Pregnancy discrimination is real. But the misogynistic attacks against Elizabeth Warren from BOTH sides of the aisle remind us that facts don't matter with regard to women seeking the nomination.
If it was ever even remotely unclear that a culture of misogyny has developed among the Very Online Left, this past week should have removed all doubt. The fracas centers on Senator Elizabeth Warren, who has increasingly come to eclipse former frontrunners Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. As Warren has become more of a threat, Bernie-world has been sharpening the knives, and this week, Jacobin writer Meagan Day launched a full-fledged conspiracy theory: Warren was lying when she claimed that her first teaching job had fired her for being pregnant.
Day has been a chief exporter of stupid complaints about Warren for some time now—the idea that Warren was “lying” arose in a different argument, where Day claimed that Warren had not taught in public schools long enough to refer to herself as a “teacher.” (Warren has taught law at the college level since 1977.) When someone pointed out the circumstances of Warren’s firing, and the not-unrelated fact that attacking a discrimination victim for losing her job made Day sound like an asshole, Day went and dug up a seemingly contradictory quote, where Warren vaguely said that the position “[was not] going to work out for me.” Right-wing outlets immediately picked up the smear, and before long, someone found paperwork that said Warren had been re-hired, before the administration mysteriously recorded them “accepting” her resignation a few months later (when her pregnancy would have been visible) “with regret,” because I guess when you edge someone out of their job for being visibly pregnant, you’re supposed to write “fired them for getting pregnant” on the form.
Does this sound stupid yet? Do you feel stupid for knowing about this? Because I do, and I have to write about it for a fucking living. Not only was the case against Warren weak, women came forward immediately to validate Warren’s account: “The rule was at five months you had to leave when you were pregnant,” Trudy Randall, a retired teacher at Warren’s former school, told CBS. “Now, if you didn’t tell anybody you were pregnant, and they didn’t know, you could fudge it and try to stay on a little bit longer. But they kind of wanted you out if you were pregnant.”
Yet when a chance to call Elizabeth Warren a liar presented itself, “progressives,” mostly vocal Sanders partisans, jumped in with both feet: “[Warren’s] curious relationship with the truth needs to get more coverage from the media that’s been slobbering over her for months,” disgraced former Young Turks reporter Jordan Chariton tweeted. Soon, vague yet damning accusations of dishonesty were all over social media: “All of you ex Berners who switched to Warren, the establishment is playing you… Elizabeth Warren has a real problem with the truth about her bio,” to quote one fairly typical example, which went out to over 10,000 followers. Where the blue checks and big accounts go, the swarm follows, from the Chariton follower complaining that Warren “spun a false story to try to drum up women’s solidarity votes” to the rando in my mentions calling her an “opportunistic liar.”
Let us get a few things straight: First, pregnancy discrimination is a well-established fact. It was not only endemic in the early 1970s, it remains common today. Working-class pregnant people are refused necessary accommodations, pushed to do physically demanding tasks that may endanger their pregnancies, then fired for not being able to meet the “demands of the job.” White-collar women are merely viewed with suspicion and sidelined, as in the case of Erin Murphy, a commodities trader interviewed by the New York Times, whose male co-workers began circulating e-mails behind her back about “pregnancy altering women’s brains.” By the way, the reason Murphy was interviewed by the New York Times about pregnancy discrimination is that there was a feature in the New York goddamn Times about pregnancy discrimination, and it was recent. Feminists have been studying the systemic penalization of motherhood within capitalism for decades. Discrimination against mothers is the primary cause of the gender wage gap. Any “labor” reporter who is unclear on these very, very basic facts needs to stand up, close their goddamn laptop, and go do some remedial reading, because if you don’t know this, you cannot do the job.
Yet here we are, amid what the trained observer can only describe as a torrent of dumbfuckery, wherein “labor” advocates and organizers don’t consider themselves bound to know the very basics of their beat, because of the culture of the “dirtbag left,” in which class always comes first, it is “neoliberal” to consider gender as a primary site of oppression, and restoring purity and integrity to the left comes down to drumming up hostility against “identity politics,” feminism, and women.
The Warren smear isn’t even the worst of it. Jacobin’s insistent, established anti-feminism has already led its staff to theorize that capitalism is bad because it keeps women from following their natural inclination to be stay-at-home mothers, or that 1950s housewives were recipients of “universal basic income.” In the wider ecosystem of podcasts and social media “personalities,” it’s common to find mockery of women who report abuse, or people with major platforms, like Chapo Trap House co-host Amber A’Lee Frost, who vocally support confessed sexual predators on the grounds that complaining about rape is bourgeois.
This is all supposedly an antidote to the hollow Lean In feminism of the corporate world. Yet one doubts that a pregnant Wal-Mart worker who’s told that she’ll lose her job if she goes to the emergency room for a potential miscarriage is well-served by a socialist movement that pretends she doesn’t exist. When you insist that progressives must be anti-feminist to be pro-worker, you end up exactly here: With a “leftist” movement that inadvertently and regularly shows its entire ass by acting like pregnancy discrimination is some unlikely, far-flung tale, rather than the established norm. A “left,” in other words, that is incapable of doing even the most basic analysis of how capitalism intersects with patriarchy. Ignoring “identity politics” or excoriating the “selfishness” of feminism doesn’t make your movement more pure. It just tricks you into assuming that every worker is a cisgender white man, and therefore makes you incapable of understanding most workers’ problems.
It is not just that the specifics of the Warren smear were sexist, relying as they undoubtedly do on an erasure of women’s oppression. The smear’s essential motive and purpose are misogynist to the core. The Sanders-boosting “journalists” who called Warren a liar about pregnancy discrimination did it not just to cast doubt on her experiences of workplace sexism—though managing to trivialize workplace sexism may have been a bonus—but to slot her into the same misogynist stereotype they’ve used against all of his female opponents to date. She is “opportunistic,” inauthentic, someone who has “problems with the truth”; she is a woman, and hence vulnerable to the longstanding stereotype of women as liars, fundamentally deceptive and untrustworthy creatures, unworthy of being believed.
I think we’ve been way too polite and professional and euphemistic in the ways we deal with this line of bullshit, so I’m going to say it clearly: That stereotype—the “women are liars” stereotype—kills women. It kills them at doctors’ offices, when doctors trivialize or dismiss their self-reported symptoms. It kills women in abusive marriages or relationships, when their abusers are able to convince the world they’re lying about what they’ve endured. It kills rape survivors, who slip into suicidality after no one believes them about the rape. Promulgating the stereotype that women are liars destroys women, empowers abusers, and ruins lives. To promote it, or believe it, is to willingly make oneself the tool of a deep and murderous misogyny. High-profile Bernie Sanders supporters have done it at least twice now, to women who did nothing but run against Bernie Sanders in a Democratic primary.
All of this—the simplistic, class-first “leftism” that treats sexism as a non-issue or a ploy for sympathy; the endless nitpicking of quotes to prove conspiracy; the belief that being the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination automatically renders a woman corrupt or untrustworthy or an “opportunistic liar”—was a feature of Sanders’s supporter culture four years ago, when he ran against Hillary Clinton. Some of us objected to the misogyny back then, but when it had only happened to one woman, you could claim it was Clinton-specific, that she really was too entrenched with established power structures, too moderate, too “inauthentic” (whatever that means) to be anything but a dangerous, scheming liar. Even if you had genuine disagreements with Hillary Clinton, however, an honest assessment would reveal there are major differences between her and Warren. Yet the same sexist stereotypes have been used to attack both of them, by the same people, because the problem was never their specific politics or personalities—it was the fact that that they were women, and that they were standing in a man’s way.
Bernie Sanders is slipping in the polls. He is 78 years old. He was recently hospitalized for a heart attack. Most men in his position would drop out, and even if Sanders doesn’t, it is unlikely that he will win. Yet when he’s out of the picture, we will be left dealing with the culture of “leftist” misogyny that has sprung up in his wake. We will have to recognize that a substantial chunk of the American progressive movement devoted a full half-decade to making sure women were kept out of the White House, and that they were willing to trash feminism, promote misogyny, and promulgate vile, archaic, frankly dangerous stereotypes of women in order to do it. That is going to make things harder for women, no matter who wins this primary or any other. There is an ongoing anti-feminist backlash. The left, which is the only force capable of ending patriarchy, is fighting over whether to preserve it. If you ever had any doubts, now is the time to clear those up, because this has been going on for years now, and the bullshit has reached intolerable levels, and it is beyond time for this to end.
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