The Eleanor Roosevelt Legacy is Powerful Women

You know how it goes: after all is said and done, a lot more is said than done most of the time. Goodness knows there was way too much said about the Weiner debacle last week. So I’m really happy to share a terrific guest post from Jodi Lustig who did something important. And she has other ideas about things to do and why we must do them–now. Enjoy.

Last Monday I took my own advice and went to The Eleanor Roosevelt Legacy’s Annual Spring Breakfast. Eleanor’s Legacy is dedicated to supporting Democratic women candidates, voters, and activists throughout New York State; and there was an abundance of each present.

If my faith were ever to waver that New York is where Progressives have progressed most, I would need only to remind myself that three of the purported frontrunners in the upcoming mayoral election (none have declared their candidacy), City Council President Christine C. Quinn, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, and Comptroller John Liu all made a point to appear first thing in the morning of a busy work week. In New York, at least, women matter.

I don’t think I was the only one seeking some femme-positive spiritual affirmation. When President Nora Bredes introduced the newest Congresswoman from New York, Kathy Hochul, the applause that erupted in the room felt like a collective sigh of relief at having palpable proof that our sometimes frustrating efforts to promote feminist causes do pay off on occasion. If we are lucky, the reward can come in the form of a public servant like Hochul, who considers political activism a noble calling and believes it her duty to mentor women similarly inspired.

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Bredes repeated the conventional narrative of Hochul’s election: Hochul’s win in the most Republican-leaning district in the state was a repudiation of Republican Paul Ryan’s plan to “reform” Medicare. Then she added that while she wished this were true, the real reason Hochul won was because she was a great candidate.

I happily accept Bredes’ either/and interpretation because it straddles the conflicting feelings many feminists, myself included, have about achievement in general and women’s achievements in particular. After all, part of the feminist critique of power is to contest the “Great Man” view of history, not to replace it with a hierarchy of “Great Women” instead. But if we wander off too far in the other direction and chalk successes up to abstractions like “cultural pressure” and “prevailing sentiment,” we run the risk of looking suspiciously like we are minimizing the contributions of individual women—and isn’t there enough of that already?

I’m a recovering academic, so it didn’t take too much to get me thinking that what I’m describing is the tension between the socialist critique of the individual and the capitalist over-estimation of him (and in this case it mostly is “him.”) But given that the breakfast was to celebrate leading women in American Labor—an oxymoron, if you think about it—I feel a little less egg-heady for mentioning it.

The honorees are living examples of why feminists have historically been aligned with the political left. The first was Barbara Young, the National Organizer of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, who received the Frances Perkins Promise Award for her work on behalf of domestic workers. (If ever there were a group that could benefit from collective bargaining it would be these often-isolated individuals. The response to the arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn made it clear that neither France nor the United States truly practices the egalité that each country preaches.) The second was Randi Weingarten, President of American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO, who received the Frances Perkins Lifetime Achievement Award for her work on behalf of a more recently-demonized class of workers, teachers. (Thank you Republican up-and-comer Chris Christie!)

Part of me wants to make it simple: “It’s sexism, stupid!” Is it any wonder that the majority of people working in these two professions are women? But it’s sexism and racism and class bias when any one of them is problematic enough in a culture that wants to believe we are post post everything. (We have an African-American president, how bad could we be?)

Or maybe it really is about power. Not about how different economic theories configure it—but about how individuals wield it. Because unsurprisingly, gender matters, especially in American politics. A recent article in the New York Times suggests that sometimes it makes all the difference:

Research points to a substantial gender gap in the way women and men approach running for office. Women have different reasons for running, are more reluctant to do so and, because there are so few of them in politics, are acutely aware of the scrutiny they draw — all of which seems to lead to differences in the way they handle their jobs once elected.

“The shorthand of it is that women run for office to do something, and men run for office to be somebody,” said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. “Women run because there is some public issue that they care about, some change they want to make, some issue that is a priority for them, and men tend to run for office because they see this as a career path.”

So take my inspiration as your inspiration, and let’s get more women running.

About Jodi Lustig:
Jodi Lustig is a freelance writer and recovering academic with more enthusiasm for sports than athletic talent and a prodigious taste for the health food known as dark chocolate.


  1. Serena on June 23, 2011 at 11:10 am

    Jodi, thanks for this reminder about why it’s important to get more women into elected office. It’s not just a matter of numerical equity – it’s an issue of women bringing a different set of leadership skills and priorities to the table.

  2. Gloria Feldt on June 23, 2011 at 5:58 pm

    Thanks for your comment, Serena. That’s an increasingly important clarification in a time when we have more and more women running on both sides of the aisle.

  3. […] guest blogpost by Jodi Lustig on my Heartfeldt Blog this week posits that gender does matter. About Gloria Feldt:Gloria Feldt […]

  4. Francine Perlman on July 4, 2011 at 9:07 am

    Eleanor Roosevelt’s example is my constant guide. I work for Sauti Yetu (“Our voice” in Swahili). Its mission is the empowerment of African immigrant women and girls, so DSK was of particular interest. Our clients face enormous obstacles to self-sufficiency but there are rising stars of leadership among the women in this community who need all the affirmation they can get.

    • Gloria Feldt via Facebook on July 4, 2011 at 9:53 pm

      Francine, applause for your work and thanks for your comment. Every day I have new insights regarding the DSK case–there are so many issues unmasked by its public airing. I would love to know more about your thoughts if you’re willing to share them.

      • Francine Perlman on July 11, 2011 at 6:32 pm

        A week has gone by, and the DSK tumult seems to be subsiding, which is unfortunate, actually. It needs lots more coverage. There have been some insightful and honest articles, and hopefully, if nothing else, some awareness of what immigrant women, and all victims of sexual assault, face. The accuser here had to bridge a very fine line, knowing that her immigrant community would have harsh words and little sympathy for any woman touched by a man not her husband, no matter what actually happened. And it came to pass. Surely that was on her mind when she at first hesitated to come forward. And DSK, so far from sainthood himself, just bought his way out. And Cyrus Vance caved. Not good.

  5. Sandie Reed on July 5, 2011 at 1:07 pm

    In the late 1980s into the 1990s, there was an organized push by several national women’s organization to get women elected from local to national offices. I think we should call out to these organizations: NOW, Emily’s List, BPW, NAPW and others to discuss this important issues of having more women running for elected offices; then support them. The U.S. Senate has 17 women out 100 positions. 17% just is not good enough! In the House of Representatives 72 women out of 435 positions. 16.6% is not good enough! We need 51% in both Houses to make any difference. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this event, that reminds us that women can make the difference that we all need.

    • Gloria Feldt on July 5, 2011 at 1:57 pm

      Couldn’t agree with you more, Sandie! All of those groups, and also others such as the White House Project, National Women’s Political Caucus, and Women’s Campaign Fund are working on it. The biggest remaining barriers are internal to women and have to do with our ambivalent relationship with power. Women are half as likely as men even to consider running for office, and even less likely to do it. Yet we can now raise money as well as men and are more trusted by the voters. So we have to look at ourselves not just the traditional external barriers that have been there in the past.

      In addition, we have to consider that it is no longer just about having any woman–it’s also about making sure that the women we elect will support policies such as reproductive rights and equal pay legislation that enable women to have an equal place in society.

      There’s lots to think about–and to do. I’m going to have the honor of MC’ing the National Women’s Political Caucus’s 40th anniversary Good Guys gala July 30 in Washington. What a great time to recommit to parity for women in politics.

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