Thursday, January 19, 2006

Sexism and Progressive Conferences

Kevin Drum and Garance Franke-Ruta note the backlash from female pundits to the nearly all-male speaker lineup for the Saving Our Democracy conference sponsored by The Nation Institute and the New Democracy Project. Katha Pollitt sets out the problem in an open letter:

I notice that only two speakers (in 25!) at the upcoming conference are women. How does that fit the project of rescuing democracy? Even congress--even the supreme court! -- has a better male-female ratio than that. Please don't reply that you asked a lot of women and they said no. The world is full of women who are the equals and more of the men in your lineup. There are women who would do credit to every topic you list.... I am just disgusted that in 2006 women are still invisible to so-called progressives. Maybe that's one reason they keep losing elections.

Lisa Jervis adds that she
applaud[s] your recognition that "the political left's routine responses to the traditional conservative arguments are no longer sufficient." You might find more energetic responses if you took a look at the work of people outside your small circle of the usual suspects....
Until supposedly general interest progressive organizations consciously and purposefully become truly inclusive and diverse, the movement will be stymied. It's about more than bean counting. While it's true that getting a range of communities represented at events like Saving Our Democracy is important, what your lineup reveals more than anything is a myopic view of democracy that sees no place for feminist issues or gender analysis, and very little for civil rights and anti-racist work. That doesn't look like democracy to most of us.
Franke-Ruta herself believes it's clear why gender-balanced lineups matter:
The Democratic Party and left exist because of female voters and volunteers. No ifs, ands, or buts. As I noted in detail last summer, virtually every left organization that relies on volunteer labor succeeds because of the labor of female volunteers, who comprise the vast bulk of such low-level workers, and when Democrats have won at the national level in the past 40 years, it has been because of their appeal to female voters.
It's true that the progressive movement, such as it is, has not made great use of its human resources. But to the extent that the progressive base is about 60 percent female, ... progressive conferences in 2006 that are 92 percent male would seem to suggest that something even more problematic than a lack of resources is undermining the left's ability to strategically invest in human capital....The grown-up solution, of course, would be for people on the left or center left who run institutions to figure out ways to organize forums as diverse as the left itself.

I'd just like to point out that what the complainants seek are actually three separate, albeit related, things:
1. Bean-counting. It's helpful of Jervis to note that what she seeks is "more than bean counting" because it is, in part, bean counting. (Not affirmative action, properly understood, but, rather, an insistence that every panel at every conference be balanced by color and gender. And yes, that is the demand at issue here, because it's plainly not the case that these organizations regularly exclude women: "The New Democracy Project has four staff members and four senior fellows, and half of them are women. The Nation Institute is headed by a woman, the editor of The Nation is a woman, and although TNI's staff isn't online, its Board of Trustees is about one-third women.") This demand that every affected group be represented, every time, in fair proportions, has a long history on the left, and it's not just grubby hands grabbing for a pie slice - Jervis articulates a widespread feeling with her allegation that "what your lineup reveals more than anything is a myopic view of democracy that sees no place for feminist issues or gender analysis, and very little for civil rights and anti-racist work." Progressives by definition care about gender issues and civil rights issues, but, this assumption goes, only women and minorities, respectively, can properly understand and address those issues. Jervis, therefore, appears not to have bothered to peruse the conference agenda - she's just looked at the speaker list, seen that they're mostly white men, and concluded that such a 'lineup' inherently displays a lack of concern for feminist or civil rights or anti-racist issues. Obviously, the odds may be lower that a straight white man will be both knowledgeable and concerned about issues of race/class/gender/etc. that are less likely to affect him directly, but I hope I don't need to spell out the serious limitations of such simplistic group balancing: William Brennan was better for black Americans than Clarence Thomas; Jonathan Kozol has more insight into urban problems than Thomas Sowell; Phyllis Schlafely and Bay Buchanan have less to contribute on gender issues than fill-in-the-blank.

2. Assuring proper attention to issues on which progessives need to fight. Although white men can be genuinely concerned and well-informed about women's and minorities' issues, it may be the case that, in this particular instance, the Saving Our Democracy conference speakers are not such white men. If so, that's bad - assuming that such issues are within the scope of the conference. Pollitt has apparently looked at the list of topics to be addressed, and complains that "you have no one to specifically address reproductive rights, abortion rights, the rollback of feminist gains, 'family values' as an attack on women, or the specific role of gender politics in the rise of the Christian and Republican right." Those issues are all extremely important ones, but there isn't time to address them at every conference, any more than a gathering of progressives would automatically be worthless if it didn't address the war. 'Saving Our Democracy' sounds to me like a gathering for the purpose of discussing vote suppression, Ken Blackwell's antics, lawless presidents, rubber stamp Congresses, and the like. A glance at the agenda suggests that they're going somewhat beyond that narrow scope, but, jeez, it's a single day, just eight hours with a lunch break. They don't have any environmental speakers, either, and no session on unions or free trade or gay marriage, but no one thinks progressives don't care about the environment or labor or globalization or gay rights. I fervently hope that every progressive conference need not turn into yet another rally where so many causes must be heard that the point of the rally is diluted or lost.

3. Winning elections. 'Maybe this is why we don't win elections', Katha? Come on. Be serious. We lose elections for a variety of reasons, starting with our inferior numbers, but failure to include more women, or to address gender politics on the Christian right, at a New York City conference organized by the Nation Institute isn't one of them. Is there any plausible arugment that conservatives steal votes from conservatives because progressives fail to identify themselves as the side of feminism and civil rights? I can't think of one. Franke-Ruta implies that it's more a matter of rallying the base, since women volunteers and voters are critical to Democratic electoral chances - and, to be fair, she and Pollitt and Jervis seem to be saying that the real issue is that women's issues are routinely overlooked, and that this conference is emblematic of a larger trend. And it's true that if progressives always fail to address women's issues, women may eventually fail to mobilize, or bother to get out to vote, for progressives - but we're a long way from a country in which women voters don't see a difference on women's issues, and therefore go with conservatives thanks to their strong stances on economic/security/etc. issues. I realize some people are annoyed that the Democrats aren't as uniformly pro-choice as they once were, but no sentient person fails to understand that the Democratic party is far more sympathetic to abortion rights than the GOP. The difference between Kerry and Bush was as stark as we've had in twenty years, and progressive women hardly needed to be reminded who to work and vote for - and Bush still won. More generally, I just don't think it's true that progressives don't give attention to birth control and abortion rights - maybe not as much as we should, but not so little that doing more would mean victory at the polls. And several of the other issues Jervis and Pollitt seek attention to - feminism? 'Social Justice'? Gender analysis of the Christian right? Mainstream voters are not sympathetic to progressive stands on those issues and we shouldn't tell ourselves otherwise. We should talk about those issues on their merits, because we're progressives and we care about them, but not because talking about them = winning elections.

No comments: