Friday, March 14, 2008

Can you be a feminist and not vote for Senator Clinton?

One demographic group Senator Clinton seems to be able to count on in her campaign for the Democratic nomination for the Presidency is older white Democratic women. To some extent that may be understandable. Women who came of age during the 60’s and 70’s share a common experience of rising expectations in the face of gender based discrimination.

While that may seem understandable what seems to be a little out of kilter is the contempt some, if not many, of these Clinton supporters have for people, particularly younger and black women, who have decided to back Senator Barack Obama for the nomination over Clinton. It’s as if Democrats are not allowed to agree to disagree.

Geraldine Farraro’s rather bizarre comments about Senator Obamas race that she repeated over and over again was not so much directed at Senator Obama as to his supporters. She couldn’t seem to comprehend that voters may choose a candidate other than Hillary Clinton for reasons other than race: Senator Clinton is entitled to this nomination and therefore anyone supporting someone other than Clinton can’t be thinking rationally. If you watched any of the news clips of Ms. Farraro you saw a very angry woman who has convinced herself that she has something to be offended about.

Is Farraro alone? Unfortunately, no. There are some old guard feminists who take support for anyone other than Clinton as a personal rejection and betrayal. This is not a hopeful or healthy sign of the state of feminism. Michelle Goldberg has these observations in the Guardian:
Infuriated by Barack Obama's ascent, Geraldine Ferraro, erstwhile feminist icon, has transformed herself into Archie Bunker in heels. First she claimed that Obama owes his electoral success to being black, as if Hillary Clinton were some unlucky victim of affirmative action, in danger of losing a job she deserves to an unqualified token. As the uproar over her comments grew, she dug in further, claiming that she herself is the injured party: "Racism works in two different directions," she said. "I really think they're attacking me because I'm white. How's that?"

How's that? Well, that's the kind of thing Rush Limbaugh and other self-appointed spokesmen for the beleaguered white male like to say. To hear a putative progressive, the first and only American woman ever nominated for vice-president, complain about the unfair advantages black men enjoy in American life is, to say the least, disappointing. (Maybe it shouldn't be - the Politico informs us that she said similar things about Jesse Jackson in the 1980s, though her comments had since been largely forgotten.) Yesterday, having thoroughly disgraced herself, she quit her post on Clinton's finance committee, though she remained blithely self-righteous about the entire affair, never offering even a hint of an apology.

Some have suggested the whole thing was part of a Clinton scheme to ratchet up racial tensions in advance of the Pennsylvania primary. That's possible, but there's a simpler explanation. Several otherwise admirable, even heroic women seem to identify with Clinton so profoundly that they interpret rejection of her as a personal rebuke. Stung, they accuse Obama supporters of flighty illogic, but there's a powerful, extra-rational emotional current in their arguments, a flailing in the face of an imagined betrayal. In their anger, they're lashing out in all kinds of counterproductive ways, doing far more damage to feminism than a Clinton loss ever could.

In January, the venerable Gloria Steinem made a more sober version of Ferarro's argument in the New York Times, arguing (though she claims not to have been) that gender trumps race in the victim sweepstakes, and that if young women are voting for Obama over Clinton, it could be because of false consciousness. "What worries me is that some women, perhaps especially younger ones, hope to deny or escape the sexual caste system; thus Iowa women over 50 and 60, who disproportionately supported Senator Clinton, proved once again that women are the one group that grows more radical with age," she wrote. (Just what is so radical about automatically backing a candidate whose primary qualification is her husband, and whose surrogates have attacked Obama for consorting with "left-wing" intellectuals, remains unsaid. Clinton is a woman - what else do you need to know?)

A few days after Steinem's op-ed, there was Marcia Pappas, president of the New York chapter of the National Organisation for Women, putting out a press release accusing Obama and John Edwards of a "psychological gang bang", for, um, criticising Clinton during a debate. Then, last month Robin Morgan, the feminist writer who edited the seminal anthology Sisterhood Is Powerful, unleashed a hysterical screed accusing female Obama supporters of being, essentially, blinkered bimbos: "Goodbye to some young women eager to win male approval by showing they're not feminists (at least not the kind who actually threaten the status quo), who can't identify with a woman candidate because she is unafraid of eeueweeeu yucky power, who fear their boyfriends might look at them funny if they say something good about her."
Linda Hirshman, author of the bracing feminist manifesto Get to Work, was slightly more decorous in a Washington Post column about pro-Obama women, but every bit as condescending. Like other Hillary hard-liners, she starts with the assumption that Clinton obviously and indisputably deserves the votes of right-thinking females, so only some kind of psychological flaw, moral failure or logical fallacy can explain why so many smart, accomplished women aren't getting in line.

Yes, she allows, "maybe Obama is the best candidate, and these highly educated women, with their greater political savvy, have recognised his value." But then she spends the rest of the column pondering other, apparently more likely answers. Maybe, she suggests, pro-Obama voters are elitists who can't relate to their less fortunate, Clinton-voting sisters. "Or," she writes, "it could just be that women with more education (and more money) relate on a subconscious level to the young and handsome Barack and Michelle Obama, with their white-porticoed mansion in one of the cooler Chicago neighbourhoods and her Jimmy Choo shoes." Perhaps women are just cowed by Obama's cultish supporters. Writes Hirshman: "It's well established social science that women on the whole are much more averse to political conflict than men are, so it's fair to speculate that avoiding that gantlet may be one more reason women are tilting toward Obama."

Get that? Like the pseudo-populist demagogues of the right, Hirshman presumes a virtuous authenticity in the political sympathies of the less educated, and something vaguely perverse in the choices of the learned. This is, of course, the same tactic the Republicans have used to systematically devalue knowledge and expertise over the last eight ungodly years.

In the end, such rhetoric is likely to do less damage to the Obama campaign - he's winning regardless - than to feminism. The fact is, the majority of young Democratic women are voting for Obama. Maligning and disparaging them is no way to recruit them into a movement. If feminism equaled supporting Hillary Clinton, I'm not the only one who wouldn't want anything to do with it.

Of course, it doesn't. The fact is, some of the most incisive feminist writers and effective feminist activists - people like Katha Pollitt, Frances Kissling and Eve Ensler, among many others - are backing Obama. The late Molly Ivins - a fiercely progressive, genuinely populist Texan in her 60s - spelled out her opposition to Clinton in January of 2006, in a column bluntly titled "I will not support Hillary Clinton for president". "Enough. Enough triangulation, calculation and equivocation. Enough clever straddling, enough not offending anyone," she wrote. "This is not a Dick Morris election. Sen. Clinton is apparently incapable of taking a clear stand on the war in Iraq, and that alone is enough to disqualify her. Her failure to speak out on Terri Schiavo, not to mention that gross pandering on flag-burning, are just contemptible little dodges."

Ivins was clearly angry at Clinton, but she didn't attack Clinton voters. Few of Obama's feminist supporters have. The rage is concentrated on the other side. Watching Hillary struggle, some of her most outspoken feminist backers seem to be recalling every time they were passed over for some upstart man, every slight and humiliation visited on aging women in America. And so it's become all about them.

Leslie Bennets, the Vanity Fair journalist, recently mocked those who wish Clinton would drop out of the race. "Why doesn't she just get out of the way?" she wrote in the Los Angeles Times. "The media have sorted it all out so neatly: He is young, glamorous, charismatic and funny; he represents the future. She is older, strident, earnest and humourless; she is the past. He inspires; she hectors. Ugh!" She continued, elaborating on the indignities older women in America face. "America requires that females be (or at least appear) young and sexually desirable," she wrote. "Once they've passed the age of facile objectification and commodification, they're supposed to disappear. How dare they not cooperate with our national insistence that older women become invisible?"

This is a ridiculous argument, but it has a grain of truth at the centre that makes it ring emotionally true. Yes, aging women in the US are treated with unbridled contempt. But this contempt has very, very little to do with calls for Clinton not to tear the Democratic party apart, given that she's extremely unlikely to win a majority of pledged delegates or the popular vote. If the roles were reversed, if Obama were behind by every metric, Clinton would have been coroneted by now, and the cry for her opponent to get out and quit being a spoiler would be deafening. Gender injustice is a gross, epidemic problem, resulting in more human rights violations worldwide than any other iniquity. But gender injustice does not explain what's going on here. To insist that it does is crude projection.

The irony is that, for the overwhelming majority of women, voting against Clinton was never about repudiating second-wave feminism. But the more leaders of the movement insist on conflating their noble struggle for social justice with the fate of an uninspiring and nepotistic candidate, the less relevant it will be. Many progressives, male and female alike, see Clinton as cynical and narcissistic, pandering to interest-group sectarianism even as she compromises on important principals. It would be a hideous shame if they came to see feminism the same way.

1 comment:

Comrade Kevin said...

Sadly, many do see it this way and feminism can now move in one of several directions.

It can eat its own and prove its undoing like the second-wave did in the sex-positive versus sex-negative argument, or it can reform itself and draw people into the third-wave.

I vouch for the latter.