Women’s Movement by and for Whom?

Women’s Movement by and for Whom?

It’s a fascinating experience being a relative newcomer to the women’s movement. I spent five years in the military, and the next seven organizing to end discrimination and sexual violence in the military, in a space largely unsupported by the U.S. women’s movement.

Indeed, when Democrats or Republicans need to win political victories, veterans of both sexes are trotted out on the podium to score points against the opposition. Supporting the troops in such artificial ways has never been easier. Building real bridges across the military-civilian divide, and understanding how supporting marginalized groups of women can indeed lift the rest of the women’s movement, is one of the greatest challenges the women’s movement still faces.

Recent topics in the national discussion offer important examples of the movement’s shortcomings. PBS’s recent “Makers” documentary was a sweeping and inspiring overview of the critical junctures and many important figures in the fight for women’s equality. Where it fell short was its ability to move beyond a paradigm in which relatively privileged white women occupy the central narrative, and in which women of color, queer women, immigrant women, working women, service women and young women are practically irrelevant to either the history of organizing for women’s equality, or the present and future of the movement.

That lesbians were swiftly denounced by many in the movement for causing conservatives to ride to victory in stopping ERA ratification is just one manifestation of this problem. But this issue continues to this very day, in which those who occupy mainstream positions of power in the movement—mostly privileged, white, heterosexual women—simply cannot move beyond their immediate world view in supporting their fellow sisters.

That few white feminists came to the defense of 9-year old Best Actress Academy Award nominee Quvenzhane Wallis after The Onion famously called the African American child a “cunt” over twitter is another example of this. Or that many white feminists expressed outrage over Oscars host Seth MacFarlane’s sexist commentary but didn’t quite understand that it was racist as well.

After ten years of war in which service women have re-written U.S. history, it’s remarkable that the women’s movement continues to sideline its military sisters. MAKERS did a fine job of featuring Phyllis Schlafly, whose impressive work to help crush the ERA was due in part to her ability to message women’s apparent inability to serve well in uniform, and especially in combat. And yet, sweeping progress has been made in the last decade in destroying this narrative, and in transforming public opinion in support of women in combat. But to my knowledge, not a single feminist has made the connection that service women’s organizing has led to the recent end of the Combat Exclusion Policy—the last legalized discrimination against women in the United States–, and that women veterans may be the most powerful constituency today to renew the fight for full equality in this nation.

When the women’s movement does get involved in military equality issues, it often fails to provide a microphone to service member and veterans’ true experiences. Indeed, it was a group of well-organized veterans who led the recent fight to pass the “Shaheen Amendment”, which now provides federal funding to service women and military family members for abortions in cases of rape. As much as it tried for years, the reproductive rights movement simply could not win this victory on its own. And though the recent passage of VAWA is testament to the movement’s ability to include the needs of tribal, immigrant and queer women, few in the movement seem to realize that VAWA still fails to offer protections to military personnel.

And as much as the recent film The Invisible War has done to raise awareness about military sexual assault, its main subjects are all white women. The narrative of the attractive white woman victim, often used by the media to increase ratings or generate questionable sympathy among viewers, has a hugely detrimental impact on our ability to end rape mythology within the military—women of color disproportionately serve in our Armed Forces, and half of military victims of sexual assault today are men– and to cause critically-needed culture change.

Any movement-building initiative to end the mistreatment of women needs to critically analyze its relationship to power and privilege. In each discussion, who is being left out? Who has been marginalized or silenced? By what standard do we measure one’s qualifications to speak, especially on others’ behalf?

We still have a long way to go, but building bridges is more than possible. I would suggest beginning any conversation with an open-heart. Assume you know nothing, and that Hollywood hasn’t helped. Veterans don’t need to be told what you think of Hurt Locker, or Zero Dark Thirty. Veterans don’t need to be asked if they’ve been raped or how many people they’ve killed.  If you’re asking yourself, “why would she even want to join the military”, it’s time to re-set: “How can I help?” or “what can I do to better understand?” might be a good place to start. Better yet, organize panels, discussions, and workshops, in conjunction with and featuring actual experts in the field who have lived experiences, including cultural competency–in this case, how to speak “military” and “veteran”. Knowledge organizing for change within that unique cultural context is something that can’t be learned just by caring, or by watching a film. Let’s learn to listen and pass the microphone to women and men whose voices are most silent, and most knowledgeable.

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