Tuesday, March 18, 2008

An indefensible attack

A piece last week headlined Hell hath no fury, Michelle Goldberg calls feminists who support Hillary Clinton (a "nepotistic" choice, whose "primary qualification is her husband") "infuriated," "hysterical" and, perhaps worst of all, "outspoken." The innocent reader could expect this description of a woman candidate and her female advocates from some denizen of the anti-feminist right or the anti-feminist cable news left - Ann Coulter of the repeal-the-19th-Amendment movement, Chris Matthews of the Hillary's-career-based-on-Bill's-intern theory. Surprise: the article comes from Michelle Goldberg, formerly of Salon.com, and author of many books and articles opposing the religious right and defending women's freedoms. What has provoked this young feminist to describe the first viable female presidential candidate and some of the icons of the feminist movement in such conventional and sexist terms?

The answer is that many women, myself included, the "furious" women from "hell," of the article's headline, have written several articles pointing out the political costs and consequences of women failing to support the first viable female candidate for president of the United States. Goldberg's hysterical feminists include (thank you, Ms Goldberg, for putting me in such august company) the first (and only) female Democratic candidate for vice-president, Geraldine Ferraro; one of the primary founders of the feminist movement, Gloria Steinem; the president of New York National Organisation of Women, Marcia Pappas; the famed feminist anthologist Robin Morgan (author of Sisterhood Is Powerful), and the tough-minded feminist writer Leslie Bennetts.

Many others could be added to Goldberg's infernal parade: Planned Parenthood's former president and best-selling author, Gloria Feldt, who wrote in the Huffington Post: "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."

Martha Burk, a former chairwoman of the national council of women's organisations, sounded a lot like the "hellish" Ferraro, when she said: "If [Senator Obama] were female, with his credentials, age and track record, I don't think he'd be anywhere near the presidency of the United States." Apparently it has never occurred to Goldberg, even as the numbers of scorned leaders, intellectuals, writers and activists mounts, that women with a long history of commitment to the cause of feminism might actually be onto something other than "flailing" "anger."

In my particular case, I have never endorsed Senator Clinton nor "assumed" - as Goldberg (without quotation) asserts - "that Clinton obviously and indisputably deserves the votes of right-thinking females." (Even if Goldberg's rhetoric were not so utterly out of bounds, her repeated misrepresentation of the easily verifiable content of my article alone should raise serious doubts about the seriousness and professionalism of the piece.)

I am interested in, and write about, political consciousness and political behaviour. In recent years I have focused on female political behaviour, partly because of the election and partly because I had said what I had to say about women as wives and workers. I am particularly interested in collective action and the way in which women's individual decisions affect their collective social situation. When black women acted in a way reflecting powerful racial solidarity, I commented on the difference between political groups formed by segregation and those comprised of individuals integrated into the larger groups. When all the pollsters reported a sharp divide between college-educated women and women without college degrees I speculated on the many reasons women voters might split their votes along class lines.

The unraveling of the initially unified female vote has consequences for long-term female political influence, particularly in face of the unity exhibited by some of the other demographics. I started, as Goldberg is forced to admit, with the possibility that college educated voters, who are, by every scholarly measure, more knowledgeable about politics than less educated voters are, might have figured out the superiority of Senator Obama, and next considered that educated voters, who are, by every scholarly measure, more interested in foreign affairs, might have been moved by his position against the manifestly undesirable war in Iraq.

What else (not what is more "likely," as Goldberg, again without support or citation, suggests) might be going on, I asked? "It could just be" that women with more education and more money relate on a subconscious level to the "young and handsome Barack and Michelle Obama, with their white-portico - mansion in one of the cooler Chicago neighborhoods and her Jimmy Choo shoes." I am hardly the first observer to comment on the style differences between the candidates; the "latte" description of Senator Obama's followers is now so common it reminds me more of flat coffee than the foamy stuff.

Finally, I observed that "for weeks now, online and on cable news channels, almost anyone who expresses criticism of Obama or support for Clinton has elicited a firestorm of disapproval." On this argument, Goldberg's piece certainly stands for itself. If the rage is all on the other side, she has gone a long way to even the odds.

The oddest thing is that in a piece supposedly about how feminist Clinton supporters are spoiling the future of feminist unity, Michelle Goldberg describes those who disagree with her as follows:

- Geraldine Ferraro is "Archie Bunkers in heels," saying "the kind of thing Rush Limbaugh . . . like[s] to say," "having thoroughly disgraced herself";

- Leslie Bennetts' arguments are "ridiculous," a "crude projection";

- I argue like a "pseudo-populist demagogue of the right";

- Finally, for the venerable and expressive author, Robin Morgan, Goldberg deploys the ever popular feminist unity-producing epithet: "hysterical."

It may be that these debates within feminism interest the voting public about as much as the old quarrels between Stalinists and Trotskyites did. Since college-educated women are a substantial and increasing percentage of the electorate, I think their behaviour and the rhetoric of those who would influence this demographic matters quite a bit. That's why I write about it. But even if as Goldberg's candidate, Barack Obama always reminds us, it's only that "words matter," her intemperate attacks on the long list of people who have spent much of their lives in the movement she purports to save is indefensible.

Linda Hirshman

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