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How Will Feminists Vote?

On Super Tuesday, the feminist vote remains divided between Clinton and Obama -- but can the split be reconciled?
 
 
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Today is Super Tuesday, and the feminist vote is torn. Much has been made of the gender gap and the generation gap in the Democratic primary, with women supposedly drawn to Clinton and younger people backing Obama. And while the prospect of the first female president may seem to make Clinton the obvious feminist choice, prominent leaders in the women's movement remain deeply -- and publicly -- divided.

Gloria Steinem was among the first to gain significant attention for her endorsement when she threw her support behind Clinton in a New York Times op/ed, where she argued that " women are never front-runners." Steinem took the position that gender is a key component of the race, and that the "sexual caste system" continues to make political success more difficult for women:

So why is the sex barrier not taken as seriously as the racial one? The reasons are as pervasive as the air we breathe: because sexism is still confused with nature as racism once was; because anything that affects males is seen as more serious than anything that affects “only” the female half of the human race; because children are still raised mostly by women (to put it mildly) so men especially tend to feel they are regressing to childhood when dealing with a powerful woman; because racism stereotyped black men as more “masculine” for so long that some white men find their presence to be masculinity-affirming (as long as there aren’t too many of them); and because there is still no “right” way to be a woman in public power without being considered a you-know-what.

But not all feminists were buying it. Feminist bloggers -- and feminists of color in particular -- took issue with Steinem's argument, wondering, as Jenn of the Reappropriate blog did, "Where do those of us who are disadvantaged both by our race and by our gender fit in?"

Former NARAL Pro-Choice America president Kate Michelman worked for the John Edwards campaign, and then backed Obama once Edwards dropped out. She, too, cited gender issues for her vote:

When I endorsed John Edwards for president, I did so because I was confident he would help lift women out of poverty and protect a woman's right to make her own decisions about if or when to have a family. I was confident that if John were in the White House, the single mother, who was working two jobs, living paycheck to paycheck, and worried about health care and child care, would have more influence than the well-healed corporate CEO armed with a team of lobbyists.

And when I endorsed John Edwards I also knew that Barack Obama shared every one of these concerns, and over the course of Barack's own campaign, the nation has come to believe in him just like I always have as well.

Former NARAL executive director Karen Mulhauser agreed, specifically pointing out that Obama's record on reproductive rights is clearly and strongly pro-choice.

Judith Stadtman Tucker, editor of The Mothers Movement Online, also issued an endorsement of Obama. So did Ellen Bravo, a feminist professor and former director of 9to5, the National Association of Working Women. Bravo argued that "Something's happening in these elections that feels like a tipping point," and said that many of her feminist friends and colleagues were voting for Obama because "justice matters."

But, again, not all feminists were on the same page. Marcia Pappas, president of the New York State chapter of the National Organization for Women, published a now-infamous press release calling Sen. Ted Kennedy's support of Obama " the ultimate betrayal." She further angered some fellow feminists by arguing that women have an obligation "to promote and earn and deserve and elect, unabashedly, a President that is the first woman after centuries of men who 'know what’s best for us.'"

The feminist blogs responded with a flurry of criticism, and the mainstream media turned Pappas into a feminist boogey-woman. In the meantime, feminist leaders across the country continued vying for their candidate of choice.

Katha Pollitt, a prominent feminist, author and columnist for The Nation, published an Obama endorsement the day before Super Tuesday. In it, she cited Clinton and Obama's near-sameness on domestic issues like reproductive choice, arguing that foreign policy is one of the biggest issues in the primary, and Obama's consistent anti-war stance makes him a more desirable candidate. Further, she said, it's time to go beyond the "dutiful public servant" model that Democrats have relied upon -- and lost elections with -- for the past two decades.

Pollitt also signed a petition issued by New York Feminists for Peace and Barack Obama. And she wasn't alone -- more than 100 other New York-based feminists signed as well, including feminist historians Linda Gordon and Alice Kessler Harris; peace activist Cora Weiss; Dean for Social Justice Initiatives at Columbia Law School Ellen P. Chapnick; and writer Margo Jefferson.

Soon enough, the news media were buzzing with headlines like " Feminist Leaders Oppose Hillary, Endorse Obama" and " Feminist Leader Sides With Obama Over Clinton."

But the man-bites-dog appeal of the "feminists-support-man" headline is hardly the whole story.

On Saturday, president of the Center for Advancement of Public Policy and chair of the National Council of Women's Organizations, Martha Burk, published an op/ed titled " Why Hillary Is The Right Choice For Women." It was signed by no fewer than nine of the most influential feminist activists in the country, in addition to Burk herself: Gloria Feldt, former president of Planned Parenthood; Cecelia Fire Thunder, tribal president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe of South Dakota; Lulu Flores, president of the National Women's Political Caucaus; Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women; Ellen Malcolm, founder of EMILY's List; Irene Natividad, founder and president of GlobalWomen, Inc; Ellie Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation; Gloria Steinem, feminist icon, journalist and founder of Ms. Magazine; and Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones, Congresswoman from Ohio.

The endorsement focused on reproductive rights, saying that "Hillary has been an uncompromising leader and loyal ally for each of us in our battles to ensure and protect a woman's right to choose in America and around the world," followed by a laundry list of pro-choice policy points that the authors say Clinton will prioritize.

Long-time feminist leader, author and co-founder of the Women's Media Center Robin Morgan also penned a pitch for Clinton, updating her famous "Goodbye To All That" essay to capture the gender dynamic in the current election. In supporting Clinton, Morgan bid farewell to (among other things), "the double standard," "toxic viciousness" and "pretending the black community is entirely male and all women are white." She concluded the essay with:

Me? I support Hillary Rodham because she’s the best qualified of all candidates running in both parties. I support her because she’s refreshingly thoughtful, and I’m bloodied from eight years of a jolly “uniter” with ejaculatory politics. I needn’t agree with her on every point. 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 support her because she’s already smashed the first-lady stereotype and made history as a fine senator, because I believe she will continue to make history not only as the first U.S. woman president, but as a great U.S. president.

As for the “woman thing”?

Me, I’m voting for Hillary not because she’s a woman -- but because I am.

But some other feminists argue that voting along gender lines does a disservice to the cause. Ann Friedman, an editor at the popular feminist site Feministing and the American Prospect, wrote:

I don't have a feminist obligation to vote for Hillary Clinton, or donate money to her campaign, or show up at her rallies. My obligation is to support her right to compete on an equal playing field. To decry the disgusting amount of sexism she faces every day. (We've done so again and again and again.) And then to vote for another candidate if I feel he would make a better president. That, too, is a feminist act.

Journalist Laura Flanders responded directly to Morgan, asking which womanhood Clinton would stand up for. Flanders criticized Clinton's promotion of "rigged-for-profit trade policies" that were creating a "global sweatshop economy" to the detriment of female workers; Clinton-era welfare reform, "which successfully shifted responsibility for poverty in an affluent society off that society and onto the backs of poor mothers" and "cut almost 800,000 legal immigrants off aid entirely and even denied them food stamps;" and Clinton's support of the War on Drugs and discriminatory laws limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples. Flanders further contended that Clinton's record shows her to have done more harm than good to women around the world:

I'd like to believe a female president would be good for the advancement of "womanhood" worldwide. But so far Senator Clinton's votes have not been good for Iraqi, or Palestinian, or a whole lot of global womanhood. One million dead in Iraq alone. (Another nine civilians including a child killed by US forces today). At what cost does one woman prove she's ready for the White House?

But contrary to some media hype, this is hardly an inter-feminist cat-fight. Instead, it's just one example of the myriad ways in which feminists -- like women, and like other voters -- are not a monolith.

We are, however, passionate, informed and politically active enough to make Clinton and Obama work for our votes. No matter who comes out on top tonight (if anyone), women's rights activists are emboldened enough to demand a presidency that is not simply "better than Bush" or even just pro-choice; we want a feminist presidency that will protect the rights and liberties of women in the United States and around the world. That means promoting economic justice and universal health care (including comprehensive reproductive care), aiding low-income families, ending the war in Iraq, requiring pay equity, and sponsoring programs like Head Start and affordable child care that make parenthood possible.

Who will get the feminist vote? Who knows. But the goal of a feminist presidency is something we can all agree on. At least for now.

Jill Filipovic is a New York-based freelance writer and a law student at NYU. More of her writing is available online at her blog, Feministe.

 
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