Experience, as commonly understood, produces valuable things—wisdom, perspective, resilience, philosophical equanimity, wit. Experience knows lots about Life, supposedly; or at least it can tell, as Shakespeare put it, “a hawk from a handsaw.” Its most powerful teacher is not book-learning, but combat in the field. And in this presidential election, experience was supposed to trump the “naïve” call for hope and change.
But, of late, a very experienced subset of the human race—feminists—have sounded not wise at all. Rather, leaders and lay alike, in pressing Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid, sound—how can I put this fairly?—scattered. And anger is doing the scattering.
Now, with Hillary’s concession and endorsement of Barack Obama as the Democratic nominee, that anger, rather than abating, intensifies. Increasingly, we hear Hillaryites—who number 18 million, as we’re repeatedly told—threaten to defect to the Republicans and vote for John McCain.
Um, can we talk?
As a feminist who proudly recalls a civil-rights career spanning the ‘70s and who never forsook the feminist label even as it fell from favor, I’m distressed by this anger, but I see where it comes from. Ideological feminism anchors its case on gender only. Those of us who are non-ideological believe a woman rises on the validity of her individual case.
Acting ideologically, the National Organization for Women (NOW) put a foot wrong and raised temperatures unduly when it accused Senator Ted Kennedy, longtime friend of women’s causes, of “betrayal” for endorsing Barack Obama. Similar accusations heat up comments threads online. When it comes from a friend, it’s an eye-opener.
But, like Obama himself, Obamaites are compelled by things beyond identity: by the Iraq war, most importantly, which Hillary voted for and Obama opposed. We argue that if, in the general election, both the Republican and Democratic nominee voted were pro-Iraq, it would be a cheat of the American people, most of whom are anti-Iraq. Further, Obama’s opposition in and of itself makes him the superior Commander in Chief, a role whose first precept is judicious use of the world’s largest military. If Hillary voted for war to show toughness, that’s a problem: We’ve lost over 4000 troops, and are in near-ruin now, because of the current President’s bravado.
For all her experience and resumé, then, Hillary was wrong on that most important issue: the Iraq war. So, while demographically I might be a Hillary supporter, it was on substance that I opted for Obama—for his opposition to this calamitous war. It was a simple decision, really.
But the war argument doesn’t wash with hardliners. Cokie Roberts on George Stephanopoulos’ show dismissed Obama’s opposition to Iraq with “Yeah-yeah.” Closer to home, calling Obama an “empty suit” and me a “dupe” who’s “drunk the Kool-aid,” a feminist friend angrily emailed me: “Aside from kumbayah, change, kumbayah, change, I opposed the war, change, hope, and kumbayah, Obama has nothing to say to me. ”
Really? The Iraq war—a war that’s cast America as invader, occupier, torturer—counts for so little? And gender counts for more, for everything? That is dangerously solipsistic thinking. Where’s the concern for the commonweal, the greater good, rescuing our nation from crisis? The error was to introduce gender into the mix in the first place, to divert debate from the comparatively safe territory of issues to the comparatively volatile territory of identity, personhood, ego. Obama wisely pitched his campaign above race; unwisely, Hillary, over the course of her campaign, took it to gender—and vulnerability. Press those wounds of gender and race hard enough and of course they will hemorrhage. To stanch the bleeding, to get back to issues and start our reconciliation, repeat after me: She was wrong on Iraq, she was wrong on Iraq, she was wrong on Iraq.
Certainly what stings feminists, and stings acutely, is the unfair media coverage of Hillary’s candidacy, well documented by now, and its echo among the public’s misogynists. In this, anger is entirely understandable: When one is dismissed and disrespected, one goes to self-defense—and goes there on fire. My husband has long heard me bemoan that, in making our way, women “always have to petition to be heard,” that our desire to soar as high as any man strikes some as absurd. Sexist media notwithstanding, though, Hillary through sheer will has made the idea of a woman in the Oval Office no longer absurd, but reality.
Still, the media does need reforming—again. Tired in advance at the prospect, I suggest the next generation of targets—young women—carry that brief. Of course women’s organizations do need to address the problem, so, back to advocacy. The Project for Excellence in Journalism might revisit media sexism (and make a case study of the boys at MSNBC). And we might enlist our enlightened male friends. Howard Dean, chair of the Democratic National Committee, admits he did not speak out enough about the sexist media coverage.
Plus, our own ranks could use reform. My angry feminist friend above complains about “the vagina jokes” thrown at Hillary: I agree emphatically. But our nether parts were set up for ridicule in part by all those feminists who loved The Vagina Monologues and made it a hit. Its faux-feminist creator claimed her objective was to fight violence against women, but in truth her “art” does immense violence to women’s dignity and respect (as does the new ha-ha locution “va-jay-jay”). Oh the guffaws at my insistence on dignity and respect, but when put to the test—and campaign ’08 is a test—it is dignity and respect that we want; it’s what Hillaryites are insisting on now.
And, speaking of stung: While feminists decry the sexism, consider the African-Americans reaction to the racism that has surfaced around the first post-racial candidate.
Anger: It would be tragic if, at the end of the day, Experience’s final lesson were anger. It’s behind all those feminist voices on the Internet claiming their life’s struggle has been for nothing. It’s where Geraldine Ferraro’s statement came from, characterizing Obama as the affirmative action candidate. (Wasn’t Hillary one of those too?) Such view leads to invidious comparisons of who’s suffered most—women or blacks—and that is not a battle women can win, not with the blot of slavery—the systemic oppression of blacks—tarnishing our history.
How ironic that, days after Ferraro’s putdown, the affirmative action candidate rose to the occasion—high above anger—to give his historic speech on race, a speech he was forced to give to counter his incendiary pastor, Jeremiah Wright. More than words, that speech was action, statesmanship, dare I say love? Though I was pro-Obama, how I wanted Hillary to “go big” and speak on America’s fallen state: Her tears in New Hampshire came when she said, “I just don’t want to see us fall backwards.” She might have paralleled Obama with a speech on gender; as it was, her concession speech ended on that point, eloquently. What if now, campaigning for Obama, she addressed gender and also race, to recover from the appearance of racism both in her campaign and from her supporters who said race factored in their vote. With that speech—delivered at, say, Seneca Falls—the fighter might herself ascend to statesmanship and salvage her legacy (also prepare for 2016).
Would that her diehard supporters ascend too, by seeing that to place one’s very personhood on a candidate is to risk, if that candidate fails, psychic annihilation. That candidate, as vessel, had better be perfection (which, forgive me, Hillary was not). But truly, this election is not about gender or race, it’s not about us. Rather it is about rescuing America from war-mongering, torturing, departure from rule of law, pariah status in the world, not to mention a tanking economy and a collapsing financial house.
And would that feminism ascend to a more expansive, less angry place. The fight for women’s rights is part of the grand movement for human rights. Understood as such, Obama’s victory is our victory. And, understood as such, feminists will come to the defense of Michelle Obama, whom the Republicans are now targeting. This is a test, feminists, this is a test….
Which brings me back to the battle at hand: What’s this foolishness about voting for McCain? He’s pro-war; he vows to overturn Roe v. Wade; his economic policies favor the rich; he thought it “an excellent question” when a supporter, referring to Hillary, asked “How do we stop the b*tch?”; not to forget he dumped his first wife for his mistress. And if the brief against Obama was “The guy wins again,” well, McCain is one of those.
And about this foolishness of feminists claiming their life’s struggle has been for nothing: A new generation of women who feel equal to their male cohorts is in our debt. They don’t know it yet, but that’s the thing about debt: It sneaks up on you.
So, please, let’s cancel the anger. Recall Achilles, fuming in his tent: It didn’t go well for him. While anger can motivate, it also blots copybooks. Let’s celebrate the milestone we whizzed past in the pell-mell of the primaries—that two historic candidates contested for the world’s most powerful job—and let’s pledge, all of us, to work for Our Nominee.
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An essayist and playwright, Carla Seaquist earlier helped organize the women’s caucus of the Brookings Institution, then served as Equal Opportunity Officer for the City of San Diego and on the California Governor’s Task Force on Civil Rights. She received NOW’s Susan B. Anthony award for “courage and hard work on behalf of women and minorities.” Her essays and op-eds will be collected into a book, “Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, and the American Character.”