Feminist Ultimatums: Not In Our Name

The new players of the troubling "with us or against us" game are no longer the hawkish Republicans but "either/or" feminists determined to see to it that a woman occupies the Oval Office.
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The rubble that was once the World Trade Center was still smoldering when President Bush issued an ultimatum that marked our foolhardy and tragic descent into war: Laying down the law, he declared, "Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists."

Progressives, feminists, civil libertarians, compassionate conservatives and independent thinkers alike denounced the president's rant as a simplistic but frightening attempt to hijack the outpouring of grief felt world wide to serve his pro-war agenda. Thousands refused to be held hostage to this friend or foe logic in the face of considerable doubt and genuine disagreement about how to respond to the tragedy of 9/11.

It was in those early moments of our national trauma that progressive New Yorkers came together to say no to war and to refuse to lend our name to the intimidation and sabre-rattling that President Bush's "with us or a'gin us" rhetoric represented. It is thus a sad irony that years later, as our nation faces an opportunity to confront and perhaps end the human misery we have inflicted in Iraq and Afghanistan, a new iteration of the "with us or with them" rhetoric has emerged.

In seeking to corral wayward souls into the Hillary Clinton camp, the new players of this troubling game are no longer the hawkish Republicans but "either/or" feminists determined to see to it that a woman occupies the Oval Office. Drawing their feminist boundaries in the sand, they interrogate, chastise, second-guess and even denounce those who escape their encampment and find themselves on Obama terrain. In their hands feminism, like patriotism, is the all-encompassing prism that eliminates discussion, doubt and difference about whom to vote for and why. Armed with indignant exasperation, this "either/or" camp converts the undeniable misogyny of the media into an imperative to vote for Clinton. The balanced reflections and gentle warnings that were voiced months ago have been jettisoned for a one-sided brief about why voting for Clinton is the only sensible thing for women to do. Perhaps because there is a viable opponent who carries a competing claim to breakthrough status, the "either/or" rhetoric has become particularly fierce. While denying any intention to square off racism against sexism, the "either/or" feminists nonetheless remind us that the Black (man) got the vote before the (white) woman, that gender barriers are more rigid than racial barriers, that sexism is everywhere and racism is not, that a female Obama wouldn't get nearly as far as a Barack Obama, and that a woman's vote for Clinton is scrutinized while a male vote for Obama is not. Never mind of course that real suffrage for African Americans wasn't realized until the 1960s, that there are any number of advantages that white women have in business, politics and culture that people of color do not; that all around the world women's route to political leadership is through family dynasty which is virtually closed to marginalized groups, and that the double standard of stigmatizing Obama's Black voters as racially motivated while whitewashing Clinton's white voters as "just voters" constitutes the exact same double standard that the "either/or feminists" bemoan. The "either/or" crowd surprisingly claims that the two Democratic candidates are more alike than different, yet those who gravitate to Obama find their motives questioned and their loyalties on trial. Even long standing allies of the women's movement have been unable to escape the label of "traitor" for opting to support Barack Obama instead of Hillary Clinton.

Because we believe that feminism can be expressed by a broader range of choices than this "either/or" proposition entails, we again find ourselves compelled to say "no"--this time to a brand of feminism that betrays its inclusive and global commitments. We believe we stand in unity with many feminists who will say, "Not in Our Name" will this feminism be deployed.

Young feminists have been vocal and strong in critiquing the claim that a vote for Obama represents some form of youthful naiveté, a desire to win the approval of men, or a belief that sexism no longer factors into their lives. While paying respect to those women who carried the banner for so many years, these young women have reminded us that feminism is not static but evolutionary, changing in content, scope and tenor as new generations elevate their concerns and aspirations. And while we agree that this "either/or" brand of feminism fails to capture the imagination and hopes of countless numbers of women who refuse to entrust this capital into the hands of a candidate just because she is a woman, we think it important to add that this is not simply an intergenerational difference at work here. At issue is a profound difference in seeing feminism as intersectional and global rather than essentialist and insular. Women have grappled with these questions in every feminist wave, struggling to see feminism as something other than a "me too" bid for power whether it be in the family, the party, the race or the state.

For many of us, feminism is not separate from the struggle against violence, war, racism and economic injustice. Gender hierarchy and race hierarchy are not separate and parallel dynamics. The empowerment of women is contingent upon all these things. Despite the fact that we know that identity does not equal politics--especially an antiwar, social equity and global justice politics--we are led to believe that having a woman in power is the penultimate accomplishment. And even when the "either/or" feminists back off this claim in general, we are told, it is true in the case of the particular, Hillary Clinton. Experience and judgment go hand in hand, we are told, but one has to wonder how is it that so many ordinary citizens who were outside the beltway instinctively sensed what would come with the war, but the female candidate running for President did not?

For us, the choice at hand is actually quite simple. It is not about the woman candidate vs. the Black male candidate. It is about the candidate who works to dismantle the bomb, rather than drop it; the candidate who works to abolish the old paradigm of power, rather than covet and rise to its highest point; the candidate who seeks solutions and dialogue rather than retaliation and punishment.

As feminists our freedoms have been hard won and we'd like to think that we have learned from our mistakes along the way. The feminism we fought so hard for and benefited from was not to make us blind to the complexity, but to help us see beyond simple formulas and body politics.

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