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Posted by on Apr 7, 2008 in Guest Contributor, Politics, Society | 7 comments

Who’s more of a feminist? Hillary Clinton, or Barack Obama? (Guest Voice)

The women’s vote has been one of the biggest battlegrounds between Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in their battle for the 2008 Democratic Presidential nomination. This Guest Voice post which blends original reporting and analysis is by NYU journalism student and writer Sophie Gilbert:

Who’s more of a feminist? Hillary Clinton, or Barack Obama?

By Sophie Gilbert

Who’s more of a feminist? Hillary Clinton, or Barack Obama?

This is the unexpected question dividing women as the race for the democratic nomination drags on to the bitter end. On one side, Feminists For Barack Obama. Almost 2000 noted feminists, including women’s rights historians Linda Gordon and Alice Kessler Harris, Nation columnist Katha Pollitt and author/activist Ellen Bravo have pledged their support for the Illinois Senator.

But Hillary’s not exactly being spurned by the Big Girls either. She’s received endorsements from some of the Grande Dames of feminism: Gloria Steinem, Erica Jong, Gloria Feldt. Steinem’s op-ed in the New York Times, “Women Are Never Front-Runners,” has proved almost as divisive as the race itself. It’s deeply troubling. As feminists, don’t we all have a common goal?

Maybe we don’t. Katha Pollitt, like many of her peers, was originally rooting for Edwards, even though she admits she doesn’t particularly like him. “The interesting question is, why isn’t every woman on earth for Hillary?” says Pollitt. “But why should they be? I think Hillary has done a B/B+ job for women. She’s been good on feminist issues but she hasn’t been great on them.”

The debate really got going in February, when 150 New York feminists signed a petition endorsing Barack Obama. “War and peace are as much “women’s issues” as health, the environment and the achievement of educational and occupational equality,” said the statement, the first official declaration that feminists didn’t have to support Clinton. But why not? The overwhelming majority of feminists for Obama cite not only Hillary Clinton’s initial vote in favor of the war as their main objection to her, but beyond that, her subsequent refusal to admit that it was a bad decision.

“It wasn’t just a vote,” says Ellen Bravo. “It was a couple of years of vigorous support and many speeches. I felt Obama on the other hand took a stand when it was unpopular, at a time when it could have cost him. That gave me more confidence about his judgment.”

“New York Feminists for Peace and Barack Obama” rapidly attracted media attention, and was opened up for feminists across the country to sign: people who resented the mainstream media’s assumption that all women, by virtue of their gender, supported the female candidate. “I think it’s very important not to fall into the identity politics trap,” says Linda Gordon, women’s rights historian, and one of the authors of the petition. “We shouldn’t think that the body people inhabit is the most important thing about their political identity. A lot of very conservative and extremely anti-feminist women have been elected to office. Look at Margaret Thatcher.”

Feminists for Barack Obama took their stand. But Feminists for Hillary held their ground. Geraldine Ferraro asserted that Obama was only being taken seriously as a candidate because of his race. Gloria Steinem said that his race wasn’t as important as the fact that he wasn’t a woman. And Linda Hirshman really rocked the boat in the Washington Post, declaring that wealthy, educated women were supporting Barack Obama because they could afford to. “College-educated women don’t need the social safety net as much as their less fortunate sisters do,” Hirshman wrote (Hirshman was subsequently dropped as a blogger by TPM).

Ouch. When did it become an internal war? Not that divides within feminism are anything new. “There are internal divisions in anything- that’s what politics is,” says Katha Pollitt. “But it’s only within feminism that the fact that people don’t agree is news.” Pollitt says that she was “horrified” by Gloria Steinem’s op-ed. “I don’t think you can look at Obama, can look at a black man in America as simply representing “the man” against “the woman,”” she says. “I also don’t believe that sexism in politics is a bigger force than racism in politics. Today there are sixteen women senators and one black senator, only the third in our modern history. That tells you a little something about politics.”

Shortly after Linda Hirshman’s damning appraisal of Obama feminists, Ayelet Waldman retaliated in the Washington Post with a piece titled, “I’m Not an Obamabot.”

“Clinton proved herself willing to betray core feminist values,” Waldman wrote. “Hirshman’s class argument is specious and depressing, especially since the candidate she lionizes as the working-woman’s choice is a member of the very social elite of which she is so disdainful.”

In later conversation with Waldman, she questioned whether the divide between feminists for Hillary and feminists for Obama wasn’t, in part, generational.

“Us younger women (and at forty-three I’m hardly ‘young’) view Hillary’s “35 years of experience” claim as self-aggrandizing,” Waldman said. “We’re embarrassed by it. Older women, especially women who didn’t have careers, take very seriously the idea that their husbands wouldn’t have succeeded without their help and support. They all identify with Hillary. Her implied message, that she’s owed the presidency, resonates with them.”

Like Pollitt, Waldman was “embarrassed” by the Steinem op-ed, even though she has enormous respect for Steinem ‘s contribution to the feminist movement. “I haven’t been too crazy about Erica Jong’s pieces either. Nora Ephron, however, cracks me up. She’s awesome.”

Whatever happens come June, the worry for most Democrats is that the battle for ascendancy between two groundbreaking presidential candidates, a black man and a white woman, will have puts supporters of each irrevocably at odds. “People get so invested in a particular candidate that it makes them extremely bitter to think about that candidate losing,” says Linda Gordon. “I too have bitterness about the fact that so many people think there’s no longer a need for a feminist movement. It’s just that I think thinking strategically about politics and what we would like to have happen in this country requires you to become a little more measured, rational and perhaps intellectual in your opinions rather than emotional.”

And are there any regrets? Katha Pollitt thinks so.

“I’m not happy about not supporting ‘the woman,'” she says. “It makes me sad. But then Geraldine Ferraro comes out and talks about how lucky Obama is to be black, and I think, ‘Oh Thank God.'”

Sophie Gilbert is a master’s candidate in journalism at New York University. Originally from London, she’s enjoying living in New York and learning to speak/write American.

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