a letter from feminists on the election
Two days after the Texas debate between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, a group of old friends broke out the good china for a light breakfast of strong coffee, blueberry muffins and fresh-squeezed orange juice. We were there to hash out a split that threatened our friendship and the various movements with which we are affiliated. In some ways it was a kaffeeklatch like a million others across America early on a Saturday morning–but for the fact that this particular group included Gloria Steinem, a co-founder of the National Women’s Political Caucus; Beverly Guy-Sheftall, director of the Women’s Research and Resource Center at Spelman College; Johnnetta Cole, chair of the board of the JBC Global Diversity and Inclusion Institute; British-born radio journalist Laura Flanders; Kimberlé Crenshaw, professor of law at Columbia and UCLA; Carol Jenkins, head of the Women’s Media Center; Farah Griffin, professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia; Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority; author Mab Segrest; Kenyan anthropologist Achola Pala Okeyo; management consultant and policy strategist Janet Dewart Bell; and Patricia Williams, Columbia law professor and Nation columnist.
It was a casual gathering, but one that settled down to business quickly. We were all progressives but diverse nonetheless. We differed in our opinions of whether to vote for Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama–our goal was not an endorsement. Rather, the concern that united us all was the “race-gender split” playing out nationally, in which the one is relentlessly pitted against the other. We did not want to see a repeat of the ugly history of the nineteenth century, when the failure of the women’s movement to bring about universal adult suffrage metastasized into racial resentment and rift that weakened feminism throughout much of the twentieth century.
How, we wondered, did a historic breakthrough moment for which we have all longed and worked hard, suddenly risk becoming marred by having to choose between “race cards” and “gender cards”? By petty competitiveness about who endures more slings and arrows? By media depictions of white women as the sole inheritors of the feminist movement and black men as the sole beneficiaries of the civil rights movement? By renderings of black women as having to split themselves right down the center with Solomon’s sword in order to vote for either candidate? What happened, we wondered, to the last four decades of discussion about tokenism and multiple identities and the complex intersections of race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity and class?
We all worried that the feminist movement’s real message is not being heard, and we thought about how to redirect attention to those coalitions that form the bedrock of feminist concern: that wide range of civil rights groups dedicated to fighting discrimination, domestic violence, the disruptions of war, international sex and labor trafficking, child poverty and a tattered economy that threatens to increase the number of homeless families significantly.
We thought of all that has happened in just seven short but disastrous years of the Bush Administration, and we asked: how might we position ourselves so we’re not fighting one another? Our issues are greater than any disagreement about either candidate. We all know that there is simply too much at stake.
On the one hand, we celebrate the unprecedented moment in which a black person and a female person have risen to the lead in the Democratic race for President of the United States. On the other hand, both of them are constantly pressed to deny their race or gender, to “transcend” it, to prove by their very existence that misogyny and racism no longer exist. This, even as both are popularly and reductively caricatured in perniciously stereotypical ways. Clinton as a woman with balls, Obama as “unqualified” and “grandiose,” Chelsea Clinton being “pimped” by her mother while Bill O’Reilly declares that Michelle Obama should be “lynched.”
How do we resist such a toxic Punch and Judy show of embattled identity, to the degree that many women feel that a vote for Obama “cheats” Clinton of her chance to break the glass ceiling, and many blacks feel that a vote for Clinton is a betrayal of the chance to break the race barrier?
We agreed that everyone needs to refocus on the big picture. All of us know that another Republican presidency would effectively bury the gains of both the civil rights and the feminist movements of the past fifty years. Judicial nominations alone could upend decades of hard work.
How, therefore, to reclaim a common purpose, a truly democratic “we”: we women of all races, we blacks of all genders, we Americans of all languages, we immigrants of all classes, we Latinas of all colors, we Southerners of all regions, we families of all ages, we parents working three jobs without healthcare, we poor who sleep on the streets, we single mothers whose homes are being repossessed, we displaced New Orleanians whose neo-Arcadian epic of displacement has yet to be resolved.
“Can’t we all just get along?” could have been the mantra of this power breakfast–though certainly not forever, nor for all purposes. Just long enough to roust the Republican rascals: the oil barons and Enron fraudsters and pre-emptive warmongers and sadistic torture-masters and trigger-happy antiabortionists and Blackwater mercenaries and the tribal extremists of various religious stripes who seem to look forward to Armageddon finally segregating humanity into true believers and recalcitrant, disposable trash.
In the confusion of this triumphalist but precarious moment, therefore, it is important that the alliance between a now global feminism and a now global civil rights movement not be turned against itself and ultimately defeated. Obama and Clinton, each a complexly archetypal “role model,” represent, at their best, a new kind of American possibility. If we could get over our fixation on a fantasy that many of us hoped to see realized in our lifetimes, maybe we could finally turn to the issues that each of them brings to the table. We cannot remain tangled by stereotypes that demean with their sweeping divisiveness and historical cliché.
As we gathered up the empty plates, we recommitted ourselves to further joint discussions about how to attain that collective better future, however many early mornings, late nights and urns of coffee into the future that may take. We hope women across America will choose to do the same.