What Did Nader Bashing Say About Feminism?
I knew I needed to take stock of the feminist movement when an eighty-year-old woman noticed my "Another Babe for Nader" button and gave me the finger. It was no small gesture -- she put her whole rail-thin, crisply dressed body into it, jabbing both arms in the air in alternating motions, fingers aloft, energetic and vulgar. "Fuck you!" the aging Upper West Side sophisticate spat at me, "Women are going to die in back alleys because of you!"
I felt like Alice through the electoral looking glass. Instead of dodging the usual "Baby killer!" epithets from blue-blooded, gray-haired, family values mavens who curse my participation in reproductive rights rallies, here I was being flipped off by a furious feminist elder who couldn't fathom why a pro-choice woman might value electoral choice beyond the two-party Republicrat cartel.
Welcome to the Wonderland of Campaign 2000, where a "Vote Nader/LaDuke For a $10 Minimum Wage" pin might as well have been a "kick-me" sign. Strangers sputtering four-letter-words at Nader supporters were simply taking their cue from the collective ranting of angry liberal pundits, beltway Democrats and corporate media, all of whom painted the Green Party contender as a selfish, egomaniacal spoiler who was only out to siphon liberal votes away from Al Gore, their rightful owner. Feminist leaders and thinkers railed against pro-choice progressive women who refused to be taken in by the smug campaign pitch, "Pucker up, baby -- you've got nowhere else to go!"
Where did this demeaning and ultimately self-defeating notion come from? Sure, Democratic powerbrokers expected no-strings-attached progressive support, arrogantly assuming they could get away with egregious wrongs because they are marginally better on social issues than the other major-party alternative. Since Gore is the only thing standing between the GOP and women's wombs, the Democrats argued, "A vote for Nader is a vote for Bush."
Mainstream feminist groups such as the National Abortion Rights Action League and the National Organization for Women, and gay rights groups such as the Human Rights Campaign, jumped on board, hammering home that message in a variety of ways. NARAL spent $1.5 million in advertising to convince women that a vote for Nader would jeopardize reproductive freedom. In a scathing interview with the San Francisco Chronicle last September, Patricia Ireland ripped into Nader, saying he showed "an ignorance that's almost willful" when it comes to women's and gay and lesbian rights. NOW's web site insisted Ralph Nader was not "a viable alternative for feminist voters" in part because comments about feminist and lesbian/gay issues on the Greens' web site were too brief. (Ironically, Nader's web site calls for "an Equal Rights Amendment to assure equal treatment for women in education, employment, health and other arenas," and specifically endorses NOW's eleven-point platform.) Also in September, HRC rep David Smith told the Chronicle that his organization equates Nader and Bush votes "whenever we're asked."
In an essay for The Nation last August, feminist journalist Barbara Ehrenreich got it right when she characterized this illogic as "a disturbingly Orwellian proposition, easily generalized to 'Don't challenge the system, you'll only make it worse.'" I expected ludicrous finger-wagging from inside-the-beltway boys; I never expected such codependence from feminists, who hold independence as a central principle of the women's movement.
One after another, feminist organizations and individuals endorsed Gore without asking for anything in return. A neon sign flashing "Forget us after Nov. 7" might have been as tactically effective. Gore scored NARAL's endorsement - and their expensive ad campaign -- without ever renouncing his anti-choice voting record of years' past; he enjoyed NOW's vocal support without promising to reverse his destructive welfare reform policies.
Movement leaders came out swinging not so much for Gore as against Nader. Instead of trying to convince unregistered voters of Gore's merits, feminist icon Gloria Steinem bullied the Greens with a list of "Top Ten Reasons Why I'm Not Voting For Nader." The fourth item on Steinem's list is confounding: Nader didn't deserve her vote, she said, because he asked Native American activist Winona LaDuke to be his running mate 'despite his likely contribution to the victory of George W. Bush,' who has made 'breathtakingly dangerous' statements about Native American issues.
What is truly breathtaking is the irony of a feminist who spends more than three decades advocating for women's equality and inclusion -- then tries to persuade voters to shun a populist advocate because he chose a progressive woman of color as the Green Party vice presidential nominee.
Such doublethink informed the Nader-bashing phenomenon. When Granny D. walked cross-country to call attention to the need for campaign finance reform, she scored glowing prose in Ms.; when progressives put their votes where Granny D.'s mission is, they got nothing but scorn from Steinem. On a number of online feminist discussion groups I lurk on, participants have over the years praised Barbara Ehrenreich as one of too few journalists bringing a well-researched, progressive feminist perspective to media coverage of women's issues. Yet when Ehrenreich applied her characteristic critical analysis to the presidential race and asked feminists to stop treating Nader supporters disrespectfully, the same Internet communities responded as if she were a heretic.
Certainly, there are strategic reasons why mainstream feminist organizations might marshal votes to defeat the candidate they fear the most. Women, especially women of color, are most vulnerable to violence, poverty, discrimination and abuse, and would likely bear the brunt of a Bush administration. Feminists who preferred not to shoulder that burden this time around could not be faulted for that decision. There's a difference, however, between mobilizing against an anti-feminist Republican, and browbeating supporters of the only progressive candidate in the race in order to aid an anti-feminist Democrat.
When did 'feminism' and 'Democrat' become synonymous? It hasn't always been this way. In an open letter to the feminist community posted to Women's Enews just before the election, Ehrenreich noted: "some prominent feminists forget that only eight years ago, NOW announced a tentative plan to launch a new feminist political party. I was at one of the meetings to discuss the new party, as was Patricia Ireland, and the feeling at that time was of disgust for the Democrats and weariness with being taken for granted by them. In that year the Republican candidate, Bush Sr., was far more openly aligned with the Christian Right than his son is now. So, even by NOW's standards, rejection of the Democratic Party is hardly treason."
Meritless as the "traitor" label might be, it is still a favorite slur against all those who refused to support the conservative Democrats this time around. In a post-election Women's Enews article titled Anti-Woman Backlash Strategy Dwindling, author Tania Melich lowered the Nader-bashing bar with this sketchy theory: "An analysis of the Nader vote indicates that his strongest supporters were under-30-year-old, independent, liberal males. Are they the latest backlash constituency?"
Can someone explain that bizarre question to me? Ralph Nader and Winona LaDuke called for an ERA, a living wage, and universally safe and accessible health care and day care -- and we're supposed to brand their supporters "backlash" voters? It's bad enough that Melich disappears women from the Green Party, even though women won eight of the Greens' twenty successful national, state and local races, and women were involved in every aspect of grassroots Green campaigning. What's worse is Melich's implication that male Nader voters were motivated not by a sincere dedication to economic and social justice, but by aggressive "anti-woman" callousness.
For the Real Backlash, Look to the DLC
In 1996, after helping to reelect Bill Clinton and Al Gore, I felt so dirty that a hot, two-hour shower could not wash off the sinking feeling that my evil-of- two-lessers vote had just affirmed the increasingly rightward shift of the Democratic party. That not-so-fresh feeling kept repeating on me with every new Clinton/Gore disappointment: their continued racist drug war, their refusal to ease sanctions on Iraq, their failure to hold the broadcasting industry to any sort of socially responsible standard, their unwillingness to aggressively combat attacks on affirmative action, their tendency to bloat the Pentagon's already overly inflated budget while public school classrooms remained underfunded and overcrowded. The list seemed endless.
The gap between the rich and the poor increased under Clinton/Gore, as has the arrogance of corporations who now know that Democrats are almost as good an investment as Republicans. From 1996 on, each new Democratic sell-out deepened my sense of betrayal by a party that seemed determined to prove that there was no Left left in electoral politics. I swore that if given a better option, I would not again be complicit in the Democratic party's abandonment of me and mine. Beyond the differences between the major party candidates on a handful of important social issues such as abortion and gun control, I knew that Ralph Nader was not just blowing smoke when he described the Dems and the GOP as one party that doesn't do much to combat injustice and another that tries to generate more injustice.
When it started to become clear Nader was going to run a real campaign this time around, I was thrilled to be able to consider going Green in 2000. Before I made my decision, I listened to the arguments for Gore (the thought of Bush appointing a Scalia clone to the Supreme Court was jarring enough to warrant at least a fair hearing for the Dems). Yet no matter how many stump speeches I listened to or op-eds I read, only one theme emerged: "Vote Gore -- He's not the other guy!"
Some liberals claimed the Vice President's leftist tendencies were stifled at Clinton's side. A quick perusal of his record disproves this theory. As Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair report in Al Gore: A User's Manual (Verso, 2000), Gore was far more conservative before climbing the political ladder. He once voted for a fetal protection bill that would have would have defined the term "persons" to include "unborn children from the moment of conception." Way before anyone had ever heard of Dr. Laura, Gore was calling homosexuality "abnormal sexual behavior." Throughout the course of his career, Gore has: sided with Jesse Helms against a bill which would have protected HIV patients from discrimination; supported the Gulf War and Star Wars; voted for the neutron bomb, the B-2 bomber, the Trident II, MX and Midgetman missiles; and, though he talks a good game on the environment, undermined the Endangered Species Act in the snail darter case and fought for the construction of a nuclear reactor in his home state. (Sadly, news consumers heard more about Gore's disturbing political record from Sparky, Tom Tomorrow's cartoon penguin, than from most major news anchors, reporters or pundits.)
Lest you think that Gore "evolved" in recent years, the transcript of his Democratic Convention speech is telling: he bragged about being the architect of welfare reform, one of the most anti-feminist policies passed in the last decade. Not only do poor women need public assistance for their basic survival, but battered women often rely on it in order to leave abusive relationships. I'm not sure what disturbs me more: that Gore was confident liberals would reward him for taking away this financial safety net, or that feminists didn't hold him accountable for so serious a betrayal of women's basic economic protections.
Though he promised to wage war on drug companies and fight "for the people, not the powerful," Gore spent the last eight years doing the opposite. The Democratic Leadership Council, which he used to chair, is a corporate-friendly, money-hungry centrist body that has done its utmost to steer the Democrats away from the civil rights constituencies they used to serve ñ away from feminists, people of color, labor, environmentalists ñ and toward, as Nader often pointed out, the Exxons, the General Motors, and the DuPonts. Gore has said he wants to hire thousands of new cops, not surprising for a supporter of the prison industrial complex and the death penalty, which disproportionately criminalize people of color. Universal health care, once a prime goal for the Democratic Left, is dismissed a foolish pipe dream by the now DLC-dominated party, led by Joe Lieberman, who receives more drug company cash than almost any other Senator.
Shortly after the Democratic convention, the Wall Street Journal reported that Joe Lieberman assured a group of Wall Street types that a Gore/Lieberman administration would be pro-business. Gore's "for the people" soundbites shouldn't worry corporate America a bit, the Senator insisted, since they were just "rhetorical flourishes" trotted out for the convention cameras. Translation: "Don't worry 'bout the insults, boys -- we'll be there for you when it counts!" If it's disheartening that Lieberman flaunted the Democrats' calculated attempts to fool their base, it's downright depressing that their base was so promptly taken in.
An Honest Politician: What a Concept
Why is it that during presidential elections, time-tested, battle-scarred activists all of a sudden forget how power works? Maybe because it is psychologically easier to castigate progressive women and men as naive than to envision a revolutionary change to our corrupted two-party, no-options system. Revolution is never easy, and often requires risks and sacrifices; conditions get worse before they get better. But where would women and people of color be now if abolitionists and suffragists had decided their struggles were just too difficult or uncomfortable to wage? Where would we be if our fierce activist foremothers were stymied by the notion -- same as what's being thrown at today's Greens -- that it would be better to wait until some mythical "right" future moment before launching a women's rights revolution?
By no means am I likening Ralph Nader at Madison Square Garden to Elizabeth Cady Stanton at Seneca Falls. Nader is certainly no saint, nor are many clueless Greens -- and other liberals -- who still believe that while gender issues are generally important, "identity politics" are not quite central to The Grand and Noble Cause. The Greens have a lot of work to do to thoroughly incorporate the feminist platforms they espouse in their campaign literature into their consciousness, and into practice.
Despite those limitations, this was the first presidential race that ever truly moved me. I'd never seen a politician running for high office tell the truth before. I liked it. For the first time in my life I heard a presidential candidate condemn environmental racism, corporate welfare and the inherent inequity of a criminal justice system that locks up poor people and people of color for non-violent drug offenses after denying them the educational and economic opportunities that could provide a better life. Also for the first time, I heard a presidential candidate affirm the rights of lesbian and gay couples to marry, raise children and share equal privileges and responsibilities with heterosexual couples.
Nader's candidacy encouraged crowds of ten to fifteen thousand energized, mostly young voters to circumvent media invisibility by getting these messages directly from the source, at the largest political rallies of this campaign. Why were so many people so eager to plunk down $5 to $15 dollars a head to attend these rallies? Because Nader articulated the same concerns thousands of protestors brought to the streets of Seattle last year: that globalization, unrestricted trade, and commercial consolidation of the media benefit corporations at the expense of domestic and international environmental, labor and human rights. While he didn't always frame it as such, Nader's denunciations of government incentives for unethical, exploitative corporations were implicitly feminist: women and girls are paid pennies for sweatshop labor in developing countries; women and their loved ones face health risks from genetically modified foods and die from pollution caused by the oil and automobile industries; the alcohol and tobacco industries spend millions in marketing to target women and girls for debilitating addictions. And, as feminist media critic Laura Flanders argued in Real Majority, Media Minority: The Costs of Sidelining Women in Reporting (Common Courage Press, 1997), the corporate media may be responsible for the promulgation of as many anti-feminist myths as right-wingers. Feminists would benefit greatly if, as Nader asserted, news broadcasters were held accountable to the public rather than to their stockholders.
According to exit polls taken after the election, Gore lost eleven percent of formerly Democratic voters to Bush, compared to only two percent to Nader, whose support came in large part from people who would otherwise have not voted at all. But it's easier for the left to blame third party backers for Democratic losses than to cop to the monumental failings of the Democrats. Nader did not lose the presidency for Al Gore -- Al Gore, the corporate-coddling, rightward-leaning, welfare reforming, milquetoast wonder did that all on his own.
Feminists Should Know Better
I imagine that some feminists found Nader-bashing easier than facing the fact that organized feminism has undermined women's collective power. By employing nasty and divisive rhetoric in the attempt to cajole Nader supporters away from a burgeoning progressive movement, we implicitly alerted the Democrats and the media that so long as abortion is legal (never mind accessible), feminists will be willing to ignore the needs of people of color, the poor and the planet.
We're doing ourselves no favors by playing the submissive to the Dems. The DLC boys don't care that feminists (and labor, civil rights supporters and environmentalists) voted for them primarily because we feared the threat of Dubya more than we detested the history of Al. They counted on this very fact. When we allow ourselves to be used in this way, we can't expect to be able to force hard changes in the political arena. Why would conservative Dems with shoddy records have any reason to wage tough battles for feminist causes, such as economic equity, child care, universal health care, and affirmative action, after we've given away our political bargaining chips for free?
Pro-choicers used to know better.
In Marlene Gerber Fried's remarkable anthology From Abortion to Reproductive Freedom: Transforming a Movement (South End Press, 1990), Kathryn Kolbert argued that ending the feminization of poverty must be a fundamental plank in any reproductive rights agenda. "Reproductive freedom means the ability to choose whether, when, how, and with whom one will have children. Choice means not only having a legal option, but also the economic means and social conditions that make it possible to effectuate one's choice," Kolbert wrote.
Kolbert's argument is more relevant today than ever. Rather than improving, many of the barriers to economic equity that abridge a woman's right to choose have worsened after eight years of Clinton/Gore. Take housing: Under this administration Niketown has replaced Main Street, USA. Our cities have gentrified at an exponential rate, making real estate moguls multi-millionaires while decimating urban communities of color and forcing low-income women and their families from their homes. Low- and even moderate-income housing is about as much of a memory as Bill Clinton's fidelity. Ask a mother raising her children on relatives' sofabeds, in shelters or on the streets how she feels about choice.
The New Democrats have not made affordable, accessible child care a priority, nor have they given working parents the option of mandated paid maternity leave. To their credit, the administration did pass a half-way decent family leave act that prevents workers from being fired if they take unpaid time off for child or elder care ñ but it's unlikely that a single blue-collar mom would ever be able to exercise the choice to go eight weeks without a paycheck.
Finally, ask women with minimum-wage futures whose welfare benefits were yanked before their final semesters of college, or women who fear leaving mandatory workfare jobs despite sexual harassment, what kinds of choices they feel are available to them.
How did we stray so far from Kolbert's inclusive, challenging, pre-DLC vision? In an essay last July posted on a "Feminists For Nader" web site, D.A. Clarke reflected on "The Nader Dilemma":
Working-class feminists, poverty activists, or feminists who feel a loyalty to all women regardless of class, are being put in an invidious situation here; asked to ignore all other considerations, betray our loyalty to the working class and the poor, postpone all our concerns about peace, justice, and planetary survival, and vote the corporate ticket in order to preserve access to abortion for what looks more and more like a privileged few among us in either case. A larger privileged few with access to legal abortions, or a very tiny privileged few with access to top-dollar illegal ones; is this a difference that makes no difference? Or is the upholding of Roe essential, no matter how restricted the numbers of women actually able to exercise the legal right it protects? What's Roe worth to ya? That's what the Dems are asking us, with cynical confidence, holding Roe hostage for our complicity in their other crimes against women.
Clarke suspected that most feminists who voted for Gore would cast their ballots with a figurative gun to their head. "The questions for all of us now," she asked, are, "Is the gun loaded or not? And, how do I feel about voting with a gun held to my head?"
We are at a crossroads. Now that the election has passed we must ask ourselves some hard questions. Are we to be an inclusive social justice movement that fully understands and promotes race, class and human rights issues as inextricably linked with women's rights? If not, we should admit that all our theoretical arguments in academic journals and hand-wringing debates in activist conferences are simply flowery prose and window dressing. Will we work in coalition with women and men fighting for the preservation of women's, human and environmental rights and safety? If so, we must incorporate a broad-based sociopolitical critique into our work, focusing on the needs of women from the bottom up, striving to do more than retain the protections already afforded to the privileged few (a group growing ever-smaller over time).
I've always believed that the women's movement is fundamentally broad-based; always suspected that despite the continual problems of putting a progressive ideology into practice, the majority of feminists recognize that single issues such as reproductive rights do not and cannot take precedence over a whole range of equally important social justice concerns.
For decades, feminists have worked to overcome criticisms that ours is an elitist movement serving only the interests of white, middle-class women. In a great many ways, the women's movement has grown more diverse, more challenging, more savvy and more global than ever before. But by attacking women who supported third parties as naive, irresponsible, or even misogynist for voting their consciences on race and class issues, organized feminism has undermined its credibility as an inclusive movement. Its leaders might do well to remember that - and work to correct it - the next time they wonder why so many young women, women of color and working-class women say they feel alienated from feminism.
J. Lee Polnachek is a freelance writer based on the East Coast and has been active in feminist organizing for ten years. A version of this piece originally appeared in the January, 2001 issue of the Women's Review of Books.