A week ago I expressed my hope that Senator Hillary Clinton would exit this historic race, gracefully, with dignity, after the last primaries today. A smart op-ed by Anna Holmes in the New York Times this past Sunday suggests one way Clinton might manage to do just that – starting with a speech that offers an expansive message for all women – especially for a future generation of women who could be energized and moved by her campaign, rather than deflated by it.
Holmes argues, “Of course there’s been sexism throughout this campaign…. But at this point, keeping track of every tone-deaf criticism matters less than delivering an active, impassioned response. Senator Clinton is the one woman in America right now who has the perspective, and the responsibility, to give that response.”
Senator Clinton could deliver a rousing speech that challenges us to examine the structural sexism in our media, culture and politics. She could challenge the media to bring on more women of all ages, races, and views, as Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell recently called on her newspaper to do.
While there has been a laser-like focus on the resentment between the Clinton and Obama camps, what is hopeful about moving forward is that the resentment – or even rage felt by some of Clinton’s most ardent supporters – is directed in large part toward media sexism rather than Senator Barack Obama’s candidacy. And that is as it should be, because if we’re going to build a strong progressive coalition, and rebuild this nation, we must stand together. That means refusing to engage in what some have called “the oppression sweepstakes.” It also requires a capacity to see race and gender in multi-dimensional terms. “The real question,” as Shankar Vedantam writesin the Washington Post, “… comes down to whether groups that face discrimination focus their disappointment and resentment at discrimination – or at each other.” As Betsy Reed wrote in a recent Nation cover story, “sexism may be more casually accepted [while] racism, which is often coded, is more insidious and trickier to confront.”
As passions cool, and Clinton supporters refocus on what is at stake in this pivotal election, there’s an enormous opening for Senator Obama to win back these voters. He has already started speaking concretely to women’s issues broadly defined (as they should be): the economy, healthcare, education, ending the war. And who in their right mind could support McCain when it comes to issues which will improve women’s lives – across class and race?
And in the months and years ahead, Senator Clinton could highlight policies that challenge structural sexism – whether with regard to women’s reproductive rights and healthcare, or pay equity and equal access to positions of power. She could become a bold leader in the Senate on issues of health, education, women’s rights, civil rights, labor rights and the many issues that impact the lives of women.
This historic campaign of rousing highs and distressing lows has vividly illustrated the need for a true dialogue on sexism and gender – one that would counter Geraldine Ferraro’s venomous and wrongheaded comments in her Boston Globe op-ed, and speak to the kind of yearning and new energy described by Amanda Fortini in a New York magazine article, “The past few months have been like an extended consciousness-raising session, to use a retro phrase that would have once made most of us cringe. We’ve parsed the gender politics of the campaign with other women in the office, at parties, over e-mail, and now we’re starting to parse the gender politics of our lives. This is, admittedly, depressing: How can we be confronting the same issues, all these years later? But it’s also exciting. It feels as if a window has been opened in a stuffy, long-sealed room. There is a thrill at the collective realization. Now the question is, what next?”
Senator Clinton can make an important contribution in the years ahead by speaking with conviction and passion about sexism in American life.