How Feminism has Become Corrupted

Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW

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“I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.” ~ Audre Lorde

It is a repetitive historical reality that all forms of ideology are ultimately reducible to the rule of a few elitists. Those who hold the most power, such as scholars, people of considerable monetary wealth, along with vast influence and special skills, consolidate to assert their collective authority. Eventually, due to the infiltration of internal dissent and discord amongst these powerful elite, ideologies and movements splinter off into factions. Feminism is no different.

Hence we behold conservative feminists railing at liberal feminists and vice versa. Mainstream feminists are labeled bourgeois. Cultural feminists are accused of disregarding class and ethnicity. Radical feminists oppose transgender rights.

Of course, there is nothing new about this.

Early 20th century suffragettes acrimoniously divided into the more mainstream National American Woman’s Suffrage Association (the parent organization) and the more militant National Woman’s Party, even as they eventually both strove to pass the 19th amendment’s recognition of women’s right to vote. Throughout their history, these factions functioned as rivals and maintained their disparate methods of enacting change. However, irrespective of measures and mission the NAWS and the NWP failed to be inclusive of suffragists of color. Ironically, although the fight for women’s suffrage had its roots in the abolitionist movement white suffragettes betrayed their black sisters for the sake of political expediency. This wound of these discriminatory policies continues to fester.

Accordingly, it was only a matter of time before western liberal feminism succumbed to a distorted version of identity politics. Instead of addressing the concerns of oppressed women of color, division and diversion ensued. Critical feminist concepts have devolved into the metrics of popular media and hashtag activism. Girl power campaigns are touted as political acts and social media platforms have become kangaroo courts. There are sweeping condemnations of all men as rapists. ‘Woke’ lynch mobs eviscerate women deemed too radical or not feminist enough. If one is not sexually attracted to a transgender woman they are evil. If one believes in biological sex they are evil. This sort of rampant persecution that silences dissent and even ruins lives so as to enforce ideological conformity is referred to as cancel culture.

We are witnessing the devolving of feminist identity politics into a neoliberal group mind of tribalism and rampant persecution on all sides of the fence.

Coined in the 1970s by black feminist and scholar Barbara Smith, the term ‘identity politics’ was meant to suggest a political ideology of inclusivity, which purported that black liberation, feminism, and socialism could dismantle systemic oppression for all people.

As Smith wrote, “I have often wished I could spread the word that a movement committed to fighting sexual, racial, economic and heterosexist oppression, not to mention one which opposes imperialism, anti-Semitism, the oppressions visited upon the physically disabled, the old and the young, at the same time that it challenges militarism and imminent nuclear destruction is the very opposite of narrow.” (1984)

Rather than striving to emulate Smith's vision, contemporary feminism has become increasingly fractured and commoditized. A “feminist” initiative ignited a few years back by Beyonce and Condoleezza Rice is exemplary of this trend. Known as the #banbossy campaign, this crusade addressed how women in positions of power are bullied. Sounds reasonably principled, except that Rice served as Secretary of State for former President Bush, making her complicit in the deaths of millions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and around the world. Rice was also implicated for lying about the connection of Iraq and Afghanistan to 9–11.

Similarly, feminists lauded Hillary Clinton’s supporting the invasion of Afghanistan to ostensibly “liberate women from the Taliban.” This attack, along with her deployment of drones resulted in the deaths of scores of innocent minorities and women. Likewise, Clinton’s role in the Honduras coup in 2009 (and not to mention the assassination of Berta Cáceres), her development of the mass incarceration state and the prison-industrial complex, her affiliation with sexual predators Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein, and her slandering of the women her husband was accused of sexually violating, did not deter women from lauding her as a feminist icon. Then of course there’s Vice President Kamala Harris and her vast record of prosecutorial misconduct as district attorney and later as attorney general of California, along with her opposition to legislation requiring the attorney general’s office to independently investigate police shootings.

These egregious oversights reveal a dismissal of the critical relationship between feminism and pacifism and women’s involvement in anti-colonial and anti-war and imperialist struggles. Supporting powerful women irrespective of war-mongering track records, or histories of corruption, exposes how public relations and corporatism has taken precedence over moral integrity in feminist circles.

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The corruption of the feminist message of anti-militarism and intersectionality is linked to Edward Bernays masterful understanding of the psychological workings of propaganda. Capitalizing on the ethos of the group mind by playing to the collective instinctual need for tribal belonging, Bernays devised a psychological blueprint for “engineering consent” from the masses that proved to be a revolutionary form of marketing. By harking back to unconscious reminders of the ‘primal horde’ and shared hopes and fears, Bernays created branding, and advertising that tapped into the collective unconscious of the audience so as to generate archetypal narratives that captivate and control.

Indeed, through the daily utilization of identification with race, class, gender, religion, nationality, and political ideology, special interest groups and the elite corporate media shape the group mind. Through carefully crafted campaigns to uphold imperialist values, state-sponsored violence and incontestable lockdown, the group mind is molded.

Consequently, we are distracted by what we are instructed to align with, oblivious to the machinations of corporate interests and motives disguised as humanitarian feminism. Attempts to think for oneself in accordance with a personal moral code, or even factual information is met with an onslaught of aggression.

Even though it should be obvious that incessant blaming, shaming, and derision derails empowerment and that ideally, solidarity is inclusive of diversity, an insidious pecking order has ensconced us in culture blindness and moral relativism. The forcing of ‘sameness’ where it does not belong and the intractable emphasis on eurocentrism hinders contemporary feminists from considering the needs of women in the developing world. It also inhibits us from transcending one-dimensional notions of what it means to be female.

This polarization in us-them dichotomies is reminiscent of the radical views held by the ‘Grand Dame of Feminist Theology’, Mary Daly. Daly’s worldview asserts that the ‘phallic culture’ is devoid of redemption because its foundation is degradation and inhumanity. She describes her core essence as radically female, breaking away with identification with the ‘human species,’ which she hates.

Daly vehemently denounced the notion of gender as a social construct and espoused gender as a product of physiology. The possibility that both are true betrayed her all-encompassing premise that men alone were inherently evil. Her Amazon Utopia with allusions to eugenics was surreal and frightening to consider, yet the confusion of misandry with feminism seems very much alive as feminists denounce all men as violent misogynists.

This sort of bifurcation is also evident when it pertains to issues of reproductive freedom and abortion. Often speculation about what constitutes the inception of life or concerns about Orwellian population control franchises are met with derision. This sort of contemptuous posturing distracts feminists from examining the ways in which profit-driven economics contribute to conditions that make motherhood an impossible pursuit for many.

The impact of the profit motive, wage differentials, and occupational segregation on healthcare, the marketplace, daycare, child abuse, housing, violence towards women, and teen pregnancy creates a cultural double bind. Women are encouraged to embrace motherhood and the domestic sphere, yet the necessary provisions to do so are not accessible.

If pro-choice and pro-life advocates worked together perhaps the emphasis could productively shift onto the reality that motherhood is largely predicated on the distribution of wealth and public policy. That almost half of young children in the United States live in poverty or near poverty. This truth suggests a huge discrepancy between the pro-life position and the obvious lack of public services and entitlements which would support procreation.

In fact, research conducted by the Center for American Progress affirms that mothers must make job decisions based on child care considerations rather than in the interest of their financial situation or career goals. The only federal law guaranteeing maternity leave in the U.S. is unpaid and it only applies to some employees.

Under the present neoliberal political system we are indoctrinated with a contemporary version of identity politics that incites rancor over differences and personal interests. We are conveniently diverted from our common humanity. Essential concerns with economic and ecological collapse, escalating unemployment, imperialism, and the progressive loss of civil liberties is eclipsed by sectarianism.

It is critical that we recognize that there is tremendous variability in the world as much as there are commonalities. Opening our minds to the varied dimensions of our ambiguities so that we can accept many paradoxical truths can allow us to fully appreciate the value of our complexity and collectively mobilize ourselves to be the driving forces of change for the many, instead of just the chosen few. At a time in history where fears of what lies ahead loom before us, resurrecting the primal feminine principles of creative collaboration and nourishment just may mean our deliverance.

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As a survivor (and thriver) of complex trauma and a seasoned therapist specializing in treating complex trauma, narcissistic abuse syndrome and addictions, I am intent on creating content that affords informative insight, hope and healing from psychological disorders. I aim for my creative content to assist readers with tapping into the resiliency of the human condition while recognizing the countless challenges of being human.

New York City, NY
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