Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The problem with Hillary and feminism

Hilary Rosen writes today at HuffPost about why she still likes Hillary, despite the very long shot that she is right now. It's a careful, thoughtful, balanced, very sane essay. She acknowledges the reality of where we are right now, and accepts it for what it is - the result of a race that Barack Obama won fair and square. She's also fairly articulate on the subject of how race and gender have functioned in this race.
whatever has been said about African-Americans by white people in this campaign has been heard by many African-Americans as one more layer of seemingly innocent comments built upon a lifetime of insensitivity and slights.

That's perceptive, and good to hear. She makes an honest effort to apply the same standard to Hillary's campaign:
Yet, for the past few weeks, when Hillary's supporters suggest that similar comments made about gender have the same hurtful impact, Obama supporters guffaw and most of the media ridicules the notion and ridicules the Senator herself as though she is suggesting that she is losing because of her gender -- which incidentally I have never heard her say.

I've tried to be very sensitive to feminism and feminist concerns my entire life. I still remember my mother wearing "ERA Yes" buttons. I think there probably has been a lot of sexism in this campaign. And I'm willing to grant, for the sake of argument, that Hillary Clinton herself has not suggested that she is losing because of her gender. That's probably true, if only because Hillary knows it would be political suicide for her to complain about losing because of gender - it would make her look like she was whining, and that would be the end of her "tough" image.

But Obama supporters are not judging Hillary or her supporters because they think claims of sexism are somehow amusing or shouldn't be taken seriously. Obama supporters are frustrated with Hillary herself because her performance, in many respects, has been undignified. There's a whole list: "hardworking Americans, white Americans," the Bobby Kennedy reference, dismissing certain states as irrelevant because she happened to lose them, making specious and ridiculous arguments about the popular vote, etc. She has refused to take responsibility for her own failures. The flip side of that is that she refuses to give Obama the respect due to someone who has clearly beaten her. I've said this many times: I was a huge Bill Clinton fan for many years. I liked and respected Hillary for a long time. But this campaign has been a major disillusionment, and my response has been, in part, anger. Bill Clinton betrayed me once, with Monica. The second time is even more painful.

So for me, while I understand that sexism is alive and well and a problem in this society, I find it hard to have sympathy for someone at the same time that I am very quickly losing respect for them.

But Rosen has some other, particularly eloquent points, that give me pause. I'm glad she wrote this; it's nice to hear a voice of reason and old-fashioned liberalism in this charged atmosphere. She has a poignant but not sentimental explanation for why Hillary is still going:

Hillary has found her voice and she is using it to speak to a group of people often ignored in politics. Women who have felt powerless to change or even complain about their own lives because they are just too damn busy keeping it together for everyone around them. And they certainly haven't had time for politics.

From the waitress in the diner to the school teacher to the executive on wall
street, women feel the daily slights that are often invisible to others. Yes,
many of her supporters need real and immediate help from the government, but so
many more are just grateful to be noticed.

It is difficult in this kind of environment to remember this kind of message, so it's great to hear it so well expressed. It's the kind of thing that would make Gloria Steinem proud. I'm all for it. I'm very glad that Hillary is speaking to women who could use a shot of empowerment. If Barack Obama were not in this race, and there were not a million other things going on, this is the kind of message that would have me writing a check and pounding the pavement.

But Barack Obama is in this race, and there are a million other things going on. And one of those things is that Hillary, at some point, is going to have to concede. And she is going to have to do it gracefully. I am of two minds at this point. On the one hand, the longer it goes on, the harder it is going to be for some of her supporters to let go and let bygones be bygones. On the other hand, the longer it goes on, the more obvious it becomes that Obama won fair and square.

There's another problem, as well: as inspirational as this message is, it's also exclusionary. I'd like to think that I can hear it, and I'm glad that Hillary is speaking up for and to women who feel powerless. As I've said before, I will never appreciate what it's like to spend your whole life not seeing people like you in positions of power. I will never be able to fully appreciate what Hillary's candidacy means to women.

But I'm not in that demographic. And there are lots of people who don't fit into that category. Hillary is not running for the President of the National Organization for Women. She is running for the President of the United States of America. At this point, I'm not even sure she cares about trying to reach someone like me. I don't think Hillary would put the interests of women ahead of the interests of men (and I understand that men did the reverse for centuries). But I can see how some men would be worried about that.

I'm more than willing to vote for a woman who runs for president. I'd love to able to campaign for one that I found really exciting. But I'm not going to vote for a woman just because she's a woman. And I'm not going to vote for her to score points with feminists. Barack Obama makes it clear that he is running to president of everyone in the United States. I'll vote for a woman who convinces me she thinks the same way. Right now, Hillary Clinton is not that woman.

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