In this campaign season, there have been many firsts. Some of them seem like a dream. For most of my life, the idea of electing a woman, or an African-American man, to be the President of the United States has seemed like a far-off reality in a nation that seems to feed off of political division, stereotypes and fear like a heroin addict feeds off of a hit.
In the battle between Clinton and Obama, there is one more division, one more stereotype, that doesn’t do any of us any good. It is the notion that those who are embracing Barack Obama are, at best, not as committed to fight sexism as Clinton supporters. I’ve seen statements like this in the media and I’ve heard them in discussions with friends.
Now, to be sure, Hillary Clinton has encountered, in this campaign and throughout her career, particularly virulent forms of sexism. She represents what so many people fear – she’s a smart, dynamic woman who is not afraid of grabbing hold of power and using it. A recent New York Times article detailed some of the particularly abhorrent manifestations of this fear, from threats against her to on-line groups with names like, “Don’t Run for President, Run and Get Me a Sandwich.” Really gross.
Being a feminist is about more than gender, though. I am no more obligated to support Clinton than I am to support Condoleezza Rice or Kay Bailey Hutchison. I am free to look at her record of action, which has included some truly exemplary actions, and decide for myself. Part of her record doesn’t always impress me, like her support of Bill Clinton’s 1996 welfare bill, which promised to throw 1.2 million women and children into poverty and forced mothers to work without providing resources for childcare.
For me, being a feminist means embracing a broad spectrum of progressive ideals. It’s about some fundamental policy issues, such as equal pay, freedom of choice, support for working families and women’s education, and providing resources to fight violence against women. Protections and advances in each of these areas are all but guaranteed no matter who Democrats choose as our nominee.
There’s something more, though, that feminism represents for me. It’s about the broader ideal that no matter who we are, male or female, a person of color or white, gay or straight, we deserve a fundamental level of respect and appreciation. It’s about the idea that we all deserve, no matter who we are, an equal shot to be whoever we ultimately want to be. In this campaign, Barack Obama is simply expressing these ideals better than practically anybody I’ve ever seen.
Like many other feminists I know, I have long dreamed of a woman president. Really, however, what I’ve dreamed of more is authentic change. As Anna Quindlen wrote earlier this year, “The fantasy was that the first woman President would be someone who would turn the whole lousy system inside out and upside down. Instead the first significant woman contender is someone who seems to have the system down to a fine art.”
It just so happens that this time, the true agent of feminist change in 2008 is not Hillary Clinton.