I discussed Hillary Clinton, abortion rights, and the women’s movement on Joy of Resistance, a radio show on WBAI Pacifica Radio 99.5 in New York City. You can listen to the show here (segment begins at 35:15):
No woman in the public eye symbolizes the tremendous change in opportunities for women more than Hillary Clinton. It is not in spite of this, but because of this, that she inspires passion and deep ambivalence. People love her, or people hate her. The media reports on and questions her style as if the entire credibility of constitutional democracy might rest on her cleavage, her hair, her pantsuits, her scrunchies, and now, her logo.
On substance, feminists are frequently told to judge her by the sexual mores of the man she married. Someone has yet to credibly explain how judging a woman by the actions of her partner, rather than her own actions, is feminist.
In the 2008 elections, the Democratic Party failed to treat Hillary with the respect she deserved. She was surrounded with calls to get out of the race while she was still ahead in the primary.
As one of my mentors, Olga Vives, argued with passion, even during her final days on a sick bed, the women’s movement failed to recognize the extraordinary transformative power of a woman candidate for president, and failed to stand behind Hillary during a grueling primary.
I was, with Olga, active in the National Organization for Women then. It was a contentious time.
Some women’s organizations bestowed endorsements on Obama early in the race, when their memberships were still divided on whether to support Obama or Hillary; others endorsed her, but didn’t challenge the blatant sexism of the Democratic Party pushing her out too soon.
In this vacuum, some of those women’s advocates left standing for Hillary went to ugly places. Some refused to accept Obama as a legitimate candidate, and one who earnestly continues to champion advancements for women, especially in the areas of pay equity and sexual assault; others embraced the racist strategies to defeat him deployed by the right.
One of the strangest strains was a vocal group that proclaimed Sarah Palin was both a feminist (wow, no) and the right candidate to assume the vice presidency (oh my goodness, considering what might have happened really could give a woman the vapors).
This climate presented a difficult slate of options for those of us who were ready for Hillary the first time. She was treated with horrific, condescending, get-out-of-the-way sexism by her own party, and yet the most vocal response to that was a fantasy-land embrace of Sarah Palin, an emotional reaction that amounted to gender essentialism and overlooked the antifeminist platform of her platform, party, and ticket.
My response was simply to get behind Obama, cry when Hillary spoke at the convention, and lose faith that women’s organizations will do the right thing simply because they are women’s organizations — and that the Democratic Party, its leadership, and the progressive movement should be trusted to handle feminist affairs with the current infrastructure charged with holding them accountable.
Which brings me to today.
The problem is that this time around, the treatment of Hillary from within also bears shades of sexism, albeit in a different way. It’s as if to atone for what happened, now the new rule is that Democrats are not allowed to criticize or question Hillary’s positions. Any of them. Even before the general election. Or you, yes you, are failing feminism and perhaps our one and only chance to see a woman president in our lifetimes.
This is not how politics works. Politics, and particularly primary season, is supposed to involve a robust debate of the issues and honing of positions on matters vital to the community.
There is an inherent sexism in the idea that, this time around, Hillary must be handled with kid gloves. If a woman is running for president with the blessing of the big dogs, why must we sit in the back of the classroom and raise our hands and wait to be called on?
There was sexism coming from the establishment in the past, too, in the idea that it wasn’t Hillary’s turn, that something was wrong with her “likability,” when she was a competitive candidate in 2008.
Just as there is sexism in the frame that only women can credibly challenge Hillary today. Why must Hillary play in a women’s league?
This piece is happening on both sides of the aisle.
The calls to draft Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) are interesting, because by dint of her actions, principles, and resolve, Warren symbolizes the progressive movement better than any other one candidate. But I’d also like to challenge these calls a bit from a gender lens.
First, it’s the simple matter men dominate everything, including the infrastructural leadership of the progressive movement, and even with Warren’s qualifications, it’s a bit fishy that the official energy backed by money and power has coalesced around her and no other alternative; that a woman is expected to challenge a woman from the left.
Second, some of us may remember when Jessica Williams asked her “feminist” critics on Twitter to lean the fuck away from her after she indicated she was not interested in taking over as host of The Daily Show. There’s an element of that here, although it’s nuanced.
On one hand, Elizabeth Warren has said repeatedly that she is not running for president — and the activists continue to beat the drum. On the other hand, this is sort of how politics work — the song and dance of being asked to run by the grassroots. Still, one is left with a discomfiting sense that were Warren a man, her word might be taken at her word by large progressive organizations like MoveOn.
On the Republican side, Carly Fiorina is expected to run for president, or at least make a great deal of noise. No one expects her to become president — she couldn’t even win a Senate election. So what exactly is she running for, and why is she getting so much space to air her views in presidential fora on the right?
Simple. She is running against Hillary’s campaign on behalf of the real candidates for the Republican Party — just like Jackie Sharp on House of Cards. It’s insulting to Fiorina, and it’s insulting to Hillary. It’s also insulting that the men of the Republican Party who are credible contenders are delegating the women’s work of taking down a woman named Hillary Clinton who steps out of the boundaries of traditional womanhood.
The coming election will bring with it a bevy of sexist attacks; and feminists must call them out and demand a change in culture, no matter where we stand on Hillary and her priorities. But feminists and everyone must also be free to question Hillary and examine her policy proposals as we move forward; it’s frankly sexist to silence ourselves in pursuit of elevating one woman to the top.
No one can credibly question that Hillary Clinton is a role model for women’s empowerment around the world. Further, it’s well past time for a woman to serve as president of the United States. Finally, there is always enormous pressure on feminists to line up and cart out the pom-poms during election season — and that pressure only multiplies when there is one big-time Democratic candidate, and she is a woman.
But if you ask me what I’m ready for, I stand to lose my integrity as an advocate if I don’t stick with my first answer: I’m ready for reproductive justice and I want to see it in my lifetime.
I’m ready for Hillary to step up.
Reproductive justice is a human rights framework developed by women of color that includes three keys: the right to have children, the right not to have children, and the right to parent in safe and healthy environments. Reproductive justice goes beyond issues of “choice,” and acknowledges that societies have proactive obligations to provide the means for people to live with dignity — offering quality health care for everyone, funding abortion and contraception without exceptions, and ending police violence against communities of color, to name a few.
Is Hillary going to go there? Don’t tell me to trust her. Don’t point at the Republican candidates and their alliances and personhood bills and Terri Schiavo court briefs. And please, don’t tell me how to be a feminist and what my priorities should be.
Spring 2015 is only the beginning of campaign season; it’s still a bit chilly for cheerleading skirts, yes?
Much of my work is concerned with ending a reproductive health care crisis. This is not a side issue, and if you believe it is, I encourage you to think hard about white male dominance and how a framework of so-called bad sexuality and poor personal choices is set up, by design, to sideline just about everyone but white men in power.
That Hillary is a woman, that Hillary is a feminist, that Hillary could become president and shatter one important glass ceiling, does not automatically mean that she is going to use her backbone to reverse our gravely serious reproductive health care crisis.
Other women and men in power have not. In just two examples, the last major action of the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus has been to collaborate and give its blessing to a deal House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) struck with Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) to expand abortion funding restrictions by placing them in the Medicare “doc fix.” And, there is no defensible reason for President Obama to continue restricting abortion funding for rape victims around the world. What has Hillary done to indicate she’d be any different?
Before we start tripping over ourselves to applaud how great Hillary would be on these particular issues, it’s best to take a step back and acknowledge that the bar for who gets to be called a “pro-choice president” has been set extraordinarily low. Democrats and large reproductive rights organizations have conditioned us to accept that the champion is a person running for office against the person who says that rape is a blessing because then you get a baby. It’s time to break this cycle and tie labels to proactive policy outcomes.
We have a new, urgent, expanding crisis as far as access to reproductive care is concerned — clinics are closing, women are crossing the border to obtain medication to self-abort, and 231 abortion restrictions were enacted in the previous four years. Hillary needs to step up. Instead, she appears to be hiding.
She steered clear of abortion and focused on safer topics at the recent EMILY’s List gala, she left abortion out of her “No Ceilings” report on the status of women worldwide, and she had Melinda Gates (who refuses to talk about abortion) and a representative from the Catholic Medical Mission Board (which refuses to purchase or receive donations of condoms for its HIV/AIDS work overseas and acknowledges that it follows the lead of the presiding Conference of Catholic Bishops in each country where it has programs) lead a discussion on maternal mortality at the launch event for that report.
This strategy of trying not to go ‘too far’ or to demonstrate ‘cooperation’ with the opposition on abortion is not leadership. In fact, it’s a proven loser for women’s human rights. In one recent example, Hillary’s famous language about abortion needing to be safe and rare was just used by conservative lawmakers in Arkansas to pass a law restricting medication abortion.
Now, a few things:
Does Hillary support the right to abortion? Absolutely. Has she fought back forcefully against those who disagree? Yes. (Watch this epic takedown of Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) if you don’t believe me.) But reacting to bad guys is not enough, not by itself: this overall strategy is why the reproductive movement is losing.
Second, I’m not anti-Hillary. I went to Iowa to campaign for her before the 2008 election. I wept like hell when she conceded to Obama. For years I have been saying quite loudly that I believe leaders in the Democratic Party and women’s organizations failed her eight years ago by calling for her to leave the race or endorsing her opponent while she was still ahead.
But my lens is more complicated this time around.
I am a feminist activist and a reproductive health, rights, and justice advocate. And I have seen time and time again how those who want to advance “women’s issues” believe the only winning way to do so is to drop the abortion question or be as “strategic” (which really means something between non-confrontational and weak) as possible. So, I get very worried when Hillary is not embracing abortion (and yes, I mean saying the “A” word) when all the pundits say this time around her campaign will focus on Hillary’s role as a champion for women.
There’s no doubt about it — Hillary is an icon. But is she a pro-choice champion? Have we allowed that phrase to become meaningless? Who is working to expand access to abortion today?
There will be enormous pressure, rooted both in subtle sexisms and more overt ones, to not ask these questions as a feminist woman runs for president.
We can rise above that — a woman can and should expect a vigorous primary campaign season. Women can and should be allowed to have public differences amongst each other. Feminism is not just about placing women in the most powerful positions; it’s about demanding dignity for women like Purvi Patel, who is sitting in prison for twenty years on the basis of miscarriage or self-inducing an abortion.
It’s time to set the bar higher than loving Democrats and trusting they’ll figure it out, or nothing will change.
I appeared as a panelist on this week’s episode of To The Contrary, and discussed the 20-year anniversary of the UN Commission on the Status of Women, assessing Hillary Clinton’s leadership for women’s rights, and whether a war on women continues. You can watch a video of the show here:
Today is International Human Rights Day, a yearly effort of the United Nations to celebrate and “advocate for the full human rights by everyone everywhere.” A perfect time to remember the ladies.
This year’s theme focuses on the right of everyone to be heard in public life and decision-making. It adds some much-needed urgency to the decades-long effort to get the United States to ratify the UN Convention to End All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which will be more simply referred to as the CEDAW Women’s Treaty in the rest of this post.
Related: Today an acting head of the women’s affairs department in eastern Afghanistan was killed on her way to work. Nadia Sediqqi was the replacement for Hanifa Safi, who was killed by a car bomb in July of this year. If this disturbs you, if you care even a smidge about international women’s rights, you need to care about the United States ratifying the CEDAW Women’s Treaty.
So what is the CEDAW Women’s Treaty? Crafted in 1979, it says simply that women’s rights are human rights and offers ratifying countries a practical blueprint for improving the participation and status of women in critical areas including education, healthcare and employment. Nearly every country has ratified it except Iran, Palau, Somalia, Sudan, Tonga and … the United States.
Not ratifying the CEDAW Women’s Treaty is a huge deal because ratifying countries regularly meet within the United Nations to discuss their progress. Absent signing on to the CEDAW Women’s Treaty, the U.S. has no structured international forum for addressing the treatment of women in other countries that remains intact in times of war and peace. We are absent from discussions. What an embarrassment for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, an undisputed champion of international women’s rights.
It is strategic to lead with the international angle, because it tends to be the case that the United States has an easier time discussing women’s rights as human rights, and reaching ever-elusive bipartisan consensus, when the women being discussed happen to live in countries that overlap with countries that are thought to be our national security interests. (Even George W. Bush — anything but a champion of women’s human rights much less women’s political participation — took on Afghan women as a cause in conjunction with the war he declared in Afghanistan.)
But it shouldn’t be lost that ratifying the CEDAW Women’s Treaty would also improve the lives of women and girls in the United States. Why?
When we ratify the CEDAW Women’s Treaty, our country will go on record for the first time that women’s rights are human rights. (Contrary to what the majority of the population believes, the United States does not yet have a constitutional guarantee against discrimination on the basis of sex.) We’ll also be able to learn from other countries successes in areas where our laws are still catching up to reality — to address discrimination against mothers in the workforce, for example.
Okay, gravy equality train, good and great – but stop. Rick Santorum and Pat Robertson and Republican extremists! Didn’t they just kill the U.N. Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities and embarrass the living daylights out of the United States? In front of former Senate Majority leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.)?
All of the major arguments leveled against the CEDAW Women’s Treaty are simply without merit. As some players are wont to do, you say “women,” they say “abortion,” and create a circus. Well, the fact is that the CEDAW Women’s Treaty does not address abortion. There has been concern at times that Mother’s Day would somehow be attacked, but that hasn’t happened anywhere else in the world. Cross-cultural truth: It’s generally uncool to dis your mom.
The other two main arguments were leveled against the Disabilities Treaty and were thoroughly debunked before and after the shameful Senate vote. The CEDAW Women’s Treaty, just like the Disabilities Treaty, does not obligate the U.S. to change its laws. Second, the United Nations is not some anti-sovereign plot to dissolve this nation into a monolithic new world order.
Just as the Disabilities Treaty should be revisited and ratified, so too should the CEDAW Women’s Treaty be ratified. This is an opportunity for those “kinder, gentler” Republicans who were supposed to come out after the election thumping to demonstrate a support of women. And it’s also an opportunity for President Barack Obama, a champion of women, to create a a capstone legacy for the history books.
The United States has a moral obligation to acknowledge women’s rights as human rights, and to participate in helping to bring equality for women at home and around the world. This International Human Rights Day again reminds us its time to ratify the CEDAW Women’s Treaty.