Why the Feminist Movement Needs the Progressive Movement: Moving Beyond “White Feminism”

By Crystal Defatte

Feminism is defined by Merriam-Webster as 1) the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities and as 2) organized activity in support of women’s rights and interests.  The history of feminism in this country goes back to a time when women were involved in politics and fighting for progressive causes long before we were even allowed to vote.  Women throughout this nation’s history have worked to make their mark on the world and have their power match their inner strength.  The feminist movement got us the right to vote, the right to control our own rate of reproduction with the fight for universal access to birth control, the ability to get out of the kitchen and retain gainful employment after the boys came home from fighting in WWII, women’s liberation, and the sexual revolution.  The feminist movement has always evolved, pushing for more than our mothers and grandmothers ever thought possible, and it is time the movement move into its new phase of evolution-the progressive movement. There are a number of issues that blatantly fall under the feminism umbrella that are championed by the progressive movement, but many people don’t realize how most (if not all) progressive issues are feminist issues as well.  The blatantly feminist issues are often labeled as white feminism.  Sure they benefit all women, but white feminism fails to cover so many issues that are felt by women who don’t fall under the white, heteronormative, middle to upper class umbrella; women who are often marginalized.  These often overlooked issues, referred to as intersectional feminist issues, are perfectly addressed within the progressive movement, making the progressive movement the new and better face of feminism.


Feminism in the Education System

Progressives have been fighting for more education funding at every level.  We understand that better education leads to a better quality of life and a stronger republic due to a better informed electorate.  Evidence of this push for education here in Iowa can be seen in the IDP’s Progressive Caucus and their belief in expanding 3 and 4k programs in public schools.  These members support this so that every child may have an early start in their learning development.  A nice little bonus to pre-k programs is that they also acts as government-funded daycare, which progressives all over the country generally support as well.  Women are more likely to be raising children as a single parent so the cost of childcare disproportionately affects them, but even when comparing single mothers to single fathers, single mothers were two times as likely to live in poverty than single fathers according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. (Vernasco)  pre-k programs not only help children learn, they help alleviate some of the cost burden felt by women in poverty struggling to pay for childcare.  There has always been a focus on making sure that women have a place in the job market and that they someday receive pay that is equal to men, the issue of lifting women out of poverty, and impoverished women in general has long been overlooked.

Whereas school districts around the country are cutting funding for extracurricular activities, progressives are pushing for increasing funding.  While all extracurricular activities have been shown to have significant benefit to a student; science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) clubs are encouraging girls and young women to explore fields long thought to be a man’s realm.  These fields are often times more lucrative than traditionally female jobs and open the door to a better route out of poverty for young women than their mothers ever had.  This is especially important to women of color considering the poverty rate for Native American, black, and Hispanic women is nearly twice the rate for white women. (Vernasco) Of course these fields generally require two or four-year degrees at least, which is why the progressive movement’s fight for tuition free college is so vital for young women today.

Progressive parents are also starting to require more from their school districts as far as curriculum and policies go.  They are starting to fight against school dress policies that rigidly police young women’s clothing for the purpose of making sure a young woman isn’t a distraction for males and a disruption to their learning environment.  Wearing tank tops with spaghetti straps, the most commonly sold tank tops, and shorts of the most commonly sold length, can cause a young woman to be pulled from class, disrupting her learning environment, sending the message that her education is less important than a young man who shouldn’t be expected to pay attention if a girl is dressed comfortably.  Of course what these policies do is tell women that they are responsible for how men behave and teach men that they aren’t expected to behave properly if a woman is dressed in a way that may be deemed provocative in even the slightest way.  These types of policies perpetuate a rape culture that too often asserts that a woman is asking for it if she’s assaulted or harassed while wearing anything a nun wouldn’t wear. By teaching boys they need to be respectful and on task regardless of what a girl is wearing we are teaching them that they are responsible for their behavior and their education, as well as teaching them to view women as people instead of sex objects.  This fight against sexist dress policies is great for everyone. It is especially great for students in poorer school districts; districts with broken down air conditioning or no school sponsored busing programs, causing young women to take long walks from school because bus fare is unaffordable.  Progressive parents are now asserting that their daughter’s comfort is necessary in order for her to have a productive learning environment and that her comfort matters.

These same progressive parents are also starting to fight for comprehensive reproductive health courses that educate not only about how to keep their daughters free from disease and pregnancy, but also teaches young men and women things like consent, self-esteem and body image, and subliminally break from the idea that a young woman is worth less if she chooses not to be abstinent because they are teaching sex ed in a way that is matter of fact, without the conservative and ineffectual abstinence only focus, instead  treating sex as a part of life and not something taboo.


Social and Criminal Justice For All

Progressives are always fighting for social justice.  One example is the support of Black Lives Matter.  Women of color are much more likely to see themselves, their partners, and their children murdered by police.  Supporting BLM is shining a light on the violence women of color see inflicted upon them and their families by those sworn to protect them.  Many women of color have long felt like they had no place in feminism because it has not addressed the struggles specific to their communities.  The last time feminism really supported minorities was in the days of the abolitionists.  Progressives are making much greater strides to support the betterment of minorities, making progressive feminists far better allies than feminists of the past have been.

Progressives also generally support hate crime legislation that brings justice for the most marginalized and at risk women, LGBTQ women and especially LGBTQ women of color.  Transgender college students are more likely to become victims of sexual violence than cisgendered students with 21 percent of TGQN (transgender, genderqueer, nonconforming) college students having been sexually assaulted, compared to 18 percent of non-TGQN females, and 4 percent of non-TGQN males. (RAINN) According to a National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs report done in 2009, 50 percent of people who died in violent hate crimes against LGBTQ people were transgender women, women who have been cast aside by the feminists of yesteryear. Hate crimes of this nature are more prevalent against people of color. In 2009, 53 percent of LGBTQ hate crime victims were people of color.  Of the 22 anti-LGBTQ hate crime murders documented by NCAVP that year, 79 percent of the victims were people of color.   As noted above, 50 percent (11 individuals) of the 2009 murders tracked were transgender women; of those, 9 were people of color (82 percent). Of the other 11 murders of gender non-conforming people, 5 (45 percent) were people of color. (Office for Victims of Crime) Progressives also generally support getting rid of the statutes of limitation that keep so many of these crimes from being prosecuted in the first place.

To further support LGBTQ women, progressives generally believe in nondiscriminatory adoption rights, allowing LGBTQ women to become parents and protect their parental rights should a custody battle ever ensue.

Progressives also generally want more leniency when it comes to the incarceration of nonviolent drug offenders.  Harsh sentences do nothing but break apart families, often leaving women alone to be single mothers while their children’s father is serving time or themselves serving time away from their children instead of getting the help they need.  Considering minorities are much more likely to find themselves incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses, this once again supports minority women and is therefore another example of intersectional feminism.

To further help minority women, progressives generally oppose the deportation of otherwise law-abiding immigrants regardless of immigration status.  This would mean that an immigrant woman could find a decent paying job and better avoid living in poverty.  This means an immigrant woman wouldn’t need to worry whether she will risk deportation if she goes to the police after being victimized.  This would mean an immigrant woman wouldn’t have to worry whether her kids will be ripped from the only home they know over a lack of proper documentation.  The plight of noncitizens has been ignored by feminists and those who don’t identify as feminists alike, whereas progressives are working hard to amplify the voices of the voiceless.

Progressives also support people of differing cultures and faiths.  We believe that the first amendment, in its entirety (but we’ll focus on the religious aspect right now), is one of the most important founding principles of this nation.  By supporting all faiths we are supporting women who find their empowerment in dressing in a way that many old school feminists view as innately oppressive.  We progressives support a woman’s right to choose what she wears without stigma and insult, whether that is nothing at all or covered from head to toe, as long as she is comfortable and feels empowered by it.


Feminist Healthcare

The first thing many people think of when they hear the word feminism is women’s healthcare.  Almost all self-described feminists support Planned Parenthood and a woman’s right to choose, but sometimes a right to choose doesn’t guarantee an actual choice.  At over $700, an abortion is not an option for women in poverty.  What progressives have started fighting for, and what all feminists should be fighting for, is a single payer, Medicare for all that would cover all reproductive health and choices.  Only then will a woman’s right to choose be a truly guaranteed right.

Progressives (at least within the IDP’s Progressive Caucus) believe that transgender women, and men as well, should have their transition related healthcare needs covered under the same Medicare for all program.

Progressives fight against substandard medical care and the denial of medical care justified by physician or pharmacist’s personal religious beliefs.  This means women of all faiths and the long marginalized atheist women wouldn’t need to worry about whether they will have access to birth control, including emergency contraceptives, and emergency abortions at a religious run hospital.  This also especially benefits woman in rural communities who are often forgotten when those faith based hospitals are the only hospitals anywhere near where they live.


Housing, Homelessness, and The Journey Out of Poverty

Progressives here in the states have really begun to support the democratic socialist ideas of Europe when it comes to housing.  Members of the IDP’s Progressive Caucus believe in subsidized housing for families making less than a living wage, which again overwhelmingly benefits women living in poverty.  We believe in state provided homes and apartments for the chronically homeless, many of which are women who are mentally ill, suffer from substance abuse, or have left everything to leave an abusive relationship.  These women and the homeless in general are often looked at as insignificant, if they’re looked at at all.  Progressives see these people as deserving of help and compassion instead of someone to ignore.

Of course these subsidies would be almost completely unnecessary if women were not only given equal pay, a long sought after goal of feminism, but also a living wage.  Progressives aren’t satisfied with just making sure women are paid the same (though we definitely want to see that), we want to make sure everyone is paid enough to be able to provide for themselves and their families.  This would mean women raising their children with a partner could choose whether to go to work or stay at home; their partner could make enough that staying at home could be a realistic option.  Women raising children alone wouldn’t need to work two or three jobs, never seeing their children, just to survive.  Women, with or without children, would be able to live the kind of life we used to call the American Dream before that dream died, without having to rely on a partner to provide the second income needed today.  The average woman would have a level of autonomy never seen before in American history if we would have not only the societal norm advancements that we have today, but also the fiscal means to thrive on our own.  This is but one of the many reasons we fight for a minimum wage of at least $15 an hour.

Members of the IDP’s Progressive Caucus are fighting for a minimum living wage that also applies to tipped workers.  The service industry is a predominantly female industry.  No woman can live off of the couple bucks an hour most states have set as the minimum wage guaranteed them.  No woman should have to pull double shifts just to make up for a slow night of waitressing and still come up short on rent.

Progressives are fighting for guaranteed paid parental leave.  We want to make sure mothers and their partner can bond with their children at home without eating through their savings. We want paid FMLA and sick time that is guaranteed to all American workers so women can retain their positions and be able to keep a roof over their heads when they need to take time to take care of themselves or their loved ones if someone falls ill.  This especially benefits disabled women and those dealing with a chronic debilitating illness, another often forgotten group of women.


Final Thoughts

I hope I’ve made it clear with this list (which only scratches the surface of both feminism and progressivism) why progressivism is not only good for women, but more inclusive than the feminism of yesteryear.  Feminism isn’t dead by any means, but it needs progressivism in order to evolve and flourish.  You may be thinking many of these things listed aren’t specifically benefitting women only, but that doesn’t make them less feminist.  Feminism is about equality.  We lift our sisters up without pulling our brothers down.  Feminism and Progressivism are so intertwined that they are almost inseparable because what is good for the nation is good for the women living in it.  Progressive ideals bring us closer to being on equal footing with men while ensuring that footing is on stable ground for all of us.  Women will continue to make strides toward a better future if we all work towards a better future for all, which is the exact goal of the progressive movement.


Works Cited
Office for Victims of Crime. 06 2014. 26 10 2016 <https://www.ovc.gov/pubs/forge/sexual_numbers.html&gt;.
RAINN. 26 10 2016 <https://www.rainn.org/statistics/victims-sexual-violence&gt;.
Vernasco, Lucy. The Daily Beast. 09 04 2015. 26 10 2016 <http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/04/09/women-are-poorer-than-men-in-every-state.html&gt;.



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