Waiting in the Wings

I watched the election results until well after midnight on November 4. I was struck by the incredibly emotional crowd response to the election of the first black president at Obama’s acceptance speech rally in Chicago. It surely was one of the more moving moments in U.S. electoral history. However, for me, the sight of people weeping with joy was tempered by the knowledge that he was likely to disappoint them on many counts, since I knew that most of Obama’s advisors came from such unprogressive groups as the Council on Foreign Relations and that he was considering Lawrence Summers for his cabinet, a man who said women’s brains are not suited to science, among other not very progressive nominees. Besides, I always get nervous at the possibility of uncritical hero worship of leaders, particularly presidents of the U.S. That said, it was an historic night. It meant something, just as, I hope, the election of the first woman president will mean something.

The staging of Obama’s acceptance speech was artfully imposing, with its steel-gray backdrop and long platform leading to a lonely-looking podium. Obama finally appeared with his wife and children alongside, smiling and waving to the cheering crowd of 70,000 or so. They stood to acknowledge the crowd and then, on cue, his wife and kids turned and left, to wait in the wings.

As I watched Michelle Obama lead her daughters offstage, I flashed back to what could have been. The wife and kids waiting in the wings seemed an unintended, yet perfect symbolic ending to a campaign that had begun over a year ago with the possibility of the first woman president. Not just a woman, but a woman who could definitely hold her own, who millions thought was qualified to be president.

Then the possibility of a woman vice president on the Democratic ticket died. Think of all those thousands of women who actually fought for civil rights and an end to racist laws and cultural norms who could have served as vice president in an Administration based on a message of change. As consolation, Obama might have mentioned or praised the historic Green Party candidacy of two progressive women of color: Cynthia McKinney and Rosa Clemente. But, to my knowledge, he never did. Instead, we ended up with conservative Republicans taking a historic electoral step by nominating Sarah Palin, the direct opposite of these women.

I searched the media for articles at least noting these events. They were hard to find, but there were a few notable columns. Katha Pollitt, in "Sayonara, Sarah" (the Nation, November 24 issue) had this to say, "Finally, Palin completed the task Hillary Clinton began: running in different parties across a single political season, they have normalized the idea of a woman in the White House. It is hard even to remember now how iconoclastic Hillary was—how hard it was for her to negotiate femininity and ambition, to be warm but not weak, smart but not cold, attractive but not sexy, dynamic but not threatening…. Palin may have been unfit for high office, but just by running she showed there was more than one mode for a female politician. After almost two years of the whole country watching two very different women in the White House race, it finally seems normal."

Rebecca Traister wrote about Palin in "Zombie feminists of the RNC" on salon.com: "In this ‘Handmaid’s Tale’-inflected universe, in which femininity is worshiped, but females will be denied rights, CNBC pundit Donny Deutsch tells us that we’re witnessing ‘a new creation…of the feminist ideal,’ the feminism being so ideal because instead of being voiced by hairy old bats with unattractive ideas about intellect and economy and politics and power, it’s now embodied by a woman who, according to Deutsch, does what Hillary Clinton did not: ‘put a skirt on.’ ‘I want her watching my kids,’ says Deutsch. "I want her laying next to me in bed’."

Traister continued, "What Palin so seductively represents…is a form of feminine power that is…digestible to those who have no intellectual or political use for actual women. It’s like some dystopian future…feminism without any feminists."

In "Election 2008: Women Are Losers," Helen McCaffrey, director of Women’s Watch, writes, "…I already know who will lose big: all women. I realized this when I saw a 20-something male student who attends a class in the community college where I teach, wearing a T-shirt that read, ‘Sarah Palin is a C-….’ Mockery and vilification of women such as Palin should become just as taboo as race-based slams."

Well said. However, to me what happened goes beyond a question of making it "normal for women to be in the race for the White House," or to be able to "negotiate ambition and femininity" (why should we?) or to make "mockery and vilification taboo." What was its effect on the women’s movements’ goal of changing the nature of the patriarchal (and classist and racist) institutions that continue to define and oppress us?

The whole bait and switch from Clinton to Palin seemed so schizophrenic in a way. On one level, it was yet another act by the evangelical right to reduce any progressive feminist inspiration Clinton’s candidacy may have generated and to take back their power to define women—how they look and behave and what role they should play in their idea of the proper "order of things." That is, the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is head of the church (Ephesians 5:22-24). To Falwell and the whole Moral Majority gang, and their future followers, the women’s movement was "a satanic attack on the home" (Falwell), "a philosophy of death" (Schafly).

This trend was made even more horrifying because it was on a national scale, aimed at the power of the White House, and it used a redefined feminism as a way to continue trying to move towards what the right wing’s Family Protection Act had tried (and failed to do) since it was introduced in Congress in 1981. Its proposals included: eliminate federal funding laws supporting equal education; require marriage and motherhood to be taught as proper careers for girls; deny federal funding to schools using textbooks portraying women in nontraditional roles; repeal all federal laws protecting battered wives from their husbands; ban federally funded legal aid for women seeking abortion counseling or a divorce; offer tax incentives to induce married women to have babies and stay home; a complete ban on abortion, even if it meant the woman’s death; censor all birth control information until marriage; revoke the Equal Pay Act and other equal employment laws; defeat the Equal Rights Amendment.

Ironically, this attempt may backfire a little. They must have panicked, these reactionary evangelicals, when a TV news program interviewed two evangelical youth. The young man quoted the Bible to support the view that women shouldn’t run for public office. The young woman, when asked why she supported Palin, given this biblical prohibition, smiled and said, "Well, I’m a sinner." It would be redemption indeed if masses of young evangelical women started demanding equal participation—perhaps an overthrow of the Church gender hierarchy and sexist teachings—even at the expense of "sinning."

On another level, the Palin candidacy served to reveal how much mainstream feminism has become a benign politics of difference, rather than a revolution to overthrow a system of patriarchy embedded in and perpetuated by the Church, the family, the workplace, and so on. The politics of Men are from Mars, Women from Venus posits the problem between the genders as one of communication between beings from different planets, a difference solved by better communication and understanding of what each gender wants. Like the right-wing gender agenda, it too claims the right to define each gender’s looks, brain functions, and behavior. Hillary Clinton did not fit the Venus profile, Palin did. She seemed part of the "I can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and never let you forget you’re a man" so-called feminism. Perhaps her lipstick came from Revlon, whose one-time commercial promoted "a revolutionary make up. We’re changing the world one face at a time."

On election night, the interviews leading up to and immediately following the Obama victory featured mainly black men from the civil rights movement, in which praise was given (rightly so) to this historic moment. But where were the women? After all, they voted overwhelmingly for Obama/Biden by a 56 to 43 percent margin (men voted 49 to 48 percent). An Obama victory, given his stated positive positions on issues of particular importance to women, should be worthy of at least an equal portion of interviews. So where were they? Not, apparently, faring that well in the next Congress, as women in both houses now consist of a mere 17 percent.

In a CBS/NYT poll in July 2007, when Hillary Clinton was the frontrunner, pollsters asked whether Americans thought society had changed to allow women to compete with men on an even basis: 54 percent of men to 41 percent of women said yes. When asked if they believed women were held to a different standard: 59 percent of men and 73 percent of women said yes. When asked if society still needed a women’s movement: 57 percent of men and 70 percent of women said yes.

Well, I agree with the need for a women’s movement. No more waiting in the wings while a patriarchal society defines us this way and that, but always seemingly as the lesser gender—one minute as someone "laying next to me in bed," the next minute as the devil.

Still, I had a moving moment of my own on November 4. I was able to vote for two truly progressive women of color for the highest offices in the land. Now that’s historic—and hopeful, right?



Lydia Sargent is co-founder and staff member of Z Magazine. In her spare time, she is an actor and playwright.