What The Past Can Teach Us About How To Build The Future

Since the election, many of us have been reflecting on its results and implications. For some of us, the acuteness of our disappointment is amplified by the prospect of sitting across the Thanksgiving table next week from family members who supported the candidate whose victory we are still laboring to accept as a reality.

Most of us have probably indulged in some variation of escapism; into a Netflix series, a project, or a bottle of Pinot Grigio (guilty). And that is our right. Donald Trump’s presidency will attempt to drag our country back into a deeply divided past that many of us thought we were finally leaving behind. The problems of that past are unnerving, but the tools to ensure a better future are there too.

During the women’s movement of the 1960’s and 70’s, groups of women met across the country for what activist and organizer Kathie Sarachild called “consciousness-raising” meetings. The purpose of these meetings was to explore the political dimensions of private life, to allow women to grasp that the frustrations and limitations of their lives were shared by other women. In her history of the women’s movement, The World Split Open, journalist and historian Ruth Rosen describes the combination of anger and euphoria that these meetings elicited in women. Having subconsciously assumed that the exclusion of women from high-paying jobs, their lesser pay when they did find work, and their subordinate status at home were naturally occurring phenomena, they suddenly began to see their lives as shaped by cultural, social, and economic factors that were in many ways beyond their control.

Rosen writes that the anger was particularly acute among American feminists, who considered themselves some of the most emancipated women in the world, only to discover that childcare and paid maternity leave were already instituted nationwide in many European countries (a disparity that is as appalling now as it has ever been).

Speaking of her own awakening in 1969, Gloria Steinem revealed that her initial reaction included anger at herself for failing to trust her own experience:

“For instance, I had believed that women couldn’t get along with one another, even while my own most trusted friends were women. I had agreed that women were more “conservative” even while I identified emotionally with every discriminated-against group.”

While there is a wealth of female-positive and intersectional literature and websites available to modern women, the dissonance remains. Like Steinem, women still struggle to overcome stereotypes that make it hard for us to trust our own voices, or each other. In many ways the narratives have changed, but our inability to reconcile them is the same. On the one hand we have more opportunity than ever before, but on the other we live in a country that elected a president whose treatment of and comments about women are both infantile and offensive.

Intuitively, we know that we have the right to be pissed off – especially in light of the appointment of Stephen Bannon, the virulently anti-feminist, white nationalist, former top executive of the alt-right site Breitbart News, as President Elect Donald Trump’s chief strategist – but much of the post-election narrative has attempted to frame liberal anger as the grumbling of sore losers. The most troubling manifestation of this hostility that I’ve experienced has come from some of the women who voted for Trump, who have co-opted the traditionally masculine qualities of insensitivity and the dismissal of the emotions of others, seemingly unaware that their behavior reinforces harmful gender stereotypes by implying that reacting like a man is better than reacting like a woman.

The narrative that allowed Trump supporters to vote for Trump not only justified the votes of those who are openly hostile to women, immigrants, and minorities, but also the votes of those who are casually indifferent to the challenges those groups sometimes face. To a great extent, that indifference is a product of a false belief that people tend to get what they deserve (called the just world belief or the just world fallacy), which allows those unaffected by injustice to see the injustice inflicted on others as somehow natural. That indifference is probably not so different from the indifference of whites of those who passively resisted the civil rights movements and the women’s movement. The real privilege of whiteness as an identity is not only that it protects you from being marginalized for your appearance, even if you experience social and economic marginalization in other forms, it also allows you to opt out from having to empathize with people who are marginalized for their appearance.

But as much as the current state of affairs is a reflection of cultural, social, and economic forces familiar from the past, it also stands to benefit from the consciousness-raising efforts that allowed women to see their lives as part of a larger economic and social framework and precipitated their involvement in the women’s movement. This will be as important now as it has ever been. The danger of the Trump administration will not only be the ways in which it will seek to reverse progress made on reproductive rights, addressing discrimination, climate change, and more, but also that it will put forth a narrative that seeks to invalidate the experiences of people who have benefited from that progress. It will rely on the indifference of those who voted for him, those that didn’t vote at all, and even some of those that voted against him to advance legislation that deprives vulnerable communities of their hard-won rights. So, the onus is on us to seek out and understand each other’s experiences, to forge connections where we find indifference.

We can do that by engaging colleagues and friends who are different from us, by asking respectful and genuine questions that give us a better understanding of their lives, and by being willing to confront assumptions we have about people who are unlike us. We can do it by seeking out media that isn’t meant for us (as suggested by the head of the National Book Foundation, Lisa Lucas). And not only can we do it, we must do it. Because nothing is as responsible for the election of Donald Trump as the assumption that what divides us is more important than what connects us. It’s an assumption that creates an illusion that the isolation of our individual reality corresponds to some larger reality. When we begin to believe that, we limit our circle of influence to those who share that reality, and we begin to see those outside of that reality as a threat to it. This feeds the identity-based politics that Trump so masterfully manipulated, which allowed him to convince economically marginalized whites that the forces that oppress them are somehow different from the forces that oppress minorities, immigrants, and women. So while we may not be ready for it yet, or even for a long time, the challenge will be in connecting to those Trump voters who saw their vote as a rebuke to a system that makes them feel like the deck is stacked against them, because we can answer their indignance: Yeah dude, me too.

We can begin by connecting to women who have fought against bigotry and misogyny that existed in the past and that we are seeing now. This in itself is a bit revolutionary, because women are not typically socialized to see older women as having wisdom and experience by virtue of age in the same way that men are. This is something that occurred to me a few years ago when I was listening to a Fresh Air interview with the actress Frances McDormand, who had just finished filming the HBO miniseries Olive Kitteridge. I still remember the exact intersection I was driving through when she spoke about aging and said:

“I want to be revered. I want to be an elder; I want to be an elderess. I have some things to talk about and say and help.”

This sentiment resonated with me on a very deep level, because I had never heard any woman talk about aging in this way. I’ve seen gorgeous, brilliant girlfriends behave as if turning 25 is the end of the world. I’ve watched successful women lose their confidence as they aged, because they felt as if their best years were over, even while they entered some of the most productive years of their lives. The idea of a woman as an elder seemed radical and awesome. It unearthed a desire inside of me for the leadership of women elders, not just the women in my own life, who I think I had never learned to see that way, but for elders who spoke to things that mattered to me on a larger scale. And that’s exactly where I’ve found the most comfort post-election.

Writing for The Guardian just two days after the election, Gloria Steinem pointed out that “Electing one African American president and nominating one potential female president was only a beginning”, reminding us that the struggle for equality is a long game.

In an appearance on Chelsea Handler’s weekly talk show on Netflix, California senator Barbara Boxer implored viewers to move forward, to “fight even harder for our country.”

In an insightful essay for the New Yorker, Toni Morrison unveiled the fear driving some of those angry Trump voters:

“So scary are the consequences of a collapse of white privilege that many Americans have flocked to a political platform that supports and translates violence against the defenseless as strength. These people are not so much angry as terrified, with the kind of terror that makes knees tremble.”

And while I don’t want to harp on age as a crucial determinant of wisdom (I recently removed several of the aforementioned female Trump voters from my Facebook feed whose superior age did not translate to superior wisdom or kindness, in my opinion), I think millennial women have a lot to gain from connecting with non-millennial women. And they want to connect to us. Just a few days before the election, Sallie Krawcheck, CEO of Ellevest and Chairman of the Ellevate Network, wrote A Letter to Young Women, in the Age of Trump urging us to own our power in the workplace by standing up to workplace gender discrimination.

These women have experiences and perspectives that can serve as a resource as we figure out how to move forward, because many of them have been here before. They’ve watched presidents either ignore women’s issues as unimportant or address them in ways that ignore the reality of women’s experiences. They’ve been passed over for jobs and interrupted in board rooms. And while I don’t want to promote negativity, because I genuinely believe that we can work to make things better, those millennial women who have yet to experience those things are very likely to, and soon. But we can arm ourselves with the wisdom of women who have already experienced those things, and learned to thrive in and change the environments that women are disregarded in.

As we connect, as we engage in consciousness-raising and awaken to deeper truths, let us remember that just as times like this have come before, they are likely to come again. If we are lucky, what we do moving forward will be a model for future generations who face opposition for attempting to build a more inclusive world, with institutions that reflect the diversity of the people they serve.

No matter our political affiliations or leanings, if we let anger and resentment guide our words and our actions, we will propagate division in the future. But if we move forward with compassion, even for those who have brought about the current state of affairs, we will foster the courage that will bridge those divides. We may even get to become elders ourselves someday.

Public Filter

This column is informed by the belief that an honest and brave conversation about what it means to be a woman is vital to understanding what it means to be a human. Its scope is temporal but its ambition is to discern the essential. Above all, it seeks to connect Milk readers to each other and the world around them. Email Jennimaria with corrections, questions, comments, and suggestions at publicfiltermilk@gmail.com.

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