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?