June 10, 2008
Hillary’s Loss Can Still Be a Gain for US Women
Jessica Valenti, The Guardian
It’s official. Americans won’t be inaugurating a woman president next January. From a feminist perspective it’s hard not to feel a bit defeated. Even for those who, like me, preferred Barack Obama, there’s still that chilling feeling that maybe sexism scored a point this campaign season. But even though Hillary Clinton’s candidacy is at an end, the effect it has had on women and politics is reason enough for feminists to chin up.
For perhaps the first time ever there has been a national conversation about women’s political participation — much of it among women. Dana Goldstein at the American Prospect wrote this week: “Over the course of this historic, thrilling, aggressive primary election, we’ve seen more female pundits than ever before writing and speaking about presidential politics … (and) experienced unprecedented interest from male politicos in women’s participation in the electoral process.” Clinton’s run is also sure to have a lasting effect on women considering running for office. Marie Wilson, president and founder The White House Project, noted: “More young women … are motivated because they have seen her persist.”
There’s even a silver lining to be found in the distressing downsides of her candidacy. As someone who spots sexism for a living, I found myself absolutely shocked at the amount of gender-based vitriol directed at Clinton. But while the unrelenting sexism in the media coverage of Clinton’s campaign was a harsh reminder of how pervasive misogyny is in America, we needed that reminder.
I’d like to think the sheer volume of public misogyny jump-started a nationwide dialogue about sexism. Because every time a pundit called Clinton’s voice “grating”, someone at home watching television cringed. When several young men at a campaign stop in New Hampshire thought it would be just hilarious to yell out “Iron my shirt!”, there was public outrage. And when MSNBC host Chris Matthews asked former Democratic presidential candidate Chris Dodd if he “found it difficult to debate a woman”, he was roundly mocked in the political blogosphere. (Even by Dodd himself, who looked at Matthews curiously before answering: “No, not at all.”)
Though sexist pundits and misogynists-for-fun weren’t held nearly accountable enough, it’s heartening to know that now there can be no denying that yes, Virginia, there is sexism.
For the feminist movement itself, the benefits of Clinton’s candidacy may have to be worked for. The election put a brutal spotlight on an undeniable divide between feminists, largely the result of an already-brewing generational tension.
A New York Times opinion piece by Gloria Steinem that claimed sexism was a bigger problem in America than racism, and a widely circulated article by Robin Morgan suggesting young women voting for Obama were “eager to win male approval”, set the stage for a battle that left many disenchanted. After all, why was the only “appropriate” feminist vote one for Clinton? And the assumption that younger women who supported Obama were simply being naive or — even more insulting — voting to please their boyfriends, didn’t exactly sit well.
Feminists of all ages also resented how the mainstream movement seemed to be pitting sexism against racism in their campaign conversations. Latoya Peterson of the popular blog Racialicious.com wrote: “While I can truly understand if some women feel that their gender problems take more prominence than their race problems, other women need to understand that, for some of us, that separation does not happen. Our discrimination is not race neutral. So why should our feminism be?”
Generational divides and concerns that mainstream feminism focuses its energy on white women, above all others, are not new. But now that they’re out in the open being discussed, we have an amazing opportunity to fight for an even-better women’s movement.
Martin Luther King, in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, noted: “We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with.
Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”
Clinton’s campaign didn’t need to be successful for it to mean something incredibly important for American women. Whether it’s uncovering the ugly boil of American sexism or a battling for a better feminist movement, a new conversation has been started about women and political power. And now that we’re here, with our wounds uncovered, we’re tending to them with an eye towards the future.