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A Feminist Response to Senator Obama’s Statements on Abortion

Jessica Winck

Senator Obama recently explained a component of his position on abortion, saying “serious clinical mental health diseases” and “physical health” are exceptions to the rule that, in the third trimester, a woman cannot legally abort a pregnancy. He attempted to clarify by adding that “feeling blue” does not justify a “partial birth abortion.”

We might, in the aftermath of this statement, expect some women and feminists to remove their support from Obama’s campaign. While I disagree with following through with that reaction, I understand why women are disappointed and alarmed by Obama’s statement. In some women’s eyes, Obama just became another man philosophizing on the political terrain that is a woman’s body. Somewhere there are women to whom these “exceptions” apply, and they might be watching these male politicians on TV, or might be in the audience at an event as two men who know nothing about their lives or bodies talk, talk, talk. By avoiding us as people and ignoring the complex realities of our lives as women, male politicians might find talking about and around us much easier.

Some are also disappointed about Senator Obama’s statement because now that Senator Clinton is out of the running, and Obama should win the divided women’s vote, he does not seem to have much ambition to win it. He must really not care, some of us are thinking. We might also observe how, as a voting bloc, we are repeatedly taken for granted and viewed as push-overs. We resent that, and we resent that he does not seem to be fighting hard enough. We believe it indicates that nothing will change under his presidency, for us anyway.

We resent when men patronize us. We resent when men talk about us and legislate and make policy like we aren’t there. We resent that Senator Obama doesn’t defer to women on this one. And finally, “partial birth abortion” is a fake term. It is not medical, it was created by Republicans so that they could politically identify a procedure that in reality almost never happens, then they banned with exceptions for those cases that required the existence of this procedure in the first place. And Senator Obama, our democratic candidate, used that term.

Maybe some women just won’t vote, or will vote for McCain.

Much of this is understandable, but I would offer a more cautious approach, and perhaps a better way of thinking about Senator Obama.

I was profoundly disappointed by Obama’s statements, but I will not withdrawal my support. I’m going to take a second to observe that a president will not solve everything. Some feminists wanted to elect Hillary Clinton to see a woman president before they died. If Senator Clinton had been the nominee, would they have happily sat at home because all the work appeared to be done? I truly hope not. Would she have been the answer to everything? Would our female president have worked for women, represented us, all of us, and made sure all the rights we have now remain intact? Would she lead the movement to get the rest of the rights owed to us? We really don’t know.

More than a president, we need a movement. Where we can make progress, we make it enthusiastically. Where we can forge new relationships and make men our allies (since they do make up the majority of politicians who legislate around and about us), we forge those relationships. We initiate feminist conversion wherever it can happen. And we must begin acting through the perspective that, at the very least, by voting for Obama we give ourselves the continued benefits of privacy as a constitutional right, continued support for cheap, accessible birth control, and an end in sight for abstinence-only “education,” even as all these progressions have been so imperfect and at times supported and rejected without full knowledge of what they are.

For instance, we know that the privacy argument is not enough, that abortion was decriminalized not because women were deemed human enough for full participation and full control over their reproductive capacity without exception, but because the constitution has a privacy clause that, with a certain interpretation, can include a woman deciding to terminate a pregnancy. This is imperfect, and so are distinctions made between arguments for and against abstinence-only “education,” as are those with raising minimum wage and cracking down on employers who have biases when they give out paychecks. Nobody has fixed these problems yet, so why do they fall on Obama because he has proposed changing the system?

Change is happening slowly. As feminists, we have everyday experience telling us it is difficult to change people’s minds. On one hand, I understand the impulse to cast a protest vote, or to opt out of voting altogether. But given that we have two choices in this election, Senator Barack Obama or Senator John McCain, we would do ourselves well to cast a ballot for the candidate we know for sure will at least secure what some of us have come to take for granted, and to be hopeful that with enough insistence, our representatives will work for us. In the meantime, we must add ourselves as a third choice: when we have a president in November, what will we do next?

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Filed under: Politics & Gender

SEXISM IS NOT THE ONLY ISSUE: Why Senator Clinton Does Not Have My Feminist Support

  — Jessica Winck         

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There is a prevalent incomprehension among some older feminists that young women or any feminist could support a man over Senator Clinton. Nevermind who this man is or what his values are or the ways that he has, for many women, adequately proven himself as a politician who supports their causes – without forgetting that they must be supported alongside the causes of black people, Hispanics, gays and lesbians, and the poor. In the “second-wave” feminism tradition, Senator Clinton’s campaign fails to present analyses that address the realities of all women. This detail is not seen as a failure, but rather, as Susan Brownmiller writes in her memoir of the women’s movement, it is regarded as a subject used to guilt white women into believing “they had no right to make any demands for themselves.”

Feminists at the time of the women’s movement rarely considered that racism was a huge woman problem for those who experience(d) it both on the giving and receiving ends. They seemed too tied up in resenting black women standing by their men and accusing them of ignoring siren calls for sisterhood and not recognizing their every-womanness. Robin Morgan, editor of the 1970 anthology Sisterhood is Powerful, wrote in the introduction that black women, “who are obviously doubly oppressed, have, for the most part, chosen to fight beside their black brothers, fighting racism as a priority oppression.” Morgan and her white sisters, presumably not affected by racial oppression, are unable to gauge just how much racism affects a black woman’s personhood. Did women who were born and sold into slavery deny the racial reality of their partners and their sons as well as their mothers and daughters as a prerequisite for resisting the rape and sexual assault by white men? Would prioritizing their femaleness, as if their blackness did not exist, have erased the problems they faced as black people? And with racism not dealt with, wouldn’t their problems as black women persist?

Real problems needing widespread attention like sexism and racism have been divided so that they “belong” to only one group that bears the entire responsibility of eradicating the problem, even as, at times, a group free of responsibility can all by itself perpetuate the problem. Dividing them completely as opposing absolutes makes racism a “black problem” and sexism a “white woman problem,” but it also makes black women into dangerous agents capable of helping or hurting one side or the other; worse, they can even be rendered invisible.

Setting forth with this blindness in the 70s, feminists worried that they would lead an all-white movement that would quickly lose credibility. They worked on “recruiting” black women, a word Brownmiller used in her 1999 memoir In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution. A recording from a formal session on attracting black women to the movement, re-created in text by Brownmiller, shows that some feminists in attendance only seemed to care about getting one “militant Black Power woman,” because “black women hold the cards on oppression…and they let white women know that.” At least until the time Brownmiller wrote her memoir, she seemed genuinely bewildered that more black women were not interested in what developed as an almost all-white women’s liberation movement. Perhaps they tried to pull black women into a political space that inflexibly accepted them and resisted being shaped by their interests and realities. It seemed that only one black woman present as white women developed their ideology was adequate. Similarly, out of over seventy essays published in Robin Morgan’s edited collection, only three are dedicated to the black liberation movement, set-off in a section painfully titled “Women in the Black Liberation Movement: Three Views.”

Simultaneously, the recruitment attitude appeared to be “I don’t care who you are, if you’re a woman, you should join this movement.” Nevermind that at times, the women’s movement advocated separation from men, a full and free exploration of careers, education, child-free lives, all made possible by nannies who were poor women and women of color, for whom financial support and leisure time might have been an improvement in their lives, not what it was for educated white women: a manifestation of oppression that was universalized as every woman’s plight. Failing to address this discord, Brownmiller used her memoir to adamantly stand by the claims made in the 70s: “no movement agonized more, or flailed itself harder, over its failure to attract vast numbers of women of color.”

Perhaps these “flailings” were insincere. Some feminists certainly might have agonized over not attracting all women without seeing that they had not continued the anti-racist work of understanding the realities that make all women’s experiences of sexism much different from white women’s experiences in particular. They might have believed they had already, in the words of bell hooks, unlearned racism. They also loved the movement and benefited too much from it to be entirely critical, even in hindsight.

Now, in the 2008 presidential primary, Senator Clinton’s campaign attracts this feminist support. Not questioning the nature of the support or attempting to shape feminism as a movement that ends sexism for all women, Senator Clinton has gained a lot of popularity among feminists. I would ask, when did she become this feminist mother, a savior for women? She did not. What happened was the realization of this woman as a possible female president, an end to forty-year struggle and the desire for pay off, not a continuation of hard-won feminist gains in a widespread movement wherein women of all ages and color and background act for gender equality in all the ways it can be realized for all people, even if this means electing an exceptional man to the highest office.

The problem is that many who were active in the movement do not trust young women to do feminist work today. We have been accused of apathy toward our right to abortion, to birth control, to careers and/or to family life. We have been accused of aversion to power, even as the definition of female power has changed and is constantly changing to include objectification, cosmetics, motherhood, involvement in politics, having sex before we are ready, having it when we are ready, wearing designer sunglasses, staying thin, going to college. The mixed messages are amazing, and older women have thrown more than their frustration at those young women who step bravely or without burdening self-consciousness into the realms etched out for us, realms whose boundaries seem to have been carved deeper against feminist gains.

Is it this hopelessness in the younger generation that makes some veteran feminists use their name recognition and their writing to burn us by neglecting issues that will affect us and our partners, daughters and sons, to demand payment for their lifetimes of work not with their daughters’ and sisters’ continued health and welfare, but with the static image of Senator Clinton at her inauguration?

Many women who support Senator Clinton say they want to see a woman president in their lifetime, claimed even in the midst of the impending weakening of our reproductive justice laws, pay discrimination, sexual harassment, the neglect of women’s health, a quarter of young women having an STD, abstinence-only programs, rape, the feminization of poverty, young women’s declining access to birth control, domestic violence, prostitution, sexual slavery, sexual objectification. One adamant fifty-something Clinton supporter on the Huffington Post commented that she will take her chances on Roe and vote for McCain if Clinton loses the nomination.

Robin Morgan writes in her introduction to Sisterhood is Powerful that the women’s liberation movement “is the first radical movement to base its politics – in fact, create its politics – out of concrete personal experiences. We have learned that those experiences are not our private hang-ups. They are shared by every woman, and are therefore political.” Nevermind that they are not shared by every woman and are, for that reason, political. Nevermind that celebrating personal experience and interests by privileging them reinforces the “I” and “she” pronouns found in Senator Clinton’s campaign, demonstrating that her campaign has much to do with her and might, with that starting point, have little to do with the masses of women who do and do not support her, but who would nonetheless be recipients of whatever harm or good she may accelerate as president. It would be a mistake to privilege what I want based on my own perceived experience with “second-class citizenship” without even questioning where my experience falls in the spectrum of human plight. I would inevitably produce what could be the unintended effect of eclipsing the experiences of others; yet this is what Senator Clinton’s campaign has encouraged through those feminist messages characterized by demands for gender loyalty and of our votes as gratitude.

As we debate who feminists should vote for and debate who black women should support, we have taken a moment of privilege to ignore the real problems that have not suspended themselves as we talk. During this entire election season, with a woman running for president, we feminists have not demanded very much from her. Instead, many seem to be overwhelmed by unwavering loyalty and resist criticizing her.

Why have we not demanded more? What about a formal debate about those reproductive issues unique to women? Especially as Republicans get airtime to discuss ways women should be punished for getting abortions “when Roe is overturned.” Why have we not forced Senator Clinton to talk about women? She might mention “the hard-working waitress in the Midwest” or “the little girl who can now dream of being whatever she wants to be,” and we feminists swoon at the nods. But they are just not enough. For this reason, I have difficulty supporting her as she openly discusses sexism so late in the campaign. First, I am skeptical because I always thought she could take whatever the misogynists would throw. And she has! There is no question that Senator Clinton is a strong woman capable of defending herself when an attack is low. Second, even though all sexism is a problem for those who experience it, it is not the same for everyone. By redefining sexism as unwarranted attacks against women in power positions, her campaign and her supporters draw back the extent to which feminism as a political movement is relevant. If I am a feminist who cares about reproductive justice, anti-racist activism, women affected by violence, pay discrimination, and sexual harassment on the job, Senator Clinton hardly represents the ultimate resistance to sexism. Should I give up on my president and government if I am told that it is not their job to address these problems, or should I demand more from my president and my government? Especially when the front-runner for the Democratic party has demanded more and has asked us to demand everything from him and from ourselves.

If this campaign were really about the women Senator Clinton claims to lead for, she would have addressed their experiences with sexism a long time ago. As sexism becomes dolls that crack nuts, demands to cook and iron, and men discussing her “cackle,” what is it when the women who most need access to abortion are met with policy that restricts it? When those women also have difficulty accessing birth control? And then, with children, when those women cannot seek the education or the wage that would make them less dependent on a male partner whether or not they have one? What is it called when they work and are likely to experience sexual harassment but feel forced to keep the job because they need it? While that system and others are in full-force all day, every day, we focus instead on the tragedy of some old-fashioned men who do not like Senator Clinton. When they call her a “bitch,” we should regard it as a compliment: they probably cannot debate Clinton’s policy and they know it is difficult to win an argument with her. They have nothing else but “bitch.”

We need to laugh off the name-calling. We cannot risk redefining sexism so that America does not have to address poverty, reproductive justice, and the experiences of American women everywhere. We risk seeing those problems only in the context of race and class and may not even consider them in light of gender anymore.

As feminism reemerges as a topic of discussion during this election season, we have missed the opportunity to talk about the interests women really would want a woman candidate to address. Senator Clinton has not stood up as a leader for women; instead, for the purposes of her campaign, sexism became the only issue at stake once she could afford to address it. Ironically, gender loyalty has been the only channel through which our support should flow. Is it possible that her campaign might inadvertently work to secure conditions that negatively affect more women than her symbolic win would positively affect her feminist supporters, some of whom gained fame in the 70s and want to see a woman elected president before they die?

Where have the real issues been? Where is the urgency? Why are we resting? Maybe we can afford not to address them, but there are more American women than make up our own privileged sect who cannot afford it.

In a recent piece called “Goodbye to All That No. 2,” Robin Morgan chastises young women who cannot identify with Senator Clinton and who do not feel compelled to call themselves feminist. Equal attention should be paid to Clinton, who does not declare that she advocates feminism or is a feminist. Investigate her ability to be the feminist you want her to be among the men who would reject her for it. Make sure that the choices she makes (which sometimes identify with sexist thinking) actually function to eliminate gender inequality as experienced by masses of women and men who do not want to run for president or do not care about politics.

Throw them away as misled young people with divided loyalties, as her supporters did to women of color and others in the 70s? Or reach out, be willing to listen to and believe them, and begin to lead for them all? I will wait for improvements in her continued service in the senate or in some other political capacity, but I reserve my right to withhold my feminist support of Senator Clinton for President of the United States.

 

© 2008 Jessica Winck. All Rights Reserved.

Filed under: Politics & Gender

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