Like many women who identify themselves as feminists, Kathleen Turner and I are divided in our presidential candidate pick. We spent 18 months collaborating on her just-released memoir, Send Yourself Roses: Thoughts on My Life, Love, and Leading Roles.
During that time, we talked about politics quite a bit, because she sees herself as an activist as well as an actor. I rolled my eyes last summer when she announced to me that she’d decided to support Barack Obama and was going stumping for him in North Carolina’s August heat.
I thought it a naïve choice, but Obama had the good sense to invite her to a meeting with a few prominent women and had asked directly for her support. She’d been impressed, as I was when I first met him soon after his 2004 election to the U.S. Senate. And like many people, I was thrilled that the Democratic candidate lineup looked more like America, whereas Republicans were still mired in cookie-cutter white male political hegemony. Nevertheless, it seemed at the time that Hillary Clinton was surging to an unassailable lead for her party’s nomination, so I didn’t need to press too hard on Kathleen to join me in supporting her.
REALITY SHIFTS AND “TRUTH” WITH IT
Aldous Huxley said, “That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons of history.” Apparently that holds true for women too. Because on reflection, the one truth I should know from my four decades in politics from the lowliest local grassroots to the highest halls of power in Washington is that today’s unassailable fact is often tomorrow’s untruth. Things are true until suddenly there is a new Moment and they are not true, whereupon everyone does a quick reality shift.
The reality shifted when Obama and Clinton became locked in nose-to-nose competition for the nomination after the Super Tuesday primaries. That wasn’t easily predicted last summer, but we should have known something would happen to create a new truth. In addition to the more predictable movement by African-Americans toward Obama, many feminist women have lined up with him, not as a movement or with any particular strategy, but one by one. The “truth” that the women’s vote would surely line up behind the first viable woman candidate for president? Out the window. This is one lesson of history that does appear ready to repeat itself because women have never learned it: power unused is power useless.
POWER UNUSED IS POWER USELESS
Women fought over 70 years to get the right to vote, if you count from the 1848 Seneca Falls convention—or 144 years if you count from the nation’s founding year when Abigail Adams implored her husband John to “remember the ladies”. In 1920, when the women’s right to vote was finally ratified as the 19th amendment to the Constitution, it presented a big historic Moment.
But instead of consolidating its gains into an agenda and strategy and using that newfound political power collectively, the women’s suffrage movement dissipated. What was left morphed into League of Women Voters’ style voter education.
Now I am personally indebted to the League of Women Voters because they taught me much of what I needed to know about how the government works when I was a fledgling activist. But instead of the fiery advancement of women represented by the suffrage movement, the good grey nonpartisan, everyone-should-vote-as-she-wishes approach squandered what could have become mass voting power for change and the elevation of women to our just portion of leadership roles.
Opponents of women’s suffrage won the war even though they lost its defining battle: among other points, anti-suffragists had argued that women didn’t need the vote because they’d just vote like their husbands anyway.
Turns out that’s pretty much what women did.
Power ceded. Battle won; war for full equality and justice lost. No—given away freely. In exchange for—nothing.
LESSONS OF HISTORY’S MOMENTS STILL UNLEARNED
That is, until a gender gap started to appear and get defined as such in the 1980 presidential election. In 1992, the Moment dubbed the Year of the Woman, women voted in record numbers. For one thing, the Webster decision rolling back Roe v Wade awakened them to a threat not previously perceived. They voted for Bill Clinton and a change from the Bush/Reagan past. Women were elected to Congress in record numbers. Politicians started paying attention. Women’s endorsements were courted.
Two years later when the midterm elections came along, those same women stayed home and we got the Gingrich Revolution, the Contract on America, and the crushingly sexist ascendancy of the religious right. Since then, many organizations devoted to recruiting and electing women candidates have arisen. They work hard. They have scored some successes, yet the U. S. remains 67th among nations in women elected to federal and state legislative office. At this rate, it could be another 70 years before we have parity in Congress, and who knows how long before we have a woman president if Hillary loses.
Will women give this Moment away freely once again? Will we sacrifice our potential power as voters to another certainly worthy cause of electing the first African American president? Will African-American women, long the most reliable Democratic voters, choose their racial identity over their gender identity in deciding where to use the power of their votes? Will the majority of all women opt for an amorphous message of hope because it’s the new new thing, rather than dancing with the woman who brung us to this Moment of opportunity to wield the power of women’s votes for an extraordinarily well-qualified woman whose track record indicates she’ll prioritize issues women have complained for years get overlooked by the men, even progressive ones?
RIGHT AND RESPONSIBILITY—NOT ALWAYS THE SAME
I credit feminism and feminists for doing many good things, but one thing we have failed miserably at is teaching each succeeding cohort to embrace the power and the responsibility of joining together as a movement to achieve goals that particularly improve the lot of women, just as every other group does and is expected to do.
We progressive women, we feminists who are activists in a thousand worthy social causes, might decide to squander this Moment and justify in a thousand ways why it’s our right to decide as individuals when we choose our candidate.
Well, yes, it is our right. But is it the sum total of our responsibility? Is it enough to really, really like Obama? Is it enough to flee from Hillary Clinton because of, say, one vote we didn’t like (even though her opponent never had to put his vote where his anti-war voice now is)? Or because her husband lacks impulse control?
In my mind, no. And I believe history will agree with me when feminist activists 70 years from now—yes, friends, at the rate we’re going there will still be a need for feminist activists then—look back at this year. I believe they too will say, “No, it was not enough.”
Now I argue with Kathleen publicly and privately, though still cordially and respectfully as women are prone to do. Soon enough we will know if women missed our Moment again.