Support is a much used word in the women's movement. For too many people it means giving and receiving unqualified approval. Some women are awfully good at withdrawing it at crucial moments. Too many are convinced they can't function without it. It's a false concept which has produced barriers to understanding and done real emotional damage. Suspension of critical judgement is not necessary for offering real support, which has to do instead with self-respect and respect for other people even at moments of serious disagreement.”
- Jane Rule “With All Due Respect” quoted in bell hooks “Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center,” p. 62
I love Oprah. I admire her distinct Oprah-ness that exudes warmth, empathy, and compassion. I, like so many of her admirers, understand that Oprah overcame major challenges ranging from poverty and abuse on her journey to the O’empire. Still, I don’t believe in #Oprah2020.
After this year’s female-led Golden Globes, and Oprah’s inspiring speech, it didn’t surprise me that Oprah was heralded for her #TimesUp battle cry. What did surprise me were the serious calls for a potential Oprah presidential candidacy. The presidency is not a four-year motivational speech. If it were, Oprah would reign supreme – the strongest prospective candidate ahead of Brene Brown and Tony Robbins. But the primary issue with an Oprah candidacy lies in that she cleverly and resourcefully built her house with the master’s tools, and she wants us to do the same, a discussion thoughtfully laid out in this piece from the Guardian.
In 1979, iconic feminist and civil rights activist Audre Lorde wrote:
For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.
If and when Oprah proposes ideas to fix the cracks in the American Dream facade beyond writing down three positive things a day (a real piece of advice from O Magazine), then I’ll rethink my position.
Even though Oprah hadn’t (and hasn’t) officially announced intentions to run for president, the Twitter debates and think-pieces immediately sounded off. On Tuesday, I saw this post from self-proclaimed feminist media company, Girlboss, on Instagram:
Initially, I stood in total agreement with the praise showered upon Oprah, understanding that for some, the call for #Oprah2020 was just a symbol representing the gratitude for expression of female empowerment. But when Girlboss concluded their post with the interpretation that those debating the validity of that call are simply engaging in anti-feminist behavior, I felt concerned.
I’m concerned because debating Oprah Winfrey’s qualifications for president should not automatically label one as anti-feminist, or an “attacker.” I’m concerned because recently, if a woman disagrees with or wants to debate about women in power, she’s scapegoated and labeled “anti-feminist.” I’m concerned because the pretense that women must support women no matter what, without question or debate, in order to express meaningful solidarity, is false. And the peddling of feminism that ostracizes those that dare to question only builds a shallow definition and practice of Sisterhood.
Especially now, following Hillary Clinton’s loss, and taking on the larger-than-life task of countering Donald Trump, I’m not entertaining the argument that it’s anti-feminist to debate and challenge ideas among women. Notable feminists Audre Lorde and bell hooks fought hard against that same misconception over 4 decades ago.
Lorde and hooks focused much of their energy on the need for a feminism that accepts differences in identity, and that acceptance must also include differences in opinion – opinions which are informed by our lived experiences. In her powerful essay, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” Lorde said:
As women, we have been taught either to ignore our differences or to view them as causes for separation and suspicion rather than as forces for change. Without community, there is no liberation, only the most vulnerable and temporary armistice between an individual and her oppression. But community must not mean a shedding of our differences, nor the pathetic pretense that these differences do not exist.
Ignoring perspectives and viewpoints that challenge our own builds only the most superficial version of community and solidarity. For example, during Hillary Clinton’s run for the 2016 presidential election, her white liberal feminist comrades, Gloria Steinem and Madeleine Albright chastised women that weren’t falling in line with the Clinton platform. At a rally, Albright famously shouted, “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other!” Meanwhile, Steinem told Bill Maher, “When you’re young you’re thinking: Where are the boys? The boys are with Bernie.”
Both comments were met with immediate backlash, sparking outrage even among women who supported Clinton, revealing the fragility of feminist solidarity built on blind unity. Lauded as feminist icons, Albright and Steinem rebuked young women instead of questioning what drove them to Bernie Sanders and elsewhere. They made and shared assumptions about women who disagreed with Clinton in place of fostering healthy debate or discovering where Clinton failed to win them over.
Those judgements mirror similar actions by white liberal feminists that bell hooks discussed in 1984:
They were not challenging one another to examine their sexist attitudes towards women unlike themselves or exploring the impact of race and class privilege on their relationships to women outside their race/class groups. Identifying as "victims," they could abdicate responsibility for their role in the maintenance and perpetuation of sexism, racism, and classism, which they did by insisting that only men were the enemy. They did not acknowledge and confront the enemy within. They were not prepared to forego privilege and do the "dirty work" (the struggle and confrontation necessary to build political awareness as well as the many tedious tasks to be accomplished in day to day organizing) that is necessary in the development of radical political consciousness.
-bell hooks,"Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center," p.46
In order to forge real, lasting solidarity and genuine Sisterhood, we have to think critically about the issues that divide us. Rather than alienating women who question, we need to harness that curiosity to nurture a movement. When another woman speaks out about women’s issues, or a female political candidate, that doesn’t automatically mean she doesn’t support women – she might just have a different idea about the support she’d like to see. Welcoming and conducting thoughtful debate grants the opportunity for feminist ideas to develop, flourish, and grow.
hooks argues that it doesn’t just harm feminist solidarity when we aggressively attack each other within the movement, but it also harms the movement when we judge and chastise women still learning or formulating opinions about feminist issues. Instead of choosing stark interpretations that create black-and-white divisions, hooks argues that we should embrace our differences, concentrating on fostering healthy, caring debate.
Woman-to-woman negative, aggressive behavior is not unlearned when all critical judgement is suspended. It is unlearned when women accept that we are different, that we will necessarily disagree, but that we can disagree and argue with one another without acting as if we are fighting for our lives, without feeling that we stand to lose all self-esteem by verbally trashing someone else...Women, like men, must learn how to dialogue with one another without competition. Jane Rule suggests that women can disagree without trashing if they realize they do not stand to lose value or self-worth if they are criticized: "No one can discredit my life if it is in my own hands, and therefore I do not have to make anyone carry the false burden of my frightened hostility."
-bell hooks, "Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center," p.63
In fact, I’d argue that Sisterhood only lives and thrives when every sister knows the movement values her – differences and all.