At first glance, you’d probably guess that I would proudly don a “Feel the Bern” T-shirt and make a generous donation to the democratic socialist firing up the Democratic Party. Born to leftists themselves born to leftists, I am what is known in some circles as a “red-diaper baby.”
My immigrant Jewish grandparents met in New York City, at a meeting of the Young People’s Socialist League on the Lower East Side, and I grew up more familiar with the words to labor anthems than to those of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” My mother was an activist in the civil-rights movement who later engaged with feminism, antiwar activism, and the vast panoply of progressive issues that ebbed and flowed through our national politics over the past half-century.
In other words, I come by my democratic socialism organically and deeply. And truth be told, I am not immune to the gruff charms of Bernie, which are as familiar to me as the radical Passover seders that punctuated my childhood. His sharp critiques of wealth inequality and unfettered corporate control of the political process were articles of faith at my own family’s dinner-table debates. And his Brooklyn cadence and pedantic self-righteousness remind me of… everyone I knew growing up.
For those of us on the left, the pressure to join the Bernie Express is intense. Friends and colleagues, casual Facebook acquaintances and lifelong political allies alike, all throw up their hands in despair or sneer in disgust if you don’t pledge allegiance to the candidate whose strength and broad appeal in the primary has been both surprising and energizing to progressives used to “holding our noses” and voting for the lesser of two evils. Never mind that I will gladly vote and work for Bernie if he is the nominee, and I applaud the way he has pushed Hillary to the left. For refusing to back Bernie in the primary, I’m a dupe and a traitor; I’m a tool of (take your pick) imperialist, war-mongering, militaristic, in-the-pocket-of-Wall-Street corporate hacks.
So why do I support Hillary—and in the fairly resolute manner that I do? (Because, at the very least, serious leftists and feminists are supposed to carry our support with heavy hearts, wishing she were more like Elizabeth Warren and less like Margaret Thatcher.) Yes, I’ve read most of the critiques of her, and, yes, I’m aware of her record and her complex, often vexing history. But I am no more ambivalent about her than I am about any American politician who will inevitably be found wanting in any number of crucial ways.
Here’s why: I want a woman president—and, no, not any woman president. Hillary is not, as her detractors would have it, Margaret Thatcher or Carly Fiorina—or Sarah Palin or Michelle Bachmann, or some other female candidate whose platform rests on antipathy to any feminist concerns. Like most in the Democratic Party, she is a centrist. In her political orientation, deep intelligence, and policy wonkishness, she is similar to Obama—and not as dissimilar to Bernie as one might imagine. Still, I support her less for her specific political positions (some of which I agree with, many of which I do not—all of which are far superior to the racist/sexist/xenophobic sideshow that is the Republican primary field) than for the iconic value of electing the first woman president of the United States.
Shattering glass ceilings can have broad and rippling consequences. The election of Obama did not usher in an era of “post-racial” accord. However, it did something else, something that couldn’t happen without having a black president in the Oval Office: It brought to the surface the enduring power of racial animus in the United States—an animus that Obama himself commented on increasingly often throughout his presidency—and the equally enduring struggles against it. His presence brought race to the forefront of American politics and raised the bar for “doing enough” for African Americans significantly higher, even as he wrestled with the trap of respectability politics and the Catch-22 of giving voice to black anger. The Black Lives Matter movement, for example, may have come into being without his presidency, but surely the very fact of this man, with this history, with this skin, in the White House forced critically important questions about the unfinished fight for racial equality into public view.
Indeed, Obama took it upon himself to explicitly defend the work of Black Lives Matter and school the nation on police violence in October, during a White House forum on criminal justice, when he insisted that “it’s real and there’s a history behind it and we have to take it seriously.” When Trayvon Martin was murdered two years earlier, his comment that Trayvon “could have been me 35 years ago” may not have sparked the growing movement against racist police and vigilante violence, but it did give it legitimacy and official recognition. Certainly, it matters—to young African Americans in particular—to have Obama’s voice speaking frankly and personally about these issues from the highest office in the land.
This could happen with Hillary. No, the stalled revolution for gender equity won’t be won simply by installing a woman in the White House. But it may help animate conversation, instill fierce female pride, and inspire young girls the world over. With our wages still unequal, our domestic labor undervalued, and childcare still too expensive; with overreaching politicians determined to control our reproductive lives and our campuses roiled in debates over how to address rampant sexual assault; and with our political representation still woefully disproportionate to our population, the effects of having a woman in that very male White House would trigger renewed attention to gender injustice—and fan the flames of a resurgent feminist social movement.
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Feminist Hillary supporters are not, as some would have it, identity-politics clones who would support any woman, regardless of her positions. To suggest this smacks of a dismissive sexism that colors the discourse of both left- and right-wing Hillary haters. And the idea that Hillary’s victory would be “merely” symbolic underestimates the profound import of symbolism and obscures her explicit alliance with (some version of) feminism and her clear qualifications for the job. As with Obama and racism, her candidacy is bringing sexism out into the open—not that it’s ever far from the surface!—both the Trump-like horror of the female body, and a curiously visceral and over-the-top cottage industry on the left of “anti-Hillary” haters (as if she were the enemy and not… right-wing Republicans?). But like the racist fervor that greeted Obama, the misogyny bubbling over will make plain the deep gender inequities that persist despite decades of feminist work, and finally put to rest the lie that this revolution is largely won.
Hillary may not be the radical, intersectional feminist that activists—myself included—fantasize about seeing in power. But she’s some kind of a feminist for sure, and her election would no doubt foreground the centrality of gender equity to social justice in ways we have not yet seen at a national level. And visibility matters: It’s substantively different to have a woman president advocating for gender equality as opposed to having a man do so, just as it is to have a black president advocating for racial justice—because gender and racial difference live in and through our marked bodies. This is why, for example, the struggles for affirmative action and diversity remain so pertinent to all aspects of social, political, and educational life. It’s unlikely that Bernie’s redistributive economic policies, admirable as they are, would ever make their way through Congress. How is a leftist agenda that remains little more than a vision better for women than actually having a woman (who has, don’t forget, an agenda that shares much in common with this vision)—after all these years—in the Oval Office?
Hillary as president will not usher in a profound realignment of US priorities and politics. No electable mainstream candidate will do that—see Obama’s legacy if you have any doubts. But she just might help us remember that “feminist” isn’t an epithet; it’s a badge of honor.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of the article above was published on December 9, 2015.