Feminism Deserves More Than a Roll Call Vote

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After months of debate, Hillary Clinton’s name will be placed in nomination at the Democratic National Convention in Denver, CO next week, allowing for a roll-call vote. Though the outcome of the roll-call vote is presumably already known—Senator Obama earned a majority of the delegates in May—Clinton supporters have argued that the formal process will allow her supporters some catharsis—emotional release—in light of the senator’s history making campaign.

Senator Clinton and her supporters have strongly linked aspects of her campaign to feminist sensibilities. One wonders how those women, whose feminism is pitched to critical issues like poverty, childcare, domestic and sexual violence, inadequate healthcare and inequitable wages, will experience catharsis through a merely symbolic vote?

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Senator’s Clinton’s campaign brought to the surface how cavalierly commentators and pundits employed sexist and even misogynist language to describe the candidate. In one instance, CNN host Glenn Beck called Clinton a “stereotypical bitch.” Even on MSNBC, the so-called “liberal alternative” to Fox News, host Tucker Carlson could comment “There’s just something about [Hillary Clinton] that feels castrating, overbearing, and scary.”

Such language speaks volumes about the extent to which sexism and misogyny permeates media culture. This same media and its sexist culture helped frame discussions about Clinton’s candidacy.

When CBS anchor Katie Couric publicly addressed the sexism of media pundits, for example, MSNBC’s Keith Olberman prefaced his response by calling Couric the “worst person in the world.” In this environment, The Clinton campaign rightly highlighted how the senator’s gender was used to undermine the viability of her campaign.

But like the racist-language gaffes of radio host Don Imus and comedian Michael Richards, sexist language and sentiment is just that. To be sure, policing such language is not the same as engaging a feminist politics that aims to dramatically alter the quality of life for women in this country. On this count, healthcare reform notwithstanding, the Clinton campaign was lacking and understandably so.

Just as the Obama camp has been hamstrung either by force or choice, to offer concrete policy initiatives that address the specific realities of anti-black racism in this country, the Clinton campaign was never in a position to articulate a true feminist vision for this county—if in fact the Senator from New York is truly invested in such a vision.

Clinton’s campaign found middle ground by highlighting the symbolic value of her candidacy to feminist movement veterans, like Gloria Steinem, and to a professional class of women. But these symbolic connections often came at the expense of the concerns of a feminist working class. Also sacrificed were concerns of feminists of color. Clinton supporters’ silence in the face of racist and sexist commentary directed towards Michele Obama is perhaps the most pronounced example of the latter case.

So feminists of all colors and genders (I might add) are left with the symbolism of a roll-call vote at the Democratic Convention. Despite the so-called catharsis of the moment, the roll-call vote further diminishes the legitimacy of the Feminist and Women’s movements.

The issues that affect the lives of women (and the men and children in their lives) deserve more than lip service. Senator Obama must see past this so-called olive branch to Clinton’s supporters. And it is incumbent upon the presumed Democratic nominee to push forward a party platform that makes clear his commitments to the lives of women in this country—even if he is unwilling to call it the feminism that it is.

Mark Anthony Neal is Professor of African-American Studies at Duke University and a Visiting Scholar at the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. He is also the author of four books, including the recent New Black Man.

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