Wednesday, January 09, 2008

The Gender Vote

My good friend Esq picks up positively Gloria Steinem's much discussed column on how gender should play into our decision to vote for Hillary Clinton. Both are in favor of letting Cliton's gender act as a fairly strong argument in her favor as Presidency, and both specifically pit this against a vote cast for Obama, which Steinem implies is the less "radical" choice. Esq writes:
The most common thing I've heard about Clinton is "I like her, but want to vote for the person, not the sex/race/whatever." Admirably post-feminist, right?

The problem is, we've moved from pre to post without spending long enough in plain ol' feminism to actually get the job done. In the previous post's comments, Ted tries to reduce the problem to one of "bias at the margins." That's utter nonsense. The problem is in the process itself -- the way Clinton is received, interpreted, and given an impossibly small range of ways to define herself in the public sphere. People say that they "like her, just not enough" without stopping to consider whether this is because of the constricted way in which pundits fashion her image out of the raw materials she provides, even as they make so much more -- often with so much less -- of her male competitors. And those are, of course, the minority of opinion-shapers, the ones not hopelessly fixated on her hair, clothes, laugh, or wrinkles.
We don't yet have the luxury for voting for the person irrespective of sex. And until we do, we're pointlessly squandering desperately-needed top talent, and dissuading too many from even wading into the pool. Spending too many years going too close to a doctorate in cognitive science tells me that "role model" isn't a cliche; it's a concept that fundamentally maps how we define our lives. I'll be voting for Clinton in the hope that, eight years from now, we can be a little closer to saying "I'm voting for the person" -- and having it be meaningful.

Or as Esq put it elsewhere in the post, "I'd have to hesitate a nanosecond before voting against Schlafly."

There's a lot to unpack here, and it must be unpacked carefully. I certainly agree with Esq that a significant amount of the hostility Clinton faces -- hostility which extends way beyond legitimate policy differences and into shrill, irrational akresia -- stems from latent sexism. I'm never so tempted to vote for Clinton as I am when I want to send a message to the Chris Matthews of the world that their brand of misogyny won't fly any longer. And I think it's a positive act for liberals supporting Obama or other candidates, like Publius, to take stock of their reasons for their commitments. We should all be so self-reflective in any case, but with the specters that surround Clinton, it's particularly important.

I also think that taking Clinton's gender into account -- in a very specific way -- is not facially illegitimate. It can't be on pure solidarity grounds ("I'm a women, she's a women, so she gets my vote."). Indeed, the solidarity argument really disrespects female voters as agents who can decide their votes on the totality of the merits. But one can "notice" Clinton's gender certainly for the benefits a female president would bring for gender equity. President Hillary Clinton would aid the gender equity project by showing young women that they can rise to the highest positions of power in America, gender equity is an important concern, ergo, a candidate who can claim an advantage on the issue should gain a comparative advantage, all else being equal, over other candidates.

Nonetheless, there are problems with the argument Steinem and Esq are putting forward. First, all else isn't equal. Gender equity is one important consideration, but it's hardly the only one. There are legitimate differences between the candidates that can also legitimately influence my vote, and it is a mistake to assume that just because I found that Clinton's gender-equity advantage was outweighed by other factors, it meant I didn't consider it. At the very least, we have to account for Obama's similar effects as a role model and as a positive image for the world. Should women not be concerned with this? Do we really want to encourage this degree of identity balkanization? And even on the gender issue alone, the "role model" perk isn't the only factor. Policies matter -- are Clinton's superior to Obama's? Implementation matters -- can Clinton push through laws where Obama can't? By minimizing the import of these alternative questions even on the narrow question of "what candidate would be best for women's rights", Esq skirts the edge of the solidarity argument in a way that strikes an uncomfortable chord for me.

Furthermore, I agree with Jennifer Fang's point that this formulation harmfully casts the issue in terms of who wins at the "Oppression Olympics", and definitely places women of color in an impossible situation of being forced to choose between identities (indeed, the rhetoric here, by casting "Black" and "women" as irreconcilably opposed categories, erases the existence of Black women entirely).
Ultimately, however, Steinem’s piece (intentionally or unintentionally) draws a line in the sand between people of colour and women, essentially disregarding the everyday racism faced by Black and Brown people, and claiming the Oppression Olympics gold medal for women. Further, by casting the debate as between Black men and White women (despite her imperfect creation of Achola Obama), Steinem renders the woman of colour invisible, reaffirms the binary Black-White paradigm of race, and demands we take a side in the epic battle between race and gender. Is it no wonder, then, that women of colour have long felt alienated by feminists like Steinem? Where do we fit when we’re being asked to choose between Obama and Clinton as a metaphor for race versus gender? And how are we supposed to react when an incorrect choice labels us as “less radical”?

I am deeply uncomfortable with this "less radical" implication. Even on the identity politics axis alone, I don't think it's facially unreasonable to think that breaking a racial barrier is more important than breaking the sexual one. Nor would I be opposed to the opposite stance. "These and these" are the words of the radical, to appropriate from the Talmud. But I do think it's a serious problem when we start boxing in people's choices in a way that constrains their agency beyond a very narrow array of concerns.

Women (White and Black) can rationally decide that Clinton is the best overall candidate considering every issue, including gender-equity. And they can likewise decide that Clinton is not the best candidate on those grounds. Blacks can make the same determination. The important thing is less the decision they make as it is the factors they incorporate in their deliberations. So long as they deliberate cognizant of the issues under consideration -- including the existence and importance of fighting misogyny, including the existence and importance of fighting racism -- we would do well to respect them as rational actors, even when they make choices we dislike.

1 comment:

PG said...

Having been accused by Esq of persecuting her the last time I disagreed with her in blog comments, I'll not discuss her remarks but stick to yours.

When you (and Andrew Sullivan, and I) say we see a black man as a good face to present to the world, but don't have that reaction about a white woman, I wonder a little bit if we are worried about having a female face to the exact nations -- ones that are mostly less gender progressive than the U.S. -- that we want to show a face of color. That is, if I am happy for people in the Sudan to see Barack Obama, am I not so happy to have them see Hillary Clinton -- perhaps even less happy than I was in having them see Bill Clinton? (Although the aspirin factory thing creates its own issues...)

To the extent that I have any gender bias against Clinton, it is that I am sad that being First Lady is part of her "resume." As I've said elsewhere on your blog, I'd really like to have our first significant female contender for the presidency to have made her way without family ties, particularly marital ones.

More seriously and in a non-gendered (as far as I know) vein, I don't like that Clinton is ready to toss out free speech as the easiest bone to appease conservatives. Her proposal to ban flag burning and her hype about the Grand Theft Auto game really bother me. When it comes to useful moderate gestures, like signing on to cosponsor the Pregnant Women Support Act, she isn't there. Flag burners and violent video games are easy to criticize, but she won't risk associating with pro-lifers on a bill that does nothing to reduce *access* to abortion, but simply tries to improve women's ability to complete pregnancies and either raise the children themselves or have them adopted. Seriously, a pack of pro-life Dems were on this and the only really objectionable provision is the one that would extend SCHIP to an "unborn child" (who gets independent medical care ... how?) instead of to pregnant women.