Feminism in Free Fall

Socialist-feminists should focus on campaigns to win real benefits for working-class women, regardless of how those campaigns will be “perceived” by the media, NGOs, or Twitter.

Feminism is in free fall. In the United States, this free fall is most apparent from the legal system, which is both a byproduct of and a contributor to the decline and the feeling of helplessness. This is the story of three cases. The first case is Dobbs, the case that overturned the Roe v. Wade precedent that enshrined a right to abortion for the last five decades. The second case is the defamation lawsuit by actor Johnny Depp against his former partner Amber Heard for her public statement, without naming him specifically, that she was a survivor of domestic violence. And the third case is the prosecution for negligent homicide against RaDonda Vaught, a nurse who voluntarily reported that she had mistakenly injected the wrong medication into a 75 year old patient, causing his death.

Each of these cases, separately and juxtaposed with one another, show how ineffective a modern feminist politics focused on aesthetics has been, and moreover how patriarchal institutions have successfully fomented a backlash against this kind of feminism by exploiting its most public flaws. From the Democratic Party’s obsession with the “right” messaging about abortion to the social media outcry about the jury verdict against Amber Heard, feminists have doubled down on the prioritization of crafting appearances and identities through media even as it fails over and over again to prevent the rollback of women’s liberation. But this is not a secret, and the feminists are not delusional. Rather, there is resignation to failure, with feminist politics shifting from a means of achieving liberation to a consolation. The freedom to terminate a pregnancy cannot be protected, but feminists can take solace in knowing that other feminists feel just as angry, scared, and helpless as they do. Our shame at our inability to exercise power makes us turn inward, policing our own increasingly small social circles with internalized misogyny, rejecting feminism and even women as a group with its own discrete interests and needs in a desperate bid to make our political aims palatable to the misogynists who we understand hold all the power.

But it does not have to be this way. In both, US history and in contemporary organizing in countries like Colombia and Ireland, another model of feminist politics exists. This kind of feminist politics is based in creating a mass movement to fight for women’s liberation. Rather than focusing on empowering individuals and calling out individual perpetrators of misogyny, movement feminism draws power from popular participation of the working class, with tactics ranging from elections to strikes. It is not too late to reinvest in this kind of feminism, and use working-class power to protect women and gender minorities from the exploitation and oppression of patriarchal institutions. Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) can be a conduit for the shift to movement feminism by both rejecting the self-aggrandizing feminism that has failed us and helping working-class people reclaim feminism. That requires honest and difficult debate, but it must be done if we are to have any hope of preventing the retrenchment of patriarchy in the United States.

The De-Feminization of Abortion

Since the crashing of its second wave, the feminist movement in the United States has been stymied by aesthetic politics which, while predating the rise of the internet and social media, were made more inescapable and more alienating by the domination of social media. At first, there was a hope that, rather than being alienating or counter-revolutionary, the digitized aesthetic politics would help the feminist movement transcend the restrictions and demands of politics and thus enable women to attain liberation.

That promise did not last long. The glittery façade adopted by the wealthy was soon revealed to have “failed all survivors” of sexual violence rather than liberating them. The political action of the most privileged women became further removed from the realities of ordinary people. And it soon became undeniable that social media was not liberating for women, but instead extremely misogynistic and toxic. Worse still, a campaign like the #MeToo movement within feminism had no answer to something like the misogyny of Instagram — it was not an individual abuser who could be de-platformed or prosecuted, but a massive corporation with little to no accountability to the public due to feminism and other social justice movements abandoning the economy and retreating into aesthetic politics that depended on, instead of challenging, corporations. Or to put it more simply, feminists learned the tools they had been using to build their politics for the last decade were poisoning them and their daughters.

Aesthetic politics remain the go-to focus of the feminist movement, but it is becoming more and more difficult for its participants to enthusiastically embrace aesthetic politics and a broad understanding of how insufficient those politics are to fight for women’s liberation. One of the best examples of this is the reaction to the leaked Supreme Court decision in the Dobbs case promising the overturn of Roe v. Wade and consequently the right to terminate pregnancy, and then a similar reaction when the decision was actually made. The right to terminate pregnancy is a foundational necessity to women’s liberation, and that is exactly why it is restricted — patriarchy does not want women to be free, to be able to choose a life for themselves outside of subservience to men. As recognized by Leftists from Friedrich Engels to Shulamith Firestone, sex is one of the oldest divisions of labor, predating capitalist divisions by tens of thousands of years and incorporated into capitalism even as women entered the workforce. Recognition of this essential feminist conflict was what motivated women to win abortion rights in the 1960’s and 1970’s in the United States, and what motivates them to win abortion rights today in countries like Colombia and Ireland.

But in the modern aesthetic politics of US feminism, rather than organizing around this central feminist premise or even discussing how to organize around it, the movement instead hyper-focused on how to make abortion politics look as politically correct as possible, which somehow has entailed stripping its language of any mention of feminism, patriarchy, or women. This was done in the name of the aesthetic comfort of a miniscule portion of people who get abortions, transgender men and other gender nonconforming people who do not identify as women. To make these people comfortable, it was argued, the movement could not talk about women and had to only talk about people who could get pregnant. Groups from the ACLU to NARAL have adopted this position, and celebrities like Bette Midler and Macy Gray are called out for not following suit.

This argument was flawed on many levels. The first flaw is the idea that the comfort of transgender men and other gender nonconforming people is the priority in organizing for abortion rights. Even assuming that transgender men and gender nonconforming people are so sensitive as to be offended by the mention of women, their comfort is not the priority in organizing for abortion rights. Winning should be the priority. Stopping the criminalization of abortion and other birth control should be the priority. But under aesthetic politics, the priority has been twisted into being about looking righteous and politically correct in your digital identity, even as the world in fact collapses around you. The stated goal is not even achieved – one could hardly argue that transgender people are well-served by a feminist movement that has failed to prevent the rollback of abortion rights because it was too focused on making mostly cisgender people look like “allies” to the transgender community.

The argument was also flawed because of the assumption of mutual exclusivity. The modern feminist movement’s envelopment by social media has made it extremely self-hating. This is not a new problem and arguably is an inherent issue of organizing a group that has been socially conditioned to be docile and servile. As Shulamith Firestone once said, “Women, more than any other oppressed group, were easy to convince that their struggle should be delayed for ‘more important issues.’”  It is impossible to imagine that, for example, Black Lives Matter would ever hesitate from saying “Black Lives Matter” just because Native Americans are also killed at disproportionately high rates by the police (in some areas, even higher than Black people). It is impossible to imagine that immigration activists would ever hesitate from using Spanish language materials just because some immigrants speak languages other than Spanish. Recognizing that it is women who are 99% of the people who get abortions and that the criminalization of abortion is about their oppression is in no way some statement that only women get abortions. Saying “Women’s liberation now” does not mean denying liberation to anyone else.

And the argument was further flawed because of the framing of abortion around biological essentialism. Ironically, in the name of being inclusive towards transgender people, this de-feminization of abortion rights excludes transgender women as well as cisgender women who can’t get pregnant from the struggle. And this carving out, while not intentional, plays right into the arguments used by anti-abortion politics to try to divide women from fighting collectively for abortion rights. The politically correct “people who can get pregnant” is only one step removed from “people who do get pregnant.” Anti-abortion activists want women to believe that abortion rights only effect those who need to get an abortion, when in reality the criminalization of abortion is about defining women as a whole, regardless of their actual individual reproductive capacity, as subservient to men. The imperative for women to be mothers is the basis for the derogation of those who do not or cannot be, i.e. the insult “spinster.” Every way in which criminalization of abortion impacts women who can get pregnant, or even more narrowly women who will get an unwanted pregnancy, will have consequences beyond it impacting women generally. To name just one example, a world where more women are forced to leave the workplace because they cannot terminate unwanted pregnancies will be a world with less women in the workplace and thus less comradeship and support for those women who remain in the workplace, especially on issues that disproportionately effect women like sexual harassment.

It is of course important to distinguish this argument from the transphobic argument that the inclusion of trans people, or even the respectful recognition of a transgender person’s gender and pronouns and so forth, is somehow misogynistic. Trans inclusion is not misogynistic. Certainly organizers, clinic workers, and socialists in general should not assume that every individual who has an abortion is a woman. But exclusion of women is misogynistic. And while maybe well-intentioned, those who seek to eliminate the words “feminism,” “patriarchy,” and “women” from the struggle for abortion rights in favor of biological essentialism and terms like “people with wombs” are being misogynist.

But patriarchy required more than just the exposure of modern feminism as inept and self-hating. It needs to actively turn the public against it. Patriarchal institutions and their leaders understand that the right to abortion is popularly supported and that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to reverse that public support. What is far easier is to go after those who are most active in fighting for the right to abortion – the feminists. And the easiest way to attack a diverse movement fighting in the interest of the public is to redefine it with a scapegoat that represents the most reviled form of it.

All The World Is Johnny Depp’s Stage

The term “show trial” comes from coverage by Western media of the Donetz Trial in the Soviet Union in 1928. A 3-page pamphlet titled “To the Civilized World, an Appeal by the Russian National Committee,” published on August 3, 1928, creates this idea of a “show trial” to attack the Donetz Trial and the Soviet Union generally. While the usual Western attacks against the Soviet Union are present in the pamphlet (i.e. “the dungeons and the oubliettes of the Guepeon”), the pamphlet also uses an extended metaphor to what would be great effect:

“The trials in the Soviet Courts are sheer tragi-comedies, in which the Guepeou’s victims, broken by diabolically ingenious tortures, finally calumniate and accuse themselves and others. This odious comedy is essential to the Soviet Power, which is thus enabled to justify itself and to hoodwink the more ignorant section of the people as well as the inhabitants of other countries.”

The idea of deeming Soviet prosecutions “show trials” was brilliant because it conveyed a political opinion of them as, not some mere political opinion, but rather an inherent truth. No matter how well-acted, no matter how good the special effects, everyone knows that a show is a show and that it is not real. Only “the more ignorant section” would believe it is real — and who wants to be part of that group?

We are well beyond the days of pamphlets, but all the world remains a stage, and patriarchal institutions realized that making a show out of the accusations of abuse that the Me Too movement had used to shame and dethrone people like Harvey Weinstein would be an effective way to get the public, and especially women, to doubt the character and intentions of the feminist movement.

This of course was not some backroom plot. Johnny Depp did not have some secret meeting of the Patriarchy League with Justice Alito, Donald Trump, and Senator Tom Cotton where they plotted out every move of Depp’s defamation lawsuit. But just like capitalists will collaborate against the working class out of shared class interest rather than some shadowy conspiracy, patriarchal institutions and their leaders will collaborate against women’s liberation out of shared interest. It seems doubtful that Johnny Depp individually has any aim beyond trying to resurrect his career and attack Amber Heard via the media.

But that individual patriarchal desire to silence and subjugate a woman who dared to call herself a survivor of abuse was quickly utilized by those with a broader desire to silence and subjugate women generally. As reported by the Citizens and Vice World News, the Daily Wire spent between $35,000 and $47,000 on Facebook and Instagram ads promoting one-sided articles and videos with a clear bias against Heard, eliciting some four million impressions. The intent was made even more explicit by another conservative media publication, the Independent, with the headline “A trial by TikTok and the death knell for MeToo. Who won Depp v Heard?”

Amber Heard was the perfect scapegoat. To avoid any ambiguity, the portrayal of Amber Heard was not accurate. It was the kind of obviously false portrayal that has become increasingly normal, where it can be casually implied that Ms. Heard snorted cocaine while on the witness stand and it is treated as some sort of crafty discovery rather than tabloid gossip. That kind of falsehood could be perpetuated against any woman. What made Ms. Heard the perfect scapegoat was that she is the kind of woman that the media has pushed so hard as the face of feminism. Wealthy. Heterosexual. Conventionally attractive. And speaking truth to power, as in seeking individual justice against an individual.

That kind of feminism has of course always been a show. Any person who considers themselves to be a feminist understands that wealthy white heterosexual women taking on their individual abusers in the media is not the feminist movement, or even a representation of feminism that captures 99% of what it means to most women. But because feminism has retreated into aesthetic politics, that dynamic cannot be called out or questioned, because it would undermine the practice we all engage in, albeit on a much smaller scale with a much smaller audience, of crafting a feminist aesthetic in media and calling it politics.

That is why feminists did not engage with the Amber Heard trial much until it was too late to make any kind of difference. Engaging with it while it was still going on would mean having to wrestle with the degradation of the modern feminist movement into individual struggles, which again few feminists could do without having to own up to their own contribution (and of course writers, as with any political movement, bear the greatest sin in that regard). It was only once the trial was over that feminists engaged with it because they could pretend that it did not typify the retreat into the aesthetic. But of course that engagement itself typifies the retreat. The case was over, and all that was left was to identify ourselves as feminists in response rather than passing any law or running any candidate or starting a revolution.

But the scapegoating of Amber Heard wasn’t for feminists or even for the conservative base that was all too happy to make her into every woman they have despised since the Me Too movement began. It was for everyone else. And it was not to convince everyone else that Johnny Depp was right, or that all women are liars or some other extreme position. It was to convince everyone else that it was all a show. The intended reaction was one that came from many people, including on the Left, which was to dismiss it as all fake. After all, the goal of the patriarchal groups and people who funded these pro-Depp ads and so forth is not to start a movement for male survivors of crazy coke-snorting women who shit on their beds: it is to quash any movement advocating for women.

Life or Death

One of the most important trials for working-class women of the last five years probably came and went without your notice, but the nurses certainly noticed it. RaDonda Vaught gave a 75 year old patient of hers an injection of a drug called vecuronium, a muscle relaxant. It was a grave error – unlike the sedative she should have used, Versed, the muscle relaxant stopped the patient’s breathing and she died. Undeniably tragic, and certainly grounds for discipline, including expelling Ms. Vaught from the nursing profession. But errors do happen. Unfortunately for Ms. Vaught, the Davidson County District Attorney’s Office and a jury of Ms. Vaught’s peers disagreed, and she was convicted of criminally negligent homicide and abuse of an impaired adult.

While there was certainly media coverage of this trial, particularly in publications about healthcare and in local Tennessee publications, it had neither the scope nor the show of the Amber Heard trial. Instead, it felt quietly profound, in ways that were both frightening and hopeful. The conviction is difficult to not see as a backlash against a profession that, embattled by a failing healthcare system even before COVID-19, has become more politically active. The conviction sends a message: “If you point the finger at the state and capitalists for the failings of the healthcare system, we will pin the blame back on you.” As the New York State Nurses Association (NYSNA) stated in their press release about the conviction:

“Although many hospitals say they promote a culture of safety, the reality is very different. Hospital policy may say that if a member of the healthcare team raises a safety concern, everything stops until the problem is addressed. In practice, nurses are too often rewarded for creative workarounds and diminished for being the squeaky wheel who notices too many problems or submits too many Protests of Assignments or Occupational Safety and Health Administration complaints. In the RaDonda Vaught case, her hospital reported that the patient died of natural causes instead of notifying federal regulators of the medication error as required by law.”

But as alarming as this conviction was, there is hope, and that hope is symbolized by the nurses who came to the gallery at the trial, who showed up in support. In the words of one of those nurses, Rebecca Ray, “She came in innocent and she will leave innocent, no matter what the jury says.” That support, the support of nurses across the country particularly through nursing unions like the aforementioned NYSNA or SEIU 1199NW, could not stop the conviction but it certainly sent a message. Vaught was sentenced to three years of supervised probation – an injustice, but it is telling that she avoided prison, and the DA’s Office was clearly concerned about backlash, repeating “This is what RaDonda Vaught did, not the nursing community.” And touchingly, post-conviction, Vaught stood by her fellow nurses as they stood by her, stating “You guys do what you do. Do it well. Don’t let this defeat you mentally. Keep your standards.”

Socialist Feminism Beyond the Free Fall

That advice could have been given in reaction to the leaked Dobbs decision as much as the Vaught conviction, or even in reaction to the Amber Heard trial. What the feminist movement in the United States needs to do if it hopes to end the free fall we are currently in is to build a politics of mass movement focused on our collective liberation rather than our individual identities. These politics are only possible when we use the material basis of our oppression to unite in struggle for a better world. We cannot be reduced to a show trial, to be mocked or dismissed as just a show, if we do not take the stage alone. The Amber Heard trial was enough for people to proclaim the death of Me Too – no one gave such an epitaph for the nurse labor movement following the RaDonda Vaught trial. The “green wave” demonstrations, from Argentina to Colombia, are a great example of how much more powerful feminism is when it acts a mass political movement as opposed to individuals focused on our individual faults and individual struggles.

What role should democratic socialists play in pivoting feminism back to a mass political movement capable of winning and exercising power, and away from an aesthetic cultivated by individuals on social media? While it was heartening to see DSA chapters across the country participating in and even leading protests after the leaked Dobbs decision that will overturn Roe v. Wade, this is not enough. Particularly it is not enough when some chapters in their messaging did not use the words “feminism,” “women,” or “patriarchy” at all. While the class character of abortion access must be highlighted, and socialists are particularly adept at doing so, we must also be leading this struggle as feminists as well as socialists. I imagine some of this absence of feminist messaging comes out of uncertainty, out of knowing the problems with the aesthetic feminism that dominates modern U.S. feminism but not being willing to adopt a materialist feminist analysis due to the second wave of feminism being associated with petty intra-movement bigotries like racism and transphobia.

Rejecting materialist feminism because of the individual faults of materialist feminists like Margaret Sanger or Catharine MacKinnon makes about as much sense as rejecting Marxism because Engels and Marx were themselves imperfect (and certainly as to feminism, they were). When we are thinking about how to win back abortion rights, I’d rather have our comrades looking at the people who did win those rights for our feminist analysis, flawed as it may be, over the aesthetic feminism that lost those rights.

Every DSA chapter should be engaging in socialist-feminist struggle, and that will look different depending on where that chapter is, but every socialist-feminist action should seek to build a mass movement of working-class women, and thus working-class women should always be a target audience if not the only target audience. That means engaging with women in their workplaces, connecting the struggles of their jobs to the struggles of working-class women generally. It means avoiding the navel-gazing campaigns, events, and messaging focused on making ourselves look more feminist or more politically astute, and instead focusing on campaigns that win real benefits for working-class women, regardless of how those campaigns will be “perceived” by the media, NGOs, or Twitter. It means not siloing our feminism into little groups. Socialist feminist campaigns should be participated in by the membership generally, and we should make it as easy for our membership to participate in them as possible. Lastly, we must draw strength and inspiration from our feminist comrades around the world, learn from their victories and defeats, and where possible collaborate with them. Feminism may be falling in the United States today, but together we can pick ourselves back up and build a movement that will really liberate the women of the world.