The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pantsuits by Gina Messina-Dysert


Gina Messina-Dysert profileI originally shared this post in 2011.  Here we are, nearly 5 years later and I while I don’t think a great deal has changed, some things have.  Many may not agree with my avid support of Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid; nonetheless I think it is clear that Clinton is focused on running a women’s centered campaign, and that is something I find very hopeful.

Hillary Clinton announced her campaign online, but her first meatspace speech was held Thursday at the Women in the World Summit in New York City, an annual feminist shindig that’s all about improving women’s fortunes around the world. The choice of the location in itself sends a strong signal, and if there was any doubt that Clinton intends to run a woman-centric campaign, her speech erased it. “When women are held back, our country is held back. When women get ahead, everyone gets ahead,” she declared.

While I still have not heard Clinton refer to herself as a feminist – please correct me if I am wrong – her focus on gendered issues is much more prominent.  She has also acknowledged that while we should not vote for her just because she is a woman (there are many female politicians who would not get my vote) – her abilities to serve as president are critical – gender is an important factor in this race.

Joan Wages, President of the National Women’s History Museum has pointed out time and time again, you cannot be what you cannot see.  If we want to raise our children – especially our daughters – to know they can be whatever they want when they grow up – they must have the opportunity to see a woman serve in office.


In Clinton I believe we have a candidate that is committed to working towards positive social change that will impact our children’s lives – my daughter’s life.  A woman in office will finally shatter the ultimate glass ceiling.

My point here is not meant to be a political ad for Hillary Clinton, but rather acknowledgment that while change is slow – it is happening.  And so, my post from 2011 on the ways women are strategic in upholding their feminist values.


July 11, 2011

Last week Cynthia Garrity-Bond shared a post about Michele Bachmann and the misuse of the word feminism to describe her.  Commenter Kate Barkernoted that Bachmann does not self-identify as a feminist, a very important point I think.  It led me to wonder whether there are any women in politics who self-identify as feminist, and while there may certainly be some or even many, I cannot think of any who do so publicly.

During the Democratic National Convention in 2008, Hillary Clinton spoke of working towards women’s rights around the world, putting 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling, and being a member of the “sisterhood of the traveling pantsuits,” but did not directly identify herself as a feminist.  I found Clinton’s membership to this “sisterhood” an interesting method of feminist self-identifying without employing the label.

It seems to me, to call oneself a “feminist” in the world of politics today would be to commit career suicide.  This term has joined the likes of “communist” or “socialist” and is utilized to create fear.  “Feminism” has become the new “F-word” and to self-identify as such, in politics, in religion, and in other spheres, often leads to marginalization.

Although we have been having conversations about feminism for quite sometime, entering the 21st century, we – society in general – continue to struggle with the meaning of the word.  Does it only acknowledge women? Does it exclude men?  Is it a Western term supporting a Western agenda?

Rosemary Radford Ruether’s definition (“What is Feminism and Why Should we do it?”) addresses these questions stating that feminism is “the affirmation of the full humanity of women… a critique of patriarchy as a system that distorts the humanity of both women and men…[and] is relevant cross culturally because all known cultures presently existing have been shaped in one way or another by patriarchy.”  This is why her article has become such a central piece to this blog.

All this being said, we continue to struggle with feminism as an ugly word and thus women and men look for creative ways to identify with feminist values, like Clinton’s reference to the “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pantsuits.”  While teaching a theology course this past semester I had several students comment that they felt the word “feminism” should be trashed in favor of a new term that doesn’t have such baggage.  An interesting idea, but wouldn’t we simply be throwing in the towel and allowing a patriarchal system to define a term meant to support women’s full humanity?

To wrap up, I think this video from IFC’s Portlandia (which is highly amusing) does a great job of mocking some of the issues we face with feminism.  For your entertainment:

Gina Messina-Dysert, Ph.D. is Assistant Professor of Religion and Gender Studies at Ursuline College and Co-founder of Feminism and Religion. She writes for The Huffington Post, has authored multiple publications and most recently co-edited the highly acclaimed Faithfully Feminist: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Feminists on Why We Stay. Messina-Dysert is a widely sought after speaker and has presented across the US at universities, organizations, conferences and on national platforms including appearances on MSNBC, Tavis Smiley, NPR and the TEDx stage. She has also spoken at the Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations to discuss matters impacting the lives women around the world. Messina-Dysert is active in movements to end violence against women and explores opportunities for spiritual healing. Connect with her on Twitter @FemTheologian, Facebook, and her website

Categories: General

6 replies

  1. Hillary does call herself a feminist:

    I will have a very hard time voting for a woman and a feminist who is at the same time as Robert Dreyfus and others have described her “a liberal hawk.”

    For me feminism means a revolution in the values of dominator societies and the rush to war. How did she not know that Bush and Cheney were lying about the Iraq war when the facts were in plain view? And even if she believed their lies, why did she not know that “taking out Saddam” would not bring peace in the Middle East. Instead she voted for the US-led Iraq war which is one of the proximate causes for current state of affairs in the Middle East, including the rise of Daesh.

    I do believe she will put women’s equality issues forward worldwide if she becomes president, but I wonder how many wars she will continue or instigate. She seems to be of the mentality that a hawkish stance is the only way to “play hard ball” within the male-led power structure of international politics. As the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom says, “war is not healthy for children and all living things.”

    I know that reasonable feminists can disagree on this–especially in light of the fact that we do not run the world yet. Would that we had a real feminist choice in this or any other election of my lifetime. My one unqualified vote went to Shirley Chisholm for President in the New York Primary of 1972. I would be very surprised to learn that Hillary voted for her and that is one of the marks of the difference between her feminism and mine.


  2. Thanks for posting this again. I think that not much, alas, has changed. Carol’s point is valid, but if Clinton is the Democratic nominee, I will vote for her because all of the Republicans running are insane misogynists, and we know that at least one of them has revealed himself to be a fascist. Women, children, and senior citizens would not fare well if any of them got elected. With Hillary, I believe, we have a better chance to …well, survive.

    I did vote Republican once. This was in 1976. I voted for a Republican governor of Illinois (where I went to graduate school) who did not go to jail.


  3. Hillary Clinton, firmly ensconced in the 1%, will continue Wall Street fortified platforms and hawkish policies which have resulted in devastating impacts specifically on women and children worldwide. It is undeniable that Hillary Clinton’s big money PAC alliances will continue to encumber her presidency, leaving her feminist claims as insufficient window dressing. Bernie Sanders is the candidate who has resoundingly advanced human rights for over 50 years as the only vote against the Iraq war, commitment to break up big banks by reinstigating Glass Steigal, a serious Economic agenda that lifts up the poor and middle class, and prophetic demand for Health Care as a human right. I am a Feminist and have been all my life. Bernie Sanders is the candidate we can trust to lift up women and children in real ways. Women, do not to be fooled by Hillary Clinton’s slick politics.


    • I enjoyed your comment, JC, and I too am a big supporter of Bernie Sanders, his thought process and good nature. I also wish Elizabeth Warren were running, or maybe drafted eventually, because like Sanders, she’s definitely not tied to Wall Street. And I mention Warren, also, because I think at the same time we need to break through that barrier somehow, and elect that first woman president.


  4. Thanks Gina – always glad to read your voice.

    I was recently introduced to the work of Carrie Paechter, particularly her book ‘Being Boys; Being Girls: Learning Masculinities And Femininities’ which explores communities of practice in the continuation of gender roles.

    Your quotation from Joan Wages reminded me of it and of the influence of our early learning in terms of expectations and hopes.

    While a president who is inevitably Commander-in-Chief will be an inherently compromised role I look forward to a step being made towards changing some of the expectations.

    And thanks for the reminder of the debate on use of the word ‘feminism’

    Be well



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