Netroots Nation ’09 — Will Race Continue to Trump Gender?

Netroots panel 2I’m a big believer in girl power, as is my soon-to-be fourth-grader PunditGirl.

She’s all about girl solidarity especially when it comes to the boys on the playground.  Come to think of it, so are all her girlfriends.  They all share that “us vs. them” mentality regardless of their skin colors, the neighborhoods they live in or who’s wearing the best color Chuck Taylor’s.

After last week, I started to wonder when we lose that collective “she” and define ourselves less by our gender and more by other factors in our lives like race, class, age or zip code.

For a good part of our lives gender is a unifying factor that we identify with more than other aspects of our lives. But that apparently changes at some point and, for some, becomes a wedge that divides us.

I had hoped for a constructive, positive and thought-provoking dialogue on the panel I moderated at Netroots Nation ’09 entitled “Building a Conversation Across Generations of Progressive Women.” I thought the focus would be how we can come together on issues after women were split about whether to vote for Hillary Clinton, the first viable woman presidential candidate ever.  Hillary somehow divided us, but I wondered how we could put that behind us and move forward.

Apparently, there are a lot bigger things that keep us from coming together.  And, apparently, I was pretty naive.

I was able to put together some fabulous women ranging from their 20s to their 60s who have thought a lot about getting women to talk about mending those rifts.  Gloria Feldt, a true leader in forging the way for women, agreed to be on the panel and I figured she would help us find some common ground.

But all of us on the panel were white.  I hadn’t planned it that way.  But when some in the audience took a look at us, they rebelled.

After I pulled myelf together, I looked at other panels and wondered,  did they get same question?  The same anger?  The same amount of  “I spit on your panel” attitude?  Was it a mistake that I hadn’t thought to make race as central an issue in the dialogue as gender?

Clearly there was a huge difference of opinion in the room on how we come together politically after Hillary’s 2008 attempt to become the first woman President of the United States.  And, of course, that’s OK if we can talk about it without the calling each other names.  But those things seeped into the conversation and it was clear about half way through the panel that there are so many unresolved identity issues — gender and age specifically for this crowd — that it was almost impossible to stay on track to talk about what I thought were the common issues that should bring us together.  Things like making sure that more women are elected who want to bring equal pay to the forefront.  Finding women politicians who want there to be healthy school meals for our kids and good medical care and safe child care.  And figuring out how do look for women who will help give us equal footing in the workplace.

I know that identity issues divide us even on common topics, but how can we begin to come together if identity always gets in the way?

Yes, I’m a white chick.  There’s nothing I can do about that.   But my skin color doesn’t completely define my cultural and racial identity or experience.  My husband is JewishMy daughter is Asian.  And while I am white and I can never understand what it is to be Black or Latina or even Asian like my daughter, I hope that doesn’t disqualify me from talking about the issues that should bring women together and not divide us.

At some point, is it possible to get past all the different identities we have and work toward policies that would help all women?  Or is that being naive, too?

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8 Responses to “Netroots Nation ’09 — Will Race Continue to Trump Gender?”

  1. annie Says:

    Until we can recognize that the bottom line is being female, men will always have the upper hand. They, seemingly, can put aside everything to assert their position as “male” while women let themselves be divided and dominated. We can’t address race, religion, zip code, age, mommy/not, married, single or whatever until we come together as WOMEN, a united front. It seems simple to me, but as a teacher, I found that the more simple the concept was – the harder it was to teach.

    You are not naive. You’ve managed to move beyond that which divides us to see the bigger picture. Most people (judging from the de-evolution of the health care debates) will never be able to walk out from under their tree and see the rest of the forest.

  2. Gloria Feldt Says:

    My observation over many decades of social justice work in both the civil rights and women’s movements is that people who are oppressed are more likely to take their anger out on another oppressed group than on the oppressor who has more power than themselves. And that was the source of the anger that was vented at you.

    In the Southwest where I lived most of my life, it was axiomatic that African-American and Latino constituencies often worked against each other politically, despite the obvious (to me as a white woman, anyway) mutual benefit to both if they would mass their strengths.

    I anticipated that we would get push back about the lack of racial diversity on our panel when I realized it was all white. Yet, I imagine that in addition to age diversity, the panelists probably had many other diversities–ethnicity, religion, geography, perhaps social class or circumstances of birth. It’s just that these differences aren’t written on our faces.

    I think the reason women are still not fully at the equality point–despite the fact that next week, August 26, will be Women’s Equality Day which commemorates the 1920 ratification of women’s suffrage and honors the suffragists who had been working to get women the vote since the early 1800′s–is that we have yet to mass our political strength fully.

    I wonder if anyone thinks we will eventually do that. Or is an entire gender too broad a constituency ever to be able to mass its strength strategically?

  3. Gloria Feldt Says:

    PS If the other panels didn’t get the same question at Netroots, then they should have. I went to a few panels that had one person of color on them but for the most part they were all white and overwhelmingly male.

    Case in point, I spent the opening night keynote session bantering back and forth with a couple of people about what a white male culture the supposedly progressive Netroots leadership is, reflected in the fact that every speaker save one on that signature evening was male, and all except one was white.

  4. PunditMom Says:

    I spent a lot of time checking other panels, both at Netroots and online after I got home. There were SO MANY that were all white and mostly men. While I’m not saying that is an excuse to not have thought further about the make-up of the panel, I would be willing to be that they did not get the types of questions with the amount of anger we did.

    Gloria, I so appreciate your comments. I continue to learn so much from you.

  5. Raven Brooks Says:

    Thanks for putting that panel together and sorry I didn’t get a chance to meet you in person while we were in Pittsburgh.

    I’d heard about this and I guess the only thing I can say is you never know what you’ll get sometimes from audience questions.

    But I did want to speak to the panel process a little bit. This year has been by far the most diverse (both from a gender and racial perspective) in terms of speakers. But it all depends on what panels you went to because it certainly wasn’t perfect.

    During the selection process we explicitly called for this kind of diversity. When we were evaluating panels we commented on it and very often contacted organizers and said you need to work on your diversity before we can move forward. But if the organizer couldn’t do anything and we didn’t have any suggestions we let it go.

    Working on it moving forward is one of our top priorities and if it isn’t even better next year then we haven’t been successful. But it requires a lot of help from others to suggest new speakers to us, help us reach out to new communities, etc.

    In terms of the keynote on Thursday we worked with what we had, and yeah it wasn’t the best night for diversity.

    If anyone has any thoughts on this they’d like to share or wants to offer a hand you can get me at raven (at) netrootsnation (dot) org.

  6. PunditMom Says:

    Raven, Thanks for stopping by to talk about this. I’d like to think that we all have good intentions of working toward thinking about diversity in all things. Sometimes we’re more successful than others. I’d also like to think that if we don’t always meet people’s expectations, that we can still have positive discussions and acknowledge than none of us are ever perfect.

  7. BAC Says:

    Gloria is correct in saying that oppressed people often point a finger of blame laterally, instead of up at the true oppressors. And I agree with you that our intentions are good, but once you step up to become a leader — and in organizing the panel that’s what you were doing — you are then held to a different standard. It’s probably why so few people are willing to lead.

    I’ve been organizing within the women’s community for 20 years, and I think we are particularly hard on each other. Maybe it’s because we just expect women to be “better” than the affluent, presumed heterosexual while male power base that for far too long has been the benchmark.

    The positive of an experience like this — and anyone who has ever stepped up to take a leadership position has had one — is that we learn from it, and do our best not to repeat it. It’s not a pleasant experience — and I know, as someone who got called out in a plenary session during one of my first feminist conferences — but know there are people who appreciate your effort.

    Beth Corbin


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