Does Being a Feminist Mean Voting for Hillary?
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The race for 2008 has just begun and already I am feeling giddy with hope. The majority of Americans recognize that the war was botched, and larger numbers than ever are questioning the morality of preemptive violence in general. Edwards sounds like he's sampling JFK in his twang about individual responsibility. Obama is sweet-talking a nation with his audacious authenticity. And Clinton -- mother, wife, and badass -- is a front-runner to become the first female president in the history of the United States. It is almost enough to restore my college-era idealism.
Yet one question keeps lurking menacingly beneath the surface of my excitement: am I obligated, as a young feminist, to support Hillary Clinton for president?
Exploring the answer gets me into a political twister game of identities. As an engaged citizen, I am obligated to comprehensively review and analyze the candidates' values and plans, their histories and qualities, and then choose the one I believe to be the most enlightened leader. Though I sometimes distrust the electoral machine, which makes it harder and harder to distinguish candidates' real ideas and passions from their fat-pocketed spin master's magic, I find my ways.
As my mother's daughter, I feel obligated to support and vote for Hillary Clinton. For the first time in history, a woman has a real chance at moving into the Oval Office.
According to one poll conducted by GfKRoper Public Affairs, Americans believe that a woman president would be as good as or better than a man at leading on the issues of foreign policy (78 percent), homeland security (77 percent) and the economy (88 percent). According to another -- the Times Union/Siena College First Woman President poll -- 66 percent of Americans think the U.S. is ready for a woman president and 81 percent would vote for one.
My mother, and the second-wave feminist movement she was a part of, fought long and hard for this kind of paradigm shift. I imagine myself the honored carrier of a feminist flag that has been flown from many a neglected pole, hoisted up by many a big-hearted (and often big-haired) feminist -- women like Victoria Woodhull (1872), Shirley Chisholm (1972), and Winona LaDuke (1996). I don't want them to think I have forgotten, that I take for granted, not only the right to vote, but the right to vote in a country whose culture has shifted so dramatically as to finally treat a female candidate as a serious contender.
And this is where the trouble starts. The feminist movement coaxed the country into believing that a leader is not defined by gender. Period. And in some ways, the pressure to support Hillary Clinton -- by virtue of her being a female -- feels regressive. As a young, fed-up progressive, I want to vote for someone who seems real, who strikes me as outside of the old guard and its outrageously overblown campaign spending. I want to support a candidate who doesn't compromise on certain issues -- violence, the constitution -- and understands the wisdom of the "middle path" in others -- taxes, social security. This part of my identity, the hungry-to-be-surprised part, is looking for a leader who reminds me of nothing, who only conjures up a kinder, wiser future. That person is not looking much like former first lady, current Senator Clinton.
So where do my deepest loyalties lie? Do I prioritize my commitment to wholesale progress -- no gender qualifiers attached -- or do I focus on the importance of this historical moment for women?
The White House Project, a non-partisan nonprofit, makes a strong case for the latter, arguing that a critical mass of women in leadership positions -- no matter what their specific politics -- will make the world a better place; it is essentially a feminist "tipping point" ala Malcolm Gladwell. They help female candidates of all sorts of persuasions raise money, in addition to promoting girls' leadership and doing powerful media activism.
As much as I respect this organization -- and others, like Code Pink -- I believe that they dance dangerously on the line between advocacy and essentialism. The former is well-intentioned -- get women in office and they will tip the country toward more egalitarian, more peaceful policies. The latter is an inversion of the same old bullshit -- now it's not men who are more inherently fit to lead and save the world, but women.
Lisa Jervis, founder of Bitch Magazine , wrote a brilliant essay on what she calls "femmenism" -- "the mistaken belief ... that female leadership is inherently different from male; that having more women in positions of power, authority, or visibility will automatically lead to, or can be equated with, feminist social change; that women are uniquely equipped as a force for action on a given issue; and that isolating feminist work as solely pertaining to women is necessary or even useful."
She brings up examples that progressive feminists would prefer to forget -- Condi and the Abu Ghraib gals, Ann Coulter, etc. Has having female editors at the helm of mainstream women's magazines made them any less self-hating or focused on conspicuous consumption?
Further, part and parcel of contemporary feminist thought is the idea of "intersectionality" -- that race, class, gender, sexuality, religion, and disability cannot be analyzed as separate, autonomous strands when one looks at the tangled web of oppression. This theory suggests that being a good feminist might also mean supporting a minority candidate, or a candidate from a working class background, and not automatically favoring a woman for gender's sake. As someone from a white, middle-class upbringing, maybe my most pressing duty is to vote for someone as unlike me as possible, someone who didn't have the privileges of white skin or financial stability.
So here I am, twisted into a pretty wicked knot of loyalties, affiliations, and philosophies of social change. If I go with Hillary, I respect my legacy but neglect my fiercest politics. If I support someone other than Hillary, I may vote with a vision of the future, but lose the opportunity to participate in a critical moment in feminist history. Until election day comes, I'll keep watching and listening, trying to let myself feel the pull of my wisest self.
Courtney E. Martin is a writer, teacher and filmmaker living in Brooklyn. She is currently working on a book on her generation's obsession with food and fitness, Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters , which will be published by Free Press in spring of 2007. You can read more about her work at www.courtneyemartin.com.