Three a.m. for Feminism

By

Amy Siskind, a 42-year-old mother of two from Westchester, stood in
a Washington, D.C., park on the last day in May, telling a few
hundred cheering people that she would not, under any
circumstances, vote for Barack Obama. She was a lifelong Democrat,
she said, a donor and a volunteer for the party. But, watching the
race with a "mixture of shock, disgrace, and disgust," she was
appalled at the leadership's failure to defend Hillary Clinton from
the sexism that she believes bolstered Barack Obama's campaign.
"Now I have a message for Howard Dean and the DNC," she said into a
microphone, acid in her voice. "I'm not your sweetie!"Siskind was one of the speakers at a rally that brought busloads of
people, overwhelmingly women, to demonstrate near the Democratic
National Committee (DNC) meeting that would decide the status of
the Florida and Michigan delegations. The states had been stripped
of their delegates--a decision Clinton endorsed-- because they had
broken party rules in holding their primaries early. But, as
Clinton lost steam, seating them in full became crucial to her
argument for the nomination, and thus, to her supporters, a matter
of high democratic principle. Oaths to oppose Obama proliferated,
often among longtime female fundraisers. "You have betrayed us, our
children, and our future," Siskind proclaimed during her speech,
"and you will learn the new meaning of stay-at-home moms!"

Hillary Clinton has lost the nomination, but some of her most ardent
female backers seem unwilling to accept it. A strange narrative has
developed, abetted by Clinton and some of the mainstream feminist
organizations. In it, the will of the voters was thwarted by
chauvinistic party leaders in concert with a servile media, and
Obama's victory represents a repeat of George W. Bush's in 2000.
It's a story in which Obama becomes every arrogant young man who has
ever edged out a more deserving middle-aged woman, and Clinton,
hanging on until the bitter end, is not a spoiler but a feminist
martyr.

This conviction, that sexism cost Clinton the nomination, is likely
to be one of the more toxic legacies of this primary season. It is
leaving her supporters feeling not just disappointed but
victimized, many convinced that Obama's win is illegitimate. Taylor
Marsh, a blogger and radio host whose website has become a hub for
Clinton fans, says she gets hundreds of e-mails from angry
Democrats pledging not to vote for Obama. She's started running
posts from such readers under the headline democratic storm
warnings. "I'm not saying that this is a huge voting bloc," she
says. "I'm just saying that there is a huge amount of talk and I'm
convinced it's a reality that needs to be addressed."

Surely some of this political nihilism will fade by November. Right
now, it's hard to quantify; Internet forums and political protests
exist, in part, to magnify the passions of a few into an illusory
groundswell. In exit polls from Indiana and North Carolina, at
least half of Clinton supporters said they wouldn't vote for Obama,
but there's no way to calculate the role of gender in their
disaffection.

In the months to come, feminist leaders and Clinton herself will
urge women back into the Democratic fold. Still, the bitterness is
intense. Kate Michelman, the Obama-supporting former head of naral,
has heard enough of it to get worried. "It does feel to me, just
recently, like we're on a death mission," she says. "[T]here is a
danger where we set a course for failure in November."

It didn't start out this way. In February of 2007, Gloria Steinem
pushed back against the mushrooming discussion of identity
politics, publishing an op- ed in The New York Times titled "Right
Candidates, Wrong Question." She argued that queries about whether
Americans were more prepared to elect a woman or a black man were
"dumb and destructive." "[M]ost Americans are smart enough to
figure out that a member of a group may or may not represent its
interests," she wrote. "This time, we ... could double our chances
by working for one of these candidates, not against the other."
When reporters asked if she was supporting Clinton or Obama, she
said, "I just say yes."

Eleven months later, her position, and that of many feminists, had
grown more rigid. Taking to the Times op-ed page once again, she
argued, "Gender is probably the most restricting force in American
life, whether the question is who must be in the kitchen or who
could be in the White House." When the time came to choose a
candidate, it turned out identity politics mattered. "We have to be
able to say: 'I'm supporting her,'" she concluded, "'because she'll
be a great president and because she's a woman.'"

Like Steinem, much of the second-wave women's movement would move
from enthusiasm for both candidates to dismay and solidarity as
Clinton was eclipsed and dismissed. They watched professional media
types sing smitten fanboy hymns to Obama and, at the same time,
spend hours dissecting Clinton's laugh and cleavage. The prospect
of electing a black man clearly thrilled commentators, while the
prospect of electing a woman elicited a derisive shrug. For some
women, reaction to the coverage was radicalizing.

What's more, seeing Clinton losing to a younger, more charismatic
man seemed to echo a primal experience of middle-aged female
humiliation. "One can find it in any place of employment," Steinem
tells me. "Women who were senior tellers in banks were performing
the same work as junior vice presidents. They trained them as they
came in at the entry level and then saw them pass upward."

By the spring, the Clinton campaign and the cause of women's rights
were joined in the minds of many. Second-wave activists chided
Obama-supporting women for not getting on board and began
interpreting any attack on Clinton as a slight against their
gender. The seating of delegates from Michigan and Florida started
to seem like a feminist cause celebre.

The movement coalesced in mid-May, when members of Clinton's finance
committee, including Susie Tompkins Buell, sometimes described as
one of Clinton's closest friends, and Allida Black, editor of the
Eleanor Roosevelt Papers at George Washington University, formed
WomenCount PAC. The group ran full-page advertisements in The New
York Times, USA Today, and other newspapers addressing the country
on behalf of "the women of this nation." The ads proclaimed, rather
grandly, "Hillary's voice is OUR voice, and she's speaking for all
us." Their story was featured on the "Today" show, "Good Morning
America," CNN, and Fox, and they joined other volunteers in
organizing the rally at the DNC.

Meanwhile, Clinton, who'd previously avoided presenting herself as
the woman's candidate, brought gender to the forefront of her
campaign as never before. On May 19, in a Washington Post
interview, she spoke out for the first time about the sexism she's
faced throughout the race, calling it "deeply offensive to millions
of women." The press, she suggested, had failed to decry
"incredible vitriol that has been engendered by the comments by
people who are nothing but misogynists." She began injecting
feminist and civil rights language into her arguments for seating
the Michigan and Florida delegates. Piously invoking Seneca Falls
and Selma in a May 21 speech, she pledged to "carry on this legacy
and ensure that in our nominating process every voice is heard and
every single vote is counted."

More and more, she was tying her campaign to the grand narrative of
women's emancipation. "I am in this race for all the women in their
nineties who've told me they were born before women could vote, and
they want to live to see a woman in the White House," she wrote in
a letter to superdelegates on May 28. "For all the women who are
energized for the first time, and voting for the first time. For
the little girls--and little boys--whose parents lift them onto
their shoulders at our rallies, and whisper in their ears, 'See, you
can be anything you want to be.'"

Mainstream feminist organizations joined calls to seat the two
states, with leaders of NOW and the Feminist Majority Foundation
participating in the rally at the DNC. Some have suggested that the
DNC's reluctance was in itself a sign of covert sexism. "There's a
strong feeling that this would have been handled differently if
Hillary Clinton hadn't won [those] states," says Kim Gandy,
president of NOW.

Feminists who supported Obama were incredulous. Harvard Law
professor and civil rights activist Lani Guinier suggests that
Clinton's supporters were trying to turn her into the Al Gore of
2008. "It appears that some of Hillary's supporters want to
externalize the problem, which is why the analogy to 2000 seems to
work," she says. "Then they can say it wasn't anything wrong with
her candidacy--instead, it was an injustice that was done to
women."

The wholesale conflation of Clintonism and establishment
feminism--and the merging of their grievances--has created a kind
of disorienting parallel reality. But what accounts for this
through-the-looking-glass split?

Partly, it's a response to simple longing. The prospect of a female
president who is also a feminist would have been a shining triumph
for a movement that has lately had more disappointments than
successes. "At least in a certain segment of second-wave feminism,
the emphasis on getting women in office was always very, very
high," says Frances Kissling, former president of Catholics for a
Free Choice, now a fellow at Harvard's Radcliffe Institute. "In a
certain sense, second-wave feminism is in its old age. ... For many
second- wave leaders who are at the peak of their professional
life, or beyond the peak of their professional life, this would
seem like such an enormous final victory. "

Back in the pre-feminist days of 1934, Malvina Lindsay, the women's
page editor of The Washington Post, argued that women wouldn't vote
for one of their own for president "because they have set too high
ideals for their goddesses." Indeed, she wrote, "the woman
President that Miss Lillian D. Rock, secretary of the National
Association of Women Lawyers, expects to see in the White House
within her lifetime will have to be a super-woman to take the hurdle
of female appraisal."

Second-wave feminism was supposed to prove Lindsay wrong. One of the
central premises of the movement was that women had been
artificially set against each other, and that, if they could unite
behind their common interests, they could revolutionize their roles
in the world. In the mid-'70s, elite young women were already
pondering who could break the ultimate glass ceiling, and among
their candidates was an impassioned young lawyer, Hillary Rodham,
deemed an icon of her generation by Life magazine after her 1969
Wellesley commencement speech. In his biography of Hillary Clinton,
Carl Bernstein describes Betsey Wright, later Bill Clinton's
gubernatorial chief of staff, imploring Bill not to marry Hillary,
take her off to Arkansas, and thus spoil her chance at becoming the
first female president. "I really started in on how he couldn't do
that. He shouldn't do that," Wright said. "That he could find
anybody he wanted to be a political wife, but we'd ... never find
anyone like her" to run for office.

For young feminists, who have largely gone for Obama, their first
encounter with Hillary came when she defended Bill from charges of
philandering during the 1992 presidential campaign; for them, her
case for leadership was never clear-cut. But, for many of those who
remember Hillary Rodham, her reemergence as a political power in
her own right seems a kind of generational redemption. "She's the
candidate that I have wanted for decades," says Allida Black. "I
had heard about Hillary for a good fifteen years before Bill ran in
'92, and I was for Bill because of Hillary."

For these supporters, Clinton's portrayal during the campaign has
been anything but inspirational. They say the press has demonized
and degraded her, and almost any zealous supporter can reel off a
list of journalistic insults. The media is the real target of their
rage, while the anger at Obama comes from the sense that he's
benefited from it and failed to denounce misogyny the way he does
racism.

"We thought we'd gotten past a lot of this stuff, and it turns out
that we were deluding ourselves," Black says. "When CNN calls
Hillary a white bitch, when they talk about her cleavage, when the
metaphor to describe her presentation is, oh, she reminds me of my
wife when she's angry and tells me to take out the garbage, or when
they mock that Hillary has the support of white women ... I've been
stunned by it. I've been flabbergasted by it." (CNN, of course, did
not call Clinton a white bitch. The GOP consultant and McCain
adviser Alex Castellanos did, or kind of did, on the network. But
the way many Clinton supporters retell it is itself indicative of
their distress.)

Of course, Clinton has encountered straight-up misogyny--lots of it.
At the same time, anger at obvious instances of sexism has expanded
to encompass every setback she's faced, every jab thrown her
way--the cut and thrust of any normal campaign. Several of her
feminist defenders, for example, interpreted calls for Clinton to
drop out, lest she cause a party rift, as expressions of
condescending gender bias. "The first woman ever to win a
presidential primary is supposed to stop competing, to curtsy and
exit stage right," Ellen Malcolm, founder and president of Emily's
List, wrote in The Washington Post on May 10. But that wasn't
anti-woman or even anti-Clinton; it was just Democratic politics.
Similar worries were aired about Edward Kennedy in 1980--a
Christian Science Monitor story claimed his "to-the-bitter-end
candidacy already may be irreparably splitting the Democratic
Party"--and about Jerry Brown in 1992, once Bill Clinton came near
a mathematical lock on the nomination.

Indeed, Clinton has never been just a victim of her gender. When it
came to the deeper narratives of the campaign, Clinton benefited,
as do many women in politics, from her good fortune of having
married a successful political man. Hillary Clinton has spent only
four more years than Obama in the Senate, but she was consistently
assumed to be a more plausible commander-in-chief than her rival
based on her time as First Lady. At the same time, it's been widely
assumed that she's been entirely vetted, leaving many parts of her
life--her disastrous leadership style on health care reform, her
role in trying to silence and discredit Bill's mistresses, her
husband's post-White House financial dealings-- unexamined. The
slimy right-wing rumor mill that tormented the Clintons in the '90s
has directed its venom toward Obama: He's the one who has been
depicted as a Muslim Manchurian candidate in a smear campaign that
has gotten a dispiriting degree of traction.

Obama was probably smart not to bring up more of his opponent's
shortcomings; doing so would play into the narrative of
victimization that became the dominant theme of Clinton's campaign
in its final weeks. "Without question," Susan Estrich, author of
The Case for Hillary Clinton, wrote in late May, "there is serious
disaffection right now among many women about the sense of being
shunted aside, told to pipe down and line up, the sense that the
Hillary campaign, and Hillary herself, has become a mirror for the
frustrations the rest of us have faced as we battle subtle and
no[t]-so-subtle discrimination."

This psychic wound is not Obama's fault, but it is his problem.
Establishment feminism has not done itself proud using its noble
struggle for social justice as an alibi for political hardball. But
it represents women whose frustration and sense of unfairness are
deeply felt, and those feelings need to be addressed.

For a start, that probably means Obama shouldn't nominate a vice
president like Jim Webb, who has a number of attractive attributes
but a notably bad record on women's issues. He also needs to stop
calling women he doesn't know "sweetie." Beyond that, both
feminists who support Obama and those who support Clinton suggest
he give a speech about women's issues similar to the one he made
about race. One of the things Obama is best at is making people feel
that he understands their grievances and anxieties, even if he
disagrees with them about remedies. If he can reach out to
working-class whites offended by affirmative action, surely he can
do the same for the middle-aged women who feel wronged by their
surrogate's defeat.

"I do think he could talk more about the contributions that feminism
has made to this country, from pay equity to basic respect for
women, and, in particular, he should acknowledge the legitimate
frustrations of women who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s," says
Guinier. "The way you speak to people who are in pain is to
acknowledge their pain."

Clinton and her feminist supporters, though, also have work to do,
because their rhetoric of disenfranchisement has become
destructive--witness the chants, during Clinton's speech on the
night Obama won the nomination, urging her to continue on to the
convention. It would be the grimmest irony imaginable if feminist
irredentism helped elect a candidate as anti-feminist as John
McCain. In recent weeks, Clinton has fashioned herself as a
standard-bearer for women's rights. Ultimately, her work on behalf
of Obama will show whether she means it.

Michelle Goldberg's new book, The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power
and the Future of the World, will be published in April 2009. It
recently won the J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award.

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