Thursday, June 26, 2008

Hillary Clinton and the Meaning of Feminism

Hillary Clinton has often been called divisive. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the effect her presidential candidacy had on women. Conflicts bubbling under the surface for years came gushing out in a torrent of articles, blogs, and commentary.

The Reasons Women Gave for Voting for Hillary

I've never spoken to a female Hillary supporter who didn't say that Hillary's gender was one of their primary reasons for voting for her. This was generally followed by some excuses for her vote on the war and a sad attempt to convince me that her repugnant behavior should be forgiven because she is a woman and she "had to" behave that way or risk being seen as too soft.

Experience was the other top reason provided for a Hillary vote. Whenever I dared to suggest that being first lady should not automatically count for experience, people were up in arms about it. Surely these people don't think Laura Bush is now qualified to be president? I also heard all about how Hillary fought for health care, but nothing about what a horrible failure her fight was or how undemocratically she behaved in the process.

Another, often unstated reason, was sympathy. It seemed like every time some pig would make nasty comments about Clinton, she would get a bump in the polls. I recall one debate when Hillary spoke about the tough times she has survived, and everyone just knew she was talking about her cheating spouse and all the mean boys who made fun of her legs. The more of a victim she was, the more women rallied to her defense.

The Old Guard Feminist Defense of Hillary

Then there was the official feminist response to Hillary's candidacy. The National Organization for Women endorsed her, saying "she has a long history of support for women's empowerment, and her public record is a testimony to her leadership on issues important to women in the U.S. and around the globe." Funny, I thought ending violence was important to women around the globe. I mean, right on the NOW website is a link to their campaign to end violence against women, yet the fact that their candidate had supported violence against men and women in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, and Iran (a country whose people she she wanted to "obliterate" completely) didn't seem bother them at all.

The NOW endorsement came while Hillary was still the front-runner. Later her candidacy began to falter. She didn't just swoop in and skate through the nominating process. She, her husband, and her supporters started alienating African Americans with their hints about Obama's drug use and comparisons to Jesse Jackson. Her campaign, unprepared for a real competition, began to fight amongst themselves. The candidate who ran as the person who would fix our economy buried herself under a mountain of debt. Obama's campaign picked up steam and feminists began crying foul.

First came Gloria Steinem's article in the New York Times titled Women are Never Front-Runners. Conveniently forgetting that Clinton had been the front-runner just a few short months before, Steinem claimed that, had Barack Obama been a woman, he would never have been elected to the senate much less become a presidential candidate with a shot to win. Steinem claimed that gender is "the most restrictive force in American life." And while she said she was "not advocating a competition for who has it toughest" she claimed that black men receiving the right to vote before women demonstrates that gender is more restrictive. (She apparently never heard of poll taxes, and lynchings, and a little something called The Voting Rights Act.)

Then along came Geraldine Ferraro, completing the job that Steinem had started. While Steinem claimed merely that race was less restrictive than gender, Ferraro claimed that Obama's race actually helped him, saying “if Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position. And if he was a woman of any color, he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept.” When people were understandably outraged by her cluelessness, she started calling Obama sexist and said she was thinking about voting for McCain. And she wasn't the only one making that threat. There were countless other articles about the sexism that hurt Hillary's campaign and the angry women who were going to vote for McCain because of it.

Progressive Feminists Weigh in on Hillary

Just when I was about to lose all faith in my gender, more rational minds began to weigh in on the controversy. Kimberle Crenshaw and Eve Ensler published an article on the Huffington Post called Feminist Ultimatums: Not in Our Name in which they criticize the feminists who turned the "undeniable misogyny of the media into an imperative to vote for Clinton" and blast the women who try to pit sexism against racism, doing no service to the fight against either.

Alice Walker also weighed in with Lest We Forget: An open letter to my sisters who are brave. In her letter, Walker takes a more personal approach. She describes her childhood when white children (male and female) rode off to go to a school she was not allowed to attend. In Walker's experience "white women have copied, all too often, the behavior of their fathers and their brothers."

Barbara Ehrenreich, for her part, gives a scathing critique of Hillary's behavior in her article Hillary Revealed That Women Can Be Nasty, Deceptive Candidates Too. Her article criticizes Hillary's race baiting, hawkishness, exaggerations of foreign policy experience, and statements inferring that McCain was a better candidate than Obama. Ehrenreich writes that "Hillary Clinton smashed the myth of innate female moral superiority in the worst possible way -- by demonstrating female moral inferiority."

Clinton v. Obama Supporters Generational and Philosophical Differences

Clinton had strong support among older women. My mother, who voted for Clinton, genuinely seems to believe that men and women are so inherently different that a woman will rule differently just because she is a woman. (I think she might have missed the Margaret Thatcher years.) Other women, the ones who said she had to compromise herself to get ahead, were often women who were also "climbing the ladder" and perhaps had made a few shameful compromises along the way.

Younger women I spoke to, even ones who had initially been somewhat supportive of Clinton, were eventually appalled at her behavior. Many were still angry about her vote for the Iraq war. I for one was furious about her staunch support of Israel during the war with Lebanon. As the campaign progressed and she began her fear-inducing 3:00 a.m. phone call commercials the disgust grew.

Older women often claimed that younger women did not understand the struggles they went through. They believed we were not voting for Clinton because we took for granted all the things our predecessors struggled for. Perhaps I do take for granted the opportunities I have, but I have a fundamental philosophical difference with these women. They want to see more women rulers. I want a world without rulers. Power corrupts and I won't make excuses for the corrupted regardless of which gender they are. Obama was less corrupted (for now) and therefore received my vote.

Is the Term Feminism Still Useful?

After the election, Linda Hirshman wrote an article in the Washington Post called Looking to the Future, Feminism Has to Focus. The gist of her article is that women are half the population, but the "movement" hasn't brought us together because we are split off into different groups by "race, class, and age." For her, adding concerns about racism, war, environmentalism, or prison issues into the mix have just distracted the "movement" from addressing what she feels are the real feminist issues.

Where Hirshman sees a lack of focus for a "movement" that isn't moving, I see the inherent problem with the term feminism. What the hell does it even mean? Are you a second wave feminist? A third wave feminist? An anti-racist, post modern, anarcho, enviro feminist? Women like Hirshman want feminism to be a nice neat category containing the issues meaningful to some middle class, white women - women who want success on the terms already defined by men and within the current systems we have.

Meanwhile, women like Kimberle Crenshaw and Eve Ensler "see feminism as something other than a 'me too' bid for power (and) not separate from the struggle against violence, war, racism and economic injustice." If feminism means so many things to so many people, if it is a term that requires a page of qualifiers in front of it, what's the point? Can't we all just explain what it is that we believe? Is arguing over semantics or creating largely artificial divisions and separation really going to get us anywhere? By pitting men and against women, black against white, etc., aren't we just buying into the very mechanisms used to perpetuate the injustices we are supposed to be against?

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