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Is There a Feminist Candidate for President?

The Democratic Party primary has dwindled to two candidates. In this context, what is the role of the feminist movement?

Tatiana Cozzarelli

March 8, 2020
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JOE RAEDLE/GETTY

What was once a 20+ person field for the Democratic party primary has now narrowed to two very old white men: Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, with Joe Biden as a favorite.** One of them will go up against one of the most blatantly misogynist Presidents in recent history: “grab them by the pussy” Donald Trump, who speaks at pro-life rallies and nominates sexual abusers to the Supreme Court. 

In the past few years, the feminist movement has been one of the primary oppositions to Trump. The Women’s March brought millions of people to the streets in the United States and all over the world to express discontent with the Trump administration. Hundreds of thousands of people who had never protested before suddenly saw the streets as (at least part of) the answer. 

There were always problems with the Women’s March: the notorious sign “If Hillary were President we’d be at brunch right now” epitomizes the liberal politics of the march and most of the marchers that represented a white, middle-class, liberal sensibility: deeply offended by Trump’s rhetoric, but less so by Clinton’s coups, mass incarceration, and drone bombs.

The momentum of the march was used to revive a Democratic Party in shambles. Notably, the 2018 march called for “power to the polls.” Once women’s power had been funnelled to the polls, the march eventually disintegrated into just a shadow of its original numbers. At the same time, the most diverse Congress to date was elected, including four women of color who turned out to be a thorn in Trump and the Democratic Party establishment’s side. 

On the other hand, the International Women’s Strike (IWS) in the United States and around the world represented a left wing of the emerging feminist movement. Mass protests and some labor strikes were held in countries all over the world. In the United States, the International Women’s Strike called for a “Feminism for the 99%”— a feminism that is working class, internationalist, and rejects the liberal, lean-in feminism of large swaths of the Democratic Party. This sector was successful in building a large march in 2017 and even a few schools shut down as a result of the call to strike. Smaller marches occurred in the years since. 

Furthermore, it has been primarily women workers who have revived the U.S. labor movement notably with the wave of teachers strikes, starting with the 2017 red state revolt and spreading to Chicago and cities in California. Without a doubt, both in the streets and in our workplaces, women have been at the front lines of fighting back against Trump and neoliberal policies implemented by both Democrats and Republicans. 

Despite the uptick in feminist movements in the streets after Trump’s 2016 victory, as the 2020 Presidential election draws closer, that uptick has yet again waned. There has been an increased focus on addressing feminism at the ballot box. 

And so, in this moment, it is worth asking: is there a feminist candidate for President?

Biden is Our Enemy

Joe Biden is leading in the polls, with many pollsters claiming that he has over an 80% chance at the nomination. Already Bernie Sanders has claimed he’ll support any Democrat, as will Ocasio Cortez and other Sanders surrogates. The pressure for “Blue no matter who” will be great, and undoubtedly, some people will claim that Biden can be a feminist choice for President.

Joe Biden most is certainly not a feminist pick for president. 

Biden supported the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits federal funding for abortion under programs like Medicaid, which plays a role in denying abortions to poor and working class people. It wasn’t until last summer, in the face of immense public pressure, that he amended his position. As Vice President he tried to cut mandated coverage for contraception under the Affordable Care Act. Infamously, there is his support for the war in Iraq, his authorship of the 1994 Crime Bill which imprisoned countless working class people of color, his systematic degradation of Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas hearing where he oversaw the procedures as the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and the list goes on. Joe Biden is and has always been an enemy to women, oppressed and working class people in the US and around the world. 

Sanders’ Record on Feminism

Bernie Sanders, the other frontrunner for President, has clearly had a more progressive record throughout his career, supporting such issues as the right to choose, family leave, and the need for universal childcare. It is also undoubtedly true that Medicare for All would particularly benefit working class women, especially those who are in charge of both waged and unwaged work, production and reproduction — overwhelmingly a task foisted upon working class women. 

However, there are some important weaknesses in Sanders’ record on feminism. Sanders notably voted in favor of SESTA/FOSTA, which further criminalized sex work. 

As the International Women’s Strike popularized, the issue of imperialism, as well as immigrants’ rights cannot be side notes to a feminist project. In a Jacobin article in support of Bernie Sanders, Liza Featherstone and Nancy Fraser write, “Our country has unleashed catastrophic military violence on Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere in the Middle East; it has sponsored countless coups and destabilizing imperialist schemes in Central and South America — all with specifically gendered effects. In these regions, as elsewhere, women are primarily responsible for the safety and survival of families and communities. This labor, always challenging, becomes punishingly so when violence, conflict, and authoritarian repression have made normal, daily life impossible. For those charged globally with raising the next generation, trying to protect children when fleeing violence at home, only to face a militarized border and a US regime eager to jail children, has become a horrifying trial.” 

Despite socialists’ tendency to paint over Sanders’ history on foreign policy, a look at his record, or even a look at his answers on the debate stage, demonstrate a hard truth for Sanders supporters: Sanders is an imperialist. Sanders has voted for the military budget numerous times throughout his tenure in Congress, voted to increase border security, and voted in favor of H.R. Res. 64, Authorization for Use of Military Force, which provided a blank check to President George W. Bush to utilize force against “terrorism.” This should not come as a surprise to anyone who has watched the debates: Sanders doesn’t talk about defunding the war machine in order to fund Medicare for All or universal childcare. And he certainly doesn’t talk about US imperialism as central to the project of the “1%.” 

Considering these aspects of Sanders’ record and debate performances themselves, it is impossible to look at Sanders as an anti-imperialist or pro-immigrant option, issues that Featherston and Fraser themselves consider “a top priority” for feminists. 

Our Feminism Must Be Socialist

Of course, one might look at Sanders and Biden and say “Sanders is the lesser evil”— and of course, Sanders is infinitely better on issues of feminism than Joe Biden and certainly than Donald Trump. However, as increasing numbers of people are recognizing, the problems we face aren’t with individual politicians and policies, but with the entire capitalist system. In this sense, what Featherstone and Fraser’s article misses is that our feminism must be socialist, which they don’t mention even once. The socialist aspect of socialist feminism is central – without seeking to crush capitalism, it is impossible to imagine, let alone succeed in achieving, the liberation of oppressed and working people. 

Indeed, Sanders and his platform have popularized the idea of socialism. Even in states where Sander lost on Super Tuesday, the idea of socialism polled high. However, Sanders’ “socialism” omits the most quintessential element of socialism: anti-capitalism. Rather, in speech after speech, he defines socialism as New Deal liberalism, pointing to Nordic countries as the model he aspires to. He attempts to reign in capitalism, not destroy it.

Capitalism is at the center of the modern oppression of women. As the Feminism for the 99% Manifesto argues, “Many people know that capitalist societies are by definition class societies, which license a small minority to accumulate private profits by exploiting the much larger group who must work for wages. What is less widely understood is that capitalist societies are also by definition wellsprings of gender oppression. Far from being accidental, sexism is hardwired into their very structure.” Correctly, the authors, including Nancy Fraser as well as Cinzia Arruzza and Tithi Bhattacharya, explain how gender violence is entangled in capitalist social relations, how capitalism regulates and oppresses sexuality, destroys the environment, brutalizes the global south, and is “incompatible with real democracy.” 

In this sense, Sanders presidency will in no way ensure the liberation of women (or the working class and oppressed).  To begin with, it is doubtful that Sanders would be able to push through his progressive policies given that the entire Democratic and Repubican party machine would organize to block these reforms. Although he claims to be building people power beyond the polls, he has yet to call for a single mobilization. But even policies like Medicare for All leave intact the capitalist and sexist machine. In fact, as Sanders himself has noted, many countries have universal public healthcare and a more robust childcare system than that of the United States. Neither have meant women’s liberation or an end to the brutal violence of capitalist patriarchy. 

Our feminism must be socialist because capitalism profits from and perpetuates a brutally violent oppression of women and working class sectors. We need to change more than individual policies— although we need those reforms as well!  We need widespread systemic change. If capitalism cannot liberate oppressed and working class people, we should destroy it. That’s not Bernie Sander’s project, but it should be ours. 

Clearly, there is no feminist choice for President. 

From the Streets to the Ballot Box

Over the past few years, the massive marches have demonstrated that pissed-off women are a force to be reckoned with in the political arena. And yet, much of that energy has dissipated and the Democratic Party, as the graveyard of social movements, has worked it’s magic: the movement took their “power to the polls” and hasn’t taken it back into the streets again. 

This is characteristic of movements: at best, they bring hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of people to the streets for progressive demands. But it’s not enough to struggle in the streets nor to simply strike: we need a political perspective and a way forward. The Democratic Party presented a clear way forward for the new feminist movement: vote Trump out of office and elect women to office. 

The International Women’s Strike and the Feminism for the 99% correctly points to capitalism and imperialism as part of the structural oppression of women. But, many of these comrades have unfortunately done no better in providing a political perspective and way forward for the feminist movement. While important anti-capitalist intellectuals like Nancy Fraser talk about Sanders as a feminist choice, many socialist feminists have been knocking on doors and registering people to vote for a capitalist, imperialist party and to vote a candidate who, despite progressive rhetoric, is in the end, also a supporter of nicer, kinder capitalism and imperialism. 

But the power of working class women, and of the working class as a whole, is not at the polls in vain attempts to vote for reforms and pray that they get implemented. The power of working class women lies in the fact that we make the whole world turn with our labor and that we can stop capitalist profits. It is this kind of socialist feminism that can stop Trump’s attacks against oppressed people in the US and around the world, in the same way that the masses in Chile stopped fare hikes and forced through other reforms.

 But it’s not enough to protest, and even strike, and then go vote for a party of our class enemies, the Democrats. In order to avoid the graveyard of social movements that has meant the death of so many combative movements before us, we must be clear that our power is not in the polls, but rather it is in the streets and in our workplaces. We don’t vote our class enemies and we don’t support those who vote for massive war budgets. That’s not socialist feminism. Our socialist feminism must be ardently and unwaveringly anti-imperialist because we are on the side of migrant workers, Mexican and Central American mothers who cross the border as a result of imperialist domination, with Palestinian women who suffer military oppression at the hands of the US and its surrogates. We must vehemently oppose capitalism and imperialism at the ballot box and in the streets. Socialist feminists can run in elections, but should run independent of all capitalist parties.

Socialist feminists in the United States can’t “liberate” ourselves at home, while our government oppresses women around the world. We deserve a world with not only paid family leave and universal pre-K, but also one in which schools are in the hands of teachers, students, and families. We deserve a world in which parenthood is a choice and families are not separated by prisons and borders. We deserve socialism, and for that, we need both a movement and a socialist political perspective.

** Tulsi Gabbard is also running, but is polling less than 2%. She is in no perspective a feminist candidate with her support for Hindu Nationalism, Islamophobia or support for the War on Terror.

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Tatiana Cozzarelli

Tatiana is a former middle school teacher and current Urban Education PhD student at CUNY.

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