Perils of an Open Mind: In Praise of Uncertainty


It's not always easy to keep an open mind
It’s not always easy to keep an open mind

There was an editorial (“Clinton May Be On Wrong Side of Gender Divide,” by Barbara J. Risman, originally published in the Chicago Tribune) in the Star Tribune on Saturday, February 20 that I read with interest and then with increasing uncertainty. It reminded me of something the wonderful writer and fabulously entertaining Jodi Chromey once alluded to on Twitter: that as human beings, we are capable of keeping disparate, even conflicting notions in our not-so-little heads.

Uncertainty is uncomfortable. Considering diverse opinions makes me feel less sure of myself, a little off-kilter. But I’d like to suggest it’s better than the alternative. For example, the editorial by Risman opens like this:

Feminists my age and older–I’m in my late 50’s…

I said to myself, right away, “That’s me!”, but even by the end of the 1st sentence I found myself a little muddled:

–have been shocked to find how few young women are as excited as most of us by the prospect of a female president.

What’s interesting to me is that Risman is shocked. I think once we say “I’m shocked…” we’re indicating we have not so much as considered the other side. Otherwise, how could we be shocked? For example, aren’t there considerable ideologic differences between Clinton and Bernie Sanders? Isn’t it possible that some young women gravitate to Sanders’ more liberal agenda? And wouldn’t it be worse if the net result of generations of feminist reform were that women chose the female candidate just because she was female?

I think we have to tone down the drama of disagreement. I think we have to stop being shocked. I think we are better off making friends with uncertainty.

I can be a feminist and even a Clinton supporter and not think every woman will want to vote for Hillary. I think I can hold those potentially conflicting notions in my one (increasingly uncertain) head.

Risman continues,

But maybe at this moment in history we are looking to the wrong sex to find people who feel the anguish that gender stereotypes can cause.

I would respectfully ask Ms. Risman if she is familiar with the concept of intersectional feminism. Its textbook definition, from The Telegraph:

“The view that women experience oppression in varying configurations and in varying degrees of intensity. Cultural patterns of oppression are not only interrelated, but are bound together and influenced by the intersectional systems of society. Examples of this include race, gender, class, ability, and ethnicity.”

I know from experience that it is not particularly easy, especially as an older white woman, to fully embrace intersectional feminism. Why is it hard? Maybe because I’m white. Maybe because I’ve seen a lot of progress made in women’s rights, and it’s uncomfortable for me to acknowledge that some of that change hasn’t reached all women.

It’s possible that Risman is familiar with the concept of intersectional feminism and would still say we are looking to the wrong sex to find people who feel the anguish that gender stereotypes can cause. In other words, that men (and not women of color, e.g.) are next-up in the gender stereotype wars. I’m not shocked; I only disagree. With most of what she says.

I’m not shocked because I’m no better or worse a person than Risman, and to me, “shocked” indicates a certain moral high ground. I’m not shocked, in part, because a number of different points of view (POV) are worthy of consideration.

POV one: The largely white, upper class feminist movement of my generation made the world a different place for my daughter. So different she and many of her peers don’t really care about the way things used to be. Bravo for them, truly.

POV two: Intersectional feminism. Some women were left behind. Feminists have a lot of ground to cover before they’re left to consider only men’s anguish.

POV three: I think there’s some truth to what Risman writes in the article. She suggests, for example,

Perhaps a candidate who wants to open up opportunities that are limited because of sex should start talking to male millennials who increasingly express discontent with the pressures to be the primary breadwinner and not take time off at work when they have a new baby or be available to help their mother to die in her own home, with dignity.

What if many things are true?

While opening my mind in necessary and gratifying ways, intersectional feminism has brought to my brain’s table a whole host of other issues: race, gender, class, ability, and ethnicity. It forces me to reconsider many opinions I have previously held. May continue to hold. Only with other ideas sitting next to them. Somewhat uncomfortably.

The ramifications in my increasingly anarchic head are many and free-ranging.

For example, did SCOTUS Anton Scalia have a patriarchal/straight man/Catholic point of view or was he only dedicated to interpreting the Constitution strictly? Did his rulings hurt poor and/or gay women and women of color, in particular? Can we still respect him for being true to himself, his religion and his understanding of the constitution?

For example, is Adam Johnson guilty of cultural misappropriation in his terrifying novel, The Orphan Master’s Son, or did he write a masterpiece about the tenacity of the human spirit, even in the face of autocracy, institutionalized misinformation and abject cruelty? Are white, male authors allowed this appropriation when women or people of color are not? What is fiction but all sorts of appropriation?

For example, was Jamar Clark wrongfully murdered by systemically-racist police officers or were these same police officers attempting to prevent the injury or even death of another human being? What if videotapes produce no clear evidence of either? Is it possible, as John Turnipseed says is a recent Star Tribune article,

“Clearly … there’s a breakdown in systems. School, family, babies having babies, over-incarceration, over-[law]enforcement.”

Wait a minute, [the reporter responds]. [Turnipseed] just rattled off a list of both “conservative” and “liberal” diagnoses of the problem, without dismissing, disparaging or even de-emphasizing any of them.

What happens when many things are true?

Can people hold conflicting ideas in their heads? Is the only way to make sense of the world to be certain?

Tell me what you think. The only thing I’m certain of is that I’m trying, hard, to listen. And one last thing: I would respectfully ask that you refrain from shock about my reflections. I’m thinking out loud here. I’d love to know what you’re thinking, too.









  1. Bingo. I read that same Strib piece about Clinton and women and had the same feelings. I too am over 50, but I’m not at all shocked or even surprised that younger women aren’t necessarily supporting her. I think the mindset of “all women must vote for the female candidate” is a dangerous one. It undermines what should be feminism’s goal of allowing women to reach the fullness of their potential without being hindered by gender. If Clinton isn’t the best candidate by some people’s marks (including other women), then they shouldn’t vote for her. Personally, I’m troubled by her ties to banks/Wall Street. Right now, I’m supporting Bernie. If she takes the nomination, I’ll vote for her, because she’s miles better than what the other party is offering. But I don’t necessarily think she’s the best person for the job. Now, Elizabeth Warren, in a few years…

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *