Obama's Sexist Victory in Oregon

Did you see it? The way he won Oregon? So smug and self-assured. Going back to Iowa, the site of the crime, to deliver his speech as if he's got it all wrapped up...

That wasn't my reaction, but it might very well have been Geraldine Ferraro's to Barack Obama's win in Oregon last night. Given the roll she's been on lately, Ferraro might even claim that Senator Clinton's victory in Kentucky would have been even larger had it not been for a case of Bluegrass State misogyny. As much as Ferraro claims that she's a purely campaign-unaffiliated Clinton supporter, there seems to be a convenient synching between hers and Clinton's latest theme: sexism. If party unity is the ultimate goal (as Clinton herself states), I'm unsure why Clinton would actively push this theme at this stage in the campaign (particularly following the documented racism that has characterized her recent victories and her admitted mistake of staking an exclusive claim to white blue-collar voters), but it has increasingly manifested itself lately: in a Washington Post piece, op-eds, and with the recent creation of the Clinton-backing splinter group, Clinton Supporters Count Too, which has devoted itself to ensuring Obama's defeat in November.

But what is getting lost under the larger heading of "sexism," particularly for these Clinton-or-bust supporters, is a reasoned distinction between media and societal sexism, on one hand, and sexism from Barack Obama, on the other. While it's hard to deny that the former exists, the latter is non-existent to the point of being insulting. When pressed on Fox News to identify examples of where Senator Obama had displayed his sexism and use of the gender card against Clinton, Ferraro could not make a good case. She cited Obama's Pennsylvania comment that Clinton was acting like "Annie Oakley" in touting her history with guns, and questioned whether, if Obama's opponent were a man, Obama would have mocked him and compared him to John Wayne. Well, yes, he might well have done so if that man's relationship with firearms was as tenuous and contrived as Mitt "Varmint Hunter" Romney's. Ferraro's other not-so-concrete example of Obama's sexism was his Jay-Z-esque brushing-off of his shoulders following the overly Obama-centric Pennsylvania debate. Displaying her understandably thin grasp of hip-hop culture, Ferraro took this to be "diminishing" and "demeaning" Clinton, though Obama's gesturing was in no way gender-influenced. Indeed, Ferraro's evidence of Obama's sexism is the equivalent of claiming that the photo of Senator Clinton on her website with her hand over her heart is a veiled shot at Obama's supposed lack of patriotism. I mean, in that song ("Dirt Off Your Shoulder"), Jay-Z even raps "Ladies is pimps too, go and brush your shoulders off!" It's urban empowerment at its finest.

Gender has played a role in this campaign, just as race has, and just as age has. Race has both hurt and helped Obama, just as gender has both hurt and helped Clinton. But the notion that Clinton is being crowded out by the party because of gender is lamentably short-sighted. There is a laundry list of reasons why Clinton is all but certain to come up short in her quest for the nomination, but gender probably does not even crack the Top 10, and Obama's use of gender against Clinton is so non-existent that proponents of that theory can only point to 4-5 ambiguous statements ("you're likeable enough," "the claws come out," "periodically," etc.) over the course of a 16-month campaign during which a candidate's every word is sound-byted and scrutinized. Clintonite disappointment is better directed internally: at Mark Penn, at the inevitability complex, at the failure to take up the mantle of "change," at the failure to have a post-Super Tuesday strategy, and at Clinton's own flaws as a candidate (principally, her vote to authorize the Iraq war). Match those against a formidable new political talent in Senator Obama, a resonant message, and a broad-based strategy to contest states that Team Clinton never expected to have to compete in.

Along the way, Obama lost votes because of race and Clinton lost votes because of gender. But Clinton is not losing because of gender, and certainly not because Barack Obama exploited her gender or because the Democratic Party was in any way biased against a woman nominee (who just months ago was the establishment favorite and just happens to be the spouse of the party's superstar politician). However, that is indeed the poisonous message being advanced by groups such as Clinton Supporters Count Too. Lacking a more readily identifiable scapegoat for what they see as Clinton's defeat at the hands of social misogyny, they have trained their sights on Obama. This is true even though GOP regulars are the most reliable purveyors of political sexism (see last night's "white bitch" argument on CNN by GOP attack artist, Alex Castellanos).

But implicit in the sexism charge against Obama is that there can be no legitimately feminist Obama supporters, or at least none that truly has the interests of women at heart. Of course, this is easily contradicted by looking to the lists of feminists who have thrown their support behind Obama. Cynthia Ruccia, the Clinton loyalist who heads Clinton Supporters Count Too, has stated that "there's a whole lot more to women's rights and women's position in our society than abortion rights." True, but Clinton voters who are willing to risk the overturning of Roe v. Wade should also remember that Supreme Court justices have the power to strike down, and indeed have struck down, other pro-female legislation, such as in United States v. Morrison, when the Supreme Court invalidated important provisions of the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 that gave victims of gender-motivated violence the right to sue their attackers in federal court even when criminal charges had failed to be brought against the attackers. Clinton-supporting women would not just be sacrificing their own rights, but by supporting John McCain they would be voting to the detriment of all American women.

Again, I don't doubt that gender has played a role in this campaign, or that there are inherent disadvantages for female politicians, but these existed before Obama ran against Clinton and will persist--though much less so, thanks to Clinton--after this race is over. As Senator Obama said in Iowa last night, "No matter how this primary ends, Senator Clinton has shattered myths and broken barriers and changed the America in which my daughters and yours will come of age. And for that we are grateful to her." Thousands of young women have been inspired to mobilize and become engaged in politics during this election cycle, many for the first time, and these young women support not only Senator Clinton but Senator Obama as well. It would be devastatingly ironic for Clinton supporters to act against the interests of the next generation of female politicians by sabotaging these young women's preferred candidate.