The Feminist Case for Obama

By Adele M. Stan
Tuesday, March 4, 2008; 1:30 PM

Reading last Sunday's Outlook section, I found myself under attack from word one. Before I had finished my morning coffee, I had read that I -- and millions like me -- were stupid, fickle, elitist and hard-hearted.

Charotte Allen, in her now-infamous essay, argued that she and I and all others of our sex were naturally inferior to men. Linda Hirshman, in an essay that ran beside Allen's under the shared headline "Women v. Women," condemned me and all other feminists and college-educated women who voted for Barack Obama as being callous and capricious. While the Allen essay understandably grabbed the lioness's share of the attention, the Hirshman piece is by far the more damaging of the two.

However outrageous Allen's claims, they're pretty easily put into perspective by a glance at Allen's record as a right-wing opponent of all things feminist. Hirshman, however, makes her claims as a feminist, and then tars fellow feminists -- those who vote differently than her -- with the right's "liberal elitist" brush. For flourish, she uses the sexist technique of ridiculing two women prominent in the Obama campaign by focusing only on their physical attributes. (Maria Shriver is reduced to a description of her hair, while Michelle Obama is mentioned in the context of her fashionable shoes.)

Feminists who support Obama, Hirshman writes, care little for the working-class woman. Their votes reflect nothing more than a "turn to solidarity with their own class." The same goes for college-educated women of all stripes who support Obama, all of whom are presumed, in Hirshman's argument, to be well-off, be they social workers or administrative assistants. If we cared for the working-class woman, she says, we would vote for Hillary Rodham Clinton because she was the first of the two to offer a paid family leave proposal and proposes a "slightly more generous" health plan than does Obama. If we vote on the basis of, say, something as esoteric as foreign policy, we're being elitist, because presumably everybody knows that foreign policy has no bearing on the life of the working-class woman.

I don't know who Hirshman thinks is fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But to dismiss Obama's stance against the war (and Clinton's vote to authorize President Bush's foray in to Iraq) as merely the high-minded concerns of narcissistic elites is perhaps not the best way to express solidarity with the class from which many of those fighting the war are drawn. It also smacks of the implication that foreign policy is too complicated a subject for the working-class woman to understand.

The notion that not rewarding Clinton for being "first" with a paid family-leave proposal somehow hurts working-class women is just silly, given Obama's own proposal. As for the "slightly more generous" health care plan proposed by Clinton, it works via a mandate that is legitimate fodder for debate, especially among the working-class people who would most feel the sting of the stick in this carrot-and-stick approach.

Her assertion that women who vote for Obama vote against their own economic self-interest essentially holds no water.

The feminist rationale for an Obama vote is really quite simple: My grand-niece. Your daughter, if you have one. All the little girls who are growing up at a rather grim hour in American history.

Our nation is sinking deeper into recession. We are mired in a bloody, intractable conflict in Iraq, and may be losing the war in Afghanistan.Our beloved Constitution has been raped and pillaged. Instability and the specter of war threaten every continent. Climate change is hard upon us.

In difficult times, inspiration matters.The ability to lead lies less in the details of policy than in the ability to call people to sacrifice and courage, and to get them to comply. I'm not absolutely certain Obama can do that, but I'm pretty sure that it's not Clinton's strong suit. And given the similarities in their policies, I've cast my lot with him.

Don't get me wrong; symbols do matter. As a feminist, I've waited a long time to see a woman come this close to winning the presidency. I have hoped against hope to see a good, liberal woman lead this nation before I die. In the voting booth on primary day, I stared at the ballot for a long time before I marked it for Barack Obama. It was a painful mark to make. Painful because Hillary Clinton is an extraordinarily dedicated, intelligent and talented public servant. Painful because at another hour, she would have been just what the doctor ordered for a nation in need of fixing.

But the moment in which policy solutions alone offered a cure has passed. In 2008, fixing is out and healing is in.

I stood in that voting booth and thought of my newest grand-niece, born only weeks before the District of Columbia presidential primary. Who, I thought, could best convince the American people to move forward in the interest of a common good, so that our nation might pass through this perilous time, to thrive once more by the time baby Julianna comes of age? For my grand-niece to enjoy the equality that has evaded women of my generation, the nation will first have to survive. The Constitution will need to be restored. Tasks such as these require the gifts of a brilliant orator more than the skills of a policy genius. I blinked back the tears and voted for the man. (Now, if he would promise to put a woman on the ticket, I would feel much better about the whole thing.)

I take no issue with the feminism of women who disagree with my choice. I do, however, take issue with those who disparage my character as their explanation for my choice. I came to feminism for its promise of freedom. Surely, self-proclaimed feminists owe the rest of us no less.

Adele M. Stan is a columnist for the American Prospect Online. She began her journalism career at Ms. magazine.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company