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Searching for Other Feminisms: An Interview with Leah Libresco Sargeant

December 2nd, 2020 | 17 min read

By Gracy Olmstead

At the end of September, Judge Amy Coney Barrett was being considered for a Supreme Court vacancy left by the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote a piece considering the impact Coney Barrett might have on the feminist movement if appointed. Her “combination of elite accomplishment with a faith and a family life” prompted the question (for Douthat, at least) of whether a sort of “conservative feminism” could exist and become “coherent and influential” in years to come. This conservative feminism might seek to “integrate feminist insights with ideas from the old regime about the centrality of marriage, children and religious commitment to the good life,” Douthat suggested.

In the days and weeks after Douthat’s column was published, a variety of responses were written. But author and freelancer Leah Libresco Sargeant went further than many others, putting out a recruitment call on Twitter asking women to join in an ongoing discussion about this alternative feminism and what it ought to look like. The result is a passionate and thoughtful Substack group, already more than 300 women strong, representing a diverse range of views on many issues which touch women deeply.

In the conversation below, Leah and I discuss her Substack, Other Feminisms, and its purpose—but we also consider together how we ought to help challenge and encourage Americans (particularly American Christians) on the subject of feminism in the days to come.

Gracy Olmstead: First, I want to introduce readers to your history with the idea of feminism. How has your position on feminism changed or stayed the same over time?

Leah Libresco Sargeant: I have comfortably identified myself as a feminist for as long as I knew what the word meant. I think the simplest way of putting my early understanding of it is feminism is the fight to make sure women are treated fairly. And, unfortunately, we can’t assume that’s true by default. The fight happens at every scale. I remember, growing up, being mad that you could only play the game Candyland as a boy figure. I wrote a letter to the company asking if there could be little girl characters, but I didn’t receive a response.

Feminism represents a call for women to receive the dignity they are due. Cleavages in the movement often seem to consist of arguments over what that dignity consists of.

GO: When did you begin wanting to see alternatives to the current iterations of feminism and anti-feminism we tend to see in our culture?

LLS: I think the Women’s March in 2017 was a big moment. It laid bare that there were a lot of women who shared some goals but were unsure how to work together, given the stakes of the issues where they differed.

I was following the New Wave Feminists when they were removed from the Women’s March website and list of partners. It raised the question: who’s welcome to attend this march as a protester? If you want to speak out about the way Donald Trump speaks about and treats women, are you welcome to come if you also think abortion shouldn’t be available on demand and without apology? Who gets to decide who can come and participate?

GO: You officially started your Other Feminisms Substack after Ross Douthat published a column in the New York Times about the kind of “conservative feminism” Amy Coney Barrett might encourage. What about Ross’s piece prompted you to start the project? Was it a project you were already thinking about?

LLS: I’m always secretly working on projects for a while before I launch them (or before I even realize I’m working on them). I’ll look at a series of recently written blog posts and realize, “I’m writing a book.” I’ve been writing a whole lot this year about dependence and visibility, including a piece I wrote for Comment Magazine in June about Covid-19, and the wounds we hide and make invisible in our society. I feel like I’ve been writing on this topic for a bit, and this was an opportunity to bring the work all together in one community.

As a freelance writer, I write in a lot of places, but it’s hard to sustain a conversation. With a Substack, I get to make the conversation last a lot longer than a day of Twitter discussion. My approach to Other Feminisms is that I’ll write about a topic on a Monday, and then on the following Thursday, post highlights from what everyone has contributed over a week and a half of discussion.

I launched the Substack just under a month ago, and so far, over 350 people signed up. There was clearly so much energy around this topic—from Ross’s piece, and from good pieces written by Serena Sigillito, Jennifer Frey, Jane Sloan Peters, Erika Bachiochi, and others. But I know how quickly the news cycle moves on. Editors decide, “We’ve run our women’s piece, and now we’re done until the next news hook.” I wanted to keep these women together without having to find an excuse to write about it.

GO: How have your experiences in the workplace—and/or as a mother—inspired this project?

LLS: I think like most people, I’ve had a mix of experiences. My best experiences came when working at a startup remittance company, which helped people in the African diaspora send money home to their families. It was a small company, closely knit together.

I was with that company for two of my miscarriages. I told my boss what had happened. There were no questions of “what are our policies?” He said, “Obviously, you should take time off, update us as you go as to how much time you need, and we’ll figure it out from there.”

For many of us, through pregnancy or miscarriage—or even when dealing with really severe menstrual symptoms—our life experiences can make it hard for us to fit into a tightly regimented workplace. And my workplace was realistic about what it meant to employ human beings as opposed to work producers. My husband did not get that kind of consideration at his job, where he felt more reluctant to bring up that he’d lost a child, and was unsure whether he’d get bereavement leave if he did.

That, too, is a failure to take women seriously and a place for feminists to speak up. The full needs of men aren’t taken seriously, and won’t be, as long as we don’t take women seriously. The bereaved father won’t be taken seriously in his need to care for his wife or to grieve himself when we dismiss miscarriage as a woman’s problem.

GO: My husband has struggled to get paternity leave, and experienced a lot of pushback when striving to carve out time to care for our children and me. I hadn’t thought of that being a result of women not being taken seriously, but I see what you mean.

LLS: All these ways of disregarding workers as human beings fall most heavily on women. Men have an easier time than women pretending not to be human beings. It still takes a toll on them, but they can fake it for longer and get away with it. Women can’t pretend for as long.

A fully humane society respects interdependence and dependence, and considers what workplaces need to look like to take care of parents who have children—as well as people who have friends. Interdependence and dependence is not just about taking care of family. Consider if we could tell an employer, “My roommate is sick, and I’m taking time off to take care of them.” Or, “My friend I care about, who lives alone, has the flu. I’m taking off work today, and I’m going to make them soup and run their laundry.”

GO: When you put out a recruitment call for women on Twitter to join you in this Substack, you mentioned that not all identified as conservative and not all identified as feminists—but all of them wanted to advocate for women as women. You wrote, “Often, our equality is premised on remaking ourselves to be more like the median man, whether that means changing our style of speaking to exclude apologies, changing our breastfeeding plans to keep up with work’s minimal accommodations, or changing our bodies to suppress fertility and destroy our children.” 

An important facet of that is advocating for women as interdependent, rather than as autonomous, human beings, as you point out. But another way of saying this, it seems, could be that we need to advocate for women as embodied creatures—since it is our bodies and their ties to small humans that most often put us at a disadvantage when compared with our male counterparts. Would you agree?

LLS: Yes. The only caveat I’d give is that men are also embodied beings, with their own crosses and challenges. But more often, the world is built to fit their shape more than it is to fit ours. This is sometimes quite literal, such as in the design of clothes or technology, which are sized to male proportions rather than female proportions. This has even come up regarding masks for the pandemic. They’re meant to be properly fitted, but a “standard” mask may be too large for most women. Again and again, the “standard” is suited for men, and the female-suited variant is obscure or nonexistent.

GO: It seems that this can sometimes happen because various female bodily needs—breastfeeding or having periods—are considered taboo and awkward to talk about.

LLS: When the first female astronaut was heading into space, NASA’s male scientists were guessing wildly how many pads or tampons she might need instead of just asking. It’s a mix of comical and shameful. Especially for men who are part of a family, or thinking of getting married, you can’t be afraid of women. It won’t work. You’re going to be married to one. You think about everything it takes during pregnancy and after birth to be a supportive husband—there’s no room for treating women as alien or our bodies as disgusting. If you do, your compassion can only extend so far into their experience.

GO: In one post, you mention that plenty of women who’ve joined the Substack have objected to the mainstream feminism movement’s growing extremism on abortion. Many suggested we need “to make more space for women and their children.” How might a conservative feminism, or a feminism of interdependence, lead to different ways of fighting or opposing abortion than are perhaps the norm in conservative culture?

LLS: I think it’s important to acknowledge that for a lot of women, abortion seems like the only plausible or responsible choice. It’s not because they don’t love their children. One of the primary drivers of abortion is finances. I’ve heard others talk about it as a matter of responsibility. If you feel that you cannot do right by your child, you cannot bring him or her into the world. This worry extends to parents who are more comfortable financially but still feel children are out of reach. Tristyn Bloom wrote an excellent piece for The Federalist back in 2013 about how a pro-life culture needs to be a culture that’s emotionally comfortable with risk.

That said, we also need to create a support network for parents, so that they can weather more risks. People who can’t get $200 on short notice, can’t get their car fixed if it breaks down, and then can’t go to work and lose their job—that’s not a culture that’s ready for risks, where people feel ready for babies. So we need to ask: “What do people need for small or large perturbations to their lives to feel navigable?”

Another thing we should do is talk openly about how different American abortion laws are from other countries—even countries we see as similar to us. Twenty-week or even 12-week abortion bans are not that uncommon in Europe.

GO: It seems to me that this project will necessarily require participants to consider the way we treat the poor (low-income mothers and single mothers particularly, but not exclusively). I wonder if you agree, and if so, whether you have thoughts on how an alternative feminism might offer a different viewpoint on fighting poverty than more generic Republican or Democratic voices.

LLS: A lot of this should be grounded in looking to the voices of poorer women about their needs, their communities, and what matters to them. There’s a fascinating book by Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas, titled Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage. It’s an ethnography of poor women who, from the point of view of how we’ve done policy, have “failed”: they’ve had children out of wedlock, and their children’s fathers are often out of the picture.

But from their point of view, this isn’t the worst-case scenario: they have parents they have difficult relationships with, they have had difficult relationships with the men in their life, but they feel really good about their children. They wanted someone to love and be responsible for, and someone who loves them. There are a lot of things an outsider might want to fix or help them with in their lives. You don’t want a baby to be the only dependable person for them. But that instinct—that it’s good to love and be loved, to be depended on—that’s right on.

So often, we’re fixated on how we can get everyone on a path to a stable middle-class life as measured by their bank account. But when you talk to people, you see that that’s not the only thing that’s important, and you don’t want to steer them away from love. You also don’t want to send the message that you can’t have a baby until everything else is squared away.

GO: I think there often are a set of assumptions and stereotypes around single motherhood amongst conservatives that will need to be addressed and fought in order to do this work—would you agree?

LLS: I think it’s not just about how we think about or talk about poorer women or single mothers—I think conservatism has a huge problem with race. When we think about the most vulnerable mothers, we’re often thinking about women who aren’t white. There’s a segment of conservatives who have actively racist views, and then there are others who are indifferent about racism, which amounts to enabling it. And then there are those, particularly in politics, who may not hold any active racial animus, but are comfortable with courting racist voters and stoking their fears in order to hold power. Racism is a sin—it’s spitting in the face of the image of God. And it’s impossible to honor women if you’re not willing to honor black women.

In a speech he gave at an American Conservative gala, J.D. Vance spoke about how when he sees a single black mom, he knows she has no reason to think the Republican Party cares about her or is working for her. If that’s true, he said, the party has no future. And he’s right.

I think it will take a long time to purge this rot out of any form of conservatism. Cynical national politicians have spent a long time fueling these fears. Most are not even personally invested in them, but it’s a way for them to hold onto voters. Ironically, many conservative politicians are now surprised to find out that if you talk about something forever, your voters will believe you. If someone comes along with even more heightened language, they’ll buy into it—because you sold them on fears you thought were marketable.

GO: I agree with you 100 percent. It increasingly seems that one of the most important divides we’re seeing among conservative Christians is between those who are willing to grapple with problems of systemic racism and injustice, and those who are unwilling to acknowledge those problems.

What might be some of the traditional conservative assumptions or antipathies toward feminism that need to be fought and debunked? How do you think this project could help in this effort?

LLS: One of the biggest mistakes is the idea that honoring or respecting women will take something away from men. There’s a tiny way that’s true, right—for men, it’s comfortable to live in a world designed around male experiences, the male body, and male rhythms of life. Changing that will make life less comfortable. Having to pick between two options, having what suits you not be the default, makes life harder—as all women know! But these things are being changed for the sake of justice, which should make the hardship a little easier to swallow.

GO: Ross Douthat wrote that modern feminism has been “kinder to professional ambition than to other human aspirations,” such as romance, marriage, and child rearing. How do we see this practically in our culture? How could this project help right this imbalance?

LLS: I think mainstream feminism doesn’t treat the gap between the number of children women want and the children they have as a serious problem—a problem in need of policy situations and concern as much so as the wage gap. Both are important. But for all the discussion we have about abortion, you’d think people are having too many children they don’t want. But women have way fewer children than they want, and that’s every bit as deserving of conferences, policy papers, and questions at debates, as the pay gap.

Cultural problems like this one won’t be fixed through a single law or change in the tax code. They’ll be solved with twice as much work as it took to dig us into the hole. But that means that we have to start the work now, and we have to commit to continuing the work, because there isn’t a single policy fix that will turn the tide and keep it turned.

GO: That reminds me of the work of Strong Towns, an organization that focuses on the idea of “incrementalism”: being willing to make local, consistent efforts—a little at a time—in order to effect long-term change.

LLS: I think I’d put my emphasis on sustained work over flashy, one-time policies. But that is a reason to take seriously the magnitude of the work.

In all the discussion of reparations, we often hear people say, “Even if this is just, we can’t possibly afford it. It’s too big.” But justice can be big. We have to be open to the fact that what is being asked of us is large, that it must be done over a long period of time, and that it will take more than just one generation. Doing something over the long haul means the effort is deliberate—but that doesn’t mean that the effort is small.

That should not be surprising to us as Christians, either. We’ve sinned more than we can ever make up for. Thanks be to God, we’re saved by Christ. But we’re all called to be active in our own salvation. We are grappling with a debt we cannot pay, pledging ourselves to be faithful to what’s been given to us. We can’t be like the steward who had his debt to his master forgiven and then refused to forgive the debts owed to him.

GO: Part of the challenge inherent in this task, it seems, lies in fighting not just for the dignity of women as women—but also in fighting for the dignity of what often gets called “women’s work”: the forms of caregiving that are integral to human life and flourishing, that generally are extremely low-paid and undervalued forms of labor (housecleaning, daycare, elderly care, etc.) You touched on this issue in a recent Substack post. What are some responses you’ve seen thus far to that post? What are your own thoughts on how we can dignify and uplift caregiving and caretaking?

LLS: I think there are some things that can be done on the policy level: Medicaid doesn’t allow family members to be compensated for caregiving the way non-family members are. I think that’s nuts. We need to treat family caregiving as what it is—a critical part of how we care for the health of our neighbor. It’s a false economy to refuse to support everyday “unskilled” care and leave people neglected until they need acute care or to be hospitalized.

One of the other points women brought up in the discussion is just how undervalued the work women do is. Some were told they should avoid mentioning a gap in career work on their resumes—not writing down that they were a stay-at-home mom for that time. Yet stay-at-home moms build a lot of skills, and to be honest, get more experience managing their own workflow than in many micromanaged white collar jobs. The kind of flexibility you need both to plan, and then to work around the assaults your children make on your plans, is really valuable in any career or work project.

In a different startup where I worked, my team noticed that our best hires for operations work had something in common: they worked at some point in their lives as stage managers. Stage managers are the ones who make sure the show goes on—in the face of whatever the actors, directors, or the lights are doing. Parents make the same sorts of adjustments—but we don’t talk about them respectfully, or make a proactive effort to hire for this expertise.

GO: We touched on this to some extent already—considering the interdependence that extends beyond familial or maternal ties—but what else could or should an alternative feminism offer single women, childless women, and elderly women? What issues or policies do you think might be especially important to consider for their sake?

LLS: I think a lot of policies around women’s health impact all women. Many women have struggles with endometriosis, or other menstrual complications that make it hard to do a job or live a flourishing life if they’re stricken down with pain every month. That’s not a problem our medical establishment is interested in.

Great books like Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick talk about how often women’s pain is ignored medically. If the  doctor can’t quantify it, if it’s only your testimony about your own body, it doesn’t count. A lot of women who are in favor of birth control know that its regime doesn’t serve women well. It’s all about preventing pregnancy, but not about taking its side effects seriously. Medicine should take women’s pain seriously. Depression and anxiety should count as serious side effects, and not just be dismissed. That would be one of my big all-women rallying cries, treating women’s medical needs and experience with respect.

And this is one of the places where even the most pro-choice feminists and pro-life feminists can come together. Everyone has an experience or knows the experience of not being taken seriously by a doctor about being a woman. We’ve had symptoms or pain not taken seriously. I think it’s a big place where women can come together.

GO: Do you have any long-term goals for this project as of yet? How do you hope it might grow in days or months to come?

LLS: I just started it a month ago, so I’ve made a limited number of plans. I’d love it to grow in response to the needs of the community that has signed up.

Maybe there will be some events (online at first during the pandemic)—to provide a platform for people who have serious disagreements with each other, but see themselves as working for women, and willing to consider and tackle the roots of their disagreements.

Women have asked me, “If I’m not pro-life, can I still sign up?” I tell them, “Absolutely, whoever wants to be part of this  conversation is welcome.” I want to pitch a wide tent, so people can work together wherever they’re in alignment.

The other big goal that I want to keep achieving is creating that sense of “I’m not alone.” I send out the core newsletter, and I try to facilitate a comment section with a convivial mood, in which readers and participants are dialoguing with each other, getting to know each other better, and building community. I guess my dream is that someone becomes a godmother to another woman’s child someday as a result of meeting in the comments.

GO: Do you think it’s important to have a “name” for the form of feminism this Substack ends up elucidating?

LLS: It definitely would be good for it to have a name. I asked for people’s suggestions, and got a lot that weren’t very good. The one I came up with that was terrible: “Final Wave Feminism.” It’s awful. Or “Undertow Feminism.” That sounds like a threat.

I’m glad to keep it broad and big. The thing I’m most happy about with my current name is that it’s plural—“Other Feminisms”—which makes it clear that women can be in the group and not all be on the same side, as long as they’re interested in the project and have some common ground.

GO: Anything else you’d like to add, or that you think readers should know?

LLS: I’m always looking for women who aren’t writers to be part of the newsletter, and to be sharing their thoughts. I like writing, obviously, but part of our responsibility as writers is to lift up the voices of women who aren’t writing this professionally but have important things to say. And there’s so much I don’t know, I want to be encountering other women’s perspectives and lifting them up.

Gracy Olmstead

Grace Olmstead writes from her home state of Idaho. Her writings can also be found at The American Conservative, The Week, National Review, Christianity Today, and others.