The opinions expressed herein are those of the author, and not necessarily those of The New Agenda. This article has been modified and cross-posted.
2006 was supposed to be the year of Democratic women, but it didn’t work out that way. Despite a slew of female candidates hand-picked by Speaker Pelosi, Democrats couldn’t manage to elect them in a year that otherwise saw them sweep power and gain majorities in the House and Senate. The much-lauded Democratic Wave of 2006 ultimately was a wave of men.
Then came 2008, and Hillary Clinton was a primary presidential candidate. Despite earning the highest number of actual votes, Clinton lost when the party apparatus hijacked the delegate system in Florida and Michigan, rigging the primary season in favor of their preferred candidate. Meanwhile, some of the left’s most revered pundits piled on, and encouraged open hatred of her in their audiences, all the while coyly claiming it wasn’t sexism that drove them to it. Maybe it wasn’t, but the net result was a campaign season that can be summed up in one of the slogans that emerged from it: bros before hoes.
Two election cycles in a row Democrats had the chance to show Americans they really were the party for women. Twice they declined.
It’s exactly details like this that give voice to the lie that the Democratic Party does anything for women. Even on abortion, the rhetoric is merely a tool of coercion. Democrats squandered every opportunity to pass the ERA, helped orchestrate the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas debacle, cut off poor families’ access to financial security without increasing opportunity, and more recently threw women under the bus in the mammoth health care bill. This strategy of abandoning women is finally working against them, leaving quite an opening for women of the right to lay claim to some of that constituency. We saw the first fruits of their labor on Tuesday, and I must say it’s pretty impressive.
Republican women stole the show last Tuesday, and advanced the potential for greater numbers of women in elected positions. Thus their much-debated awakening may lead to one of the stated goals of the so-called party for women. You won’t find many liberal or progressive feminists celebrating Tuesday’s advancement of that goal. Instead, women from the left side of the aisle continue to shadowbox straw women, invoking the always alienating ridicule-humor of progressives. It is the left’s willful ignorance of changes on the right that lead them to argue ridiculous assertions, such as that the right doesn’t support women with careers despite the presence of millions of conservative women in the workforce.
After Tuesday’s election, I am hopeful for the first time in a long time. It’s this dogged insistence from women on the right and enlightened women on the left who dare support them that drives my hope. The emergence of cooperation between women of different political stripes, driven in part by groups like TNA and a budding pro-woman movement, helps provide an environment where a diverse feminism can thrive. In this environment, long-held assumptions are finally being challenged and new strategies tested.
Understand that the particular brand of feminism women on the right are developing is a profoundly positive feminism. It dares insist that the status quo need not be adhered to, and that there is no need to wait for a paternalistic government, or even party, to save women from the trials and tribulations of their lives. Where left-feminism stands defiant, producing rhetorical variations of the classic, “Look what you’re doing!” argument, the women on the right are responding with, “Just do it!” The former is a message of blame pointed at those who would subjugate women; the latter is pointed directly at those women. No wonder that message is selling; it’s what women, especially young women, want to hear.
If women on the left are not open to this positive contribution, they will lose out to the takeover that is imminent. It won’t be a hostile takeover, either. So far we’ve seen the vitriol of Judith Levine, the cleverness of Amanda Marcotte, and the denial of Jessica Valenti deployed to disrupt the narrative. Meanwhile, the targets of their ire have stayed above the fray, carrying on with the work of advancing Republican women in office. They look like the kind of people who routinely have persuaded their way to more power-sharing. They are casting themselves in the molds of suffragists and civil rights activists, and that, too, will help them win the PR wars. Persuasion is so key.
And this is where the left will fail and fail big, though I wish it weren’t so. I dream of a big-tent feminism that understands and values the work of liberal feminists, which laid the foundation for the emergence of conservative feminism. We won’t get it, because left-feminists don’t want big-tent feminism. They are happy to be employed and deployed against their own best interests. While they are thus distracted, moderate women and enlightened women on the left and the right will continue to mentally marginalize the ridiculous criticism leveled against Palin and other conservative women, just as so many of us did with the Clintons. Even now it’s just white noise to me when I read or hear a Palin-basher.
This time, though, we must not make the same mistake that Clinton supporters in the 1990s made. We should understand that the children are listening, and we must not allow those black seeds of hate, now being sewn so ironically by the left, to take root in their hearts and minds. Instead, if we nurture this expanding movement, very soon we may see a political climate where women across the political spectrum are on the vanguard in terms of breaking the stranglehold of partisanship that is a barrier to our progress. A new generation of girls must come to adulthood seeing more women in positions of power. It won’t matter to them whether they are Republicans or Democrats, or some other unlikely party. The women who win today will make them want to run tomorrow. What’s more, they’ll make it easier for them to do so.
These are the stakes involved in this continuing debate about who is and who can’t be a feminist. Rage, mean-spirited humor, and denial are short-sighted responses to the possibilities presented by a conservative feminism. That liberal/progressive feminists are even interested in excluding women from the club is evidence of how deeply they have internalized the left’s bizarre and unexamined gender conventions. In the end, the Valenti’s, Levine’s, and Marcotte’s of the world may never be open to persuasion. Let them bitch themselves into irrelevance. Worrying about what they say will not advance the cause of progress for women. What does help is talking to people who can be persuaded.