The Feminist Case Against a Woman President: A Response to Jessica Valenti
A still from EMILY’s List’s Madam President campaign video.
Feminism is dead. Long live politics as usual.
At least, that’s the suggestion of Jessica Valenti’s latest column, “Why I’m Voting for Her,” in which she announces, by turns sheepish and defiant, that the author intends to vote for a woman for president in 2016. In that case, it seems obvious that she’ll be supporting Hillary Clinton, whose speculative 2016 candidacy is already casting the (rather familiar) pall of inevitability.
It’s not Valenti’s choice of candidate that’s disappointing so much as her rationale. After years of distinguishing between representation and substance as measures of feminist progress and cheering online activism and campus organizing for drawing more attention to rape culture and sexual assault, Valenti now views the feminist situation is so dismal that the likeliest available consolation is the symbolic victory of electing a moderate Democratic female president.
After resisting the siren song of identity politics for one entire election cycle, namely 2008, where Valenti rejected the “vagina litmus test” when choosing Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton, Valenti is prepared to vote for a woman “not because I believe the female Democratic candidate…is guaranteed to be the most feminist, but because I’m just too fed up to do anything else.”
The trap of valorizing any woman, and particularly Clinton, as an icon and losing sight of her as a politician was foreshadowed by the “Texts from Hillary” phenomenon and her social media renaissance, as I noted in The Nation last year. There are arguments to be made for and against Clinton as a candidate, but the problem is less about her than about a voter’s self-indulgent investiture of the nation’s highest office with redemptive powers. Our focus as movement-builders should be supporting day-to-day organizing. Feminism is not any single person or outcome, it’s a practice, and a far more active one than Valenti gives credit for.
Consider one of the controversies that has Valenti so fed up, the “legitimate rape” controversy, starting with former representative Todd Akin’s whiplash-inducing remarks that women who are raped are far less likely to get pregnant, as a result of “the body…shutting that whole thing down.” According to Valenti, evidence of feminism’s retreat can be found in the persistence of Akinesque worldviews and gender politics—and the remedy is to “kick the movement…into forward motion…with a bang: the presidency.”
Reframe the question: Didn’t the “legitimate rape” controversy result in exactly the kind of feminist victory that Valenti wants? Once Akin made his remarks, Democrats and Republicans alike condemned his remarks, including President Obama’s “rape is rape” statement. Akin’s loss of a Senate race where he had previously been the front-runner was directly attributed to backlash from women voters. So, women got a high-profile conversation about rape victims deserving credibility and respect, galvanization of women across the political spectrum who stood up for their gender on op-ed pages and at the ballot box, and the election of Claire McCaskill as one of the record number of female senators who emerged victorious in 2012. What about that doesn’t suggest forward motion for the feminist movement?
Speaking of election of female leaders, the statistics Valenti cites from EMILY’s List—90 percent of voters in battleground states prepared to vote for a qualified female candidate, 86 percent believing that America is ready for a female president—suggest that attitudes are actually changing, which is perhaps the real measure of feminism’s impact. The same could be said of the bestseller popularity of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, which according to Valenti demonstrates that women are “champing at the bit” to see themselves in positions of power. Yet those massive, hard-won cultural shifts do not need to be channeled onto a single inadequate figurehead.
After all, the counterfactual is readily available. Obama’s presidency has hardly been a bonanza for African-Americans, as noted by Frederick C. Harris in The New York Times in 2012:
the triumph of “post-racial” Democratic politics has not been a triumph for African-Americans in the aggregate. It has failed to arrest the growing chasm of income and wealth inequality; to improve prospects for social and economic mobility; to halt the re-segregation of public schools… Mr. Obama, in his first two years in office, talked about race less than any Democratic president had since 1961. From racial profiling to mass incarceration to affirmative action, his comments have been sparse and halting…when it comes to the Obama presidency and black America, symbols and substance have too often been assumed to be one and the same.
Harris also quoted Representative Emanuel Cleaver, then-chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, saying “The president knows we are going to act in deference to him in a way we wouldn’t to someone white.”
A woman in the Oval Office would not result in greater motivation for feminist action—it may actually dampen it. Obama’s presidency has demonstrated that pioneering holders of that office are cautious about protecting their political capital. Their identity constituency is left with heartening optics, but no special advocacy when it comes to policy. The very evidence Valenti summons to justify her “jaded orneriness” proves the opposite—that feminists have no need for a heroine to swoop in and save the republic. In fact, the remedy she would pursue for this alleged nadir would only weaken the energy that the movement is steadily building, day by day.
Valenti admits that “intractable problems would [not] magically disappear if we had a woman president.” But, she writes, “it just might make the relentless sexism easier to bear.” Easier to bear—for whom? Are we so detached from the reality of sexism that we can honestly be content with shallow symbolism? No thank you. Better to have urgency and outrage than resigned complacency.
I understand Valenti’s exhaustion. I have my share of weary days. But I’m pretty sure that feminists two or three generations ahead of me and Valenti are really tired. The way we honor their determination, and the work of all feminists whether they run for office, shelter survivors of domestic violence, write insightful articles, or report and prosecute rapes, is not to throw up our hands and go for a feel-good fix—especially one that may be no fix at all.