In both 2008 and 2016 it was groundbreaking to just have one viable woman candidate in the presidential race. Now in 2020 we started the primary with four (I’m sorry I can’t count Tulsi Gabbard and Marianne Williamson as viable women candidates). I was sad to see Kirsten Gillibrand drop out of the race so early, and Amy Klobuchar seems unlikely to make it to the top tier of candidates, but voters still have two awesome choices in Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren.
Unfortunately we are experiencing a lot of fighting between these two support groups who see their candidate as the clear choice. If you follow me on twitter you know I clearly favor Kamala Harris. However if Elizabeth Warren wins the nomination I want her to be as strong a candidate as possible and so I am going to discuss some of the problems many of us have and how she can fix them. I promise I am not writing this to drag Warren but because I think her narrative is hitting on some “lean in” white feminist narratives that she may not be aware of.
Much of Warren’s language centers her personal story and struggles in a way that is common for politicians. However, as someone who was a republican until her 40s I think she is missing that her framing is often overly individualistic. Many who were raised in feminist theory and Democratic politics speak in the language of solidarity. What have we as a group accomplished together? What feminist heroes shoulders are we standing on?
This might seem like I’m holding a woman candidate to different standards than I would hold a male candidate, and to a point that’s true. However that is because I, and many others, want to vote for a woman candidate who is running as an intersectional feminist who sees our struggles as a country through that lens. Many of us who are excited to vote for a woman for president are often accused of prioritizing gender over policy, but in reality we know that gender, or any marginalized experience, informs policy. When I staunchly supported Hillary Clinton it was in large part because her history showed someone who had long fought or marginalized groups and who spoke in a way that centered feminist political concerns. Similarly Kamala Harris’ history shows someone who has long been concerned with the ways in which the criminal justice system deprioritizes the issues specific to people of color as well as those who are victims of gender based violence.
I will be the first to admit that Elizabeth Warren has run a better campaign than I was expecting and has hit on some policy issues that are close to my heart such as voting rights and universal childcare. However, her personal language and her framing of her history, as well as her awakening that led to changing parties, still doesn’t address the kind of intersectional feminist concerns many of us are looking for.
Elizabeth Warren isn’t the first white women to have problems embracing an intersectional approach prioritizing solidarity. Many black suffragists were famously left out of conversations and strategies of the movement. However when black suffragists were involved they used their time to educate black women on civics and skills to help them in their lives. The black suffrage organizations were always community based and building larger solutions than simply gaining the right to vote. Similarly the contemporary reproductive justice movement, which was started by black women in 1994, is a holistic approach to multiple facets of women and trans people’s lives. Rather than just focusing on abortion rights, reproductive justice seeks to address “the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities,” according to Sister Song.
Warren wasn’t very political when she was young and was a registered Republican for much of her adult life. She didn’t become a registered Democrat until she was 47 in 1996. There is nothing inherently wrong with this. We want people to change and evolve! However its also reasonable to ask what caused this change and why Warren wasn’t that political during the 70s and 80s which included Vietnam, women’s liberation, the AIDS crisis, civil rights concerns, and more. However rather than embracing her shift and explaining her political awakening (like Gillibrand has done with her switch on guns), Warren has shied away from addressing her Republican, or non political, past. When she does address her political change the narrative focuses solely on an economic awakening around bankruptcy and consumer protections.
Warren’s issues in this area can be seen in how she addressed her claims of Native American ancestry. Not only did she ignore native people’s concerns about her claims for many years, but when Trump started baiting her and calling her Pocahontas, Warren treated it like a personal attack to be fought with a DNA test. Instead, Warren should have immediately pivoted to saying Trump’s words didn’t hurt her but they did hurt the many Native American people living in this country. She could have used that as an opportunity to stand with a marginalized community rather than seeing it as a need to defend herself.
While Warren has apologized, many in the Native community do not feel she has really addressed their issues and the long history of bending the truth around her Native identity still follows her. This week Warren faces a controversy over whether she was fired for being pregnant or not in 1971. Previously when Warren told the story of leaving teaching she didn’t include a story about pregnancy discrimination which seems to have been added in 2014.
Now many things can be true here. The first is that women absolutely faced pregnancy discrimination in the 70s and that some still exists today. It is possible that Warren is choosing to add true parts of this anecdote that she didn’t feel comfortable opening up about before. However it is also understandable that there are many who are skeptical due to the way Warren inappropriately claimed Native identity earlier in her life.
I honestly think a lot of these problems can be solved if Warren drops the Republican framing of individualistic struggles and triumphs since she has already dropped her Republican affiliation. Many of us want to hear feminist politicians speak in a way that shows they are centering intersectionality and an understanding of the importance of solidarity.
As a PhD candidate and college professor who was raised by a 2nd wave feminist college professor I’m going to offer a reading list for Elizabeth Warren or anyone who wants to ensure they’re steeped in feminist theory. I’m going to emphasize this is a list for a political understanding and I’m leaving out a lot of foundational works. I’m sure Warren has read many of these authors but it never hurts to put a list together! I hope Warren can show her commitment to feminism in her narrative as well as she has in some of her policies.
Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde
Borderlands by Gloria Anzaldua
Feminism Is For Everybody by bell hooks
Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment by Patricia Hill Collins
Eve Sedgwick on Queer Theory
The Beginning and End of Rape: Confronting Sexual Violence in Native America by Sarah Deer (and more Indigenous feminist authors can be found here)
Madwoman in the Attic by Gilbert and Gubar
Eloquent Rage by Brittany Cooper