PSA: Women in Power Don’t Necessarily Help Women

Originally published at Feministing

Donald Trump and his cadre of evil cronies sure have a way of making the worst decisions, always. A recent treat: DeVos’s announcement that she will roll back Title IX enforcement. This anti-survivor plan, cooked up after conversations with MRAs, has been deemed a terrible idea by at least 100,000 student activists.

The recent decision illuminates a fact we knew was true, but the Trump administration is proving without a doubt: In order to actually obtain equality for women, it’s not enough to get women into power.

It matters, instead, which women we get into power. Women will not always help women. Often, women will harm other women terribly.

At the end of the day, alas, lots of powerful women suck politically.

This of course is a truism by now, but at a moment when some of the top Trump cronies are women, it bears repeating and its implications for how we think about identity and representation require serious thought.

The Trump administration and some of their star supporters from the right wing have amply proven that female identity does not necessarily equal feminism. Ivanka’s false feminism is the stuff of legend – and grisly racist, sexist daily reality. Betsy DeVos and her civil rights assistant, Candice E. “90% of rape complaints are false” Jackson surely prove this fact. And of course, Kellyanne Conway’s rampant apologism and complete dismissalof feminism certainly counts.

This isn’t even to mention the lady stars of the alt right, whose advocacy for a white ethnostate is closely followed by their embrace of traditional gender norms.

And of course, there is a long history of less overtly horrible women making decisions that are ultimately horrible for women, or horrible for any woman who isn’t rich and white – from the racism of first-wave feminists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton to (yes, gotta say it) the militaristic violence promoted by Hillary Clinton.

Okay, we get it: Women in power don’t always help women and can often harm them. So what does this mean?

This should remind us that when we talk about identity politics, we can’t and don’t just mean identity in the sense of representation. Representation is, of course, important in and of itself: Those who have been excluded from power and have had their rights denied have a right to claim that power, period. But in our own political analysis, we need to pay attention to not only a person’s identity, but how that identity fits in a structure – and whether that person’s policies and politics will actually dismantle that structure.

A logic of pure representation – in which the only thing we care about is seeing marginalized people in any position of power – is very vulnerable to right-wing appropriation. To make an obvious example, the alt-right may contain some women leaders, but it is in no imaginable way feminist. And we can all name public figures from oppressed groups – whether they be women, people of color, or queer people – who actively work for an agenda which is frankly bad for people within that oppressed community, or which is bad for people within those communities who are oppressed in some other way. Ideology matters. Intersectionality matters.

And if we examine the history of identity politics as a concept, we’ll find the idea that identity politics merely means representation is a vast oversimplification of a politically powerful and nuanced concept. If we look, for example, at the Combahee River Collective statement – a landmark black feminist document which created “identity politics” as a political weapon – we find a much more complex conception of identity politics than the simplistic dismissals articulated on Fox News.

The Collective writes of experience as a source of knowledge, and of marginalized people’s self-awareness of their own oppression as a political weapon. They argue that they have a fundamental value as human beings. As they are the best people to recognize this value and to recognize the conditions of their oppression, they are also best equipped to fight for their own liberation through feminism, anti-racism, and socialism. They write:

There is also undeniably a personal genesis for Black Feminism, that is, the political realization that comes from the seemingly personal experiences of individual Black women’s lives. Above all else, Our politics initially sprang from the shared belief that Black women are inherently valuable, that our liberation is a necessity not as an adjunct to somebody else’s but because of our need as human persons for autonomy…This focusing upon our own oppression is embodied in the concept of identity politics. We believe that the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression.

In an age where the right is appropriating language and concepts initially created by the left (safe spaces for Zionists, anyone?), we have to be on our toes. This includes remembering, every time, that our feminism needs to more complicated than simply getting more women to lean in to high-power positions. Let’s opt, instead, for transformation.

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