Op-Ed by Margaret M. Russell and Stephanie M. Wildman: Who Speaks For All Women?

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Who speaks for all women? The maelstrom following the recent endorsement of Barack Obama by NARAL (the National Abortion Rights Action League) dramatically pumped up the volume of a months-old debate among women: namely, can a true women’s rights supporter endorse Obama over Hillary Clinton, without guilt or ambivalence?

These two women answer: of course.

We wish this truth were self-evident, but current “Don’t Quit, Hillary” bromides suggest otherwise. Fueled by respected women’s movement icons such as Ellen Malcolm of Emily’s List, the “Don’t Quit” argument holds that Hillary is fighting for all women, and that therefore women must not abandon her. A new high-profile ad by WomenCount PAC proclaims, “Hillary’s voice is OUR voice, and she’s speaking for all of us.” The ad links Clinton’s continued candidacy to the “quests for justice” of Abigail Adams, Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, Eleanor Roosevelt, Fannie Lou Hamer, Barbara Jordan, Ann Richards, and Dolores Huerta. (Only the last of these great women is a Clinton supporter and, in fact, even alive.)

The message is as subtle as a Judas metaphor: a woman who supports Barack Obama must be a traitor to her gender. We find such generalizations both misleading and insulting. While being a woman is a defining characteristic for us, it does not dictate the manner in which our brains work. Women’s equality is a core principle of our personhood, yet it does not always lead us to the same conclusions. If progress for women means anything, it must include the right to debate principles of governance and to choose which candidate best embodies those precepts.

One of us is a white woman of Clinton’s generation — ostensibly the demographic epitome of the key Hillary supporter. The other is an African-Asian-American middle-aged woman — someone who arguably could fit the profile of either Obama’s or Clinton’s “base.” But, like all voters, we are more than the sum of demographic data. While we aspire to a world in which race and gender would not have negative impact, we recognize that those identity characteristics still do matter at this time in our nation’s history. Insights about race and gender continue to provide great depth to our perceptions about the world. These perceptions influence our electoral choices, but they do not render our endorsements rote or formulaic.

Consider why some women’s rights supporters might choose Obama over Clinton, and still hold fast to our ideals: The oft-discussed topic of Obama’s early opposition to the Iraq War — to many of us, a “women’s rights issue” if ever there were one — reveals much about his sagacity. We prefer Obama’s thoughtfulness about the challenge of global leadership in the 21st century. We value his explicit and repeated emphasis on the language of diplomacy to solve problems, including his own; conversely, Clinton’s threat to “totally obliterate” Iran, as well as her metaphors of Rocky Balboa and boxing gloves, leave us cold. As women of the “boomer” demographic, we are acutely aware that most of this country’s problems will fall most heavily on our children’s generation, and we respect the hard work and optimism that progressive young women and men have devoted to the Obama candidacy. Both candidates disappoint us on certain issues — for example, their support of civil unions but not same-sex marriages — but we see no reason to believe that an Obama presidency will be anything less than auspicious for women’s equality.

Certainly, we decry the blanket of sexism draping this campaign, just as we deplore its ugly racial overtones. We suspect that the electorate is affected by both, despite the wishful claim that “race and gender don’t mean anything.” Obama may be hemmed in by unspoken biases about black masculinity just as much as Clinton is hampered by the code of perfect white womanhood. And both candidates have had to struggle against conventional notions of electability.

If we choose to support a black man whose principles of governance and equality seem closer to our own, we are not betraying women. It is time to bury the myth of speaking for “all women.”

–Margaret M. Russell and Stephanie M. Wildman

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0 Responses to Op-Ed by Margaret M. Russell and Stephanie M. Wildman: Who Speaks For All Women?

  1. This is a great post. The idea that women need to back Hillary simply because she is a woman is ridiculous and founded on the false idea that women’s experience is universal. Though I certainly prefer Hillary to McCain, and would be proud to have a woman as President of the U.S., I think that much of what she would bring to the White House is ‘business as usual’, and I think it’s high time for a serious shift to occur politically and ideologically in this country. Obama’s rhetoric is much more in line with my personal belief system than Clinton’s, and though I’m cynical enough to be skeptical, I’m also idealistic enough to hope for change.

  2. Thanks for that excellent post. Much of what you’re writing about is anti-essentialism. There’s no reason to assume that just because someone is a woman (or a man, or black, or white, or any other race) that s/he speaks for all women (or men, or etc.) or even most women. Yes, there may be lived experiences that you can assume with great likelihood that she shares that men don’t, but that doesn’t mean that she’s going to draw the same conclusions/reactions from those lived experiences that you or others might.

  3. Historiann says:

    Great! I guess we don’t need women in politics at all, then. We can just let all of those super-excellent male feminists do the work for us! Thanks for slapping me upside the head and helping me see the light.

    (I get the point about anti-essentialism. However, let’s be honest: all political movements exist in a state of tension between essentialism and anti-essentialism. Necessary and crucial to the Civil Rights, women’s rights, and gay rights movements, etc. was the push to make African American women and men, women of all ethnicities, and gay men and lesbians visible and active in electoral as well as activist politics. Academic feminists believe in the importance of resisting essentialism, and yet–it’s important to have women, non-white people, and gay people in elective office representing not just those constituencies, but all Americans.)

    And let me add: of course feminists can (and do) support Obama, for all kinds of good reasons. But, she seems less equivocal on abortion rights and gay rights than he does, and that jibes with her winning the majority of support from women and from the gay community.

  4. Right – that’s what I’m suggesting.

    In all seriousness (if you want that), there are many good reasons (restorative justice, substantive equality, prophylactic concerns, etc.) to favor pushes for equal representation based on identity, but I think essentialism is not one of those good reasons.

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