Angela Davis – inspirational activist, scholar and writer – was in Italy last week to remind us about the importance of social movements and global solidarity and to share her thoughts about colonialism, racism and capitalism in two lectures in Roma and Bologna. She started the lecture in Bologna, titled The Meaning of White Supremacy Today, with two quotes, one by Ella Baker ‘strong people don’t need strong leaders’ and one by Toni Morrison ‘the function of freedom is to free someone else’, considering freedom as a collective value. These quotes can help reflecting on current debates about women in power and multiple feminisms.
This year’s US presidential elections represent an interesting arena to start this reflection. Hillary Rodham Clinton, former US Secretary of State and Democratic Party front-runner, has gained women’s support based on her image as an advocate of gender equality and on the so-long-waited opportunity to elect the first US female president. Differently from the 2008 campaign, this year gender and feminism have played a key role in the debates and the Democratic primary battle is contributing to picturing the complexity of the 21st century feminism.
While gender and sexuality represent a relevant part of Clinton’s campaign and while she may be far away from the openly misogynistic and anti-LGBT views of most Republican politicians, she represents a narrow feminism that has been often defined as white, corporate and imperialist. This critique is rooted in decisions and policies adopted during her decades of service on corporate boards and her major political roles as First Lady, US Senator and Secretary of State. She has supported the war in Iraq, Western military interventions in North Africa and the Middle East, and as recently emerged from emails released by Wikileaks also the civil war in Syria. She supported Walmart anti-unions campaign, retains cosy relationships with big corporations, her Clinton Foundation can be considered an example of philanthrocapitalism and she has favoured policies of austerity and privatisation that have disproportionately affected women and LGBT people, particularly those who are poor and non-white.
A significant criticism towards Hillary Clinton’s feminism has come from younger or millennial feminists, who represent an extremely heterogeneous group. As repeatedly reported by newspapers, a significant number of millennial feminists have declared to support Hillary’s opponent Bernie Sanders’ social democracy plan focused on key issues such as healthcare, full employment, minimum wage, universal education, and racial and gender justice. Very far from being interested in voting Sanders to attract boys’ attention, as recently stated by Gloria Steinem, this group of feminists consider gender inequality as defined by the intersection of gender, race and class and consider questions of wealth and power as main feminist issues. As argued on Feministing ‘framing young women as hopelessly uninformed and apolitical obscures real debate and disagreement within generations. It’s a tired trope, one that erases the voices of young women who have decided to demand more of their candidate than that she identifies as a woman. And that’s perhaps the most rigorous engagement of all.’ We can probably say that while Clinton could be a perfect candidate to raise women’s issues within the status quo, Sanders has a more “revolutionary” plan aimed at social and economic change, to the extent of being considered unrealistic by the elite media.
Being critical of Hillary Clinton’s feminism, however, doesn’t mean that she shouldn’t be defended against sexist attacks about her voice, appearance or age. But it does mean to listen to more critical and less prominent voices and act in solidarity with movements that seek equity and respect for difference in all realms of life and for all people. In contrast to this, some commentators have argued that Bernie Sanders is anyway a white man and that it is also important to be wary of universal claims on social rights and of what for now is just a campaign manifesto. In any case, this debate has contributed to shed a new light on the importance of welfare and substantive rights in framing 21st century feminism. A terrain of struggle that feminists in the West share with Third World feminists, who have been fighting for these entitlements since the expropriation and commodification of their land and the introduction of exploitative rules during colonialism.
Related to this is the current discussion on the possibility to elect the first female UN secretary general, an aim pushed particularly by the US and by some of Hillary’s supporters. In February 2015 a group of American feminists initiated the Campaign to Elect a Woman Secretary General, chaired by Yale professor Jean Krasno. In April 2015, Equality Now launched a campaign to promote gender equality in the selection process and following 20,000 letters the General Assembly adopted the Resolution 51/241 which highlights gender equality.
By now the women official nominees are Irina Bokova from Bulgaria, current director-general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO); Natalia Gherman, deputy prime minister and minister of Foreign Affairs and European Integration of the Republic of Moldova; and Dr Vesna Pusić, first deputy prime minister and minister of Foreign and European Affairs of Croatia and academic. Other candidates mentioned over the last months include Kristalina Georgieva, also from Bulgaria, economist and vice-president of the European Commission; Helen Clark, former prime minister of New Zealand and head of UNDP; Michelle Bachelet, president of Chile and former head of UN Women; Angela Merkel, Germany’s first woman Chancellor and longest-serving incumbent head of government in the European Union, and Christine Lagarde, head of IMF.
In an interview with The Guardian, Mary Robinson, first female president of Ireland and former high commissioner for human rights, said “We want the best candidate. But I like the fact that after eight men, there is a leaning towards a woman. In women’s and girls’ eyes, the symbolic empowerment of a woman top official, with responsibilities in peace, stability and development, is fundamental. It has a great psychological impact.” While the message can be important, the need for having a woman in such a key leading role does not reside merely in formal representation, but in the possibility to embrace feminism to drive a more substantive change in international law and politics and to challenge the Western imperialist approach to development. This means fighting inequality at different levels, giving more voice to marginalised people, and replacing a system in which fundamental rights are subordinated to the quest for profits with one that ensures basic rights like food, clean water, health care, housing, education and employment, without relying unsustainably on the unpaid work of women, too often used to compensate for the lack of accessible social infrastructures.
Feminism has become a very popular word, openly used by celebrities and national and international leaders. Over the last couple of years, discourses on gender equality have been at the forefront of grassroots, national and international conversations. The Internet and social media have contributed to provide an instrument for feminism to become more visible and a megaphone for usually unheard feminist voices. While we can support Chiamanda Ngozi Adichie’s statement that We Should All Be Feminists, we also need to engage with the differences implied in that All and to raise our voices whenever feminism gets co-opted to perpetuate forms of inequality. It is important that the diversity and heterogeneity of the movement become the strength of the critically hopeful and never-ending struggle of feminism, not just for women but for the world.