrained notions in our society, like the right to private property, the state’s monopoly on violence, and the peaceful transfer of goods through markets. Osterweil argues that violating these norms through looting “frightens and disturbs nearly everyone, even some of its participants.” Looters expose the tenuous and artificial nature of property rights and the false equality of the law, revealing them to be “not natural facts, but social constructs benefiting a few at the expense of the many, upheld by ideology, economy, and state violence.” As Osterweil notes, many of the white liberal critics who decry looting also denounce multinational corporations and predatory lenders for wreaking havoc on small communities. But then they are appalled “when rioters take their critique to its actual material conclusion.”
Historically, it wasn’t just rioting and property destruction that struck fear into the hearts of white America — it was also the movement building that came afterward. For Osterweil, the most significant result of many infamous riots was the mass politicization of Black communities that followed the upheaval. She points to the Watts Riots, which inspired Bobby Seale to start the Black Panthers, and the Detroit riots, which led to the formation of the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM), a radical Black working-class labor organization. After last year’s Black Lives Matter uprising in New York City, decentralized left-wing groups popped up on social media and organized more demonstrations. Many of these groups did not exist before last summer, while other, more long-standing organizations have been able to use this political moment to grow their numbers and exercise leadership.
As socialism becomes more mainstream and more people of color begin to challenge both the Democratic and Republican parties, liberal pundits and politicians with a stake in the existing system have increasingly responded by depicting socialism and racial justice as at odds with one another. Last July in New York City, where I live and organize, city councilmember Laurie Cumbo frequently denounced the growing influence of the New York chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (NYC-DSA) on local politics. Cumbo, who has accepted substantial donations from the real estate industry, called NYC-DSA a “gentrification movement” with “a super majority of white organizational support” scheming how to “unseat Black leadership.” Not only are these accusations wrong — among other things, they ignore leftists of color — but also, at no point did Cumbo challenge the organization on any substantive political issues. It’s safe to assume that she hides behind allegations of racism to protect the New York Democratic establishment, an establishment that is both hostile to redistributive politics and whose close ties to real estate brought in the very gentrifiers Cumbo now rails against. Socialism, a political idea that challenges centrist Democrats’ power on moral grounds, can be conveniently dismissed by claiming it’s something for white, upper-class men.
Our discourse has been poisoned by attempts to use identity to attack and divide the left instead of as a useful lens that lets us see who is most victimized by capitalism. The idea of the rich white leftist destroying the humble Black-owned business increasingly feels like the stuff of Fox News, which has made a ritual of attempting to terrify Americans with images of burning police cars and black-clad anarchists. Fox does this in pursuit of its well-known political agenda — weakening the left and bolstering the right by trying to discredit any massive multiracial working-class movement.
In Defense of Looting makes a strong case that looting during violent anti-police rebellions is a revolutionary tactic for undermining capitalism’s very foundation. Nowhere does Osterweil argue that all instances of looting bring us closer to liberation, enjoy inherent moral justification, or represent conscious hostility to property rights. Rather, looting allows participants and open-minded observers to recognize the material connections between race, policing, and property, which can help future battles against racism. Looting enables the looter to imagine a struggle against white supremacy that doesn’t center on winning acceptance within the capitalist hierarchy of bosses and workers but instead tries to level it.
Marian Jones is an organizer, educator, and an editor of Lux.
Illustration by Sharanya Durvasula and Chloe Scheffe.
The writer's ideas, unifying socialist and identity politics, are suddenly in the spotlight
By E. Tammy Kim
Photos By Hannah Price
The unseasonable October heat added to my nerves as I walked onto the campus of Columbia University in 2019. I was there to introduce myself to Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, the Princeton professor and socialist activist, who was giving a talk about her new book, Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership. I had first come across Taylor in 2016, through her early history of the Black Lives Matter movement, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, and began to see her name and avatar everywhere. She gave interviews, talks, and speeches at a relaxed, Texan tempo, and tweeted sharp critiques of the Black political class, like when the NAACP formed a partnership with AirBnB, in 2017: “how can the NAACP not see AirBnB as a motor of displacement and gentrification???” She wrote jargon-free essays on everyone’s favorite buzzword — intersectionality — explaining why socialists should demand an end to racism without relying on “campaigns aimed at ending economic inequality alone.”
Her writing deals mercilessly with the contradictions of our day, but in preparing to interview her, I felt soothed by one observable fact: her use of emojis on Twitter. She was not above responding to the world’s absurdities, high and low: a burn by Congresswoman Maxine Waters, an unintended butt joke in a Pop-Tarts ad. All those cry-laughing yellow orbs betrayed a critic with a sense of humor.
In the modest lecture hall of Columbia’s Maison Française, a brick building that was once part of the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum, I joined a crowd of professors, students, and the odd community member, all of us forced to sit in uncomfortably stylish, clear plastic Ghost Chairs that refracted the sunlight pouring into the room. Taylor entered in an all-black button-up ensemble, blazer, page-boy hat, and red backpack, too hot for the day. She started her talk where Race for Profit begins: with rats, the vermin of inner-city housing.
In 1970, a woman named Janice Johnson was given a federally backed mortgage to buy her first house in Philadelphia, where Taylor now lives. De jure segregation and formal redlining were no more, but “predatory inclusion,” Taylor’s term for the funneling of poor African Americans into uninhabitable homes, was just getting started. The “racial liberalism” of people like George Romney, father of Mitt and the secretary of housing and urban development under Richard Nixon, held that American capitalism “could finally produce fairness and equality” for all. Johnson was thus given a Federal Housing Administration mortgage based on a new set of qualifiers — she was Black, parenting on her own, and receiving welfare benefits — but forced into the city’s worst housing stock. She moved in to find a sewer break, a ruptured foundation, and unreliable electricity. And then, on Halloween, “Johnson’s son, Edward, woke up to find a rat in his bed.”
Taylor brought sympathy and aggravation to a story so at odds with the pristine setting of her talk, and she carried this feeling into a challenging Q&A. First came probing queries from Robert Gooding-Williams, a professor of philosophy at Columbia, as well as a precocious undergraduate who’d already read Taylor’s not-yet-released book. Then came a white man in a baseball cap who asked whether the Black woman Taylor described simply wasn’t ready to own a house. Taylor heard him out while adjusting her glasses. Wasn’t it possible, she asked him, that the woman could have been both unpracticed at owning property and set up for failure? The podium troll conceded the point and retreated.
The exchange showed not only patience, but also an organizer’s instinct: the ability to connect race and capitalism in a way that could be easily understood. After the talk, the room emptied into an adjoining space. I introduced myself to Taylor, and she immediately turned my handshake into a hug.
Taylor was already well known at that point, but since then her ideas have stretched far beyond their usual audience. She became one of Bernie Sanders’ most influential advocates and, when his presidential campaign was over, urged people to keep organizing and avoid “moving from protest to polite politics.” In the early spring of Covid-19, Taylor taught remotely and gained extra time at home with her wife, Lauren Fleer, and young son, Ellison (named after Ralph Ellison, author of Invisible Man). She also had a new reason to write. “The most immediate question, at least for people I’m in touch with is, what can we do, what should we be doing, how do we organize ourselves publicly, with social-distance protocols?” she told me last April.
This question was answered a few weeks later, after four Minneapolis police officers killed George Floyd, a Black 46-year-old father and security guard who’d been furloughed during the pandemic. Protests spread locally, then around the country and overseas, as far as England, Japan, Australia, and Ghana. In early June, not far from Taylor’s house, activists in downtown Philadelphia tried to topple a bronze statue of Frank Rizzo, a notoriously racist and homophobic former mayor and police chief; under pressure, the city itself removed the statue. The following weekend, thousands of Philadelphians marched in 90-degree weather.
Taylor stayed inside, on account of her asthma, but contributed through essays and online talks. “That’s been odd for me, not to be able to personally be involved, because it’s intersecting with a pandemic,” she told me. “These are the choices we’ve been left with. We can either be in our houses, afraid to get sick and die, or out of our homes, attacked, harassed, and ultimately killed by the police. So it means people have to do something. You can’t sit at home and wait for this to blow over.”
Where does your name come from? A little while into my correspondence with Taylor, I asked this obvious and likely tiresome question. She said that it was hard to explain — “Very 1970s. I didn’t have a name for a month.” — but promised to dig up a document that laid it all out. Much later, she texted me a photo of two yellowed sheets of paper, mounted side by side on a red backdrop and set in a thin gold frame. The pages were covered in neat cursive, scribbles, and emphatic marks in fountain pen and ballpoint ink. Her late mother’s hand:
Her name will become, Keeanga-Yamahtta
The Taylor Collective wishes to announce
A Marxist-Leninist proletariat revolutionary has emerged in this historic epoch to aid in our struggle against capitalism, racism, sexism, colonialism, neo-colonial, and imperialism. Her name is Keeanga-Yamahtta.
Keeanga-Yamahtta is a dialectical name which will become the living embodiment of her life.
Unity Struggle Unity
Intensify class struggle
The Taylor Collective
Henry Doris Malik Jean-Jacques Keeanga-Yamahtta
Doris and Henry are the names of Taylor’s parents, and Jean-Jacques is her older brother, named after the Haitian leader Jean-Jacques Dessalines. But who was Malik, I asked. “…the dog… A collaborative effort in hilarity,” Taylor replied by text. Henry intended his daughter’s name to express “tricontinental” unity: “Keeanga” would represent Africa; “Yamahtta,” Asia; and “Taylor,” the West. “I wanted her life, her experiences to define the name,” Henry told me. “That’s what I meant when I said a ‘dialectical’ name: a name that’s continuing to evolve and develop.” (His youngest child, Taylor’s half brother, is Chad-Cinque, named for the West African revolutionary Joseph Cinqué.)
When Taylor was born, the family had moved from Virginia to upstate New York so that Henry could switch careers, from speech pathologist to historian. He entered a doctoral program at the University at Buffalo and got involved with the socialist Black Workers Congress. The organization eventually sent him to Cincinnati, Ohio, to do labor organizing, at which point he split ways with Doris and the kids.
Doris would raise Taylor and Jean-Jacques in Dallas, Texas, but the siblings went to stay with their father in Cincinnati every summer. When I asked Taylor about her first personal encounter with politics, she named an unlikely source. In Dallas, when she was 12, her mother gave her a subscription to Seventeen magazine, and one issue featured a story about abortion. It was “the first time I felt an acute sense of outrage,” Taylor recalled. “The idea that someone else could tell someone what to do with their bodies, especially about whether or not to give birth, was just… my own, personal sense of liberty and self-determination — it was such an affront to that.”
A couple years later, a 26-year-old factory worker and member of the Socialist Workers Party, Roni Lerouge, made an improbable run for mayor of Dallas. Taylor’s high-school government teacher invited Lerouge to speak, and when she did — about U.S. aid to Nicaraguan contras, the deportation of undocumented immigrants, Texas’ right-to-work law, and the threat to abortion access — Taylor felt an immediate pull. “Her whole speech was about socialism,” Taylor recalled.
Lerouge predictably lost the election, but she did manage to win young recruits to the International Socialist Organization, the umbrella network for the Socialist Workers Party. Taylor and a few classmates began to attend monthly ISO meetings at a bookstore in the Jefferson Avenue corridor of Dallas. “It’s fair to say that the ISO was the largest group on the far left in the country for a long time, probably until the rapid development of the DSA [Democratic Socialists of America],” Taylor explained. (The ISO folded in 2019.) The meetings were held in both Spanish and English, as Latino immigrants made up most of the local chapter. Race and class, the domestic and international, were all of a piece in their conversations.
Taylor went to the ISO in search of answers, and not in a casual or theoretical way. Her mother was a brilliant, enterprising woman who held a graduate degree in education but was unlucky in her career. As an administrator for Dallas’ school district, she hit a discriminatory ceiling. Then, as the owner of a house-cleaning business, she faced a recession. “My family was very educated — and this is the case with so-called middle-class Black people — but their class status was fragile. They were insanely educated; I’m a fourth-generation PhD. Yet my mother filed for bankruptcy in 1982.” The family had to move nearly every year; the city cut off their electricity and gas, and debt collectors came daily to their door. Taylor was exhausted.
At 16, she left home to live with her father, who had by then remarried and returned to University at Buffalo to be a professor. (Though their research has significant overlap, Taylor would not read her father’s work until she came across it referenced in Thomas Sugrue’s The Origins of the Urban Crisis, which she was reading for her own studies.) She enrolled at her father’s college and studied with the poets Charles Bernstein and Susan Howe, whose Language school emphasized “visuality,” process, and nonsense, and who “encouraged people to write for writing’s sake,” Taylor recalled. Inspired by their example, she dropped out and moved to New York City, where she attended City College but never quite finished. In 1997, her mother died suddenly, of lupus, and Taylor, deep in grief, soon relocated to Chicago.
Taylor’s new home turned out to be the ideal place to observe the contradictions of liberal politics, especially as the Clinton years, so grimly mechanized against the “undeserving poor,” gave way to Bush junior. Taylor took an editing job at the ISO’s Socialist Worker and found a home among left-wing activists. Contrary to the class-is-all-that-matters stereotype of today’s socialists, the Chicago ISO of Taylor’s time “went way in the opposite direction,” she said, “which was that you can’t understand the class dynamics of the United States without seeing the centrality of racism to the political project of the elite.” She befriended a public-school teacher, Jesse Sharkey, who’s now president of the Chicago Teachers Union, and Sharkey’s wife, Julie Fain, co-founder of the socialist publishing house Haymarket Books. She also befriended Fleer, her future wife, a carpenter turned engineer, at an anti-war meeting in Hyde Park.
“Keeanga was the one other person under the age of 65,” Fleer recalled, “so she was very excited to see me.” (Fleer and Taylor would eventually get married in Fain and Sharkey’s backyard in 2011.) Taylor protested the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq – she told a reporter in the emotionally raw days after 9/11 that the U.S. could “go and drop bombs anywhere in the world, but if anyone thinks that’s a solution, they’re completely naïve” – joined an LGBT rights’ group called Equal Marriage Now, helped coordinate Chicago’s part in the immigrant rights marches of 2006, and worked as a tenant organizer while finishing college at Northeastern Illinois University.
It was the preventable disaster of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 that, more than anything else, pushed Taylor’s thinking around white supremacy, class, and the state. Katrina “opened up this space to talk about racism and politics, and I felt unburdened,” she told me. Until that point, Taylor had mostly worked within the orbits of the iso. Now, she could write for a broader audience on wide-ranging subjects that she’d spent years examining. “The kind of official explanations were so misinformed and just dangerous that I felt compelled to intervene and knew that I could,” she said.
Taylor, a passionate cook, also mulled culinary school, but what “put the kibosh on that was, we were organizers who had meetings every night,” Fleer told me. Instead, Taylor enrolled in a new PhD program in African American studies at Northwestern University, with the aim of studying housing and race. She inadvertently began to follow her father’s path. “I knew I knew about Black people and had been studying independently about race and racial politics forever,” she said. Her time at Northwestern spanned the foreclosure crisis, Occupy Wall Street, revelations of torture by the Chicago police, anti-NATO protests, the 2012 Chicago teachers strike, and Obama’s reelection. All of it seeped into her work on housing. Unlike earlier scholars who emphasized geographic segregation, Taylor was part of a new cohort that saw Wall Street’s “financialization” of homes as a primary “driver of racial apartheid,” according to her doctoral adviser, the historian Martha Biondi. “She was very interested in what happened after 1968, after the end of redlining,” Biondi told me. “Obviously, the great recession of 2007 revealed that there was an ongoing exploitation of African American homebuyers.”
In 2014, Taylor was thrown into the punishing lottery of the academic job market. She hoped to stay in Chicago, but none of the universities in the area wanted to hire her. She instead accepted an offer from the African American studies department at Princeton, which is known for its public intellectuals. “I’m not pretending I’m an objective, dispassionate observer of things that go on in the world,” Taylor said. “I feel like African American studies can handle that.”
Taylor and Fleer moved from their beloved Chicago to Philadelphia, within commuting distance of Princeton’s campus. Then, just before her first semester, police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Though Taylor had signed a contract for a first scholarly book based on her dissertation, she set it aside. She marched in the streets, wrote essays, and sat for interviews. It was, like Hurricane Katrina, a moment to confront the twinned threats of capitalism and racism. At the request of Haymarket Books, she agreed to expand a talk she gave in Baltimore, titled “From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation.”
Taylor wrote feverishly over nine months, sometimes 15 hours a day, knitting Black Lives Matter to socialist movements of the past and positing “a new period of Black protest, Black radicalization, and the birth of a new Black left.” She wanted her book to “create a different set of explanations for hardship, and what to do about it,” she told me. “This is why Marxism has appealed to people all over the world, because free-market capitalism has failed. There are some people who’ve been looking for an explanation or framework to make sense for them.” From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation was intended as a manual for radicals living under the racial liberalism of the waning Obama administration and an imminent future under President Hillary Clinton. But Taylor’s book, born a week after her and Fleer’s son, Ellison, would come to inhabit and challenge a very different era.
The death threats arrived just a few months into Trump’s term, after Taylor gave a commencement speech at Hampshire College. Fox & Friends Weekend picked up her succinct take on the new president — “a racist, sexist megalomaniac” — provoking viewers to send Taylor a stream of violent emails. Princeton rushed to install security features in and around Taylor’s office in Stanhope Hall, the African American studies building, and Taylor cancelled planned talks in Seattle and San Diego.
Instead, she put her thoughts on the page. She returned to her dissertation and, in the short-term, signed on with Haymarket to assemble a slim collection of interviews marking the 40th anniversary of the Combahee River Collective statement, a 1977 manifesto written by Black queer socialist feminists, which called for “a clear leap into revolutionary action” and included the first-ever mention of “identity politics.” Taylor wanted to recover this term from liberals and conservatives who’d been using it cynically to deride calls for equality. “The inclusion of Black women on their own terms is not a concession to ‘political correctness’ or ‘identity politics,’” Taylor writes in the introduction to How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective. “Looking at the condition of Black women reveals the utter inadequacy of what qualifies as social welfare in the United States today.” In the words of the statement, “if Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.”
Taylor is the direct heir of the Combahee women, who emphasized identity politics as a unifying force. “Solidarity did not mean subsuming your struggles to help someone else,” Taylor writes, “it was intended to strengthen the political commitments from other groups by getting them to recognize how the different struggles were related to each other and connected under capitalism.” I often imagine Taylor holding two microphones, each wired to a separate auditorium: one filled with a crowd of Black liberals, the other with white leftists. “Keeanga is seen as an emissary between different camps. She’s respected by people on all sides,” Micah Uetricht, an editor at the socialist magazine Jacobin and co-author of How We Go from the Sanders Campaign to Democratic Socialism, explained. Taylor’s work shows both that racial justice needs socialism and also that any critique of capitalism must include an analysis of race.
Her converts are many. Kemi Role, an activist and employment advocate in San Francisco, told me, “I was very capitalism-neutral, and was in this false binary of, ‘it’s race, not class.’ And then you start reading Keeanga, and it’s like, ‘oh, I don’t know what I’m talking about.’” Devin Allen, a photographer who has documented the Black Lives Matter movement in Baltimore, said that, through conversations with Taylor, he came to connect “the Sandra Blands, Ferguson, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner” with larger economic structures.
In 2019, Taylor lent her talents to the Bernie Sanders campaign. At public talks and on the television and radio program Democracy Now!, she confounded the stereotype of the straight, white, male ‘Bernie Bro’ by praising Sanders for his commitment to “the working class, our class” and being the only candidate with a plan to end housing segregation. Taylor was neither his surrogate nor an uncritical fan, but she saw it as a sign of the times — and a victory for immigrant rights activists, Red for Ed teachers, Black Lives Matter, and climate strikers — that an old (and old-school) socialist could credibly reach for the presidency. Indeed, in the Nevada primary, Sanders won the support of Latinos and voters under 65 by extraordinary margins. The campaign attracted “young, working-class brown and Black people, not for strange reasons, but for obvious reasons,” Taylor told me. “The economy doesn’t work for them, and they’re looking for a different social arrangement.”
During the primary, I went to Princeton to see some of the young people Taylor had in mind. The day looked like a postcard of an Ivy League autumn, all crunchy leaves and blue sky, and Stanhope Hall was playing its part. As I made my way up the stairwell, I admired black-and-white portraits of Ida B. Wells, Shirley Chisholm, and Stokely Carmichael, and smiled at the directory on the wall: Taylor alongside Imani Perry, Naomi Murakawa, Cornel West, and Eddie Glaude. I thought of something that Professor Biondi, Taylor’s adviser at Northwestern, had told me: that Taylor “exemplifies the kind of engaged scholar or scholar activist that the Black Studies tradition, since its founding in the 1960s, envisioned.”
Twenty undergraduates, mostly Black but also white and Asian, gossiped in the second-floor seminar room and ate leftover Halloween candy until Taylor entered. She took roll call and apologized for not having brought their graded exams. She had just returned from a conference in Baltimore, she said, where an Uber driver zoomed off with a suitcase containing the tests and “the clothes I actually like to wear.” It was “the universe telling me to get away from Uber,” Taylor sighed.
The course was on “African American History Since Emancipation,” and the day’s readings included James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time and sections of Howard Zinn’s Postwar America: 1946–1971. One student asked, in a quiet voice, why Baldwin’s criticisms of white supremacy seemed to soften over the course of the book. “Speak up!” Taylor told her. Another student argued that Baldwin unfairly placed the burden of Black liberation on Black people. “Who else will do it?” Taylor replied. She explained that Baldwin did not let African Americans or whites off the hook; his target was the hypocrisy of racial liberalism. “It’s not just that we’ve been excluded from certain things, but maybe the whole thing just doesn’t work,” she said, expressing Baldwin’s view. “Do we really want to be integrated into a burning house?”
After class, Taylor and I got in her SUV and took Highway 1 toward the Mount Airy neighborhood of northwest Philadelphia. “If you weren’t here, I’d be listening to sports radio,” she said. (Her preferred station is ESPN 1000; her preferred teams, of course, are the Chicago Bears and the Chicago Bulls.) “I listen every day to Chicago sports radio. I tried to listen to Philly sports radio, but it’s too ridiculous,” she said. “It’s the caricature of sports radio that people think of, which is loud men yelling at each other.” Her favorite sports reporter is her brother, Jean-Jacques.
I pestered her with autobiographical questions, which she answered between yelling “Get off your fucking phone!” at swerving drivers. We stopped by a daycare center to pick up Ellison, who sang to himself in his car seat. Back at their row house, Taylor sat him in front of a Korean train cartoon on Netflix so she could boil some rotini. Fleer would be home late; she was out canvassing for Kendra Brooks, a progressive candidate for city council. At the stove, Taylor talked about her latest obsession, Black America during the Reagan years, which she hopes to write about in a future book. “I’m intrigued by this idea that the most famous people in the 1980s were African American: Oprah, Michael Jackson, Bill Cosby. Yet at the same time there’s this virulent attack on African Americans, so you simultaneously get the worst Black unemployment, ’82 to ’84, all of the crises that emerge out of that,” she said.
After the pandemic made it impossible to visit, I was glad to have this image of Taylor: in socks, in the kitchen, tending to Ellison and talking politics. She and Fleer have worked from home and taken turns with their son, “trying to give each other four-hour shifts and pray for a nap each day,” she told me in April. We spoke by phone on Taylor’s birthday, and I could hear Ellison in the background, yelling “Mommmmy” and counting out celebratory cookies. As classes, talks, and conferences melted into a pixelated slurry, Taylor’s life narrowed around her wife and son — but she also found space to read and write.
She had told me that, once in a groove, she could write very fast. The Covid-19 lockdown was like this: She binge-read the news, more horrifying by the hour, and wrote in a kind of trance. All the issues she cared about, all the thinking she’d done on race, politics, and the welfare state had come to a lethal convergence. She wrote a post-mortem on Sanders’ presidential campaign after the Southern primaries, regretting the fact that those “with the most to gain” from his platform “have also been the most disappointed by politics,” and argued in another piece that, despite the swing toward Biden, “Reality has endorsed Bernie Sanders.” She wrote in praise of new protest movements among essential workers and low-income tenants, but shot for the radical solutions sought by community organizers: “that rents be cancelled and accruing debts wiped off the books — and that the federal government use its enormous resources to rescue tenants.”
When it became known that African Americans were dying of Covid-19 at a disproportionate rate, Taylor named it the “Black plague” (reminding me of what her friend, the British writer Gary Younge, had described as her “really, really direct way of getting to the problem”), but didn’t stop at this bare observation. “The most futile conversation in the U.S. is the argument about whether race or class is the main impediment to African-American social mobility,” she wrote. “In reality, they cannot be separated from each other. African-Americans are suffering through this crisis not only because of racism but also because of how racial discrimination has tied them to the bottom of the U.S. class hierarchy.”
By May, Taylor had signed on as a contributing writer at both the New York Times and the New Yorker (she is now at the New Yorker only), and Race for Profit had been named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in history. Over the following months, as the country rebelled against the police and activists called for law-enforcement budgets to be transferred to schools and social services, she wrote at an even more furious pace. As Taylor saw it, the connections being made between racist violence, U.S. empire, and austerity in this iteration of Black Lives Matter were proof of progress. The election? Much less so.
A few days after Joe Biden’s tepid win, Taylor published an essay titled “Voting Trump Out is Not Enough.” The Democrats had briefly reached left to build a minimal coalition, but “the need in this country dwarfs the best of what Biden has put on the table,” Taylor wrote. She argued that the future of the working class depended on “organizing and acts of solidarity.” The country’s “liberal leadership” could not be trusted to deliver pandemic relief, Medicare for All, police reform, or the Green New Deal. “One of the next things I’m going to write about,” she told me, “is the role of the Black political class in dismantling the public sector. To me, it’s all part of not just getting back to ‘normal.’”
E. Tammy Kim is a Lux contributing editor, a freelance writer, and a contributor to NYT Opinion.
Mumsnet and the Fostering of Anti-Trans Radicalization
By Katie J. M. Baker
Nothing caused me greater culture shock when I moved from New York to London than the British media’s hysterical obsession with trans women.
I’d turn on the Today Programme, the BBC’s flagship morning news show, as I made my coffee and hear debates over whether trans women were actually just men who thought they were women. On the weekends, I’d read headlines in both the liberal Guardian and the conservative Daily Mail questioning whether trans women have the right to identify as women. Then there were the protests: women diving into men’s bathing pools wearing fake beards and “mankinis,” yelling “dykes not dicks” at Pride parades, wielding graphic post-surgery posters at LGBT youth conferences. I was confused to find that the protesters were often middle-aged, middle-class women, some of whom wore mysterious badges proclaiming they had been “Radicalised by Mumsnet.”
Of course, I’d witnessed virulent transphobia in the U.S. But there, it takes a different public form — its most vocal proponents are Republicans who want to ban bathroom access to trans people, or contrarians who might call themselves liberal but derive their credibility from criticizing oppressed groups seeking equality. TERFS, short for Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists, don’t get as much airplay. TERFs believe that women are defined by their biological differences from men. They want liberation from gender stereotypes, but don’t think it’s possible to be freed from biological sex, and argue the latter goal is not just naive but hurts efforts to combat sexual violence and discrimination. That was exactly the type of messaging I was regularly hearing in the U.K. media, which more frequently than not cast women’s rights and trans rights as diametrically opposed.
There are many theories as to why TERFism is more prevalent in the U.K. than in the U.S. Critics have cited everything from Britain’s imperialist history (the empire promoted laws criminalizing homosexuality and enforcing the gender binary) to the influence of the broader U.K. “skeptics” movement, which dogmatically opposes any claims based on faith or “anecdotal” evidence. Meanwhile, British TERFs wonder whether American feminists are so busy dealing with right wing attacks that they don’t have the time to wade in. Everyone agrees the issue heated up around the time I moved in 2018, when Theresa May’s Conservative government proposed measures to the 2004 Gender Recognition Act (that the Tory government proposed these progressive reforms added to my culture shock).
The original GRA gave trans people the right to change their legal gender. The reforms would have allowed them to do so without a medical diagnosis, a step that “would have simply brought England into line with Argentina, Ireland and Portugal, among others,” journalist Juliet Jacques wrote at the time. Instead, “it became a rallying point for a minority of feminists strongly opposed to trans rights.”
I was baffled to learn these feminists were finding each other on Mumsnet, a collection of message boards I’d previously turned to for advice on how to descale my dishwasher and associated with smug, bougie mums comparing high-end strollers and complaining about the neighbor’s dog eating their begonias. How wrong I was to underestimate Mumsnet.
Mumsnet, which celebrated its twentieth birthday last year, claims to be the U.K.’s most popular online community “for parents,” but research shows, unsurprisingly, that nearly all Mumsnetters are women. More specifically, they are believed to be mostly white, middle-class, heterosexual women, and Mumsnet’s top trending discussions reflect that demographic’s interests: Recently they were concerned with whether a woman should deny her “DH” (Dear Husband) his “greatest wish” of getting a puppy, and how to successfully treat head lice.
The site’s massive user base — Mumsnet says it gets around 7 million unique visitors per month and clocks up around 100 million page views — is considered to be affluent and influential, and is a huge draw for both marketers and politicians. Mumsnet conducts its own product reviews, surveying mums on whole-meal breads and baby bottles. Once a product wins a “Mumsnet Best” award the brand can pay a licensing fee to use the badge in its marketing material. Prime ministerial candidates from both sides of the political spectrum, as well as Hillary Clinton, have hosted Q&A sessions there.
Most Mumsnetters identify as liberal, and the rest of the site reflects that bias, but when I first visited the “women’s_rights” forum I felt like I had clicked on a Fox News comments section. It’s a safe space for TERFs, who consider that term a slur and prefer to call themselves “gender critical.” TERFism has been around for decades — the term originated in 1970s radical feminist circles — but Mumsnet has enabled it to find a new and powerful audience. Leading British journalists have admitted that their views on this topic are directly influenced by the forum. And when the proposed GRA reforms were taken off the table in September, Mumsnetters rightfully took credit for what they saw as a “gender critical” victory.
Some TERFs insist that they support trans rights as long as the fight doesn’t overshadow what they consider real feminist initiatives. But scratch that surface and you’ll find that the core issue underlying every legitimate-sounding concern about trans rights outshining, say, domestic abuse or reproductive justice, is “simple animosity toward trans people’s very existence,” as American YouTuber Natalie Wynn put it in a nuanced video unpacking the subject.
Despite Mumsnet’s attempts to moderate threads about gender (neither side is happy with the administrators’ efforts) transphobia is out in the open there, too. The majority of posts on the woman’s rights forum are based on the fearful conviction that trans women — who many Mumsnetters insist on misgendering as men — are trying to infiltrate and destroy the women’s rights movement.
On a recent visit to the forum, I read about outrage over a gym that segregates changing rooms by gender identity instead of biological sex, women seeking feminist charities that haven’t replaced the word “women” with “people,” and criticism of the National Health Service for stating that the needs of trans patients should be attended to. At first, I was surprised to find in these threads the same paranoid and repeatedly debunked fears about trans women assaulting cis women in bathrooms and prisons that I associated primarily with right-wing U.S. senators. But as I did more research, I learned that such fanaticism had been present in the U.K. for some time. In 2017, when two members of parliament hosted a chat on Mumsnet to discuss the issue of women returning to the workplace, commenters were more interested in discussing whether the politicians believed trans women were women. The politicians tried in vain to focus on questions related to employment rights, but the posters argued that the issue couldn’t be discussed unless they could first agree upon a definition of “woman.”
I wanted to understand why so many Mumsnetters — women who had come to the site “for the babies” but “stayed for the feminism,” as one user wrote — were invigorated by an outdated and bigoted perspective on gender.
As I read thread after thread, I noticed that many of the posters wrote about feeling newly disenfranchised and isolated after giving birth for the first time; cast out of a society in which they had previously enjoyed power by virtue of their relative wealth and education. Through organizing around this “taboo” issue (we’ll get to that later) they were experiencing solidarity and a sense of purpose that had been missing in their postnatal lives.
“I’m not telling trans people they are wrong for being trans, I’m angry that women are being called transphobic for saying that their biological functions are their own,” one woman wrote in a June 2020 thread entitled “Pro Women, Not Anti Trans — Why Biology Is Important.” She went on: it “isn’t about gender, it’s about sex and anatomy and how they affect women every day, and how bloody unfair it is for others to deny our bodies, how they work or our own opinions as they’re not deemed ‘inclusive’ for those who can’t ever biologically be the same.”
“Being pregnant, giving birth and breastfeeding are the only time in my life that I felt a proper awareness that I am female,” another woman wrote recently. “I don’t mean in a gender identity sense, I mean in a ‘I have a female body and am doing something only a person with a female body can ever do’ kind of sense.”
“Carrying my child and birthing my child was not a fucking social construct,” another wrote.
Trans advocates and allies who don’t take TERFs seriously are not just sexist but anti-mother, many women concluded. Some wrote that the survival of the women’s rights forum was vital because losing the space would show a “disregard for mothers and our need to access support and information.”
But weren’t there more important “women’s rights” issues going on in the U.K., like the widespread failure to support survivors of sexual assault, or the fact that funding for public services, including domestic violence organizations and child care centers, had been slashed by the conservatives? Those issues did pop up on the forum, but in recent years they were often prompted, or derailed, by anti-trans sentiment.
“Try being a single parent of a disabled child who doesn’t have a school to go to!” one woman wrote on a thread dedicated to mocking a documentary about the lack of support for trans people.
“Can I join the documentary after being on a waiting list for 2 years to have my rectal prolapse fixed?” another asked. “Childbirth has a lot to answer for and some days it’s horrendous for quality of life, but yet I still wait on the waiting list.”
The Mumsnetters weren’t just griping. They were organizing.
“The ‘radicalised by mumsnet’ slogan ‘sums it up,’” one user wrote recently. “Mumsnet is such an important place to come to in order to be awakened to what is going on.” She said she had self-identified as a “trans ally” until she read “an enormous number” of Mumsnet threads with “increasing horror.”
“Mumsnet provides the open gateway,” she wrote. “What we do outside of mumsnet is so important — talking to friends, family, effecting changes at workplaces, schools, and councils, contacting MPs, supporting legal activity, correcting incorrect representations of the equality act, challenging every substitute of ‘gender’ for ‘sex’ in every half-baked survey etc … I have loved being part of this political movement.”
“Mumsnet is the think-tank, campaign hub and archive of thinking about why #sexmatters,” prominent U.K. TERF Maya Forstater recently tweeted in response to another woman who proclaimed there was “no state of invisibility more invisible” than being a stay-at-home parent or caregiver.
The more I learned about Mumsnet, the more the forum reminded me of my past reporting on the ways men are radicalized by the toxic online “manosphere,” where pick-up artists (PUAs) and men’s rights activists (MRAs) recruit followers by exploiting real fears (such as economic anxiety) and blaming marginalized outgroups (women, people of color, Jews) for societal failures. As people get drawn into these communities, they become obsessed with a misguided sense of victimization and start to focus single-mindedly on their newfound worldview.
It seemed to me that was exactly what was happening on Mumsnet: some of these newly “gender critical” Mumsnetters were relatively privileged women who had never felt marginalized until they gave birth and came to feel isolated in their nuclear households and (rightfully!) outraged at the lack of support for mothers in the U.K. They turned to Mumsnet for solidarity, and somehow became fixated on trans women in the process. It was so textbook that Mumsnetters even had their own vernacular, just like MRAs who famously use being “red pilled” as slang for choosing to see the ugly truth. In the forums, women use “Spartacus” as a dog whistle to reference a famous 2016 thread in which a user wrote “Men cannot become women, ever. Women cannot become men, ever,” with many commenting in agreement.
Mumsnet’s women’s rights forum didn’t just offer women a safe space to organize. By providing a platform that tolerated TERFism, it had also handed users a convenient scapegoat for all of their problems — not austerity, not misogyny, but the relatively tiny and extremely marginalized and oppressed trans population.
Of course, there are many differences between MRAs and Mumsnetters. MRAs are often stereotyped as losers hiding out in their mother’s basements; Mumsnetters are more likely to discuss the best wallpaper with which to complete their basement conversion. And MRA ideology has spilled into the real world in bloody, terrifying ways, while Mumsnet’s influence takes a different form: effective lobbying, time with politicians across the political spectrum, and increasingly cozy relationships with the mainstream media. But the two seemingly disparate groups have one key commonality: a sense of isolation that comes about during a vulnerable time in their lives.
They also insist on seeing themselves as victims. It’s true that the issues raised by Mumsnetters deserve attention, just as many of the issues MRAs mobilize around do, from higher suicide rates among men to sexual assault in prisons. But it’s hard to argue that these voices on trans issues are in the minority right now, when practically every U.K. newspaper reports or opines on their plight sympathetically and J.K. Rowling, the world’s most famous living author, is their patron saint. The Harry Potter creator regularly makes headlines on the subject, most recently calling, without apparent irony, for an end to the “climate of fear” around the trans rights debate.
In late 2020, I found someone even more obsessed with the politics of Mumsnet than I was: Sarah Pedersen, the author of a new book, The Politicization of Mumsnet. Pederson, a media studies professor in Scotland and avid Mumsnetter herself, has produced an unprecedented amount of data and analysis on the subject, so I was gratified when she confirmed my thesis from the book’s start.
“Faced with the pure physical reality of precisely how much the world has been built to suit men, pregnancy and maternity is often the time when women become radicalised,” Pedersen wrote. On Mumsnet, new mothers who may have previously assumed that “gender equality has arrived and that there is no longer any need for feminism or women-focused political action” are able to discuss the sudden judgment they faced over their mothering choices, from breastfeeding to returning to work, and can grapple with the cost of child care in the U.K., which is among the most expensive in Europe.
Many new mothers “find feminism more relevant to their lives than ever before” because of the changes in their own circumstances “in a society where motherhood still impacts negatively on a woman’s career and earning potential,” Pedersen wrote. “To put it in more explicitly feminist terms: women’s oppression is innately connected to our ability to reproduce.”
But while I was horrified by what I was seeing on the forums, Pedersen was excited.
Like many Mumsnetters, Pedersen finds the comparisons to MRAs preposterous. Her book acknowledged that in the past few years the women’s rights forum had focused on trans women above other issues. But she credited that to the proposed GRA reforms and the lack of other spaces where women felt able to discuss the matter. Newly formed advocacy groups concerned about the reforms became “symbiotic” with the Mumsnet feminism boards, she wrote.
Past Mumsnet campaigns had covered topics such as domestic violence and sexual assault, leading Pedersen to draw historical connections between the discussion of politics on Mumsnet to the suffragettes, 1970s consciousness raising groups, and U.K. housewives’ organizations that “campaigned on issues that were important to them, such as state support for mothers and better health services.”
When I talked to Pedersen last fall, she assumed that Mumsnetters would move onto other issues, as they had in the past, since the GRA reforms had been defeated.
But that clearly isn’t happening. Months later, the majority of posts on the “Women’s Rights” forum still focus on trans women. Recent posts included dismay over a U.S. Supreme Court decision not to hear a challenge to transgender access to toilets and locker rooms, and a helpful list of “gender critical” businesses and people to buy gifts from during the Christmas season to support “the fearless women (or men) who’ve stuck their heads above the parapet.”
If Mumsnet’s women’s rights forum is popular because it responds to the experience of being stuck at home without support or community, it’s done so in a way that leaves Mumsnetters in a political cul-de-sac. The community isolates its members in a bubble of transphobic thought that leaves them free to develop their bigotries without needing to encounter the human beings affected by them. It also inculcates members with a tragically narrow idea of feminism, one that rejects other people fighting for gender liberation. And finally, it puts followers at odds with the broader left, which has been fighting for a world without gender oppression, as well as for benefits Mumsnetters say they care about, such as free child care and well-funded health care.
Ironically, it has long been more inclusive feminists, and queer feminists especially, who have described the anxiety and marginalization that accompany traditional domestic life and labor. But much of the feminism that would offer Mumsnetters something more has been sidelined for several decades in the U.K., beaten back by conservatism alongside the rest of the Left. Margaret Thatcher declared that “there are individual men and women and there are families,” not a society. Even though intersectional socialist feminism has made significant advances in recent years, without a strong and inclusive mainstream feminist movement, Mumsnetters seem to have found privileged but uneasy refuge in the family.
If left unchecked, the consequences of Mumsnet’s politics will continue beyond the defeat of the GRA reforms.
The mums on Mumsnet’s women’s rights forum are constantly complaining about being belittled as “silly old women” and “daft housewives.” I agree with them: We underestimate them at our own peril. TERFs are unafraid to work with groups that hate women. In this sense, they’re part of the lineage of 1980s anti-pornography feminists who agreed to work alongside right-wing conservative groups. One “radical feminist” group is currently helping shape anti-trans legislation in the U.S.
Mainstream media in the U.K. will likely continue to take its cues from Mumsnet, and recent studies have linked this constant anti-trans coverage to depression, anxiety and psychological distress in trans people. In December, the U.K.’s Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) reported a “dramatic” rise in news coverage of trans people with an accompanying “increase in questioning tone.” The mainstream media treats “trans people as an ‘issue’ and trans people as a ‘problem,’” said jane fae, the chair of Trans Media Watch.
Radicalized groups become more emboldened in their bigotry when they’re left unmoderated, so it might be for the best if Mumsnet doesn’t kick TERFs off its platform, which it doesn’t seem likely to do anytime soon anyway. The Atlantic recently reported on a new forum for TERFs who were banned from Reddit called “Ovarit,” noting that “getting banned from a social-media platform and creating a knockoff of it is effectively a rite of passage for toxic groups at this point.”
Is there any hope for TERFs?
Natalie Wynn made a YouTube video about TERFs with the premise that there just might be. “It’s not just evil bigots who are attracted to the gender critical worldview,” Wynn explained in her video. Before filming, she posted an invitation on Twitter asking people who used to be “gender critical” feminists to share their stories. She received hundreds of responses, including many from women who had traumatic experiences with men and “at one time found comfort in a rigid view of gender where women and men are completely separate species, where women are safe and men are dangerous.” For a lot of these women, she said, “allowing trans people into their picture of the world at first challenged their sense of stability and comfort.” The same may go for new mothers who have found that mothering is an activity that British society neither supports nor values.
There are British women who have publicly abandoned the TERF perspective, such as Nora Mulready, who wrote last August about experiencing “a powerful and precious thing – a sincere change of mind” around the topic. After learning a family member was trans she read everything she could find that validated her instinct “that the increase in transgender identity was a millennial fad, mental health issue, trauma, social contagion, fashion, patriarchy, you name it, I clutched at it,” Mulready wrote. Finally, she realized she had fallen victim to the “same deep-rooted conservatism that has made human beings resistant to change throughout so much of our history.” How did she spit out the red pill?
She saw her family member thrive, Mulready wrote, and met with other trans people and listened to them share their experiences. “Seeing this issue unfold within my own family taught me a profound lesson: the importance of humility in the face of something you do not understand,” she wrote. She took “a step back from the freneticism of the ‘trans debate’,” she wrote, after which “the contradictions in the trans-sceptic arguments became more apparent to me.”
How do we convince more women to do what Mulready did — step out of isolation and into human connection; become not just better informed about the experience of being trans, but someone who sees trans acceptance as part of what feminism is all about?
My reporting on MRAs hasn’t found many solutions. In the long run, I hope that there will be an ever-growing movement for gender liberation that sweeps up mums in its embrace, leaving the toxic forums to wither. But the only individual solution that seems to work, anecdotally, is having long conversations with family members like Mulready did.
That isn’t going to be easy.
When one commenter posted that she was “at the end of my tether with my mother, who has become engulfed in the gender critical discourse mainly thanks to this website” this stated attempt at an “open discussion” garnered 1,000 comments. In the end, the original poster only responded to a few. Perhaps she was a troll, as some commenters surmised, or maybe she was overwhelmed by the Mumsnetters, who called her a “midnight misogynist” and told her to “listen to her mum.”
Feminism is everywhere right now. We see it in moms occupying unused housing, in the movement to abolish the police, in the brave and underfunded fight for reproductive justice, in nurses’ strikes demanding protective gear for the pandemic, in sex worker organizing, in #MeToo, in mutual aid funds, in Indigenous uprisings and climate justice, in the struggle for housing for queer youth, and in teachers organizing for resources for themselves and their communities. Feminism is also a bright thread running through today’s liberalism: The largest anti-Trump demonstration was the 2017 Women’s March, with its pink pussy hats. The most prominent electeds are young women like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the “Squad” in Congress. Female empowerment shines the halls of wealth and power, from Kamala Harris to Gina Haspel, enthusiastic custodians of state violence, to Sheryl Sandberg at Facebook, to a slew of celebrities raking in millions along their feminist journeys.
What makes feminism so relevant across the spectrum? Over the last four decades, liberals and conservatives alike have slashed the welfare state. Capitalists have beaten back unions and wages have fallen. Within the 99 percent, women have become the shock absorbers of capitalism. Most women do waged work while still doing the bulk of the work of caring for others, with decreasing support from the state. The pandemic made it worse: It became evident that the state would prioritize the economy over the preservation of human life. It’s no accident that movements for police abolition, immigrants’ rights, housing justice, and more tend to be led by women and queer folks, who find themselves with similar goals — divesting from structures of oppression and reinvesting in the communities that they’re working so hard to hold together. It’s never been clearer that the gender binary, which serves no one well and is devastating for many of us, is a tool for distributing labor and a source of oppression. Meanwhile, many comparatively well-off women have realized how fragile their privileges actually are. Trump bragged about sexual assault and threatened to take away modest health care gains, and the pandemic has highlighted the inadequacies of the nuclear family.
For a long time, feminists on the left have decried corporate feminism, which boosts the small number of women at the very top of American society and uses them to hide the base immorality of exploitive corporations. Our argument has always been that joining the oppressors — whether by heading up an oil company, the CIA, or the increasingly centrist Democratic Party — is not liberation. We abide by bell hooks’ clear definition: “Feminism is the struggle against sexist oppression.” This means, first of all, that anyone can be in the fight, since feminism is an action and not an identity. And it also means that feminism is only realized when we have true equality. We’re not inspired by a world where rich women are equal to rich men and everyone else is equally poor.
When we began writing this editorial note earlier this year, we thought perhaps the era of the #girlboss was over, and we might never again have to explain why we don’t dream of every child growing up to direct drone strikes (HIRE👏MORE👏WOMEN👏PRISON👏GUARDS👏!). Then along came Joe Biden. You could not conjure a character more comically ill-suited to addressing a nation buckling under inequality and a right wing panting for minority rule. Biden scoffed at Medicare for All and waffled on the legacy of his notorious 1994 crime bill. And the left, which was running on fumes, motivated but exhausted from anti-police brutality protests and various attempts to fill in for the welfare state under Covid-19, was told to eat diversity. Biden picked Avril Haines for director of national intelligence, the first woman to hold the post. The Democrats’ favorite ex-McKinseyite, Pete Buttigieg, became the first openly gay cabinet member in history. And of course, Harris, a former tough-on-crime prosecutor, became the first Black woman to be vice-president. But this simply isn’t “progress” we can take seriously; this is “inclusion” and “diversity” that serves the status quo.
People are hungry for a feminism that actually challenges power, but the most visible feminist institutions aren’t much help. In 2018, some of us attended a packed rally in New York City against Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation. We were there to distribute flyers inviting people to protest a church in New York that harasses patients at nearby Planned Parenthood clinics. Hundreds of people attended the rally to condemn the nomination of a man who appeared to be an unrepentant predator by a president who had credibly been accused of rape. They wanted to do something about it. NARAL hosted the rally, and the main action on offer was: Make a monthly donation to NARAL. John McCain had just died, and at least two speakers began their remarks by paying tribute to a man who had been anti-choice. The crowd was dissatisfied and eager for our flyers. They had so few avenues to turn their anger into political action.
Most of the major feminist organizations in Washington are closely aligned with the Democrats, cycling through the same donors and staff. These groups see the Democrats as the only bulwark against the wrecking ball of the right, and it means that they negotiate for their interests from the weak position of supporting the party no matter what. Democrats have nothing to fear from a captive constituency. Planned Parenthood Action Fund and NARAL haven’t prioritized, or even explicitly endorsed, Medicare for All, for instance, which would expand access to reproductive and other health services for millions. But they did endorse Biden — who stood accused of sexual harassment and assault and who was a longtime supporter of the Hyde Amendment, which bars federal funding for most abortions.
Meanwhile, feminists on the ground are engaged in struggle with a variety of issues, and not just through the courts or by lobbying legislators. They are at work on housing rights, climate justice, police abolition, free immigration, labor organizing, reproductive justice campaigns, sex worker rights, and more. Institutionalized American feminism doesn’t have much to say about these things, each of which is a facet of the feminist struggle.
Our effort with this magazine is to reconnect our struggles to the world of history and ideas that is the rightful inheritance of every feminist. To sort through the highs and lows of feminism today and provide tools for people who can use them. This issue includes international reporting on rape and reparations, work that responds to, and we hope will feed, the American defund movement, which is also covered in these pages. We explore socialist identity politics as a framework for action. We investigate what the hell is going on with TERFs and what conditions might give rise to transphobia among self-declared feminists. We translate and excavate old work that can feed us now. We ask: What is necessary not just for our survival but for our pleasure?
We can lay to rest the tired argument that identity politics and socialism are at odds. It is impossible to imagine a successful socialist left without a robust feminism. The left is a space that everyone enters on their own terms. Some come through the door of workplace organizing, some by living through racist oppression or sexism, and some find their niche in the struggle alongside fellow gamers, scientists, students, athletes, or parents. A left that takes insufficient account of the experience of gender — one of the primary ways in which oppression is felt and class is lived — will always be small.
The Combahee River Collective, a group of pioneering Black socialist feminists, coined the term “identity politics,” and through it, taught us to see every side of a person as a bridge to other people, not a barrier. The collective’s classic statement noted the many lines of solidarity that radiated from their identities as Black, lesbian, and working class. They envisioned a kaleidoscopic approach to the struggle, writing that their own identities might lead them to “workplace organizing at a factory that employs Third World women or picket a hospital that is cutting back on already inadequate heath care to a Third World community, or set up a rape crisis center in a Black neighborhood. Organizing around welfare and daycare concerns might also be a focus. The work to be done and the countless issues that this work represents merely reflect the pervasiveness of our oppression.”
Feminist analysis gave us this fruitful way to think about difference on the left, and it also developed some of the core concepts that make socialism so relevant today. The Wages for Housework movement in the 1970s showed that unwaged work inside the home was not only an expression of love but a form of free labor without which the capitalist economy would collapse. Women kept the waged workers healthy and fed, and they birthed and raised up the next generation of laborers. Wages for Housework insisted that this work be called work, and gave us a way to understand the various soft skills that aren’t “required” but have become fundamental in the neoliberal economy. They also pointed out that capitalists would try to push more and more responsibility onto the family, outsourcing the maintenance of their workforce.
Labor feminists have shown how bosses use gender to divide workers and push wages down and how traditional notions of feminine nurturance are used to overwork and underpay teachers, nurses, domestic workers, and health aides. The impact of Covid-19 has been infinitely worse than it might have been had the health care system been run by its workers. Nurses have long struggled to create safer workplaces through fundamental demands like safe staffing ratios. Some of the most powerful strikes in recent years have been in professions like teaching, where a mostly female workforce is in close touch with the community they serve. Many of these workers have fought for the rights of the students or patients they work with, and for those people’s families, as much as their own.
The right certainly knows that maintaining certain perceptions of gender, sexuality, and the family is vital for their project. The culture wars are proxy battles: The Koch brothers could not care less about abortion (David Koch declared himself pro-choice in 2014), but they supported anti-choice candidates who would cut their taxes once in office. It can’t be stated often enough that we are forced to give birth against our wills so billionaires can get richer.
The right has always invoked the family when cutting social programs. When Ronald Reagan was governor of California, he battled the welfare rights movement, led by Black women, and vilified Black and immigrant families in the process. He cut state benefits but invested in tracking down “deadbeat dads” (a policy that forced both men and women to stay in contact when they did not want to) and surveilling women who received benefits. In 1971, Richard Nixon vetoed universal child care at the urging of young culture warrior Pat Buchanan, declaring that he would not “commit the vast moral authority of the National Government to the side of communal approaches to child rearing over against the family-centered approach.” Today, “the family” is regularly invoked by politicians as the solution to everything they don’t want to spend money to fix, from gun violence to poverty.
We must fight back against this social conservatism and offer an alternative of liberation. We have to reimagine social reproduction as something we do together, as a society. We have to free ourselves from our obsession with the nuclear family as the ultimate moral unit. And it is absolutely clear that if we do not do this, there will be no socialism. To fully turn the tables, we have to reclaim more than just our basic entitlements to social welfare and demand the good life that is rightfully ours.
The right will try to bully and shame us out of our claims to public resources using sexism drawn from another century. During hearings on Barack Obama’s (inadequate) Affordable Care Act, Sandra Fluke testified about the importance of including coverage of birth control. In response, Rush Limbaugh insulted her, sex workers, and the country’s intelligence in one go. Fluke, he said, “essentially says that she must be paid to have sex — what does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex. She’s having so much sex she can’t afford the contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex.”
We’ll never win the struggle for our share of abundance by playing to this logic, keeping quiet about sex and abortions and talking up personal responsibility as long as we’re on the taxpayer dime. Instead, we say with the Italian feminists in this issue: “Only when we want to, but whenever we want to.” Fuck you. We’re not scraping for the bare minimum. We want it all.
We’ve made the magazine we have always wanted to read: queer, abolitionist, feminist, and socialist in its DNA. It’s full of pleasure because if we believe in a good life for all, don’t we owe it to ourselves in the here and now? In making this magazine, we’ve also begun creating a community. We hope through this glossy we’ll find our people — everyone in the same struggle, and everyone looking to join it. It’s socialism, it’s feminism, it’s sex with class.
When asked what she wore to bed, Marilyn Monroe famously told reporters, “Chanel No. 5.” I’ve
often wondered if Polina Zhemchuzhina, wife of Comrade Molotov (of the Molotov cocktail) ever said the same thing. Zhemchuzhina, who ran the Soviet perfume factory Novaya Zarya, or New Dawn, in the early 1930s, believed in a luxurious communism, less red, more rouge. While her husband, born Vyacheslav Skryabin, adopted an appositely revolutionary last name derived from molot, which means “hammer,” Polina chose “Zhemchuzhina,” from the Russian for “pearl.” Under her leadership, New Dawn offered Soviet women a vision of socialism that rejected austerity; choosing instead, in what would become a Soviet tradition, to recast supposedly bourgeois pleasures like candy, champagne, and perfume as examples of the abundant future that communism promised.
New Dawn produced a number of fragrances — Crimean Violet, Scythian Gold, Elena — but its signature perfume was Krasnaya Moskva, Red Moscow. It came in a fine glass bottle with a red cap designed to look like a Kremlin tower. While there were many fragrances made to celebrate the Soviet woman, including one to honor the Georgian chess champion Nona Gaprindisvilli (her perfume, Nona, came in a black bottle in the shape of a queen), none attained the cultural status of Red Moscow. In times of national pride, it was a symbol of elegance and glamor. In his poem “Through Farwell Tears” Timur Kibirov reflected on the waning years of the USSR by recalling the country’s most familiar smells: “birch leaves at the sauna,” “Belomor cigarettes,” and “a woman in Red Moscow perfume.” In the hands of a cynic, Red Moscow was the butt of a joke. In Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Look at the Harlequins, the cantankerous protagonist makes his first trip back to the Soviet Union and complains: “The farcical air-conditioning system failed to outlive the whiffs of sweat and the sprayings of Krasnaya Moskva.” The scent functioned in the popular imagination as the Soviet answer to Chanel No. 5, a reputation helped along by the rumor that the factory New Dawn was housed in used to be known as Soap and Perfumery Factory No. 5.
Unfortunately, Red Moscow had a rather inconvenient capitalist history. The scent is alleged to actually be a fragrance created by Henri Brocard, perfumer to the tsars. A gift for Maria Feodorovna, mother of Nicholas II, its original name was “The Empress’s Favorite Bouquet.” Brocard’s factory was nationalized in 1918 and renamed New Dawn in 1922. While Red Moscow was officially a new fragrance, many suspected, then and now, that it was actually just a case of socialist rebranding. In an interview with the BBC, perfume expert Galina Anni said, “chemically of course, yes,” it was a different fragrance, “because some of the ingredients and aromatic substances that the Brocard family worked with in 1913 simply did not exist in the Soviet Union in 1924.” However, the underlying composition, Anni told the BBC, “iris accentuated with bergamot, orange blossom, cloves, and ylang-ylang, was preserved.”
To some, “Soviet perfume” sounds like an oxymoron, an extension of jokes about champagne socialism, but there was such a thing as the latter: sovetskoe shampanskoe, which translates to “Soviet champagne.” To a Soviet citizen, the idea that wearing perfume or drinking champagne were somehow uniquely incompatible with communism would have been nonsensical. While excess and pleasure were firmly associated with the evils of capitalism in the immediate aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution, over time Soviet leaders adjusted their thinking. Communism would not mean the end of luxury goods, they decided, but actually the proliferation of them — a bottle of Red Moscow perfume for every factory worker. In The Soviet Dream World of Retail Trade and Consumption in the 1930s, Amy Randall explains: “Strange as it may seem today, there was once a time when retail trade and consumption were heralded as not only central to the socialist revolution but also the stage upon which the limits of capitalism would be exposed.” In this way, Soviet perfume might be considered the first step in the kind of abundance-driven socialist ethos that motivates the popularity of “fully automated luxury communism,” a coinage promoted by 21st-century socialists like Aaron Bastani to overturn socialism’s association with scarcity.
The Soviet embrace of luxury goods wasn’t, however, a seamless transition. For much of the 1920s, perfume was permitted but regarded with suspicion. In the wake of the Russian Civil War in 1921, Lenin instituted his New Economic Plan (NEP) in which some elements of capitalism (like small-scale private enterprise) were re-introduced to stimulate the economy. Boutiques selling foreign perfumes, make-up, and cigars began popping up on Moscow’s boulevards alongside jazz clubs and bootlegger bars. Armand Hammer, grandfather of the actor Armie Hammer, was in Russia at the time, amassing a fortune selling wheat, pencils, and buying up Fabergé eggs. He came to be known as “the red millionaire.” Reflecting on his glory days in NEP-era Russia, Hammer remarked: “One could buy the choicest French wines, liquers and the best of Havana cigars. The finest French cloth lay side by side with the most expensive French perfume.”
After a decade of warnings about the ills of bourgeois capitalism and morally corrupt capitalists, NEP brought on something of a moral panic. Soviet citizens made “rich” from NEP came to be known as “NEP-men” and were often villainized in popular media, even children’s books. (One from the era shows a greedy capitalist NEP-man gorging himself on ice cream until he freezes to death). Women, likewise, were scolded about the dangers of falling into bourgeois modes of being… and smelling. In The Body Soviet, historian Tricia Starks says magazines and articles geared towards Soviet women insisted that “rouge and lipstick, which were necessary in capitalist countries, where women had to hide their pasty complexions, lost their necessity in a country ruled by and for workers.” Soviet women’s complexions were to be vitalized through labor, not blush, and no perfume could match the fragrant aroma of sweat from a hard day’s work on the collective farm.
But things began to change under Stalin’s second Five-Year Plan, which altered production goals to include consumer goods, even luxury goods like champagne. In 1934, a chemist developed a way to ferment the beverage in large reservoirs, making an item once considered the height of luxury available to the masses. By 1942, the middle of World War II, the USSR was producing 12 million bottles of champagne a year; it was even available on tap at Soviet supermarkets. After Gastronom, a chain of upscale grocery shops, opened in 1932, chocolates from the Red October candy factory were widely available. (Nationalized by the Soviets a decade earlier, the red-brick factory in the center of Moscow was formerly known as Einem Chocolatiers) Soviet champagne, chocolates, and perfume were all meant to prove that the capitalist West did not have a monopoly on pleasure.
The recasting of the USSR as a consumer society only ramped up in the post-war years under Nikita Khrushchev, especially after the 1959 American Exhibition in Moscow. In a glitzy pavilion on Red Square, the U.S. government laid out a dizzying array of consumer goods (washing machines, Polaroid cameras, Pepsi) for the Soviet public to see firsthand. In 1951, American sociologist David Reisman published a satirical essay titled “The Nylon War,” in which he claimed, “if allowed to sample the riches of America, the Russian people would not long tolerate masters who gave them tanks and spies instead of vacuum cleaners and beauty parlors.” By the end of the decade, that had essentially become Cold War policy. Khrushchev responded by reopening tsarist-era shopping arcades, and, of course, making sure people were well-perfumed. In 1960, one year after the American Exhibition, New Dawn released a new line of fragrances. The 1960 Women’s Day issue of Ogonek, a weekly Soviet magazine, included an article with a picture of a perfume saleswoman standing amidst glass vials. As historian Susan Reid explains, the photograph positioned the saleswoman as “an operator before complex space control panels, thus synthesizing… the alchemist’s art with that of modern science.” To wear perfume was to show off the preeminence of Soviet science, both in the skies and on the skin.
Red Moscow, an early token of the promise of abundance that communism would deliver, sadly remained just that. In the final years of the Soviet Union, the country was plagued by food shortages and rising levels of alcoholism led to reports of people drinking perfume. New Dawn still operates in Moscow, but now it embraces its pre-Revolutionary history, proudly displaying the Brocard name on its storefronts. You can even buy Red Moscow on Amazon. Some of the reviews there are from people who lived in the Soviet Union. The scent seems to provoke nostalgia: “What a good memories of our youth it brings to me!” reads one.
Luxury communism is not a straightforward demand in the face of the climate crisis, when many of us are considering how a consumer society might give way to a livable future. But Red Moscow is less a testament to consumerism than it is a symbol of a moment when socialism’s success was judged in part by its ability to democratize beauty and pleasure. It’s easy today to think of socialism as merely a remedy for the worst predations of capitalism — debt and impoverishment, ecological devastation, and murderous policing. It can be difficult to imagine a new world amid such dire conditions. Red Moscow simply marks an era in which the promise of an equal society did not just stave off the darkness but sparkled briefly in the light.
Jennifer Wilson is a Lux contributing editor and a contributing writer at The Nation.
Living under Covid-19, it can feel like the internet is all we have. In the absence of bullshitting at bars, there’s Twitter. (If you’re more of a TikTok-myself-in-the-club’s-VIP-section type, there’s also Instagram.) Everyone is more online than ever. Everyone except maybe K Toyin Agbebiyi, a New York City–based Black lesbian abolitionist and organizer who decided — at the height of their online popularity — to just not.
For some, the uprisings after George Floyd’s murder and the subsequent surge in organizing for the abolition of police and prisons came as a surprise. The revolution was Blacker than they expected, for one. A popular, if frequently challenged, view that the Black Lives Matter movement had failed to produce a strong left was upended by the resurgent demand that Black lives take center stage. The voices that had argued against the utility of identity politics in building mass movements faltered.
Agbebiyi’s voice rose clearly and confidently in that space. Although they are only 26, Agbebiyi is not a beginner: They’ve been organizing around prison abolition for over six years and in numerous formations, including Survived & Punished NY, No New Jails NYC, and the Inside/Outside Collective. Homebound between protests this summer, people flocked to Agbebiyi’s deeply political but also deeply personal Twitter account, @sheabutterfemme, where Agbebiyi wrote threads about organizing for beginners and how being a survivor of violence had made them an abolitionist. Like any millennial digital native ready to share all, they also posted about their partner, frustrations with their disability-related fatigue, inside jokes with their best friend, and outfit-of-the-day selfies.
In the early days of the pandemic, Agbebiyi focused on mutual aid, launching a fund for disabled organizers working in the Black Liberation movement and promoting the Inside/Outside Brigade Soap Fund to raise money for incarcerated comrades to use at the commissary. Agbebiyi was militant about distinguishing between mutual aid — which for them had to be rooted in abolitionist politics — and charity as typically performed by nonprofit organizations. Mutual aid is solidarity in material form; no one is asked to prove their need via endless paperwork or background checks, and there’s no effort to monitor how people use the funds after they’ve been distributed.
Agbebiyi’s follower count grew over the summer as “abolition” and “defund” became buzzwords. For Agbebiyi, the conversation around the 2020 uprisings represented both the next wave of a movement that had been building power for decades and a valuable opening for pushing abolition in the mainstream. “There was a period of time where it felt like everyone was learning about abolition,” they told me in a recent chat. “And I have this great platform where I can educate people and learn with them.”
They were so inundated by questions that they created a popular Google Doc of prison abolition FAQs. (“How does the prison system currently fail to hold perpetrators of harm accountable?”; “How do you propose we punish the police then?”) They also became involved in high-profile projects like 8 to Abolition, a platform advocating for abolitionist approaches to police violence and a direct response to DeRay Mckesson’s milquetoast police reform campaign, 8 Can’t Wait. They sat on a panel with Angela Davis.
Despite the benefits of popularity, Agbebiyi soon found that the line between pleasant engagement with an active community and parasocial consumption is thin. “Just as it got good, that’s when the harassment started from the left and the right,” they told me. At the beginning of 2020, their Twitter account had a few thousand followers; by November 6, when Agbebiyi announced they were leaving Twitter, the account had over 53,000. In the time between, Agbebiyi was accused of anti-Blackness by proxy (via a non-Black friend), of supporting abusers (through a loose association with another rising TikTok and Twitter star), of being oriented around the nonprofit industrial complex (they are a social worker), and of being a mean bully (for blocking people on Twitter). Most of these attacks were levied by self-proclaimed leftists.
Agbebiyi closed the account just as New York City’s economic crisis was accelerating. According to the New York Times, one in five tenants could not pay their rent last September, and many would likely face eviction in the coming months. The city announced cuts to social services amid record unemployment, while the police department kept its $6 billion budget and welcomed a new cadet class. Building collective power to fight the increased policing that comes with austerity will be a crucial fight. Can an abolitionist organizer afford to abandon their social media platform if they want to win?
It depends on what winning looks like, said Agbebiyi. They are now skeptical about social media as a space for political education, let alone community. A lot of people are talking about abolition online, “but are they talking about it in ways that we think will actually help the movement long term? I’m not completely sure,” Agbebiyi said. They also pointed to the difference in how conflict plays out, online and off. With in–person organizing, you’re likely to be arguing with someone you know, whereas online your interlocutors are often unknown and abstract, and your interactions with them more vicious.
In early December, Agbebiyi logged back on to Twitter, though they don’t plan to use it much. Instead, they are working with trusted comrades in Survived & Punished NY, hanging out with their partner (who is not niche internet famous), posting photos of new stationery on their Instagram. When asked what advice they have for people newly engaged in the fight for abolition, they demurred. “Am I even in a position to even tell them anything? Because I am also relatively young. I think maybe all anyone wants from a new organizer is humility and honesty. People doing this work for the right reasons and people who are who they say they are.” Online, and off.
Cheryl Rivera is a Brooklyn-based organizer with NYC-DSA and Abolition Action and an editor of Lux.
Photo illustration by Sharanya Durvasula and Chloe Scheffe. Original photograph courtesy K Agbebiyi.