For a while there — especially during the tense days between Obama’s victory and Clinton’s belated exit — it looked as if American feminism might not recover from the Democratic primary contest.
The media were spotlighting feminist mothers and their “post-feminist” daughters bickering like, well, mothers and daughters. Hillary was holding hostage her “18 million voters,” the most coveted of whom were her fierce female supporters. Those supporters were behaving like unpleasant children, by turns petulant (“Hillary for V-P — or else!” read a typical graffito) and compliant (“We want you to continue to be our leader,” was the overwhelming message of 350,000 emails reportedly sent to the candidate that week).
The candidate who had run mostly away from gender — except to flash her cohones as a potential Commander in Chief — was being defended by this diehard sisterhood because she was a woman. They excused her vote for the Iraq war, her vow to “obliterate Iran” should it menace Israel, her Bushesque fear-mongering in that red-telephone advertisement. They even excused the racism (more on that later). The constituency that global-feminist activist and writer Ros Pachesky called “uterine feminists” excused Hillary because Hillary is a woman. And when she lost, in step with their ruthless leader they blamed a vast sexist conspiracy in the press.
Feminists, at least those most visible in the media, were coming across as a bunch of doddering, doctrinaire altecachers, the sexual-political equivalent of unreconstructed Bolsheviks.
Of course, that sexist conspiracy existed (watch this YouTube clip, for instance), even if its exact vastness is still in dispute. But not far from HRC headquarters or the viewfinder of Fox News’ cameras, a critique of another sort was going on: other feminists — not the aforementioned doddering ones — rumbling about what went wrong with Hillary and the groundswell she’d mobilized.
Besides her militarism, that wrong could be summed up in a word: racism. During a contest that was universally described as “a woman versus an African-American,” Hillary did nothing to challenge the assumption that she wasn’t just a woman but a white woman. “The very fact that she ignores her own race, in a way that Obama cannot, is proof of the normalized privileging of whiteness,” wrote anti-racist feminist Zilla Eisenstein in a blog posted round the world. “She presents herself as a woman, but her real power . . . is as white.”
Worse than passively taking advantage of white privilege, Clinton chose to deploy racism to win votes — most glaringly when she lobbied superdelegates with the argument that she could win among “hardworking . . . white Americans,” and Obama could not. Many heard those words as not just description but prescription.
Then there was the red-telephone TV ad, which began with a ring in the middle of the night in a world where “something is happening” and ended with a confident Hillary, in suit and glasses, picking up the phone, protecting America. Orlando Patterson, writing in The New York Times, discerned racism as ominous as the phone’s ring. The sleeping children were blond or “vaguely Latino,” he noted; the threatening “something” was never named as “external terrorism.” The message: “An Obama presidency would be dangerous — and not just because of his lack of experience.” Rather, as a black man, “Obama is himself the danger, the outsider within.”
Women who have struggled to erase the assumption of a universal white sisterhood and to forge a movement linking sexual, gender, racial and economic justice with international solidarity heard African-American lesbian poet Audre Lorde’s words echoing back over a quarter-century: “All the women are white, all the blacks are men.” The last part of Lorde’s sentence — “but some of us are brave” — decidedly did not describe Clinton. After all, what would it have cost her to ask for votes not because she is white but because she was the better candidate?
Clinton didn’t deserve feminist support, Eisenstein argued; she “does not share a political identity with women of all classes and colors and nations simply because she has a female body. She first needs to claim that body and demand rights for it — reproductive, day care, health, education, etc. She has no multi-racial woman’s agenda because she has no anti-racist agenda.”
That she appealed to a multiracial “uterine feminist” constituency only complicated the picture, Petchesky said at the June conference of the National Council for Research on Women. Visiting Las Vegas during the Nevada caucuses, Petchesky was struck that most of the people carrying Hillary placards were Asian-American and Latina hotel workers. When she asked a fiftysomething Filipina why she was supporting Clinton, the woman “looked at me like I was stupid and replied, with great gusto, ‘Because she’s a WOMAN — and WOMEN have the POWER!’”
Young feminists of all races were hipper than that. For instance, feministing.com, the blog that gives voice to millennial feminists, hosted a lively, supersmart gabfest lacing together race and sex during the entire primary season — and it’s still going on. The bloggers admirably resisted divisiveness, repeatedly calling Hillary on her racism, but also praising her when that was due. For instance, Courtney Martin, writing graciously on Hillary’s concession speech, described herself as a Clinton supporter and an Obama voter.
Nor did feministing.com’s contributors swallow the media depiction of the Clinton-Obama split among women as a generational divide. When Frances Kissling of Catholics for a Free Choice, a senior feminist herself, suggested in The Nation that a Hillary loss should signal Boomer feminists to quit the scene, the blog’s political editor, Jen Moseley, rose to respect her elders. “Obviously I support young women (or a wider perspective attributed to younger women) playing a more important role in the feminist movement,” she wrote, “but that doesn’t have to mean older women are kicked out entirely. Sheesh.”
This proliferation of talk — not just in feminist cybercommunities and conferences but on Slate.com and in The Washington Post and The New York Times — is itself occasion to send up fireworks. Yes, Hillary Clinton had inspired the passionate intensity of the worst, on both sides. But her candidacy has brought out, and brought back, the best, too.
Jo Freeman, a white civil-rights activist who became one of the founders of the second-wave women’s liberation movement, said as much in a celebratory op-ed circulated online. “That [Democratic primary] voters chose a black man and a white woman over so many outstanding white men is something of which we can all be proud,” Freeman wrote. “It illustrates what is good about America, at a time when many find it hard to see the good. It demonstrates that we can overcome historic prejudices, that we can change deeply buried values and attitudes.”
And if the blogospheric cretins and frat-boy pundits hoped to bury the girls under a shitload of misogyny, they have instead had a Miracle-Gro effect. Everywhere, people are broadcasting the word shamelessly, intensely and voluminously: Feminism. Say it again. FEMINISM! Didn’t hear you! FEMINISM!
Journalist Amanda Fortini described the experience of her peers, young women for whom gender inequality was a women’s history course they took in college. “The past few months have been like an extended consciousness-raising session, to use a retro phrase that would have once made most of us cringe,” Fortini wrote in, of all places, New York Magazine. “We’ve parsed the gender politics of the campaign with other women in the office, at parties, over email, and now we’re starting to parse the gender politics of our lives. This is, admittedly, depressing: How can we be confronting the same issues, all these years later? But it’s also exciting. It feels as if a window has been opened in a stuffy, long-sealed room. There is a thrill at the collective realization.”
The piece, headlined “The Feminist Reawakening,” ended with a question: “What next?”
And that’s where it gets really exciting.
First, to win those 18 million voters, Barack Obama has to speak about sex. So far, he has barely done so, though he leads by example — the proud son of a strong single mother, the husband of a powerful wife, the father of two apparently feisty girls.
He can reinject gender into those supposedly gender-neutral issues at the top of voters’ minds. Jobs, for instance. Yes, men are losing theirs. But even when employed, women earn less — and thanks to the Supreme Court, they now can’t do much about it. Last year’s ruling in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber eviscerated a generation of anti-sex-discrimination law by requiring that a victim bring evidence of unequal pay within 180 days of hiring — in the real world, where paychecks are secret, impossible. The next president will have a lot of power to even the stakes when he nominates one, maybe two, new justices.
The mortgage crisis is another unequal opportunity afflicter. Writing in The Boston Globe, law professor Anita Hill showed how women — especially single, elderly and African-American women — are showing up disproportionately among those rooked by predatory lenders. Many of those women are losing their homes.
Nicholas Kristof suggested in the Times that Obama “show that gender issues are on his radar” by championing the combat against maternal mortality, “the orphan issue of global public health.” Yes, he should. But he can also embrace the broader issues of which maternal mortality is part: reproductive rights and even child care, which hasn’t been on “the radar” since Nixon.
Obama gets a 100 percent approval rating for his votes on choice; that’s why NARAL endorsed him. But it’s tough to find the word on his website (it’s hiding in the “Fact Check” section), and as far as I know he hasn’t uttered it since 2007, when he called abortion an “anguishing” decision involving a woman, her family, her doctor and her clergyperson. (It takes a village to have an abortion.) Say something about Roe, Barack. Hillary did, and it probably won her votes.
That’s what’s next for Barack Obama. What’s next for feminists?
How about this? We become what the Democratic Party has been longing for since the 2004 elections: its “moral-values voters.”
Not moral-values voters like “left-wing” anti-abortion evangelical Jim Wallis. Not the religion-on-your-sleeve values voters that Hillary called forth in 2004.
Not moral-values voters who will call for more censorship of pornography.
No, I mean the voters who care about everyday life — which is to say, all voters. Tom Franks was wrong in What’s the Matter with Kansas? The GOP didn’t distract people from the “real” issues with stuff like abortion and gay marriage. It reached people where they live.
People live in their bodies (thus the issues of abortion, racism, sexual and gender minority rights, health care, torture). They live in families and communities (gay marriage, immigration, child care, housing, food). They live as citizens and, increasingly, through symbolic communications (voting rights, “decency” and pornography, religion, the arts, surveillance).
I could go on — and hit numerous issues on which feminists do not agree (one fault line, especially for queers and people of color, opens along hate-speech laws). But the point is that feminists (and by this I mean internationalist anti-racist feminists) understand the intersection between the personal and political better than anyone — with the exception of conservative Christians.
So here’s my proposal: Feminists become for the Democrats and progressive politics what evangelical Christians have been for the Republicans and conservatism — its demanding, uncompromising base. Just as those religionists moved their party radically to the right, so can feminists push the Democrats — and if you can’t stand the Democrats, then progressives generally — more radically to the left.
I can imagine it now — politicians quailing before NARAL as they do now before the NRA. Teenagers wearing WWSTD (What Would Sojourner Truth Do?) bracelets. The first Vietnamese-African-American transgender president . . .