9 February, 2009Issue 8.3EssaysNorth AmericaPolitics & SocietyWorld Politics

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Hillary is History

Emma Kaufman


Hillary is history.

After dominating the political landscape for years, Hillary Rodham Clinton has begun the slow descent to headlines below the fold. The discussions that accompanied her presidential campaign have followed suit. For two years, the persistent gender inequity in US society received top billing—and in rare cases, critical reflection—as Americans engaged with the possibility of a female president. Today, there are still only 17 women in the US Senate, none of whom are women of colour. Women still make 75 cents to the male dollar, and the gender gap may rise in worsening economic conditions. Paid maternity leave is not standard among even the best US employers. But with Clinton gone from the centre stage of American domestic politics, so too is the one woman whose presence alone guaranteed a nationwide discussion of these issues.

Yet Hillary has still made history. Before the problems of gender inequality fade from popular discourse, we need to reconsider what happened to Hillary—and to history—in the past several years. When Barack Obama entered the race, the Democratic primary became a dramatic showdown to nominate either the first African-American or the first woman on a major US party ticket. As the battle between Clinton and Obama unfolded, the question of “who would go first”, a black man or a white woman, emerged as a central paradigm in the election coverage. The question divided feminists, splintered the Democratic Party and influenced voting patterns.

It also motivated deeply simplistic—and equally offensive—identity politics. Take the thinly veiled racism of Bill Clinton’s comparison between Obama’s candidacy and Jesse Jackson’s 1984 presidential run, or the suggestion that the late Congresswoman Stephanie Tubbs Jones, an African-American woman and outspoken Clinton supporter, was a traitor to her race. The immense import placed on “going first” in 2008 situated race against gender in a zero-sum political climate, often to the detriment of better judgment.

But rancour over the question of who should “go first”—African-Americans or women—has rich precedent in American history. In the 19th century, the first feminist movement stemmed from the ideas of abolitionism. Indeed, feminist pioneers Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott met at an anti-slavery convention when they both were refused seats. Despite—or perhaps because of—the ideological parity between feminism and abolitionism, the promise of Reconstruction era progress quickly brought the problem of “going first” to the fore.

In a decision that would divide their movement, prominent American feminists (including Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Sojourner Truth) refused to support the 14th and 15th Amendments on the grounds that suffrage for African-American men should not precede—or proceed without—women’s right to vote. Truth defended her position in a speech at the 1867 American Equal Rights Association Convention, arguing that suffrage for black men would subordinate black women and stall growing support for women’s rights. As she famously explained: “I am for keeping the thing going while things are stirring; because if we wait till it is still, it will take a great while to get it going again.”

While her statements were controversial and her stance remains debatable, Truth recognised that advances in gender equality hinged on the timing of civil rights. The debate over black men’s suffrage derailed the nascent feminist movement. Popular support for women’s suffrage waned. Women would not secure the vote for another 50 years, and “going first” would carry deep meaning for the feminist movement over the next century.

Examining this historical tension over timing can help make sense of the recent US Democratic primary. Sojourner Truth’s sentiments foretold not only the long wait for women’s suffrage, but also the disappointment and anger that Clinton supporters felt at her failure to secure the Democratic nomination.

But focusing on the significance of “going first” also obscures the interdependence of racial and gender equality. Despite moments of sharp discord, the American movements for civil and women’s rights have been intertwined inextricably at least since the 1790s, when Mary Wollstonecraft first drew comparisons between slavery and the coverture laws that gave a woman’s husband full control of her legal rights. In the Antebellum era, American feminists made crucial contributions to the abolition of slavery, and the first American movement for women’s wage equity in the 1920s grew out of the post-Civil War labour movement led by African-Americans. The National Organization for Women was founded on the model of civil rights organisations of the 1960s.

These parallels have not gone unnoticed. Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, the book often credited with igniting the Second Wave feminist movement, was hailed as a “woman’s Emancipation Proclamation” when it was released in 1966. Civil rights leaders from Frederick Douglass to SNCC activists Casey Hayden and Mary King have compared the treatment of women and African-Americans. In short, these two movements have been aligned philosophically, practically and discursively throughout American history. The notion of “going first” forces a sharp divide between racial and gender equality, but as history demonstrates—and African-American women illustrate rather obviously—race and gender are not so easily distilled. Each movement owes its victories, to some extent, to the other.

The question, then, is why “who goes first” continues to have relevance in contemporary movements for social equality. The conflict over black men’s suffrage established the import of “going first” in the US, but it also illustrated the debilitating consequences of putting stock in this concept, for it was, in large part, the subsequent schism between feminists that stunted women’s suffrage. So why focus on firsts?

From the start, the American movements for racial and gender equality have been united by the stark contrast between Constitutional guarantees and the realities of unequal life. Within this context, milestones have become a tangible way for these movements to realise and record progress toward the ideal. Milestones are signifiers of change and a powerful form of speech. The movements for civil and women’s rights represent unrealised rights and underrepresented voices in American culture, and it makes sense, then, that being “the first”—which is so often translated into “going first”—becomes symbolic and divisive at key moments in American political history.

Barack Obama knows all of this, which is one of the many reasons he rarely mentioned race in his two-year candidacy. The historic nature of Obama’s presidential bid was self-evident. The milestone did the talking for him.

Obama’s election is a feminist victory. His policies are feminist; a century of feminist activism helped make a black president possible; and, perhaps most importantly, race is a feminist issue. But this election is not a feminist milestone. Clinton’s historic bid for the presidency has passed, and as Secretary of State, she is largely excluded from the domestic policy agenda. The onus to articulate the need for gender equality within the US thus falls on Obama, for without a milestone to speak for them, feminist issues have already begun to fade from the limelight on the American stage.

It still remains unclear whether the Obama Administration will take a strong stance on gender issues. Obama has described himself as a feminist, and he made a point of signing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in his first days in office. He has appointed women to some of the highest positions in US government, and his wife, Michelle Obama, drew comparisons to Clinton yesterday when she took a public role in presidential policy.

But Obama also regularly emphasises his commitment “post-political” bipartisanship. Such rhetoric often has anti-feminist implications. Obama made nary a mention of feminist issues in his inaugural address, invited Rick Warren to give the inaugural invocation and quietly cut family planning funding from his stimulus package in response to Republican opposition. These actions may have been the products of political compromise, but if so, that only strengthens the need for Obama to rearticulate his dedication to gender equality.

History shows that women’s progress wanes without a determined and public discussion; actions alone do not suffice. Obama has gone first. But if he is consistent—and explicit—about his policies on gender equality, he can seize upon the opportunity to usher in an era when “who goes first” does not equate with who gets heard. Time will tell if he takes it.

Emma Kaufman is reading for an MSc in Criminology at New College, Oxford. She is a senior editor of the Oxonian Review.