Friday, May 16, 2008

Sexism and privilege: parsing gender politics in the Clinton campaign

I was all set to write a post about how some feminist support of Hillary Clinton seems contrary to principles of female equality. I get the sense, in some Clintonistas' breathless defense of the candidate, that she is a delicate flower than needs protecting from male colleagues, the media and other women who simply don't understand her, and that her actions don't deserve the scrutiny that those of male candidates receive.

That is not equality.

Hillary Clinton's supporters too often cast her as a victim, all the better to champion the "she's a fighter" narrative. After all, a fighter who has nothing to fight against is just surly and combative.
Remember when, early in the race, in a "bloody" debate, Clinton stood as the front runner, while the other Democratic candidates tried to knock her off her game? That is what opponents who are behind try to do in politics--take out the front runner. And all of Clinton's opponents "attacked" her respectfully with valid points about policy. (Unlike some of the attacks the Clinton camp would later launch against Barack Obama) Clinton was tough, but it was not her best debate performance. Well, c'est la vie. That is how the political cookie crumbles. Sometimes you perform win, sometimes you lose and come back to fight another day. That's fair. Or no, maybe not. Following the debate, the Clinton camp and many of her supporters bemoaned the Dem "boys" ganging up on the lone "girl."

From Politico:
The debate is still churning in feminist circles, where some women’s activists said she had every right to invoke sexism and gender stereotypes as a defense on the campaign trail — and predicted that this tactic will prove effective against fellow Democrats and against a Republican, if she is the general election nominee.

“It goes beyond logic — it’s a gut response,” Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, said of the spectacle of Clinton onstage confronting seven male rivals and two male moderators at a debate in Philadelphia on Wednesday night.

Smeal, who has endorsed Clinton, compared the debate scene to the congressional grilling of Anita Hill when she challenged Clarence Thomas’ Supreme Court nomination in 1991.

“Every woman — it was just so visceral — that panel was all male,” Smeal recalled. “It didn’t matter almost what was being said. It [was] a visceral gut reaction, and I think that’s what you’re seeing here again.”
It really does go beyond logic. Clinton, because she is a woman, should not withstand political attacks that surely would be visited upon her if she were male. Isn't that just a little, well, sexist?

And now there is all this flap about NARAL Pro-choice America's endorsement of Barack Obama. It seems to me that the advocacy group is doing what all good progressives who want to see a Democrat in the White House come next January should do. In the name of unity and likely to ensure a voice in a future administration, NARAL is getting behind the presumptive nominee--the person who is ahead in delegates, the popular vote, states won and superdelegates, and who has a strong pro-choice record. But many female Clinton supporters don't see it that way. NARAL's endorsement is BETRAYAL!

A woman in this comment thread said:
I cannot believe how socially irresponsible this organization is. How can you possibly think that your advocating for women when you make a decision that could divide the women’s movement for years to come? I am so fundamentally repulsed by your decision. I am absolutely stunned at how thoughtless and irresponsible your decision making is regarding this matter. The founders of the women’s movement everywhere suffer a serious set back today when their own sisters attempt to destroy them. If you think that this is going to help our cause, you are clueless. I can’t believe you’ll cut your throats and those of all the women out there who have supported you, including Senator Clinton, just to get on the bandwagon of the male candidate who has no personal insight whatsoever what it feels like to have the federal government regulate his body. How dare you attempt to destroy what so many of us have worked so hard to create. The founders of the women's movement roll in their graves today. I never thought I would see the day when an organization, founded by women for women, actually had the chance to support the most qualified candidate for president and SHE happened to be a women and yet, they chose the male for no justifiable reason whatsoever. I'm speechless. This has already been a rough week for women in that Obama supporter Steven Cohen assaulted Hillary with his violent rhetoric and then this. Wow, what a sad week for women in this country.
You see, NARAL's endorsement was yet another attack on Hillary. Note the use of inflammatory language like "assaulted" and "violent." Those who do not fully support Clinton are abusers. This really is identity politics at its worse. It obscures discussion of the very real sexism that has occurred in this campaign, along with the heinous racism (some of it stoked by Clinton herself). And it makes mockery of the very real ways women around the world are abused, intimidated and oppressed.

The course of Hillary Clinton's campaign makes me uncomfortable as a woman, who was raised by both of my parents to believe that I could do anything, but never told that, when competing in a male-dominated world, I should be treated with delicacy. And it makes me uncomfortable as an African American, because what I also see hiding behind the idea of Hillary Clinton as the wronged woman is privilege and entitlement. There is this idea that Clinton is owed the presidential spot. It is her time. Obama is just a potential affirmative action hire, unqualified and slick, poised to steal what is hers.

The spot in which Hillary Clinton finds herself could not possibly be of her own making. She cannot be losing because her campaign thought the Democratic race would be a coronation and failed to plan for anything past Super Tuesday. She cannot be losing because her campaign rejected Howard Dean's 50-state strategy that is working so well for Obama. She cannot be losing because her campaign has employed the very Rovian tactics that progressives have been decrying throughout these long, dark eight years. She cannot be losing because by employing Nixon's "southern strategy," she and her surrogates alienated one of the Democrats most loyal voting blocs: black Americans, who initially favored her over her opponent. She cannot be losing because she simply failed to strike while the iron was hot--back in 2004, when so many people wanted her to run her to run for the presidency. She could have taken Bush to school in a way that Kerry did not. But she waited. And a new political star emerged. Sometimes that happens. It's not sexism. It's life.

No, too many Clinton supporters will tell you that Hillary is losing because everyone and everything is just so unfair because she is a woman. And no one mentions that if their places were reversed--if Clinton was the one ahead by all common metrics and Obama (or Edwards or Richardson or any of the original male candidates) was behind by no matter how small a margin--we would be talking about the rampaging male ego, how the boys club refuses to let a woman win, how sexism is tearing the party asunder, how unfair it is that the Democratic male candidate will not step aside for the good of the party. That the Democratic Party has not more forcefully called for Hillary to step down reflects her privilege.

Anyway, I was all set to write this post, but then I read Stephen Daugherty's diary at Daily Kos, titled "Is it feminist to portray Hillary as a victim?". And he pretty much said what I wanted to say, but perhaps more eloquently. Now, some will discount this diary, because it is written by a man. But I do not.

Here is an excerpt of Daugherty's essay:

Some folks view critiques of her bare-knuckles style of campaigning as an attempt to penalize her for being un-ladylike. Some may think that way, but I don't think most Americans think that way, especially given her culturally conservative base. If anybody would have a problem with Hillary having sharp elbows, it would be them.

But you can be seen as unsympathetic and mean-spirited independent of gender. You can also be seen as disloyal, on the basis of your actions. Lieberman's a good example. In critiquing the rhetoric of Obama supporters, one should consider the nature of the perceptions she has raised by continually consorting with media figures, rhetoric, and tactics more appropriate to the other side.

Lastly, we should consider the tensions and the anxieties generated by a contest which has long lead in, with Obama long known to be the likely winner.

Hillary's image problems have little to do with her gender, and to make them out to be gender-related is insulting to real feminism. To be equal in our society is to be held equally responsible for obnoxious behavior and self-expression. If you pander to the Right-Wing Media to attack fellow Democrats rather than stand up for the party, you should be held accountable. If you selfishly extend a contest you are unlikely to win, rather than conceding things to get the fight against your common enemies started earlier, people are going to get angry and frustrated with you.

The question for feminists raising the red card of porcine male chauvinism should be this: when they talk about other people, do they speak of those folks as an "us", or a "them"? Is the goal of feminism to preserve women as a separate block, politically, one that needs special treatment to get fair treatment, or is the goal of feminism to put men and women on equal footing, with equal rights and equal obligations? Read
more...

UPDATE: Check out reader MacDaddy's critique on why Hillary Clinton is losing the Democratic primary at DaddyBStrong.

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