There is still a false idea out there that feminists back every woman, regardless of how she behaves. Let's leave that behind right along with 2006.
In fact, feminism is just the belief that all people have the full circle of human qualities combined in a unique way in each of us. The simplistic labels of "feminine" and "masculine" are mostly about what society wants us to do: submerge our unique humanity in care giving and reproducing if we're women, and trade our unique humanity for power if we're men.
So yes, I believe that women have the right to be wrong, with no double standard of criticism. But when we have the power to make a choice, we also have responsibility. Biology isn't destiny, and it isn't a free pass either.
Take the example of Condoleezza Rice. As George W. Bush's hired gun for foreign policy, she's been working for a guy who is opposed overwhelmingly by African American women and men voters, and by a majority of all women voters, too. Many white men are giving up on him too. Still, Rice could be given credit for sincerity in believing that Bush knows better what is good for the country than most people in it -- if she weren't so hypocritical.
When Rice was made provost of Stanford University, for example, she was the product of affirmative action. (I'm not saying she isn't smart; on the contrary, affirmative action often raises standards by enlarging the pool of talent.) The problem was that she pulled up the ladder behind her by opposing affirmative action for everybody else. When she benefited from Bush's support as well as his effort to attract some black voters by appointing a second African American secretary of state, she quickly became Bush's justifier and marketer instead of his advisor. Unlike her predecessor Colin Powell, she doesn't seem to have tried to mitigate disaster or given unwelcome advice about the consequences of failure in Iraq. Instead, she sugarcoated this illegal invasion in pretty public phrases about democracy, and became Bush's "yes" woman in inner circles, too.
So I don't care that she's going down with a sinking ship. She helped to take the United States to a new low in world respect, a new high in world hatred, and a new danger from increased terrorism. I don't care that she got in big trouble on every front, from shopping for designer shoes on Madison Avenue while the poor of New Orleans were drowning to renewing the painful old image of the smart black retainer working for the not-so-smart Southern family. She has gone from a Presidential "mention" to an unmentionable on the coattails of the boss she chose.
Then there is the pop cultural saga of Judith Regan. As an entrepreneurial editor, she turned Howard Stern's juvenile monologues into a book from her basement, then continued publishing him as he created such trademarks as persuading women (but not men) to strip and subject themselves to ridicule on his television show. Her publishing empire kept going up in profits and down in taste until she finally reached the bottom: O. J. Simpson.
By profiteering on a book and TV interview in which Simpson told his story "as if" he had murdered his estranged wife and her friend -- something millions of Americans and at least one jury believe he did -- she finally reached a point that could no longer be deodorized by money. Though she tried to save her ass by insisting she had got Simpson to confess -- something Simpson promptly denied -- there was a rebellion from bookstores to TV stations, from the families of the murdered to talk show hosts. She was fired as an embarrassment.
Instead of taking responsibility for her own judgment, however, she launched a lawsuit against Rupert Murdoch on the grounds that her only real career problem was that he accused her of anti-Semitism. While it's hard not to support anyone who sues Murdoch, she who lives by bad taste dies by bad taste.
I also don't care that Ann Coulter, the right-wing blond extremist, has become the woman people love to hate on television. Indeed, she may be so self-destructive that she doesn't need to be on this list; consider her equating a liberal with a traitor, or her charge that 9/11 widows were reveling in their husbands' deaths. Reporters are only partly joking when they ask me if I've hired her to represent anti-feminism. Nonetheless, TV bookers still put her on to give viewers the guilty pleasure of watching a train wreck, and her books are still causing the death of trees. Therefore, it's worth pointing out that she is a rare woman who actually is her own worst enemy.
I also call your attention to Katherine Harris, the Florida secretary of state who altered the course of history by giving its electoral votes -- and the White House -- to George W. Bush. In hair and make-up otherwise reserved for female impersonators, Harris went on television to throw the election to the candidate she had been supporting. Though she was rewarded by her election to Congress, multiple investigations and documentaries have since revealed a degree of selective voter suppression that deserved a re-vote, not just a re-count. Now that even her Florida district has rejected her, Harris seems likely to enter history as proof that one unprincipled act can have worldwide impact.
Finally, there is the mother of them all, Barbara Bush. She gave up finishing college to marry the first President Bush, and her commitment to reproductive freedom and Planned Parenthood for her son's ascension to the White House as the candidate of the religious right. That could be a cause for sympathy if she had chosen the honesty of a Betty Ford, or the independence of a Lillian Carter, two women who share her experience as a Presidential wife and mother.
Instead, she seems to bury her independence in a bitterness and vitriol that belies her sweet motherly look, to call women opposed to family politics names that, as she said, "rhymes with rich," and to herd the other Bush wives into enforced conformity or silence. Her insensitivity to those outside her closed circle is legendary, as when, on TV after Katrina, she spoke of refugees in Houston as if they were somehow better off than in their poor New Orleans homes. In short, she seems bitter with all the accumulated bile of living a derived life. History will recognize that others in the same position hung on to their humanity.
Of course, it's tempting to figure out the cause of women or men getting into trouble; not as an excuse but as a reason. Perhaps Condoleezza Rice was so traumatized by the murder of little girls her own age in the Birmingham church bombing that she determined to stick so close to the enemy that he couldn't hurt her without also hurting himself. The problem is that he has blown up his legacy -- and hers and this country's, too.
When the stock market took a plunge and my pension fund went down with it, I had the classic female fear of becoming a bag lady. But I also had another thought: If "it's the economy, stupid," then this disaster will have been worth every penny. Even people who don't care about the female half of the country, and who would be perfectly happy to bomb everything, will be mad as hell and looking for change.
I know this sounds contrary. There hasn't been much criticism of Bush & Company since terrorism caused the country to circle its wagons. Even before that, there was the idea that Bush and Gore were pretty much alike, so why bother?
I remember when that tactic was first created by Richard Nixon, who suppressed mainstream-to-progressive voter turnout by pretending to be like Jack Kennedy. Now, rightwing extremist candidates get away with charging "negative campaigning" if their opponents so much as report their voting records. As for the media, they seem hooked on the idea that objectivity requires being even-handedly negative, and so suppress interest in politics even more.
When combined with the physical difficulties of voting -- which are greater here than in any other country -- this smokescreen has allowed a smaller proportion of people to rule this nation than in any democracy in the world. Older, richer, whiter voters are far more likely to go to the polls to vote their interests than younger, poorer, voters of color are to vote their hopes. Indeed, 36 million women aren't registered at all, and 40 percent of those who did vote ended up supporting candidates who were opposed to women's majority views on issues as crucial to life as reproductive freedom, protection of air and water, and support for public education.
Still, there was a 12-point gender gap that made the difference in hundreds of races, from school boards and the U.S. Senate to Bush's defeat in the popular vote. Clinton couldn't have won either of his races without this culturally female voting pattern that favors center-to-progressive issues. Nor could Gore have won any of the big electoral states if his greater support among white women hadn't compensated for his low level of support among white men -- and then some.
Yet imagine what those results would have been -- and what they could be on Tuesday -- if white women were to vote with a little more of the self-respect and enlightened self-interest of, say, African-American male voters, who chose Gore over Bush by 85 percent. Or better yet, African-American female voters who, perhaps doubly educated by race and sex, rejected the rightwing platform by a nearly unanimous 94 percent.
The truth is that European-American women remain the largest group in this country that votes for leaders who don't vote for us. Some of this is due to candidates who downplay their real positions, some to being surrounded by the belief that issues affecting the female half of the country can't be serious, some to media that fail report issues as they impact our daily lives, and some to other causes; for example, being born into families that normalize inequality, or depending on the income and approval of supremacist men.
But I will go to my grave believing that one day, sex will make us as self-respecting and smart in our political behavior, as devoted to our own longterm empowerment and enlightened self-interest, as does race. There will come a time when we take prejudice that affects only females as seriously as we do race, class and other biases that also affect males.
If even a tenth of the women now letting others decide their fate were to register and vote out of self-respect, many of the policy-based dangers and humiliations we read about everyday would diminish or end. For example:
- Women's reproductive systems make us the canaries in the mine of environmentally caused cancers that are the great majority of all cases, and are occurring in younger and younger women. Yet this Administration and its Congressional supporters have done everything in their power to weaken and end environmental protections, both national and international.
- A woman dies every minute in the world because of pregnancy-related causes. Many deaths are due directly to Bush's Global Gag Rule that threatens to deprive foreign entities of desperately needed U.S. aid if they provide, lobby for, or speak out about legal abortion -- even with their own funds -- a rule that could have been overturned in Congress by only four more votes. Bush Administration policy also opposes sex education, emergency contraception, and funds for international voluntary family planning, thus skyrocketing the number of dangerous and illegal abortions.
- In the U.S., too, having children is the single greatest determinant of women's economic status, education and health, but we are only one Supreme Court appointment away from losing the Constitutional right to control our own reproductive lives. Globally, the greatest danger to the environment is population growth, and the surest way to curb this growth is to give women the power to do so, yet Bush and his allies in Congress push policies shared mainly by the Vatican and the Moslem Brotherhood.
- Women are the fastest growing part of the prison population; the most likely to be poor and supporting children; the most frequent victims of violence and sexual abuse; and the largest source of underpaid or unpaid labor, nationally and internationally. Yet the Bush Administration is not focusing on those ills, but is investigating Title IX, one of the few measures that has helped equalize women's opportunity in sports and education.
Any one of those -- not to mention Bush's plan to bomb Saddam Hussein, thus giving him reason to use his sinister weapons -- would be reason enough to vote this Tuesday, but I'll take a plummeting stock market if it has the same result. If there are even a few more members of Congress with the guts to say "No!" to Bush & Company, I will be one happy bag lady.
Gloria Steinem is a writer, lecturer and co-founder of Ms. magazine. She has been traveling the campaign trail for Voters for Choice, a bipartisan political action committee.