Kirsten Gillibrand’s Invocation of ‘Intersectionality’ Backfires

The senator tried to leverage the political power of a social movement to move herself closer to the presidency.

Kirsten Gillibrand
Caitlin Ochs / Reuters

On December 4, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand tweeted something that was consistent with her established mode of communication: It was self-serving; it helped to distance her from her former identity as a lawyer for Big Tobacco and as a Democratic congresswoman from a conservative district who had supported gun rights and opposed any form of amnesty for illegal immigrants; and it wrapped her in the banner of feminism’s most urgent positions.

The tweet—which one can imagine a young staffer enthusiastically proposing—read:

The Future is



Powered in our belief in one another

And we’re just getting started

For people who encountered the tweet but were not familiar with the slogan about the female future—which began as the rallying cry of lesbian separatists in the 1970s (those were the days) and is now the kind of feel-good feminist slogan that’s printed on baby clothes and sold in posh boutiques in my Los Angeles neighborhood—it was an incendiary concept. The message, which received 5,000 retweets and was ratioed into outer space, was interpreted by conservatives as one more sign of the feminist apocalypse, when men will divide their time between buying tampons for their female masters and writing themselves out of history.

Kirsten Gillibrand can give as good as she gets, but the response to the tweet was so overwhelmingly negative, and her political ambitions so large, that she decided she needed to walk it back—to about 1957. She went on CNN to have a talk with Van Jones, during which she employed the one number from the Hillary Clinton repertoire that just about everyone hates: She performed a kind of innocent-woman routine, shocked about the misunderstanding and eager to set things right.

Gillibrand told Jones that all she meant by the tweet was, “Please include the ladies in the future, because they’re not really included today.” Please include the ladies? Was she trying to kick-start the revolution or get a better tee time for her foursome at the country club? Maybe she was attempting to invoke Abigail Adams’s “Remember the Ladies,” in which case she really needs to get a better grasp on the realities of the cable-news audience; on the fact that our “Founders”—and, presumably, their wives—are now understood by many progressives to have been white supremacists; and on the simple truth that kicking off a female-dominated future with an homage to a woman born in 1744 is like going from Tomorrowland to Frontierland: an exercise in theme-park feminism.

But if the huge audience for the tweet was unfamiliar with “The future is female,” the concept of intersectionality flew so far above them, they didn’t even see the contrail. “Intersectional?” a snappy Fox Business Network host named Trish Regan said. “That’s a new one. I haven’t heard that one before.”

Intersectional feminism, which a small but vocal minority of people cares about passionately, and everyone else—even the host of a news program on national television—hasn’t heard of, is the most happening, most urgent form of feminism today. While its adherents often speak of the value of a collective, postcapitalist society, intersectional feminism is actually grounded in a rejection of the Marxist premise on which the modern women’s movement was founded.

It proceeds from the sound notion that all women do not, in fact, constitute a single class, and the idea that the personal gains of—for example—a wealthy white lawyer with an expensive education and piles of ready cash will somehow trickle down to poor black women living in an urban slum is absurd. At this point, the only major feminist issue that equally affects rich and poor, white and nonwhite women is abortion. Other than that, American women occupy a variety of classes, which are growing more rigid than ever.

As a philosophy, it’s valid. As something that a middle-aged, hyper-successful white woman such as Gillibrand can play around with, it’s a hand grenade that’s going to explode in her mittens. When she told Jones, “It’s worrying that the top three presidential front-runners are white men,” she clearly assumed she could slice off one personally advantageous piece of intersectional theory and use it to wedge her way into the pack at the top. She’s used to feminism being a jet pack that she can fire up any time she needs a boost. Not this time.

This summer, at the Aspen Ideas Festival, I was on a panel with Brittney Cooper, the African American professor and author of the much loved book Eloquent Rage. She spoke at length and with vehemence about the realities of intersectional feminism. In the audience were many white women who had paid serious money for the chance to attend the session, and whose breathless excitement at Cooper’s oratory made Felicia Bernstein look like a cool-eyed purveyor of realpolitik.

Cooper explained that because of intersectionality, “now we can confront white women to say, ‘Your feminism is suspect if the only thing you want to do is use these social movements so that you can have access to the power that white men have. That’s not what we’re fighting for.’” There was a frisson of excitement in the audience, and she continued, explaining, “White women don’t want to change the fundamental paradigm of race and gender in this country; they want to exploit it so that they can gain access to the power that white men have. White women live in the house with white men, they were raised by white men, they raise white men—and what they want is to be able to rule the world like white men do.”

I thought of Cooper’s remarks about white husbands and white sons when I heard of Gillibrand’s “worries” about the three white men who are currently front-runners for the Democratic nomination. If there’s anything intersectional feminism has no time for, it’s white men—which must have seemed politically useful to her in the moment. According to the intersectional framework, white men aren’t part of the problem—they are the problem. The desperate attempt of progressive young white women to kick free from their shameful racial heritage by emphasizing the taxonomic distinction of gender is responsible for much of the most incendiary language about white men: They are trash, monsters, simultaneously bumbling incompetents and the soul of evil itself.

All of which led me to think of three relevant white males: Gillibrand’s husband and sons, who are also—per her newly embraced ideology—not the future. Her husband has amassed part of his fortune from his career as a venture capitalist. Her two young sons—who appear to me like a pair of thoughtful and well-behaved kids, but what do I know?—are being carefully educated, their intellectual pursuits an especial concern of Mephistopheles himself: Gillibrand has said that Dad is the parent most concerned with the boys’ academics.

So, like many accomplished, progressive white women who are enchanted by the rhetoric and possibility of personal gain offered by feminist intersectional theory, Gillibrand has embraced an ideology that she assumes allows for a special carve-out for the very special venture capitalists of this world—the sensitive ones, who are promoting right think to their sons, even as they create the kind of ironclad wills and trusts that secure their pampered futures. She assumes, also, that if she inculcates these good values in her sons—whom she obviously loves deeply—they, too, will be spared come the revolution. They won’t.

In this light, Gillibrand is apparently eager to do exactly what Cooper described: leverage the political power of a social movement to move her closer to the traditional seat of ultimate white male power, the American presidency.

In an interview set to air this weekend on CNN, Gillibrand talked about whether she will make a presidential run. “I’m going to think about it over the holidays,” she said, “with my children and my husband, and I will make a decision soon.”

So here is Kirsten Gillibrand—champion of Big Tobacco, erstwhile supporter of harsh immigration laws, gun nut—flaunting a 1950s obedience to her husband (“Honey, I’ve got a super-big favor to ask …”), promoting a righteous female-forward future, and endorsing an ideology that thinks her own precious sons are trash and that, furthermore, has much to say about the concept of “white feminism,” of which Gillibrand is a prime example.

But hope is not lost. Perhaps she will learn more about the intersectional future, decide to abandon her own advancement, and put her considerable clout behind an impressive and deeply accomplished potential candidate who really would help make the future intersectional: Kamala Harris. More likely, however, she will eventually jump on board the good ship Biden, because he is rapidly shaping up to be the best, last chance, and—like all careerists—she will be quick to align herself with emerging power no matter what intersection of race, class, and gender it brings with it.