Feminists for Obama

There’s been a lot bruited about in the blogosphere as to whether you can be a feminist and vote for Obama. Of course you can. Just as you can be a feminist and vote for Clinton. There is not one way to be a feminist.

But apparently some prominent feminists think there is.

I was relieved that recently the overheated rhetoric and ugly sniping between Clinton and Obama supporters calmed the heck down. The recent debate in Los Angeles, California several weeks ago was downright cordial, even collaborative. And I think that’s because Hill told Bill to stop being such an attack dog, and maybe because the two camps got together and said, “Know what? It’s gonna be either me or you as the nominee, so we’d better get used to being running mates and one possibly having to be VP to the other. And our country is in so much trouble we need to get it back on track–that’s priority one.”

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: I could go with either Obama or Clinton as president. But if the flip side of Senator Clinton’s oft-touted “political savvy” is calculated pandering, I have to say I’m a little weary of it. Didn’t we go through this with Al Gore in 2000? A man too afraid to say what he was really about, and who conceded a little too soon? The last thing I want in a presidential candidate is a woman who lacks the courage of her convictions.

The primary is about distributing delegates who’ll eventually vote on the nominee, of course. But it’s also an opportunity to vote your conscience, your gut, or wherever it is your votes come from.

I am really ready to be hopeful about this country again–what it stands for, and what it can do for people both at home and abroad. We need renewal. We need to re-dedicate ourselves to what this country is all about. I’m not ready for hedging my bets, holding my nose, or making second and third guesses about who can win and what demographics will go with what candidate.

I think President Obama and Vice President Clinton would together make an unbeatable combination for our country. And I say that as a feminist who has no difficulty imagining a female president. I just don’t want any female president: President Condoleeza Rice has a horrible, right-wing sound to it.

And I fear that a narrow focus by some feminists on the groundbreaking nature of Hilary Clinton’s candidacy for presidency as a cause all women must get behind if they’re to be “good feminists” could get caught on the shoals of identity politics. (I have the same reservations of those who would vote for Obama solely because they and he are African American.)

Let me take Gloria Steinem’s NYT editorial, “Women Are Never Front Runners,” as an example. (There is also Robin Morgan’s “Goodbye to All That #2,” which in my opinion is also troubling in its claims that older women who become more radicalized as they age must naturally support Clinton.)

I have huge issues with the Oppression Olympics. And even though Steinem tries to disavow that that’s what she’s doing, she engages the ranking of oppressions nonetheless when she says

Gender is probably the most restricting force in American life [emphasis mine], whether the question is who must be in the kitchen or who could be in the White House. This country is way down the list of countries electing women and, according to one study, it polarizes gender roles more than the average democracy.

Have white feminists learned nothing from decades of women of color feminists and others saying THE ESSENCE OF YOUR WHITE PRIVILEGE IS TO BE A SINGLE-ISSUE ACTIVIST ON GENDER? So gender is the category that experiences most oppression, not race, not sexual identity, not class status? I have problems with this. I’m a woman of color and there is no way I can choose between being a racial being and a gendered being. In fact, I resent the idea that I could separate the two, and prioritize one over the other.

I don’t understand why some feminists persist in ranking oppressions. This kind of thinking quickly degenerates into a victim sweepstakes where only the disabled-on- public-assistance-lesbian-Latina-from-North Dakota wins. (I am similarly wary of voters who are for Obama “right or wrong” because his race matches theirs. I support him because I believe him to be the most progressive candidate, and because I can tell the Clarence Thomases from the Thurgood Marshalls.)

Steinem goes on to say

I’m supporting Senator Clinton because like Senator Obama she has community organizing experience, but she also has more years in the Senate, an unprecedented eight years of on-the-job training in the White House, no masculinity to prove, the potential to tap a huge reservoir of this country’s talent by her example, and now even the courage to break the no-tears rule.

Let’s look at each of those closely. “More years in the Senate”: indisputable. Here it becomes a comparison of voting records. As it should be.

“Eight years of on-the-job-training in the White House” as First Lady: this seems like a weak qualification to me. If my spouse were a plumber, would that mean I also know how to fix leaky pipes? I’d have much more information than a layperson but I’m also not doing the job itself. Hilary Rodham Clinton was much more actively involved in political affairs than Laura Bush, who also had eight years of White House exposure. But even with all the influential pillow talk and the inside scoop, this one could cut both ways.

Access to The Bill Years is both a tremendous asset and a huge liability. Asset: the Democratic machine from the 1992-2000 era. Okay, if she was so influential and had so much access, then why didn’t she accomplish more? Liability: the Democratic machine from the 1992-2000 era. Bill, check yourself and ask yourself if you’re helping Clinton or getting in her way.

“No masculinity to prove”–sorry, this doesn’t hold water with me either, as Clinton’s vote to authorize war in Iraq seems exactly like the action of one who overcompensates for her imputed lack of masculinity with a hawkish stance; a “tough on terror” gesture even though war is the single most damaging thing that could’ve happened to the women, children, and obviously yes, the men of Iraq.

“The potential to tap a huge reservoir of this country’s talent by her example”–by this, I understand Steinem to allude to the inspiration Clinton’s example as first female president ever of the United States would provide to young women and girls in America. While it’s not inconsiderable, I’ve never believed that a huge gain for a white woman is always a huge gain for all women. Perhaps only a white woman would believe this?

“The courage to break the no tears rule”: I’m all for a public display of genuine emotion by a strong woman and I reject the notion that it signifies weak snivelliness, but I fail to see how this speaks to Clinton’s abilities, character, or record as a politician. I don’t take it into account when male candidates cry either. It’s just not that compelling to me.

Let’s look at it this way: if Republicans put forward Condoleeza Rice for president in 2012 or even as VP to McCain in ’08, it would be no less groundbreaking for an African American woman to run for those offices than it is for Hilary Clinton to do so. (Republicans are just sneaky, cynical, pandering, cynical, and cluelessly cynical enough about race/gender/class to pull a move like that, and some are already talking it up. Did I mention cynical?) BUT THE PIONEERING, GROUNDBREAKING ASPECT WOULD NOT BE ENOUGH. Because it’s still Condoleeza Rice we’re talking about–one of many architects of the Iraq war and a hatchetperson for Bush.

Would Condoleeza Rice inspire young women and girls, especially African American women, to aspire to the President’s cabinet or to the White House? Since she’s been there for almost eight years already, I presume the “inspiration effect” has already had its impact. I don’t find the sheer fact of Rice’s womanhood or woman of colorhood to be enough to support her. (Which reminds me, nearly 8 years ago, did Steinem and Morgan praise Rice’s ascension to Bush’s cabinet? Why or why not? And what kind of double racial standard is there in celebrating a neo-liberalish white woman’s rise and not a conservative black woman’s rise? See how unhelpful identity politics is?)

My concern has been how the mainstream media has been quick to construct the race to anoint a Democratic nominee for president as “feminist vote=white woman, left-liberal vote=black man.” But I’m equally concerned when prominent feminists want to play the same identity politics game. It’s even more disturbing when Oppression Olympics (some version of “woman/queer/person of color/poor is the most subjugated category”) creep in via the back door. If nothing else, it begins to sound like special pleading (vote for her because she’s a woman), which, to my mind, weakens the argument for Clinton.

Robin Morgan recently penned “Goodbye to All That #2,” an update of her strong critique of male privilege and sexism within the anti-war movement. In this update, she justly railed against the sexist hits Clinton has taken in her campaign (“iron my shirts”??? crawl back under the patriarchal rock you slimed out from) and the double standard against which Clinton has often been measured. I agree with so much of what she said. But she also took a harder and less nuanced position against women who support Obama.

I’d rather say a joyful Hello to all the glorious young women who do identify with Hillary, and all the brave, smart men—of all ethnicities and any age—who get that it’s in their self-interest, too. She’s better qualified. (D’uh.) [emphases in the original]

It’s one thing if a person decides Clinton is the better candidate. Qualifications can and should be debated. But what does identification have to do with it?

I agree with the 97 percent of her positions that are identical with Obama’s—and the few where hers are both more practical and to the left of his (like health care).

I have the sneaking suspicion that both Steinem and Morgan support Clinton because she’s the same age/generation and race as they are. They identify with her. That’s fine, but that’s not what my definition of feminism is. I don’t have to identify with someone, see a one-to-one correlation of their demographics to mine, in order to support a candidate. I see this as an unhelpful relic of feminisms past.

Identification is more complex than that. And why would matching identities mean an equivalence, politics-wise? Why does comparable demographics imply political representation, especially on the issues that are my priorities? I resent being told that I’m a tool of the patriarchy, a male-identified woman, a bad feminist, or other such nonsense because I support Obama. I’ve wrestled with plenty of angels in thinking through my feminism, including years spent writing my dissertation and in graduate school deconstructing white-centered academic feminism/constructing an understanding of woman of color feminisms, to know that identity politics is not enough.

I think this is where feminists who pull for an Obama-Clinton ticket part ways with feminists who pull for a Clinton-Obama ticket. If they’re similar in voting records as Morgan concedes above, then the big deal-breaker for me becomes the Iraq war vote. I still remember how disappointed I was when I learned that Clinton voted to authorize. And I think that was the defining moment where I decided that I could not afford to support another Al Gore, another candidate who would have a crisis of nerve at a crucial moment.

It could be said that the current Democratic presidential race began in 2002 with that critical vote to authorize war. If Clinton didn’t have the political or moral courage to assert herself in Bush’s polarizing “you’re either with us or against us” climate, if she calculated that a vote to authorize would be a valuable chit that would enable her to do important bipartisan work later (and where is this risk-taking work she’s spent her big chit on?), if she simply trusted Bush or worse, was afraid to be the nail that didn’t get pounded down, then I think all those things call her judgment into question. There is either an element of huge political calculation or one of lacking necessary foresight, and neither flaw is reassuring.

It would be different if all other presidential candidates had voted to authorize war in Iraq. Then I’d simply be holding my nose and voting for the least offensive candidate. (Hello, least offensive…remember Kerry???) But Obama stood nearly alone in voicing dissent against this disastrous war–one that diplomats and other experts in Middle Eastern affairs warned then would and still warn now will destabilize the region, heighten tensions among already hair-trigger nuclear-armed Muslim nations, do nothing toward finding or punishing Osama bin Laden or the perpetrators of 9/11 attacks, and was prosecuted with trumped-up findings and sold to the American people with varying gradations of lies. Obama did that when it counted, before 20-20 hindsight kicked in and everyone got on the same page–the Oh Shit, This is a Quagmire Page.

Not to mention the war in Iraq’s domestic impact. How many billions of dollars have we the American people allowed our representatives to authorize in pursuing this folly? Money which, if we were to spend so profligately, could’ve easily refurbished hundreds of thousands of public schools, supported innumerable social programs that help the most vulnerable in our country (children and the elderly), and paid for uncounted repairs to public works projects (like the shoring up of levees in New Orleans, for example). I could go on with all that desperately needs attention at home and which has gone begging because the war in Iraq has siphoned off valuable dollars. The Iraq war has performed the neat trick (gagging on my sarcasm here) of destroying the lives of Iraqi women and children and impoverishing women and children at home. Not to mention needlessly damaging men in both countries and across our pathetic “coalition of the willing”.

So yeah, the vote to authorize the war in (on?) Iraq is a deal-breaker for me.

I wonder why it seemed to be of little or no consequence to either Steinem or the anti-war activist Morgan? I wish both had addressed why we should elect Clinton president in spite of her fateful vote to authorize the Iraq war, instead of urging me to be a good woman and vote for the woman. (Is it no less historic to have an African American president than it is to have a female president? And if both are historic, does it matter which comes first? Steinem and Morgan can’t seem to avoid the ranking of oppressions and that really really bothers me.)

I voted for Obama with enthusiasm because I remember keenly the climate of fear in this country right after 9/11, and how difficult it was to call for peace through means other than military ones when everyone seemed out for blood. (Actually, I maintain it was East coast power elites in NY and Washington, DC who called for retribution.) I recall all these things with extreme clarity because it was all I vented about here at P i l l o w b o o k. (See any posting labeled Dept of Peace.)

Apparently these reasons to vote against authorization were also clear to millions who protested worldwide as well as those millions who took to the streets in America. It was abundantly clear to international newspapers who analyzed the evidence presented by the Bush administration and dissected how the White House political spin machine colluded with the American mainstream media to ram the mess down our throats.

So if presented with two candidates whose voting records and political stances are very similar, of course I’m voting for the one who had the courage to publicly say no to the Iraq war when it was still possible to change our course.

This has nothing to do with sexism and everything to do with feminism. The most feminist candidate, in my opinion, would be the one who voted against authorizing the Iraq war. With regard to the vote to authorize, Clinton had the same exact opportunity to make her stand as Obama did. Unfortunately, she made the wrong choice and I think in that instant she moved right and Obama moved left. And to say Clinton moved right (in our present-day America which borders on fascist spying, christian fundamentalists who seem intent on dissolving the separation of church and state, and the auction of American resources to the highest bidder–all enacted and encouraged by the Bush administration in the past eight years) is saying a lot. Meaning, what currently passes for Left would be Center/sensible/reasonable in a normal, unfucked-up world.

You can’t blame Clinton’s bad decision on sexism, misogyny, or other kinds of gender bias. Instead, the blame lies exactly where it belongs, with a person who, of her own volition, came down on the wrong side of history. Clinton torpedoed her own credibility and undid decades of good work with that vote. No man did that to her. She did it herself, to herself.

Isn’t this how we’re supposed to evaluate the “content of one’s character”? Not to mention one candidate’s record of past performance versus another’s?

Does Race Trump Gender?, by Marjorie Valburn

What I Really Wanted to Say to Chris Matthews, by Kate Michelman

Chelsea’s Rant Control, by Meghan Daum

Skin, Bits, Issues, and Voting, by Karnythia (@ Angry Black Woman’s blog–check out numerous posts from January and February 2008)

ETA: Anti-Hillary Sentiment on the Rise Among Leading Feminists, by Jon Weiner 

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13 thoughts on “Feminists for Obama

  1. What a great piece.

    I’ve admitted several times in recent conversations that even though we finally have a female candidate who actually stands a chance of becoming President, I find myself on the fence… Who would have thought it?

    Like you, I could go with either Obama or Clinton. I think that they both are capable of bringing about much needed change in this nation; they both have their qualities and, of course, their faults:

    None of which have anything to do with gender.

    I guess I’m just one of those feminists that believe that we’re all equal in that regard… Imagine that.

  2. Judith Shakespeare,
    Thanks for stopping by and leaving your thoughtful comment. And for reading the whole post!

    In a weird way, I think trying to get past simplistic identity politics is a sign of progress. And I really do think we should strive for the politics of “both/and” as much as possible.

    Cynematic

  3. What an amazing post: WHERE do you get the time?
    I cannot respond to such a tome properly. This reminds me of the Seneca Falls Conference of 1848 where women and black openly supported each other (Frederick Douglass and Elizabeth Cady Stanton come to mind). “Emancipation” (such as it was) came to pass and Blacks (Black men) were too busy trying to chase the djinn of the vote to help the sisters enough: BIG mistake! However, I don’t think they ever roused the Klan to keep white women from voting. SO I AM TORN: But if non-blacks are willing to overcome their white supremacist advantages and support Mr. Obama, it means the world to this desegregation-baby from Boston (the alabama of the north).

  4. @Stafford: knew I could count on you to bring the African American/suffragette literary history! :) Where do I get the time to write these things? I dunno…this has been gnawing at me for some time now. Fuming at how misogynist MSM journos have treated Clinton’s candidacy, and likewise appalled at racist innuendoes aimed at Obama. And annoyed at how whipsawed by pseudo-issues of race/gender I felt.

    @Stefania: thanks for the MOMocrat link. I’m glad you found the post chewy. I was inspired by yours as well.

    @Jen: thanks for the comment. MOMocrats are straight-up thoughtful peeps!

  5. Another MOMocrat here. Excellent piece. My theory is that women of Hillary’s age believe that they won’t live long to see another woman ascend this far and become President, not that they become more radicalized as they age. I certainly hope that with the number of women governors and women in Congress, this is not true. I think it will happen in my lifetime, but it will be the right woman for the job. For me, that’s not necessarily Hillary.

  6. Glennia,
    Thanks for reading. You make an astute point–I agree with you about women Hillary’s age being afraid that this is the one shot for their proxy. Like you, I’m hopeful about women in the House/Senate and female governors coming up too. Always had a soft spot in my heart for Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland, CA)–she voted against authorization of the war also!

    We need to keep women in the pipeline. For my tastes, the more progressive the better. :)

  7. Found you through Momcrats. Awesome piece. BTW, so glad to find another Chinese-American among the mom bloggers. There aren’t many of us. You’re definitely going in my links.

  8. Nicely written. I’ve been beginning to feel like a misogynist because I can’t support Senator Clinton. But I’m no more a misogynist because I prefer Senator Obama than someone who supports Clinton is a racist for preferring Clinton. I just hope that this doesn’t tear the Democratic Party apart.

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  10. I’m still reeling from reading this piece in entirety. I did caucus for Obama in Iowa. His speeches are inspiring and his passion is palpable. But like so many, I could go either way also.

    So one thing is certain, I want a Democrat president again. Either one of them is way better than the alternative.

  11. Jennic,
    Thanks indeed for reading it all in one go. If anything, the Democratic race this year is galvanizing a lot of people who otherwise would’ve been apathetic.

    Now all we need is no voter machine fraud.

    Go straight to hell Bush!

  12. Hi – ’60s feminist, anti-war mom here. I’m 61 and white and am definitely for Obama. I think it’s important who the first woman president is. In spite of what she has accomplished as a Senator, I don’t see Hilary fitting the bill.
    Maybe someone can explain to me how we can define as a strong leader a woman who repeatedly colludes with her husband to humiliate her in front of the world (remember the vast right wing conspiracy against her husband? Turns out we didn’t need a conspiracy to discredit him. He did it all by himself!) Let’s turn this around –suppose we had a male canidiate whose wife had repeatedly screwed around on him and it was public knowledge. Let’s throw in the cigar and the dress as proof and let’s have him go on national television to defend her name, accusing her enemies of having made the whole thing up, just to keep it fair. Would this guy even be a candidate? No, because he would be a national joke. I don’t want to call her that but I find it impossible to believe a strong woman of character and integrity would have stayed in that marriage for 30 years. So if she made a deal with the devil and expects to be rewarded with the presidency, that doesn’t work for me. Obama may not have her experience but when you look at the kind of experiences she’s embraced, I think that’s a good thing. He can lead and uplift and unite. From where I sit, that’s who I want to follow.

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