Written by Emma Glassman-Hughes
The complexity of conversation: feminism in 2016. Can you dig it!?
My #feministgoals recently have been focused on emphasizing the importance of complexity; rejecting one-dimensional portrayals of just about anything that comes my way in search of balance and fairness. Sounds good, right? The way I see it, feminism is a movement that does best with layers. I mean, classically, the movement is associated with being opposed to ‘the binary.’ But, instead of simply rejecting male vs. female or hetero vs. homosexual binaries, it’s important to take it deeper; rejecting black and white, rejecting dualism, and rejecting simplicity. Simply put (lol can you say contradictory), the movement suffers when we give power to simplification. Third wave feminism in many ways, however, has done just that--obsessing over identity politics and labels that serve to divide us more than unite us. But hey! It’s complicated; that’s the point.
This week’s story that has me buzzing about the crisis of simplicity (gonna trademark that one) is the Madeleine Albright/Scripps College controversy. Some students and faculty at the Claremont, CA school plan to boycott a commencement address to be delivered by the former (and first female) Secretary of State on the grounds that she is a white feminist and genocide enabling “war criminal.” Whoa, those are some hefty accusations. On the one hand, it is necessary to complicate our notions of Albright as more than *just* the First Female Secretary of State: Feminist Hero and Lady Leader Extraordinaire. Thinking her legacy is purely positive is irresponsible, because it is true that she made highly questionable decisions while in office, as has every significant political leader...ever. Her actions shouldn’t be overlooked simply because of her historical and cultural importance. Simultaneously and contradictorily, however, boycotting her address and labeling her a “war criminal” is reductive and reactionary in its own right. Let’s take a page out of last week’s post and unpack that, shall we?
There’s a way to be critical of choices that a person has made and still admire and value them for their contributions. Madeleine Albright was the first female Secretary of State. While in office in the 90s, there were some regrettable decisions made among other more celebrated decisions, but she was no more a part of the international war machine than any of her exclusively male predecessors who are widely admired and sought after. As a result of this supposed boycott of Albright, it’s hard not to conclude that culturally, and even as a movement of women, we hold other women to much higher standards. It’s as though we aren’t able to separate actions from personhood and value for women the same way so many of us are able to do with men. There’s no hiding that Madeleine Albright’s tenure as an ambassador and as Secretary of State was imperfect--and, considering the nature of the job--the imperfections had grave consequences, such as the loss of innocent life in Rwanda, among other places.
This isn’t to say that I don’t believe all college campuses (save HBCs) need to do better at encouraging and fostering racial inclusivity. From students to faculty members to commencement speakers, our colleges and universities do not reflect the racial makeup of our rapidly diversifying society. I’d be willing to bet that in order to experience a rich, representative pool of racial diversity in virtually any U.S. institution of higher ed, you’d have to peep the folks who maintain the facilities for low wages (lookin’ at the cafeteria workers, the security professionals, the cleaning staff, etc.). The student and professorial bodies don’t reflect it, the administration sure doesn’t reflect it, the history doesn’t reflect it. This is a true injustice. As important and noble as those lower wage careers are, we have to acknowledge that this racial disparity is a symptom of our systematically disadvantaging students of color and making it difficult for them not only to get into college, but then to stay there and excel, as well. So do I sympathize with students of color who have complaints about an institution, no matter how big or small? Absolutely. Do I support them in voicing those complaints? You bet. There’s a lot for them to complain about, most of which I will never be able to fully empathize with thanks to a few of my many privileges. But as we’ve learned here tonight--say it with me, now!-- it’s more complicated than that! So hold onto those horses. Even if I don’t necessarily agree with every single complaint--this Madeleine Albright thing is a prime example--it is imperative that, culturally and institutionally, students of color are encouraged to raise concerns when they have ‘em. Elevating the least valued (societally, of course. I value you!!!) voices in the room and respecting the intelligence and emotional investments behind them is a feminist act. This doesn’t mean there isn’t room for debate. This doesn’t mean there isn’t room for discomfort or differing of opinion. This just means that we are starting with a base level of respect and understanding for one another, and we are eager to lift one another up.
There is room to engage with and learn from powerful women, even if our politics don’t perfectly align with theirs. There is room to humanize them and appreciate them for all their achievements and their flaws. There is no such thing as a perfect leader or hero or even just a regular human being. Sure she may have woken up like this, but even Beyonce will tell you that she isn’t ACTUALLY flawless. Feminism for me means being able to embrace a person’s multiple dimensions, constructively criticize them when necessary, and continue to work with them toward a more perfect future.
I know that I would not boycott Madeleine Albright’s appearance at a college graduation. A career as extraordinary and groundbreaking as hers should not be disregarded or simplified or decontextualized. And yes, I would probably sell my non-essential organs to personally pay for her to speak at my graduation (hey Madeleine, you available next May??). But I hear the concerns of those who have spoken out against her. Their criticisms and concerns are valid and necessary; and I salute them for being leaders, just as I salute Queen Albright for being the same.
TL;DR - We have to make room for complexity!! We simply must!!
Btw, yes, I realize I'm a white feminist speaking (white feminist by skin color but I try not to be capital W White Feminist), and if you disagree with what I have to say I'd love to hear your thoughts in comments!