The Feminism We Need

Illustration of women's faces resting on hands with waves surrounding them
Why We Made Lux

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.

Our argument has always been that joining the oppressors is not liberation.

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.

People are hungry for a feminism that actually challenges power, but the most visible feminist institutions aren’t much help.

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.” 

We’re not scraping for the bare minimum. We want it all.

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. 

See you out there,

The Editors

Illustration by Colleen Tighe.