De-dudeing socialism

By Emily Robinson

“How do we bring more women to socialism?” is a question I have been asked with increasing frequency in the past several months. At first, I assumed that people were asking me because of my unmatchable feminist cred, but later I realised it was because I was one of only one or two other women in the room. Still, I would try my best, stammering and stuttering my way through the question, because really, who was I to speak for all women?
But the fact that I’m so often asked this question speaks to the very nature of the problem: women in politics — not just left politics — are tokenized and asked to be the standard bearers of their entire generation, not simply to be comrades. Young women on the left bear an immense responsibility, they must fight the hard fight not only for socialism, but for socialist feminism, and for women at large. Where men aren’t forced to identify with an identity, they are instead allowed to speak only for themselves on issues, women are asked to speak for all of womankind when they speak out.

Then, when these socialist women leave the confines of socialist spaces, they are not only asked to speak for women and socialism, but also for the failures of socialist men. Women are asked to denounce sexism in the left movement ­– often sexism from men they have never met — lest they face accusations of internalized misogyny. When liberal feminists engage with socialist feminists, it is never on the issues of the day, but rather for the sake of hurling accusations against socialist men that women must answer for.

It is utterly exhausting.
I won’t cover for the sexist men in the socialist movement. I will not dismiss their wrongdoings; nor will I pretend that my comrades and I have never been the victims of sexist or misogynist behaviour instigated by our male comrades. The left undoubtedly has a problem with men who cannot behave. But is it worse than any other political movement? No.
Still, there are ways to reach out to women and make things easier for women already in the movement that ought not be ignored.
1. Feminism is a socialist issue, and women’s issues should not be ignored in favour of more “serious” issues. It’s not unusual to watch people on the left dismiss action on simple issues. Why? Lord if only I knew. Maybe it’s to fulfil the left’s obsession with needlessly overcomplicating things. Maybe it’s latent sexism. I neither know nor care, the problem exists and the answer is simple: don’t do that. Simple issues are no less meaningful than complex ones and can often be a helpful recruiting tool. If women see that socialist organisations are getting involved in educational fights, or in women’s health fights, they will be more likely to see utility in joining those organisations.
2. Don’t let men dominate discussions. It sounds obvious, hell, it is obvious, but it’s one of the biggest mistakes I see socialist groups making. There are simple and effective fixes to this, that, when implemented correctly flow so fluidly it’s almost impossible to tell that the men in the room are being decentralised. Strategies like taking stack are helpful because they help minimize moments of tokenisation (instances like, “Are we sure there aren’t any female-identifying people who’d like to speak right now?”) but also help to put the wider group at ease with one another.
3. Create a community. While this applies to left organising in general, I cannot stress its importance enough in helping to make socialist spaces palatable to women. Providing a system of resources and support to your socialist organisation will help encourage not only women but also the less timid left-inclined folks to get involved. Minor adjustments, like providing free childcare at meetings, ample notice for events, and accessible systems of redress for sexual harassment or gender discrimination can provide women with the comfort and security they need to turn out to socialist groups.
4. Don’t overwork your non-male members. If I had a penny for every organisation I’ve seen with three severely overworked non-male members and 30 very relaxed male members, I would be a very rich woman indeed. Things like all women shortlists are good, and truly a wonderful way to engage women, but if it ends up that your all women shortlists are made up of the same few women over and over, consider abandoning some of those fights until you have more non-male members to fill the slots. It’s a controversial suggestion, but if you’d like to prevent all your female members from burning out, you’re going to have to make some sacrifices while you work on the gender balance.
5. Mentoring is more beneficial than most realise. If you just rolled your eyes at that because it’s such a feature of liberal groups, trust me comrade, I feel you. But at the same time, having more experienced women available to mentor younger women can make a difference in helping women stick around. There are a lot of unique challenges women face when they make their way into the world of activism and organising, and having someone who has faced the same obstacles before to provide guidance is invaluable.
In the end, all the advice and brainstorming in the world can’t bring women to socialism. It’s incumbent upon socialists to make the case to women that we’re on their team, no one else can, and no one else will. The left faces a lot of challenges in the coming years, but a lack of women absolutely should not be one of them.
Emily Robinson is a transatlantic activist operating as an at-large member of the Democratic Socialists of America where she works with press and social media, and on the editorial board of the Democratic Left blog and quarterly magazine. In Scotland, where she currently lives, she is on the executive committee of the Scottish Labour Young Socialists and their delegate to the national committee of Momentum Youth and Students. Her work can be found in print and online at Current Affairs.
For information about DSA’s Socialist Feminist Working Group, click here.
Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. Democratic Left blog post submission guidelines can be found here.