October 2018

Gender and the Left from SDS to DSA

While Democrats are banking on the support of women and trying to make sure that women vote, the left has its own issues with gender that it struggles to deal with. Underneath the surface level performative support for #metoo, however, gender based harassment and discrimination is not only a right wing issue.

The nomination of Brett Kavanaugh, a right wing extremist, to the Supreme Court combined with the continuing force of the #metoo movement has put gender at the forefront of conversations in American political discourse. On the surface, the divides between the right and left are clear and stark. Democrats, especially women in the Democratic Party, have been at the forefront of efforts to stop Kavanaugh who is a clear existential threat to women’s rights and is all but certain to be the deciding vote on cases that will do serious damage to abortion rights. While Democrats are banking on the support of women and trying to make sure that women vote, the left has its own issues with gender that it struggles to deal with. Underneath the surface level performative support for #metoo, however, gender based harassment and discrimination is not only a right wing issue.

While right wing propaganda tries to sell the idea that the left has an adversarial relationship to masculinity, the truth is that the left has its own deep issues with gender and masculinity. One need only look back to the peak of the New Left in the late 1960s to see how women were mistreated by members of left wing organizations. The most famous radical group of the 1960s, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was an organization that was ostensibly built on radicalism and purported to act as a vanguard for leftist revolutionary activity. In reality however, the organization was comfortable with maintaining a strict and traditional gender dynamic. While SDS is known in history for issuing radical documents such as the Port Huron Statement and embodying radical youth culture of the 1960s, the organization had an underbed of sexism that made women in the movement feel used and mistreated. In some circles, SDS is now remembered as much for its poor analysis of gender and mistreatment of women as for its radical politics. The impact of the mistreatment of women on the left became a defining feature of the feminist movement in the 1960s. Scholar Sara Evans’ work, Personal Politics, one of the most famous studies of gender and the new left was based on her experiences in the New Left movement.FOOTNOTE: Footnote Evans’ work released in 1979 and argued that the women’s movement in the late 1960s was influenced by women’s involvement in the struggle for African American civil rights. Evans’ argues that women’s mistreat and ultimate disillusionment with their work helped to create the feminism of the 1960s, which emphasized the idea of personal experiences as key to the development of political ideology. Evans was not the only woman involved in SDS to publicly emphasize the gender issues that plagued SDS throughout its existence. Kathy Wilkenson, who was involved in the radical Weather Underground faction of SDS, recalled her experiences in the group, saying that the men demanded loyalty from the radical women and that women in the organization had to pledge their continued loyalty to the men in charge of the various SDS factions. For the male members of SDS, concerns about gender came second, if they came at all, to ideas about class.

While SDS is known in history for issuing radical documents such as the Port Huron Statement and embodying radical youth culture of the 1960s, the organization had an underbed of sexism that made women in the movement feel used and mistreated.

By minimizing gendered concerns, the social democratic left of the 21st century is continuing this long tradition of minimizing, or outright ignoring issues of gender. Bernie Sanders himself once said “It is not enough to say I’m a woman vote for me.” While Sanders was trying to emphasize his own socialist views which center economics at the core of political debates, as opposed to a liberal emphasis on identity politics, an old white man making a statement that could be viewed as an attack on the first woman to run for President on a major party ticket is bad optics to say the least. Adding to this was the fact that Clinton was running against another old white man in the general election, Donald Trump, who used gendered attacks against her at every opportunity.

After the 2016 election, a traumatizing and heartbreaking event for many, liberal and left wing opponents of the Trump administration searched for ways to be involved in the American political system. Many who were introduced to democratic socialism by the Bernie Sanders campaign joined the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). Founded by author and activist Michael Harrington in 1982, the DSA was set up as a way for socialists to enter politics via the Democratic Party. Harrington believed that the word’ socialism’ itself needed to be rescued from the authoritarian tendencies of the Soviet Union. Part of this rebranding was a focus on entering the Democratic Party, a decidedly capitalist political party. For Harrington, however, the party offered a vehicle for socialists to enter into national politics.

Morgenson 1018 Image 1.jpg
Courtesy of CanadianDimension.com.

The DSA has been buoyed two recent electoral successes. Two of the largest victories were by women in the New York City area, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Julia Salazar. Both of them faced intense criticism during their campaigns. Salazar especially was the victim of a vicious and racist campaign against her. The Jewish online magazine Tablet ran an article that questioned her entire Jewish identity. Salazar, who is Columbian, did not have a traditional Jewish upbringing. She was by her own account, raised in a secular household and while her father was ethnically Jewish he did not practice any religion. However, Salazar identifies as Jewish, and has since college. While this might not be traditional, discovering ones religious identity in their early twenties is hardly unheard of. A separate right wing smear campaign forced her to admit publicly that she was sexually assaulted by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s spokesman David Keyes, a serial sexual predator who rose to prominence in the hyper-masculine world of right wing think tanks. Ocasio-Cortez has had her experience and basic competency questioned repeatedly both by right wing media and by Democrats who feel threated by further left candidates.

By minimizing gendered concerns, the social democratic left of the 21st century is continuing this long tradition of minimizing, or outright ignoring issues of gender. Bernie.

While the DSA is publicly endorsing women, issues behind the scenes continue to hamper the organization’s reputation. Recently, women in the Boston chapter of the DSA issued a statement discussing the gendered issues that they experienced in the DSA. Among the issues that the women listed was a lack of childcare options, as well as women being forced to do the planning in the chapter while men focused on “big picture” ideas. The essay closes with a very poignant “As socialists, we are supposed to be dismantling oppressive structures, yet DSA only seems to be replicating them.” Issues within the DSA clearly run deeper than support for a couple of women candidates can offer. By not addressing the issues within local chapters and instead playing up electoral victories by women, the DSA is avoiding a deeper conversation about structural issues and leaving in place a power structure that has no issue with using women to advance their cause, but does not satisfactorily address the gendered issues inside of the organization.

Only time will tell if DSA can truly overcome the sexism that is entrenched on the left. In some ways, such as endorsing women candidates and standing behind them, the organization is genuinely making an effort. Behind the scenes, however, the organization continues to place women in administrative roles while men take the spotlight and attention. One can hope that the DSA rights this wrong, but history experience suggest that this is very unlikely.

Eric Morgenson is a PhD candidate in history at the State University of New York at Albany. His research interests include the intersections of race and class in the United States, the relationship between liberalism and the left in the twentieth century, and American Jewish history. Eric’s dissertation, The Last Step to Whiteness: American Jews and the end of the Civil Rights Coalition argues that allegations of antisemitism made against Black Power groups in the 1960s were part of a larger effort to distance liberal American Jews from the cause of civil rights. The work explores Jewish assimilation in the twentieth century. It emphasizes the impact that Jews becoming “white” i.e. culturally accepted had on the relationship between American Jews and African Americans. He received an MA from the University of Nebraska at Omaha, a BA from Concordia University-Nebraska, and an Associate of Arts from Southeast Community College in Lincoln, NE. Eric was born and raised in Bismarck North Dakota, but really hates cold weather. He currently lives in Connecticut where it is still too cold. He can be reached here.

1 comment on “Gender and the Left from SDS to DSA

  1. You make good points about gender and the DSA. That being said, issues with gender go well beyond the Democratic Socialists of America…we need not look any further than the fact that the #metoo movement has brought down numerous prominent Democrats too ranging from Al Franken to Harvey Weinstein. The problem is so widespread that it’s as if entire Democratic Party has issues with the treatment of women too.

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