It has by now been widely acknowledged that in the 21st century the goals of feminism as a social movement have been accomplished, and so when the woman question surfaces around any number of issues—the pervasiveness of sexual assault, access to reproductive health, economic equity, or treatment with respect in everyday life—it is dismissed as out of tune with the times, the complaint of a radical fringe, or the a vestige of another era. Although I don’t think many people these days would openly say feminism is dead, the fact that so many men and women disavow an affiliation with “the F word” might suggest as much. Those brazen enough to embrace the name “feminist” of course contest this notion; like other scholars and activists, I have spent time thinking about the contradictory context of its censorship and assimilation.
One phase of that contradiction was already taking place in the 1970s when feminism’s broad-reaching political goals were getting narrowed into a campaign for equal rights. A second phase occurred in the next few decades when the question of who feminism speaks for turned critical attention to gender and slowly eclipsed “women” as feminism’s primary subject. The more supple analyses that gender promoted fit well into an emerging culture that put a premium on flexibility. Increasingly, gender flexibility entered mainstream culture. But it remained undergirded by patriarchal structures that value men and masculinity over women and femininity. In everyday practice, this contradictory mystique of gender-bending freedom and the feminine devaluation it obscures has come down painfully on women. The presidential elections in the United States have propelled this contradiction into public discourse most recently in Donald Trump’s accusation that Hillary Clinton is playing “the woman card.” The responses across social media are provoking widespread public discussion of the stunning realities of what it means to be a woman in the US now, a topic considered long settled. I want to pause over the rhetoric of the provocation and consider what it means to “play the woman card.”
Let’s begin with the game. It’s a card game, perhaps a poker game, but for sure a game with high stakes that requires competition and cunning. Such a gambling game is not mere entertainment. It’s a proving ground, and one of the stakes is competent masculine performance. In such a game, what does it mean to play the woman card? To play the queen? I don’t think so. Ironically, it is more like playing the trump card, the card from a suit designated as outranking all others. Unlike the trump card, however, whose value is decided by the structure of the game, the woman card out-trumps the trump. It unsettles the rules. This disturbance is read resentfully by some of the players, much as they read “playing the race card,” as a move made by an intruder demanding attention to the very terrain of the playing field.
Clinton’s response that “if playing the woman card means supporting women’s health care and paid family leave and equal pay, then deal me in!” pivots on the metaphor and highlights the persistence of structural inequality. Much like the metaphor of the 99% vs the 1%, which propelled the unspeakable question of class into political discourse in the US, turning around “the woman card” to spotlight the unfair realities of women’s lives is an important political opening. It has allowed women across racial differences and class sectors and against the tide of post-feminism to ask unsettling questions, beginning with the game itself: Who sets the rules, gets to play, or hold this card? What are the costs of holding it or being dealt in? Is there a world outside the game?
I remember my earliest involvement with card games. They took place in the summer on the front porch of my grandmother’s house in Philadelphia where I lived with my parents and a bunch of sisters. For one or maybe two years my oldest sister, Kathy, and her friend, Carol, ran a rolling card game on that porch, more or less every day for weeks. They were probably ten or eleven years old and I was seven or eight. I am fairly sure they learned the games they played from Carol’s older sister or brother, but maybe they just looked up the rules in a somewhat tattered book I remember being consulted whenever controversy arose over cheating. For a while the game was poker, then gin rummy, then canasta that required two decks.
I am also fairly certain that the only reason I got recruited into the game or was tolerated as a participant was to give my sister and her friend someone to persistently play the role of the loser. I don’t remember ever winning or how games actually came to an end, but I do remember well the awkward feeling of messing up and generally not knowing what I was doing. This was especially true when it came to dealing, which required first shuffling the deck. And in canasta, of course, this meant having to manage a really fat and unwieldy pack. Kathy and Carol shuffled like card sharks, making the deck into an accordion between their thumbs and palms, and then dealing with the flare of Las Vegas croupiers.
Although I loved watching Kathy’s commanding gestures and skilled hands on the cards, Carol’s sassy sureness and sleek maneuvers, I learned to hate playing cards. What I took away from these summer games was the feeling of being lost, held hostage by my desire to be close to my idols, and finding myself in a contest between tomboys, uncertain whether I might actually be their pawn, and knowing on some level that my confusion and incompetence was not entirely beside the point.
The feelings stayed with me into young adulthood when my then boyfriend took me on a vacation to his friend’s family home on Cape Cod where late night poker games, saturated with gin and tonics and lots of smoking of Marlboros and joints, followed each day at the beach. It was torture for me because I realized that so much of what I kept of my childhood knowledge of playing cards was the unwritten code I had confronted. Mastering it authorized you to really be a player. Indeed, acquiring this secret language in some sense was the game. It was not winning that mattered or scoring points, but rather knowing how to be cool, master the moves, tell a joke, or shuffle with casual ease and command. In other words, knowing how not to hold the woman card.
As I draw back from this memory of early lessons in what it means to be dealt the woman card, I realize that I held so tightly to that card because I was already entangled in a web of desires and losses, of gender identifications if you will, that bound me to my sister and my fate. There is no way to undo history. My sister lives in me as surely as the fact that I remain the girl to all the wild tomboys in my life, or that the complexity of gender inhabits the persistent category of woman. Thinking now about my claim to the girl card and my sister’s early refusals of it, I realize that memory opens magical doors.
As an adult, Kathy was a very practical no nonsense woman, and I am guessing she would not approve of my turn to magic, but her memory summons me nonetheless to read the woman card otherwise. This woman card comes from a different pack, like a tarot card that suddenly finds its way into a poker game. Its arrival is improper; it disrupts and re-orients. It is not the badge of a loser who fumbles awkwardly in the game. It does not brandish a handicap though it may call for justice. It arrives in the hand of an interloper, like a poet appearing in a board meeting, or a fortune teller who shows up uninvited at a party. But the interruption draws people in, to the visitor and to each other, and they find themselves letting go of competition and cunning and cleverness.
The people come close and begin to listen. And as they do the visitor pulls other cards out of her pockets and shares them around the gathering. Reading them, they begin to ponder who they are and what it means to take care of one another and the earth. They see the dead in the cards and among the group. They hear their voices, women’s voices, and they know they are summoning the future. “These are the woman cards,” she tells them. “They portend a crisis in the way things have been, but do not be afraid. They will lead you to begin again, to confront your history, and enact transformation.”
My sister Kathleen grew up to fold her tomboy flare into a hand that held firmly and fiercely to the woman card. By the time she died of breast cancer at age 68 this February she had worked for decades as an intensive care nurse, a school nurse, and a single mother. She embraced the labors of healer, comforter, and caregiver as vocations women are called to, even as she railed against the undervaluation of these socially necessary tasks. She believed neither in magic nor in revolutionary transformation, and she carried her feminist convictions lightly. Her death, like that of so many others from this woman’s disease, reminds us of the particular bodies we inhabit as women, how they shape birthing and mortality as well as our fates as gendered subjects.
Writing about the lessons I learned as witness to her life and death, I realize how much I have yet to comprehend about what it means to hold this card— its requirements, shortfalls, joys, and contradictions. Kathy died as she lived: stoically, fearlessly, and care-fully. She is one of many woman card holders across history whose complex personhood stands as testimony for the living, a great untapped resource, a primer for our future.