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.