The Women’s March and that time the Pope tried to shut down a bunch of BAMF nuns.

I have so many thoughts swirling through my brain regarding the Women’s March!

One of the big themes (or critiques, maybe) was intersectionality of feminism. I want to recommend the recent Politics and Prose on women’s rights teach-in. There’s a major unpacking of all of these elements. Some points I want to pluck out:

  • Many movements are minority movements. The feminist movement is a majority movement. There are a lot of women – half the population – so by definition you’re dealing with a broad group of people who identify both as women and then many other things (race, ethnicity, profession, class, etc.)
  • Acknowledging the above is an important strength. A dominant strain of oppression is divide and conquer. It’s important to focus on the divisions in order to isolate the problem and resolve them. But it’s just as pivotal that the narrative not be defined by the natural distinctions between all groups participating because it’s a characteristic means by which to ensure in-fighting rather than focusing on the external hurdles the group is attempting to fight.

One of the divisions was the pro-life and pro-choice movement. How do we approach this wrinkle? Reproductive rights have been under massive, targeted assault. It’s entirely fair, in my view, for a women’s movement to hone in on this reality.

The origins of this movement were progressive. Historically, a dividing line between progressives and conservatives has been abortion. I think I want to modify this line. I am extremely pro-choice but I am also a big coalition builder, sometimes to a fault, which is why I’m publishing this. I want to throw some ideas out there but I also want some pushback if I’m not being hardline enough, as is often my tendency.

I want to set the table by focusing on the intersection of what we typically consider “women’s issues” and abortion.

I went to a Catholic high school, so my perspective is informed largely by a very liberal, social justice oriented, approach to issues. I’m not religious, but naturally the Sisters of Mercy viewed their mandates through the lens of the Catholic faith, and many pro-life groups are also informed by a wide assortment of religious or otherwise faith-based concerns. I’m going to admit at the outset that this colors my perception of pro-life movements and groups led by women. My experience has been positive. I know this isn’t true everywhere.

Nevertheless, in the majority of this experience, and with a lot of pro-life groups run by women, the tone, direction, and policy aims of the groups are vastly different from US policy makers. The pro-life agenda is expansive in that it focuses on women at risk, generally, as well as children. This agenda includes, but is not limited to: dealing with domestic abuse, providing food and shelter, education, healthcare (preventative and reactive), as well as a myriad of programs aimed at supporting children.

These are not issues that only affect women, but American political discourse trends towards packaging family economic issues as synonymous with women’s issues, presumably because a lot of that vulnerability syncs up with the single mother demographic. That’s a significant but separate conversation.

The tone is distinct. The emphasis is by and large on bettering the quality of life these women experience, thus minimizing the extent to which they are “at risk,” whether for violence or exploitation or for being put in a position where they would have an unplanned or unwanted pregnancy. The trade-offs emphasize a net benefit of reduction in abortion via a quality-of-life or access-focused agenda.

This is in stark contrast to the pro-life policy agenda of lawmakers (note: not the pro-life movement at large), who focus far more on restricting access to all sorts of information and healthcare that would allow women to make informed reproductive decisions. If a policy, such as prenatal care, has a net benefit for the health and welfare of mothers and babies, it will nonetheless end up on the chopping block if one iota of it can be framed as preventing abortions (in this case, lawmakers argue that the knowledge provided in these check-ups could potentially lead parents to choose aborting babies at high risk for defects, etc.) The trade-offs are thus: any whiff of abortion requires limitation or prohibition. It’s an exercise in degraded political signaling, packaging any and all punitive and restrictive measures as a pro-life victory regardless of outcome.

I think many of these pro-life groups do line up with is the same progressive policy agenda of most women’s rights movements. It aligns considerably with the platform outlines of the Women’s March and the initiatives previously asserted by Hillary Clinton, save for the specific act of getting an abortion. Access to preventative and prenatal healthcare, paid parental leave, support for caretakers, elder abuse and support laws, children’s welfare, etc etc. These are all major overlaps in a huge policy Venn Diagram.

There’s some precedent for this:

The sisters were also reprimanded for making public statements that “disagree with or challenge the bishops, who are the church’s authentic teachers of faith and morals.” During the debate over the health care overhaul in 2010, American bishops came out in opposition to the health plan, but dozens of sisters, many of whom belong to the Leadership Conference, signed a statement supporting it — support that provided crucial cover for the Obama administration in the battle over health care.

[…]

Word of the Vatican’s action took the group completely by surprise, Sister Sanders said. She said that the group’s leaders were in Rome on Wednesday for what they thought was a routine annual visit to the Vatican when they were informed of the outcome of the investigation, which began in 2008.

“I’m stunned,” said Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of Network, a Catholic social justice lobby founded by sisters. Her group was also cited in the Vatican document, along with the Leadership Conference, for focusing its work too much on poverty and economic injustice, while keeping “silent” on abortion and same-sex marriage.

“I would imagine that it was our health care letter that made them mad,” Sister Campbell said. “We haven’t violated any teaching, we have just been raising questions and interpreting politics.”

The group was also accused of being too radically feminist (PDF):

Radical Feminism. The Cardinal noted a prevalence of certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith in some of the programs and presentations sponsored by the LCWR, including theological interpretations that risk distorting faith in Jesus and his loving Father who sent his Son for the salvation of the world. Moreover, some commentaries on “patriarchy” distort the way in which Jesus has structured sacramental life in the Church; others even undermine the revealed doctrines of the Holy Trinity, the divinity of Christ, and the inspiration of Sacred Scripture.

It might seem silly to some to focus on women’s groups and women’s leadership. I used to believe this myself, but as I’ve extended my professional life, I’ve found increasingly that diverse groups beget creative solutions. Moreover, they add feedback that never would have entered my mind. In December, an Ohio lawmaker stated that he “never thought about” why a woman might get an abortion. I don’t know, but strongly suspect, that every woman in the pro-life groups seeking entry to the Women’s March has considered that question, probably deeply. The next time any law regarding women’s reproductive rights is discussed, I at least want those people in the room.

The rough building blocks for building a coalition are there. I think the traditional paradigm of pro-lifers and pro-choicers in constant opposition needs to pause. I’m under no illusion that, at some point, or on some issues, they will clash directly and won’t be able to accommodate one another. This isn’t a call for a ra ra kumbaya. As I said above, there is a heightened assault on reproductive rights today and the legislative and executive – potentially judicial – branches are poised to undercut any and all gains. But I think by aligning with these pro-life groups on other essential policies we accomplish a few things:

  1. We create a major voting bloc in opposition to the Trump Administration, generally;
  2. We change the conversation from using abortion as a punitive signaling measure to a quality of life assessment resulting in a net loss of women at risk and unplanned/unwanted pregnancies.
  3. We increase the probability that the policies directly affecting that quality of life assessment are passed, e.g., parental leave, domestic abuse reporting, childcare availability, etc.
  4. One marker of this campaign was both explicit and coded misogyny, ranging from a video explicitly condoning sexual assault and degrading language, to the coded lampooning of Hillary Clinton’s supposed lack of SSSSSSStamina. I think this was a catalyst event allowing women to identify as women who experience unique and targeted disparagements. Pro-life women experience this too.

I don’t begrudge the leaders of the Women’s March for their judgment call on exclusion of pro-life groups. I think it was a combination of having the march grow beyond anticipation coupled with a lack of resources to respond to competing demands in any truly deliberate way. As the protest transitions – hopefully – to policy agendas and coalition building, I would definitely like to see them explore this alliance further, since I think it guts one of the last few bastions of the Culture War on which the right tends to thrive.

Let the right go back to basics instead. Let them focus on liberalized trade and deconstructing the Road to Serfdom Donald Trump has led them on. I, for one, would welcome such a return as a fan of the above myself. Until then, I’m quite happy to take a practical step with the Democratic Party and help them internalize more progressive policy, ideally (and this is my own bias) in a constructive format rather than over-learning the lesson of economic populism, but I digress.

Contrasting Empathy.

I want to have a conversation on how we frame our post-mortem of the election. All of the talk about empathy is swell, but I think that’s a two-way street, and what bothers me can only seemingly be broken down into contrasts:

1. Empathy vis-a-vis gender.

The first draws on two thoughts: 1) men in their prime are out of work in at an all time high, and; 2) the jobs that are available are service sector jobs and commonly referred to as “pink collar” jobs since they rely on skills commonly viewed as feminine (e.g., caretaker roles.)

For the former, “prime” is the key word. It’s a lot harder for anyone with a significant long-term investment in a skillset to drop it and grab a new one. This often requires retraining if not new education. That’s a time investment in its own right, and even if you get hired and can start tomorrow, your applicancy is competing against younger counterparts who will gain experience over a longer period of time. They do not have to incorporate concerns about looming retirement or sending their kids to school or maybe even supporting a family at all into wage negotiations. This group I’m segmenting off, and so do those numbers, for a reason.

With respect to the latter, there’s an understanding that a psychic element exists with employment. We accept for traditional white collar professions that these are a calling and part of our identity. Less so with “low skill” jobs (a term that’s debatable.) I wholeheartedly subscribe to the notion that people who derive enjoyment from their work are not only better workers, but more ambitious, more likely to take reasonable/calculating risks, and generally more likely to make the economic pie grow on top of other positive externalities.

But as Cathy O’Neil points out in the podcast, being paid something is being better than being paid nothing. Or is it? Because as is later discussed, plenty of men are opting out of work in lieu of social welfare programs, so the relevant calculation is weighed against those benefits rather than 0.

So this has me thinking about a few things. The first is how empathetic do we need to be towards people who dislike their position not necessarily because they value working with their hands or have a skillset that is no longer necessary; rather, they simply do not like the idea of doing something womanly? Do we indulge that?

Similarly, On the Media had an excellent deep dive into poverty in America. One revelation was the extent to which poor people, most of whom were single mothers, often had to choose between having a job and feeding their family. This is because having a job would result in losing social welfare benefits that paid for necessities like food, and the available job was low paid. One could either take the job and be unable to make ends meet, or make ends meet by ensuring they remained impoverished and therefore qualified for welfare benefits.

In the American narrative, people who can work but don’t are demonized. We have a name for them – a gendered one: welfare queens. Thus we have this subset of young men who either won’t work or work sporadically but cannot hold a job down who are taking advantage of social programs and our takeaway from this is to empathize with them and try to solve the problem. In contrast, for decades, we’ve had poor people who are predominantly female have similar tough choices to make, and we’ve cast them in this unforgivably lazy and parasitic light. Again, I feel I have to ask to what extent does our empathy apply? Or maybe to whom? In being empathetic, shouldn’t we be asking ourselves if we’ve been too unfair or judgmental with respect to all people and not just the white (male) working class?

2. Empathy vis-a-vis race.

This one is simple to state: there is an opioid epidemic running rampant in the same disaffected parts of a America suffering from loss of manufacturing jobs. With light shed on this, there have been several calls in editorials and from organizations to combat this phenomenon and the destructive impact it has had on communities and families, to say nothing of the clearly sad lethality of drug abuse.

But when drugs impact black communities, our response is far less empathetic. It’s severe. Family breakdown is attributed to diminished morality; our solution to combating drug abuse has been to incarcerate people, and; we have this general understanding that people who enter this cycle of drug abuse (and often poverty) are bad and suffering moral failings that need to be harshly corrected.

I’m not sure if the change is wholly due to race. We have a more sophisticated and generally empathetic approach to drug abuse now in contrast to the early days of the War on Drugs. Still, it begs the question: why is it we turn our eyes towards sensitivity and problem solving for this demographic and not others?

3. Empathy vis-a-vis generation.

This is the one I struggle with the most. I spent a year looking for work after law school. I worked the year in between undergrad and law school. The prevalent narrative for my generation – who was searching for work during the peaks of the Great Recession – was that:

1. Life isn’t easy;
2. You’re not entitled to a job;
3. You need to work harder.

But when middle aged and older Americans struggle to find work, someone stole their job and trade deals are unfair to Americans.

I suppose I want to know when being an American stamped your name on a job — when it gave you a property right in employment such that someone could wrongfully take it from you. I’m an American. I was born here. Where was my job with my name on it when baby boomers were calling me entitled?

I want to know when suddenly market forces had to be harnessed in a way that was fair to a specific group’s interest at the expense of a greater net economic benefit. I want to know when the correlation between working hard and getting a job disappeared. The disparity between gains for older folks and my generation still loom and in a way that goes above and beyond their simply having had more time to accumulate wealth.

Finally, when I was looking for a job and couldn’t find one, the basic assumption was that I felt I was too good for certain kinds of work, like service sector work (I applied to these jobs, for the record.) I was told that my generation was entitled for “assuming” (we didn’t) work would be there. If I wasn’t employed, there was causation between this failing and my work ethic, or lack thereof.

Clearly this is the spot where I have the biggest chip on my shoulder. When I talk about it in terms of solving problems, I agree that these are problems to be solved and these people deserve my empathy. However, I won’t pretend that I haven’t been considering why – here and now – we as an American society have suddenly decided that this is the problem to be solved. My suspicion is that it still has a lot to do with the fact that the litmus test for a free/wealthy/just society is how we treat older white males, since this is our traditional normative conception of “the people.”

It bothers me that even the most well-intentioned of critics and policy makers fail to consider this and, to the contrary, this is viewed as a focus on “just issues” rather than identity politics, when identity seemingly has a lot, if not everything, to do with why these concerns have jumped the line.

We’re All Dudes

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Tim Ryan, former challenger to Nancy Pelosi’s House leadership, was on Politico’s “Off Message” podcast, doing the same post-mortem of Election 2016 we’ve all been doing. The lens was, as usual, what the Democrats did wrong and how that diagnosis informs what to do next. And, at the risk of alienating quite a few people, I’m going to put my feminist hat on and hash out some thoughts of my own. This is a conversation I’ve been having in my head for some time, so I accept that the only person part of it is me and I likely have a lot of blind spots I haven’t considered yet. For the time being, however, I want to toss my own food for thought out here.

I’m going to be using Ryan’s language here because it mirrors so much of what I’ve heard on other podcasts and in print media as well. For example, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel was part of a recent Brookings Institute discussion, and his thesis was roughly the same: too much focus on identity politics and not enough focus on policy — specifically, economics.

The general line of thought here is as follows: economics affects everybody. Identity sections people off and, at best, makes it hard to appeal to the electorate in broad strokes. At worst, it alienates people who are not actively being courted. An example of this would be the white working class who, for the most part, are not actively hostile towards minorities, but nonetheless feel like voting for Trump forced the political class to acknowledge their pains explicitly as a white working class. The rationale as a voter was to effectively shout “HEY OVER HERE” in whatever way possible, which is why it’s frequently so hard to understand why people who don’t think Trump is suited for office nonetheless voted for him. Whatever his faults, he was a catalyst to this conversation.

I want to push back on two parts here:

The first part is that when we talk about economics, we’re talking about everybody. At first blush, I agree. The economy is people; it’s just a conglomerate of economic acts individuals take (i.e,. buying things, selling good and services, etc. etc.)

When we focus on economics in the context of this post-mortem, we are not talking about “just” economics. We are talking about a manufacturing sector. In Tim Ryan’s interview, he refers to “these guys” in Youngstown and other manufacturing towns hit hard by the transition from manufacturing economy to a service/information economy. He laments that there is a swath of people who want to continue making things with their hands and experience anxiety about not being able to provide for their families.

Men are disproportionately represented in manufacturing. (PDF) And, if I were betting real money, I would bet that people who miss making things with their hands are likewise men. Similarly, while all people experience anxiety as non-contributors, men in particular are hit hard by this stressor. Right or wrong, accurate or inaccurate, people do not exist in a vacuum. We are all impacted to some extent by socialization and men who have been working in manufacturing a long time and no longer have that opportunity are probably those who grew up with an understanding that they supposed to be breadwinners to their families. This doesn’t mean they’re neanderthals who resent working women, but it does mean they put a premium on gainful employment that is probably above average. This is an anxiety that has actually been cited in more than a few studies on the opioid epidemic, but I digress. I just mean to say that I’m not pulling this wholly out of my rear.

When Bernie Sanders, Tim Ryan, and the pundit class begin talking about needing to focus on economics rather than identity politics, this is at odds with each other. Economics, here, really means the concerns of the working class not benefiting from a globalized economy: manufacturing workers. Implicit in this class of people is a primarily (though not exclusively) male identity.

If we were really talking about just economics, we would be saying How can we get these people into the service sector? There are jobs in the service sector. There will be jobs in the service sector. We would be saying How can we effectively transition this manufacturing class to a service or information class?

But we’re not really talking about just economics. This is identity politics by proxy. In fact, I think most politics is effectively identity politics even if we’ve only just put a name on it, but I’ll get to that in a moment. Implicit in this focus-on-economics argument is an appeal to a predominantly male group, appealing to their identity as breadwinners and people who build things. This isn’t an indictment on that identity, and I agree with Ryan that it’s important that people work in fields that make them happy and ambitious because it makes them more ambitious and likely to take reasonable risks. This makes the economic pie grow.

What I won’t agree with is the characterization of this as identity-neutral. It’s not. It operates on the same principle as men are people, women are women (or any other historically marginalized group.) If it’s something that reaches out to our typical conception of a voter – a middle-aged man (probably white) – then it can be “just” economics or “just” healthcare or “just” whatever. So embedded in allegedly indiscriminate public policy issues is race and gender that we don’t need to specify it, and are forced to bucketize all the other groups of people only recently vying for space in the conversation in order to lay claim to that space. The result is an inappropriate framing of default white/male issues as issues of everybody.

Yes, there are people in an awkward logistical position, namely those who are nearing retirement and really do not have the meaningful option to simply train for new jobs. There are a lot of reasons for this: it takes time to train and receive new education (if necessary); when they enter the field, they’re competing with a younger group of people who present a better long-term investment, and; as people who probably have families, had a lifestyle tethered to a particular income, and are eyeballing retirement, they have stronger demands on a possible employer than a younger counterpart who can be more flexible on all of these fronts. Ultimately, however, we’re talking about systemic hurdles, and we don’t make rules for institutions based on exceptions; we make them based on rules. This is a problem to be dealt with but it’s not the governing factor.

The second topic I’d like to focus on is the notion of identity politics being a new phenomenon or that it is responsible for further divisiveness. This should be short, and might be more rant than exploration.

The simple fact is that, since this country’s inception, and really since time immemorial, we’ve siloed people off into labels. Part of this is practical. Public policy can’t scale if we work on an individualized basis, particularly not as we move higher up the government chain.

But the reasons for bucketizing people are different. Historically, black people were not siloed off in any benevolent way. Women were not either. These were used to exclude whole demographics. Likewise for the gay community, and now the trans community, and probably other communities as society progresses. To use a personal example, I’m really not sure how I can convey the need for women’s healthcare coverage when it’s in a normal state of reacting to assorted government parties treating healthcare for women as fundamentally unique and peculiar.

Yet, somehow, talking about this a women’s issue is marginalizing when I do it. It allegedly exacerbates a divide between men and women, plays on a gender card, and normalizes the conversation about women’s healthcare as it is. Fair play, maybe, to that last point, but in prioritizing my battles, I’d rather get the best policy outcome first, and then get the nomenclature right second.

When people show up laying claim to a space under the umbrella previously delineated by other people in society, they are not “Making the conversation about X.” The conversation had already been informed that way by institutions, be it government, churches, businesses and so on. It really should not be galling to us that, for example, laws that target Group A galvanizes people under Group A to use the same language when wanting to address their public policy concerns.

It’s impossible to solve a problem without diagnosing its roots first. Perhaps one day we’ll have a post-racial, post-gender, post-whatever society. For the time being, in order to address assorted social ills, it’s necessary to acknowledge the disproportionate impact siloing has had on affected groups, and consider that those people probably also have a disproportionate interest in their resolution even if they ultimately affect society as a whole in some form or another.