A Word to Progressives

There’s a story I’ve been telling recently I think bears repeating.

A year or two before my son started school, there was a buzz. Word on the playground was that a momentum was building. A group of neighborhood parents, priced out of NYC private schools and frustrated at the lackluster performance of the local public schools, were starting to mobilize. Fantastic, right? These parents started getting involved, going to town halls and attending district and zone meetings. They organized and advocated. They had binders full great ideas that would benefit not only their own kids, but everyone’s kids. Win/win.

In their passion to improve what was already there they neglected one important thing: the people who already called that school home. And those folks were understandably wary and resentful of a group of newcomers rushing in demanding change while liberally pointing out fault and failure.

I’m watching the same thing happen now with the progressive movement in the US. A fired-up grass-roots movement which wants to overhaul the Democratic Party for the betterment of all. Fantastic, right? But as I’m watching, I’m shaking my head. Because many are making the same mistake those neighborhood parents made: they’re not taking into account the people who actually make up the Democratic party.

The Democrats lost the last election. Bigly. They’ve lost countless seats and governorships in the last few election years. We can autopsy the whys until we’re covered in the gore of yesterday. We can place blame from here until Tuesday. None of that changes the fact that when you march into someone else’s school–or house, or political party–expecting to radically change the structure, you must take into account the needs, wants, and desires of the people who actually live there. Or, as the case may be, vote there.

Even if your ideas are great. Even if your ideas will help the people already there.

No one likes to be told they’re doing things wrong. No one likes to be told if only. Never mind if you’re right or not. Everyone’s well-versed in hindsight and its eagle-eyed vision. Would you march into someone else’s house and start shouting “You chose the wrong carpet! Your decor sucks! What were you thinking? Oh by the way, can I come stay with you for a while until I get my own place?”

If you expect them to say “Well sure, here are the keys!”, I want some of what you’re smoking.

What are they likely to do? The same thing any human being does when told they’re wrong, or stupid, or not good enough. They bristle. They resent the hell out of you. And they probably try to block every single attempt to change because hey, maybe the school/house/party is failing, but damn if it’s not our school and who are you to tell us how to do things? 

It makes my heart swell to see millions striving to make the world a more equitable place. But….you need to remember that there are millions of Democrats who’ve been living in their blue house for decades. Maybe it is falling down around them (and that point is arguable in and of itself). But remember, even if it is, it’s their damn house and they’ve been paying the mortgage on it for years. And despite what you may think, they’ve had a lot of good times in that house. There are some good memories there. They’re not going to let someone they don’t know come in and start tearing up the linoleum to see if there’s hardwood underneath, all the while berating them for every decorating choice they’ve made since 1960.

Most people don’t like change. It’s uncomfortable. Even when that change is going to benefit them. The reasons why so many old school Democrats are committed now to a resistance movement is that the change is threatening to go too far in one direction. But remember, for millions of Democrats–the people who have been living in that house, the ones who have been showing up and voting–change too far in the other direction is just as frightening. And they’ll fight it just as much.

Right now, Progressives need to rent some room in the Democrat’s house. Sure, you could declare it condemned. You could burn it and build something new. You could find another house on another street. But that all takes time, and by the time all is said and done, it could be too late.

Or…you could work with the people already living there. And, chances are, when you start looking around, you’re going to find a pretty decent bone structure to work with. In fact, the place may not be in as much disarray as you thought it was when you dragged your sleeping bag in looking for a place to squat.

Smart Progressives will approach coalition building with courtesy, caution, and yes, compromise. Maybe you reach an agreement to live together until your own house is ready. Great! After all, help with the bills is always welcomed. Until it’s ready it would be wise to remember that if you need a place to stay, it’s probably not the smartest move to go around  knocking holes in the walls and incessantly bringing up that time in 1992 when they let the pipes freeze. Or else you may just find your ass on the street. Noble intentions, passion, and good ideas go a long way, but when there’s a hurricane bearing down upon you, and there’s a big old blue house on the corner inviting you in, it would be dumb not to take shelter. Even if the roof is leaky and it stinks like mothballs. 

Eventually the new parents in my Brooklyn hood worked with the long-time neighborhood residents, wisely realizing that even if the school wasn’t winning any awards, it wasn’t really their school to criticize. The need for underlying change and improvement hadn’t gone away, but any forward motion had to take the old into account as well as the new.

Resistance is necessary. But the last thing a resistance movement needs is resistance within itself.

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The Good, The Bad and The Equal

rosieFeminism used to be much simpler.

I’m not talking about the suffragette struggle or Roe v. Wade or the ERA. Those battles were hard-fought. They paved the way for the more nuanced battles taking place now in government, in media, in the courts. What I mean by simple is this: at the time I was coming of age, during my slogan shouting, placard carrying youth, is was generally accepted that the ideology of feminism was, at its core, the act of advocating for the equal treatment of women. This encompassed equality in the form of legal, economic, cultural and social reforms: equal pay, bodily autonomy, voting, property ownership, education.

You either believe that women are equal to men and deserving of the same protected rights. Or you don’t. If you believe that, you’re a feminist. If you don’t, you aren’t.

Like any other ideology, feminism fired up a lot of rhetoric and stirred up the pot. Hardcore groups splintered off and changed the spelling of women to womyn, demanded that gendered nouns be neutralized, made us all scratch our heads over Best Actor, Female statue(ette) at the Oscars. Of course they also shone a light on shocking pay inequities, domestic violence and paved the way for legal and educational reforms, not to mention changing the way we, as a society, view girls and women. Any time a movement sets out to highlight inequality there is going to be anger. There is going to be displaced rage, there is going to be finger-pointing and denial and generalization. I still maintain however, that the heart of the matter remains: Feminism is not about thinking that women are better than men. Feminism is believing that women are equal to men. It is not believing that women and men are the same, because men and women are not the same. It is the belief that women should be granted the same privileges and legal rights as men.

Simple, right? Yet all of a sudden there seems to be a checklist. There is a list of criteria you must meet. Somewhere there is probably a Buzzfeed quiz you can take. Good feminists, bad feminists, women who like to take pictures of themselves declaring why they don’t need feminism. In all my 43 years I have yet to meet a woman who has stood up and said to me, “I believe that granting women the right to vote was wrong!” or “Men should get paid more for doing the same job!” or “It should be legal to discriminate against a person on the basis of their sex!”

If those women do exist then they have earned the right to opt out and frankly, I don’t want to know them. But women who think they are not feminists because they wear makeup or do housework? Women who declare they don’t need feminism because they like looking after their man or because they fear that labeling themselves feminist means they are somehow victims in need of protecting? Pffft, I say.

kate nashPffft.

It doesn’t matter if you wear makeup because you like the way your eyes pop when you wear mascara, what matters is that you believe a woman doing the same job as a man should be paid the same amount.

It doesn’t matter if you wear high heels because you like the way your calves look, what matters is that you believe laws should not favor men simply because they are men.

It doesn’t matter if you like to bake or wear an apron or wear pink, plastic gloves to avoid dish pan hands, what matters is that you believe value should not be assigned on the basis of sex alone.

It doesn’t matter if you like to make lunch for your husband every day, what matters is that you believe you should be legally and socially protected from a spouse who would beat you for not doing those things.

You can be a feminist in a heterosexual marriage or relationship.

You can be a feminist who believes in God (or who doesn’t).

You can be a feminist who has children.

All of the above involve taking part in either a legal, religious, or cultural institution which was created to or has perpetuated the subjugation of women at one time or another. But I have to believe that people are multi-faceted. I have to believe that you can marry a man in equality, that you can believe in your own version of God, that raising children or staying at home with them is not mutually exclusive to the belief system that women are meant to be barefoot and pregnant.

Feminism is not about putting someone else down in order to make yourself feel better. In fact, that is the exact language I use with my children to describe bullying. Feminism is not refusing to cook a meal because a woman in the kitchen is a sexist notion. Feminism is not throwing your contemporaries under the nearest bus because they make a different choice. Feminism is not forcing a belief system on another. Feminism doesn’t need to be as complicated as it has become.

cms-image-000012492Because you either believe that women are equal. Or you don’t.

Men and women are not the same. Nothing has taught me that more than raising two young boys. In fact, I would argue that raising boys is one of the most feminist acts I’ve undertaken because I am raising them not as boys, but as people who are taught to respect other people--male or female. Sure, I make sure I throw in a lesson on Anne Bonney when the pirate talk starts or highlight the discoveries of Madame Curie or the soccer talents of Mia Hamm. But overall, I hope that I am teaching them to see the value in the person, not the sex.

There are lots of things about inequality that are complicated. There are layers of reasoning and institutionalization that make it even more so.

Let’s not make the basic belief complicated as well.

 

 

**It was a conscious decision not to touch upon feminism and female sexuality. Issues involving the gross sexualization of women, violent crimes against women and the recent steps to strip women of their legal reproductive rights are all pressing matters that are deserving of the attention not just of an ideology, but of society on the whole. Those things are part of the feminist movement, as they must be, but they must be addressed not only from the perspective of feminism. There must be a clear cultural shift in attitude, backed by legal and economic systems.