Obama: Win First, Change Later

Oakland, Calif.

Robert L. Borosage and Katrina vanden Heuvel put the cart before the horse in “Progressives in the Obama Moment” [Sept. 1/8]. First Obama has to get elected. We must defeat John McCain and his ugly campaign. As we have seen since Richard Nixon, Republicans pursue a strategy of putting the Democrat on the defensive by manipulating fear and prejudice. I take it as a given that millions of Americans will not vote for Obama because he is black. But his biggest challenge is to put his opponent on the defensive and make a McCain presidency the voters’ biggest fear. (I know the mere thought of it scares me.)


New York, Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington

A spirit of change has taken root, and Obama has become its embodiment. Although The Nation is right to criticize Obama’s campaign, more must be done to heal our democracy. We would like to introduce the Hundred Days Campaign: during the first 100 days of the next administration we will organize nationwide actions to ensure that people do not leave politics after the votes are counted and that our social priorities become the nation’s priorities, in Washington and in our hometowns. Join the effort, and help cure our democracy.

Students for a Democratic Society

There She Is, Miss America…

New York City

Thomas J. Sugrue, in his review of Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland [“Orthogonian Visions,” Sept. 1/8], commits one of the hoariest clichés in history when he speaks of “a handful of radical feminists” who monopolized media while working-class and other feminists worked in obscurity on real issues. Boohoo. How about changing “handful” to a spearhead that created a movement against female oppression and that thrives globally today, even in Taliban Afghanistan?

Those obscure feminists were never ignored by radical feminists. In part because of them, a historic breakthrough occurred in Atlantic City. Sugrue’s remarks are a typical male leftist misogynist attempt to marginalize those “radicals” at the expense of the alleged “plodders”–to divide and thus weaken the importance of both groups.

I was at the Atlantic City demonstration in 1968. Many working-class women came to express their anger at the beauty contest. Robin Morgan, the organizer and leader of the demonstration, knew full well the power of media to place issues on the world stage. She had been a child star of a prime-time television show from age 7 to 14 (I Remember Mama). As a Yippie, she learned well how to use the media to bring attention to a neglected issue, the oppression of women. (She eschewed any allegiance to Jerry Rubin or Abbie Hoffman–and to me–in her famous piece “Goodbye to All That,” easily available on the Internet.)

I think Morgan is a political genius, still inventing the way forward for women everywhere. But then I am prejudiced because I was her husband for twenty years and the father of our child. Being her house husband for those decades is still the most profound political commitment I ever made. I was also co-founder of the Flaming Faggots with Steven Dansky, and later with John Knoebel of The Effeminists.

It is possible to stumble over this history, as a recent New Yorker “Talk of the Town” item did, but life is more complicated than right or left can comprehend. Cheap male-left divisiveness only indicates how far Morgan has come. Sugrue may reflect on the past as inaccurately as he wishes. But Morgan is one aspect of the future that will grow in importance as our struggle to survive becomes increasingly, inevitably, urgently worldwide.


Sugrue Replies


I have been called a lot of names, but never “misogynist.” Surely Kenneth Pitchford’s serious charge must be warranted on the reading of more than a single sentence in a lengthy book review. John McCain is a misogynist. I am not.

Pitchford suggests that the 1968 Atlantic City Miss America protest was a “historic breakthrough.” I think not. Feminist victories were and are the result of a long struggle, grassroots organizing and policy-making that began a long time before 1968. Women’s suffrage was a historic breakthrough. The unionization of women workers in retail, public employment and the health professions was a historic breakthrough. The inclusion of sex discrimination in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a historic breakthrough. The shop-floor and union hall efforts of women workers to get Title VII enforced was a historic breakthrough. The legalization of abortion and the expansion of reproductive freedom was a historic breakthrough. The efforts of hundreds of thousands of poor women to expand welfare rights in the late 1960s and early ’70s was a historic breakthrough. The creation of a women’s health movement and the slow, still-unfinished transformation of the male-dominated medical profession was a historic breakthrough. Crowning a sheep Miss America was not.

The consequences of events like the Atlantic City protest are a reminder of how fickle an ally the media can be. Many in the ’60s left assumed that publicity would translate into power, and as a result spent more time angling for the camera than engaging in the tiresome everyday work of organizing and institution-building that is the necessary prerequisite for enduring social change. And while the media mostly ignored the countless unheralded acts of grassroots activism that made feminism real, the right brilliantly used televised images of protest–including the alleged “bra burners” (no bra was burned in Atlantic City)–to distort and discredit the left. I see that legacy in the classroom. Most of my students, male and female, disown feminism. They have a narrow understanding of the movement, based on the media’s disproportionate attention to one narrow, if telegenic, segment of a much larger movement.

That is not to diminish the historical significance of radical feminists, many of whom engaged in the hard work of setting up woman-run clinics, establishing women’s centers at universities and writing powerfully about patriarchy and sexuality. When radical feminists allied with other women’s groups, they made a big difference. But Pitchford misreads history to downplay the often deep rifts that divided many radical and liberal feminists; alienated black, white and Latina feminists from each other; and led many working-class women to reject the label “feminism” altogether.

Lost in Pitchford’s account–and most histories–of the ’60s is that the majority of feminists and feminist-sympathetic women did not have time for theatrical protest. They were getting up at 6 am and putting on their work clothes before making breakfast, packing their children’s lunchboxes and heading to work themselves, usually to insecure, underpaid blue- and pink-collar jobs. Their struggle is the one that we should care about most–and it’s the one that gets lost in celebrity-obsessed and media-focused histories. Addressing the plight of women as workers and caregivers–here and around the globe–is the future of feminism.