Obama and Clinton, race and gender

Today’s question: How, if at all, does Hillary Clinton fit into the modern feminist movement? Did the Clinton-Obama contest really raise important questions about gender and race? All week, authors Amanda Marcotte and Katha Pollitt discuss contemporary feminism in politics, in pop culture and outside the Western world.

Supporting Obama doesn’t mean I’m afraid of powerful women
Point: Amanda Marcotte

Important questions were raised and definitely answered. Questions such as, “Will opponents be able to rise above cheap race-baiting and spreading lies about Barack Obama’s religion?” and, “Will certain mainstream media pundits be able to treat Hillary Clinton like a serious candidate? Or will all their grade-school attitudes about girls being icky come out?” (Answers: No, no, and Chris Matthews acted as if Clinton was going to come over to his house and make him wear a dress.)

What did surprise and disappoint me was how quickly supposed liberal Democrats were to avail themselves of racist and sexist tropes in support of their respective candidates. Seeing feminist icons such as Geraldine Ferraro and Gloria Steinem take jabs at the struggle for black people’s equality in an effort to prop up Clinton deprived me of my youthful innocence and optimism. Seeing one religious figure and then another stand up at the altar at Obama’s (now abandoned) Trinity United Church of Christ and leverage attacks on Clinton that mocked her gender made me wonder how the women in the congregation felt. I shouldn’t be surprised at this point to see how some liberal men begrudge women our equality, but every time something like that happens, I am.

What really disappoints me is how feminists -- knowing full well that the mainstream media would react by yelling “Catfight!” -- engaged in personal attacks on other women over which candidate they supported. Robin Morgan’s essay “Goodbye To All That #2” was the most egregious offense, with her insinuations that female Obama supporters like me would be throwing our allegiance to Clinton if we weren’t cowering in front of the men in our lives who don’t want to see a female president. False-consciousness arguments like that ring false to me; I do like to think I know myself well enough to understand that I’m supporting Obama over Clinton because I think he’s stronger on the war issue, and that as a big fan of politicians like Nancy Pelosi, I’m not harboring a secret fear of female power nor a secret desire to make men I know happy.

I do not deny that having the first female president would be an important milestone, but because we also have the chance for the first black president, the milestone issue has become a wash. Fighters for social equality win either way, so we’re freed up to consider other factors. One thing to remember is that memory gives us rose-colored glasses. In a few years from now, people will remember this primary pleasantly as a time when the nation took a giant step forward, and memories of how our uglier sides came out will fade.

Amanda Marcotte is the executive editor and writer for the blog Her first book, “It’s a Jungle Out There: The Feminist Survival Guide to Politically Inhospitable Environment” is out on Seal Press.

A furor whipped up by partisans and the media
Counterpoint: Katha Pollitt

You make a lot of good points, Amanda, but perhaps we should not be so surprised that the race has focused so much on race and gender. Supporters have to distinguish their candidate from the other somehow, and unless you are Paul Krugman, you are probably not going to get wound up over whether Obama’s healthcare proposal contains mandates. Clinton and Obama have different personalities and different campaign styles, but on policy (oh, that!), except about Iraq, they are pretty close.

A few months ago, back when the Democratic debates were models of decorum and civic high-mindedness, a lot of voters liked both candidates so much that they wanted them to run as a team. It’s hard to even remember that now. The sharp delineation we see is largely due to the race and gender furor whipped up by partisans and the media. Race and gender gets attached to every little thing the candidates do or say and help produce memes like “Obama lacks experience” and “Clinton acts entitled” and “I just don’t trust him/her.”

I was appalled by Robin Morgan’s essay, which I thought was emotionally bullying, and filed Gloria Steinem’s woolly New York Times Op-Ed under “definitely not helpful.” As a not-young (can it be?) lifelong feminist who supports Obama, I definitely don’t need to hear that I’m out to please men. Morgan helped put into play the generational catfight theme, which the media adore: bitter second-wavers and their ungrateful empowered daughters. (The catfight claws both ways, though. How about the third-waver who wrote that Clinton’s voice reminded her of her mother when she scolded? Imagine if Chris Matthews had said that.)

I can’t tell you how many reporters have interviewed me for stories about “why women are divided about Clinton.” How about a story explaining “why men are divided about John McCain”? In fact, gender as a factor in men’s voting is one of many elephants in the political room, even as male (and female) candidates slaughter innocent wildlife, sit through endless NASCAR races and profess their love of hot dogs and beer.

A lot of people are saying that Clinton’s rough treatment and (as it now looks) failure to win the nomination will discourage other women from running for the presidency. I doubt that. Politicians are pretty thick skinned. Clinton has shown that a woman can be a mainstream, non-symbolic candidate of a major party -- she can raise tons of money, run a professional campaign, get lots of votes from men as well as benefit from the female side of the gender gap, and come this close to winning. That said, the misogyny her candidacy has revealed in the national psyche, like the racism Obama’s candidacy has laid bare, is truly depressing. Next time someone uses the word “post-feminist,” I think I’ll dangle them out the window by their ankles until they promise to read Susan Faludi’s “Backlash” all the way through.

Katha Pollitt is a columnist for The Nation magazine. Her volume of personal essays, “Learning to Drive and Other Life Stories,” was published last fall by Random House.

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