Friday, June 6, 2008

If This is Feminism, Count Me Out

This post might be a little outdated given the stage in the electoral campaign we are now at. My opinions of Hillary Clinton have softened marginally... especially since I saw clips of the horribly sexist things said about her (I'd been protected from them thus far thanks to my revulsion to Fox News... but given that the most sexist crap said about her was on Fox News, why would she go ahead and call them "the most fair and balanced" news channel of all?) In any case, some of rubbish that is spewing forth from her supposed supporters on various blogs makes me think the time for this piece might not have passed yet. So here goes...

Over the past couple of months, following the democratic primaries as closely (read geek-ishly) as I have, one thought has recurred to me – Hillary Clinton has set feminism back a hundred years. She might have made great strides in American politics, may have survived, to use her own words, “the all-boys club of Presidential politics,” but her (or her supporters’) idea of ‘feminism’ reminds me of the time when my own (mis-)conception of feminism was men offering up bus seats to women. (Gladly, that was also the time I was decidedly ‘anti-feminist.’ Today, however, my understanding of feminism having become WAY more critical and progressive, I am happy to be a feminist, a third world feminist, a postcolonial feminist, a woman of color feminist…)

To clarify, I do not believe that Hillary Clinton has asked for any favors (she may have a sense of entitlement, but that’s a separate issue.) Yet she has taken us back to the days when 1) only a woman could be as an authentic feminist; and 2) being a feminist meant proving that ‘women were as good as men,’ or more precisely, proving that women could perform heteronormative masculinity just as skillfully as men. Black/third-world/postcolonial feminist thought has critiqued precisely this form of ‘women-better-than-men/women-as-good-as-men’ feminism, suggesting instead that feminism should fight for an intersectional anti-oppression analysis, that resisted the multiple and overlapping ways in which racism, patriarchy, classism, sexism, homophobia, ableism – all forms of oppression – where they were encounter. Another key aspect of this tradition is that feminist thought could, in fact should, be practiced by all individuals who are committed to anti-oppression and social justice struggles. Hillary Clinton, her campaign and her supporters have failed dismally on both these counts. Of course, this is not to suggest that all contemporary feminisms adhered to the more critical form. But that is precisely why HRC has taken us back by a century because she failed to set a new standard for American feminism. In fact, as on of her ex-new-agey-gurus commented on the Huffington Post, Barack Obama possibly displayed a progressive feminism more than she ever did.

To put a finer point of this, HRC’s brand of feminism harkens back to first wave feminist thought which put ‘woman’ above all else, but more importantly, wherein ‘woman’ implied ‘white woman’ and even when it did include women of color it was always through the lens of ‘whiteness.’ The ways in which HRC supporters have articulated their disappointment that the election has been ‘stolen’ from the ‘first-ever viable woman candidate’ reminds me of an account of the 1865 Senate debate on the 15th Amendment which proposed granting voting rights to citizens regardless of race but not sex. A group of woman who lobbied Congress for the addition of ‘sex’ to the amendment, argued that by giving black men the right to vote but not women implied that white women would now constitute lesser citizens than black men. In fact, after the amendment passed without the inclusion of sex, Elizabeth Cady Stanton released a statement claiming that:
While the dominant party [Republican party] have with one hand lifted up TWO MILLION BLACK MEN and crowned them with the honor and dignity of citizenship...with the other they have dethroned FIFTEEN MILLION WHITE WOMEN...and cast them under the heel of the lowest orders of manhood.

Such a pitting or hierarchization of race against gender has been highly reflected in the HRC campaign. Again, this is not to suggest that women of color are not attracted to the Hillary candidacy because she is viewed as a powerful role model for women. Or that women across the board are not justified in supporting her candidacy because of their own struggles against sexism and patriarchy. But those decisions are personal decisions… to suggest that Hillary is the candidate for all women, that is absurd and patently privileges the supposed universality of ‘white woman.’

Also, I am not suggesting that the charge of sexism leveled by Clinton and her supporters is unjustified. In fact, the one issue that this primary season has highlighted is the extreme pervasiveness of sexism and racism in the States, but also that sexism is in fact more acceptable, less politically incorrect, than racism. But the ways in which the issue of sexism has been articulated by her campaign is very racially tinged itself. I mean simply put, why is it a bigger deal that Hillary Clinton, a white woman, has made it in presidential politics, than Barack Obama, a black man, having made it? If Hillary’s femaleness if pitted against his maleness, shouldn’t her whiteness also be pitted against his blackess?

And if Hillary Clinton, the woman candidate – who has, in my opinion, run a decidely masculinist campaign – is receiving a little over 50 % of the ‘women vote,’ shouldn’t that say something about her ‘woman-ness,’ let only her feminist credentials?

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