Barack, Hillary, and US Feminism

Changing the Race: Racial Politics and the Election of Barack Obama
OCT., 2009


  This article was published by the Applied Research Center (Oakland) in fall, 2009, in a reader and curriculum on the 2008 election entitled Changing the Race: Racial Politics and the Election of Barack Obama, edited by Linda Burnham.


              The Clinton-Obama contest for the Democratic nomination sparked more heated debate among feminists than at any time since the Seventies. In rage and bewilderment, mainstream feminists asked why all women did not rally behind Hillary Clinton, while leftwing feminists wondered where they ever got the idea that they could deliver our votes on the basis of gender alone.

            The primary campaign thus exposed a long-standing fault line in the US feminist movement and raised fundamental political questions. The fault line is not, as the media would have it, one of demographics—white vs. black, old vs. young, college educated vs. blue collar. Though it has racial and generational aspects, this is basically a struggle over political strategy, the latest chapter in a hundred year argument between liberal feminists, who see women’s issues as separate and self-contained, and leftwing feminists, who see them as intertwined with race, class, and other social questions.  
The Clinton-Obama debate
             The debate was kicked off early in 2008 by three writers associated with the Women’s Media Center: Gloria Steinem, Carol Jenkins, and Robin Morgan. Steinem created an enormous stir with a New York Times op ed of January 8, in which she responded to Hillary’s loss in Ohio by saying, “Gender is probably the most restricting force in American life…. Black men were given the vote a half-century before women of any race were allowed to mark a ballot, and generally have ascended to positions of power, from the military to the boardroom, before any women.”
            Frances Kissling, ex-director of Catholics for a Free Choice, responded in Salon: “I do not want a feminism that is part of the status quo, and so I do not want the first woman president to be a Clintonian.” (Jan. 10, 2008) Black feminist broadcast journalist Carol Jenkins riposted with a piece supporting the position that sexism trumps racism: “Gender bias cuts through race and class and age and geography with intent to undermine. And, if you’re a woman of color—even more so.” (“Invisible Woman,” Jan. 11, 2008,  
            The battle heated up as the New York primary approached. On Feb. 2, the Women’s Media Center published “Goodbye to All That 2,” a cry of rage by another board member, Robin Morgan, in which she accused young women who supported Obama of just wanting to please their boyfriends and went on: “How dare anyone unilaterally decide when to turn the page on history, papering over real inequities and suffering constituencies in the promise of a feel-good campaign?... Goodbye to going gently into any goodnight any man prescribes for us. We are the women who changed the reality of the United States. And though we never went away, brace yourselves: we’re back!”  
            The next day, a large group of leftwing feminist academics, activists and writers   published a widely distributed “Petition for Peace and Barack Obama,” that began, “In the coming elections, it is important to remember that war and peace are as much "women's issues" as are health, the environment, and the achievement of educational and occupational equality.” The petition went on to identify Clinton as a liberal hawk, based on her record in the Senate and her vote for the war in Iraq.  
            A few days later, black law professor Kimberle Crenshaw and Eve Ensler, wuthor of The Vagina Monologues, joined Hillary’s critics by pointing to “the double standard of stigmatizing Obama's Black voters as racially motivated while seeing Clinton's white voters as simply voters “At issue is a profound difference in seeing feminism as intersectional and global rather than essentialist and insular….For many of us, feminism is not separate from the struggle against violence, war, racism and economic injustice.” (“Feminist Ultimatum: Not in Our Name,” Feb. 5, 2008) 
           Then a group of feminist academics, writers and activists published a petition supporting Hillary, which, after citing her “proven record,” denounced misogynist attacks on her in the media: “How many women have we known—truly gifted workers, professionals, and administrators—who have been criticized for their reserve and down-to-earth way of speaking? Whose commanding style, seriousness, and get-to-work style are criticized as "cold" and insufficiently "likable"? These prejudices have been scandalously present in this campaign.” (“Feminists for Clinton,” Feb. 15, 2008)
            Though many black feminists had yet to be heard, the struggle was heating up to the degree that a little breakfast was arranged to patch things up, according to a letter in The Nation written (anonymously) by black columnist Patricia Williams: “Two days after the Texas debate between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, a group of old friends broke out the good china for a light breakfast of strong coffee, blueberry muffins and fresh-squeezed orange juice. We were there to hash out a split that threatened our friendship and the various movements with which we are affiliated.” The friends included Gloria Steinem, Beverly Guy-Sheftall, Johnnetta Cole, Laura Flanders, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Carol Jenkins, Eleanor Smeal, Mab Segrest, Achola Pala Okeyo, Janet Dewart Bell, and Patricia Williams. A plea to unite against the Republicans followed. (The Nation, Feb. 27, 2008)
            But the differences were too real to be smoothed over and black feminists continued to speak up for Obama. In March, Alice Walker wrote a moving essay relating her support for his candidacy to the way she grew up as a sharecropper’s daughter in the segregated South (“Lest We Forget,” March 27, 2008), and Linda Burnham, director of the Women of Color Resource Center, weighed in on the idea that we live in a post-racial society:

            “There is a brand of feminism, amply critiqued but still very much alive, that focuses on gender bias while consistently downplaying the salience of race…. Those of us who witnessed the response to Hurricane Katrina; who check in occasionally on the racial demographics of the incarcerated; who are aware of the racial divide in income and, more significantly, wealth; who recognize that the public schools grow ever more segregated while the push-out rate for Black and Latino students rises ever higher; who track the relative scarcity of African Americans in professional schools, as well as in a whole range of professions; who know that the infant mortality rate for black babies outstrips the rate for white babies by two to one; who watch the dynamics of gentrification, dislocation and homelessness—we are not convinced that racism is an insignificant remnant. And we're hard pressed to understand why this argument should be any more tolerated when it comes from liberal feminists than when it comes from the more frankly racist right wing.” (“The Tightrope and the Needle,”  March 18, 2008)

            In the view of Clinton supporters like Linda Hirshman, writing in The Washington Post, this attitude is exactly the problem—left wing feminists kept getting distracted by other issues instead of understanding that all women must unite in order to win: “So what keeps the movement from realizing its demographic potential?...faced with criticism that the movement was too white and middle-class, many influential feminist thinkers conceded that issues affecting mostly white middle-class women—such as the corporate glass ceiling or the high cost of day care—should not significantly concern the feminist movement. Particularly in academic circles, only issues that invoked the "intersectionality" of many overlapping oppressions were deemed worthy. Moreover, that concern must include the whole weight of those oppressions. In other words, since racism hurts black women, feminists must fight not only racist misogyny but racism in any form; not only rape as an instrument of war, but war itself.” (“Looking to the Future, Feminism has to Focus,” Washington Post, June 8, 2008)
            Burnham sees the problem differently: “For nearly forty years feminists have wrangled over how to integrate issues of race, class, sexual orientation and other markers of inequality into a coherent, powerful gender analysis. Women of color insist on the complex relationship between racism and sexism and the central significance of racism in the lives of people of color. White feminists nod their heads, ‘Yes, of course, we understand, we're with you on that.’ Then comes the crunch, when the content of your feminism actually matters—as it does in this campaign —and they revert to the primacy of sexism over all other forms of discrimination and oppression. All the tendencies that got feminism tagged as a white, middle-class women's thing are, brutally, back in play.” (“The Tightrope and the Needle”)
            These differences about the primary were, fundamentally, a debate about basic strategic questions: What is a feminist issue? How should feminists organize? With whom should we seek alliances? Should we concentrate on big symbolic victories or work for more tangible reforms? The struggle over these questions has a long history in the women’s movement.
A Brief History of the Struggle Within the US Feminist Movement
            In the heyday of the suffrage movement, mainstream women’s organizations adopted a strategy of concentrating single-mindedly on winning women the right to vote and were willing to do whatever it took to get white male votes, including race and immigrant baiting. The left wing of the women’s movement—socialists, social feminists, sex radicals, and black women’s organizations—tried to link suffrage to economic and social issues, and reached out to the labor movement and to black and immigrant male voters. World War I changed the game; when the organized left opposed US entry into the war, it was pretty well wiped out by the state. Except for the small group of militants who later formed the National Women’s Party, mainstream feminists supported the war; they got the vote as a reward, but their narrow perspective and political compromises turned off the next generation to organized feminism.
            A similar fault line ran through women’s movement politics in the late Sixties and Seventies. Leftwing feminists—who identified as women’s liberationists or radical feminists or socialist feminists or women of color—worked on a wide range of issues including the Vietnam war; abortion and reproductive rights; sexual freedom and gay rights; union struggles; and support for the black and other national liberation movements. But though leftwing feminists were enormously important in the beginning of the movement and in its cultural and intellectual life, they never built national organizations with broad programs that were stable enough to last. Meanwhile, mainstream feminists built strong, tightly controlled national organizations that were ideologically on message, skilled at working the media, and good at raising money. They pursued a strategy of doing everything through the Democratic Party and focused increasingly on the Equal Rights Amendment.
            With the Reagan era, conservatives launched a broad mobilization against women's liberation, affirmative action, gay rights, and other democratic advances of the Sixties and Seventies. They fought the ERA in electoral and propaganda campaigns; organized a Right to Life movement against abortion; mobilized bigotry and fundamentalism against gay rights; did extensive union-busting; and undercut free expression with censorship campaigns that were thinly-disguised attacks on increased sexual freedom for women and gays. Under this right wing assault, the alliance that was the women's movement disintegrated; what remained were reproductive rights organizations and the mainstream groups in Washington. As these were forced more and more into a defensive posture, their ideas and methods of work became increasingly cautious. 
            Today, the organizations that are the public face of US feminism are old, bureaucratic and top-down, shaped by careerism and Washington politics. Their organizational culture is so permeated by US free market business ideology that they could be called corporate feminists: they build top-down organizations, concentrate on fundraising, and think in terms of building their own brand and market share, not of building a broad movement.   NOW, the Feminist Majority, and the National Women’s Political Caucus have big budgets to meet; they need visibility to raise money, and have been utterly shaped by interaction with the state, so their perspective is always: what will help with lobbying, what will help in the next election.  Their political allegiance belongs to the Democratic Party rather than to any mass base of women.
            Corporate feminist campaigns tend to be narrowly constructed in gender terms, around the most middle-class vision of feminist goals—ending the glass ceiling, for instance, rather than raising the floor and giving everyone a living wage. For the most part, they avoid issues like globalization, war, or the environment, and hold back from union drives and campaigns for welfare rights. For this reason, few younger women activists—even those who consider themselves feminist—identify with the mainstream women’s movement. Some of these younger feminists work in the women of color movement, in organizations like Incite!SisterSong, and the Women of Color Resource Center. Some work in labor, antiwar or anti-globalization groups, or in grassroots groups that focus on economic or race issues, though they complain that it is hard to get these groups to take up gender. Some work as junior staff in mainstream nonprofits, reproductive rights organizations, or global feminist or human rights campaigns, where they have little voice.
            Though young feminists have much in common politically with leftwing feminists of the second wave, and there is informal networking and some coalition work on specific issues, mainstream organizations remain the public face of US feminism. They spin the issues their way, while everyone else plays catch-up. This is what happened in the primary debate between Clinton and Obama: while mainstream feminists went all out for Hillary—and some Obama supporters joined in sexist attacks on her—leftwing feminists tried to frame a coherent response to both without having a collective voice or national organization to serve as a platform.
            Though a woman in the White House would certainly be a potent symbol and an inspiration to all our daughters, it’s open to debate how much the election of Hillary Clinton as president would actually have changed things for US women. But mainstream feminists declared her candidacy the be-all and end-all of our struggle. They brought the same kind of fervor to her campaign that they had brought to the ERA in the late Seventies, when they told the rest of the women’s movement we should drop everything else until that got passed.
            Putting all your eggs in one basket is a terrible strategy, all the more so if the basket is a largely symbolic one. A movement that has a broad program with many goals will win some and lose some. A movement that has only one object—passing a constitutional amendment or electing a particular politician—loses an awful lot when it fails to meet its goal. But the US women’s movement will probably keep pursuing this strategy until leftwing feminists build our own formation capable of giving alternative leadership.