As the contest for a Democratic presidential nominee enters its final stages, the feminist dilemma has become palpable and painful. My inbox has been filled with passionate and provocative pieces from Katha Pollitt, Frances Kissling, Caroline Kennedy and Feminists for Peace and Barack Obama, all explaining why they are not supporting Hillary Clinton. Equally strong commentary in support of Clinton, and dismissing Obama, has arrived from Gloria Steinem, Robin Morgan, Ellie Smeal and Ellen Malcolm. All decry the misogyny evident in media coverage of the candidates and grapple–with varying degrees of success–with race and gender conflict. Clinton fans mention in passing that Hillary has been an international voice for women’s rights.
As a feminist whose daily work focuses on the challenges facing women outside the United States–particularly those living in poverty, in war zones and under extreme patriarchal control–I think these conversations have a surreal quality. They are surreal because they are so perfectly American in their insularity. What is alarmingly absent from our conversations and arguments, even as they allude to race and gender, is any sense of how our decisions affect the well-being of people across the planet–not least the status of women, 51 percent of us, who are being treated with appalling brutality around the globe.
There is something profoundly wrong when a conversation about qualifications to be President of the most powerful nation in the world ignores the reality facing most of that world’s inhabitants. While American pundits debate whether Clinton is being targeted unfairly, for example, thousands of women and children in Gaza are being collectively punished as Israel, a neighboring state and former occupying power, withholds food, fuel and electricity. Yet who is talking about that? In the face of such a travesty of human rights and international law, not one of the presidential candidates, regardless of race or gender, has the gumption to speak out and say this is wrong. Not one has said that he or she will not tolerate such behavior by any ally of the United States.
We live in a world where women are facing an epidemic of rape in conflicts from Nepal to Chiapas to the Democratic Republic of Congo, yet neither Clinton nor Obama has seen fit to mention it. Recent reports of the widespread murder of educated women in Iraq by religious extremists are adding new horror to an already horrifying situation but are going almost unreported. Women and children today form the bulk of the world’s refugees and make up the majority of the world’s poor. Despite doing more than two-thirds of the world’s labor, women own only 1 percent of the world’s assets. Yet not one presidential candidate has chosen to highlight the profound threat that gender inequality is posing to the development, economic stability and future peace of our world.
At times like these, the practical politics of US elections are staggeringly oppressive. We are told by the experts that Americans do not care about, or vote on the basis of, what happens in the rest of the world. We hear claims that presidential candidates cannot raise these issues during the race: we just have to trust that they will do better once they are in office.