I recently found myself at a consortium meeting for women’s organizations. The passion in the room was palpable and the work that was being done on behalf of women around the world was vital and humbling. However, there was another passion in the room and that was politics. As soon as the meeting began, statements were made about the desire to see President Obama win a second term, and these statements were followed by applause. Throughout the meeting political comments continued and people started to link their politics to the “sisterhood,” as in “Obama’s policies are good for the sisterhood.” The problem was, this was not a meeting for liberal women’s groups specifically, making the political comments evidence of one of two things. One, the assumption that everyone in the room was liberal. Or two, a collective acceptance that it was okay to make any non-liberals in the room feel uncomfortable.
This political segregation is a real issue facing women today. As we read about how the culture of women is changing, (now we are the breadwinners, we are the ones getting the advanced degrees, we are choosing not to have children) an emotional separation within our community is worsening. The idea of sisterhood is that at birth every baby girl is welcomed into a global community of women. Sisterhood is culture. To be part of the sisterhood is to be part of a culture of women who help each other out. The concept of sisterhood is based on gender and nothing more. But this has been changing. We are starting to redefine sisterhood based on political affiliation.
Politics has always been glued to the hip of feminism. Understandably so since politicians write, introduce and vote on legislation that regulates women’s behavior. But arguing that women have to be liberal in order to secure choice is of course inherently hypocritical. Historically, women in the United States have leaned liberal. In polls conducted by the Pew Research Center this year, 52 percent of women identify with the Democratic Party or lean Democratic. (In 2008, however, that number was at 56 percent, reflecting that the Democratic stronghold on female voters may be waning in this super polarized political environment). But to toss out any woman who doesn’t reflect your political ideology seems akin to throwing out the baby and keeping the bath water. The political choice is less important than the right to choose. Isn’t it?
This is where we reach the million dollar question. Was feminism about furthering liberal values among women, or about supporting the right of women to choose their own values? I recently posed this question to a friend of mine who said, “It’s a lot to do with agency, clearly. I wish all women would see it benefits our sex to lean liberal because liberalism better ensures our continued agency, but it would be hypocritical of me to insist that women choose liberalism (thus, removing their choice). It’s a tricky thing to juggle, even explaining it.” She’s absolutely right, it is tricky and sticky and often uncomfortable and contentious, but it is an important topic to confront and discuss. In my view, disregarding any woman who votes differently than you is a myopic and ultimately losing approach at building a coalition dedicated to improving women’s lives. To take a lesson from our more market-oriented friends, it’s best to diversify your assets. If you don’t, you run the risk of losing all female representation every time political power shifts.
Furthermore, there are many business-oriented women, less concerned with social issues, who see the free market as the greatest gender equalizer, and might vote Republican for that reason. And then there are the women who vote Republican based on their conservative social values. Yes, women are allowed to have different opinions on abortion. Most importantly, politics is less about ideology than about human experiences. People’s opinions are usually colored by something that happened to them or someone they love, so dismissing another woman’s opinion just because it doesn’t jibe with your own is like dismissing all the moments of her life that have led her to where she is today.
If the women at the consortium had looked at my voting record they would have welcomed me into their exclusive club because I fit their approved political profile. But I would have declined. We have to push back against defining sisterhood based on our mistakes, our choices, our triumphs, and defeats. If we’re lucky, we will never stop debating what is best for the future of our community. Debate makes us smarter and stronger. But we have to always remember that the sisterhood has only one requirement, and despite political affiliation it must remain an unconditionally safe place for all us.