Alice Kessler-Harris: Why I'm not necessarily for Hillary





[Alice Kessler-Harris is a professor of American history at Columbia University.]

This seems to be the moment for which feminists have waited. Those of us who came out of the women's movement of the late '60s and '70s have longed for a greater presence of women in the political and public spheres. So why are we not ringing doorbells for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton? In my case, I would say it is ambivalence. I am certainly not against her. I just can't bring myself to be for her.

To be sure, I love the idea of a female president; and I appreciate the value of a role model in the office. There are moments when I writhe at the blatant misogyny of the comments about her tears, the timbre of her voice or the cut of her pantsuits. But in the end, being a woman is not enough. My generation of feminists had at least two goals: one of these was equal opportunity and equality for individual women in the home and in public. The second was, and is, more community oriented: We believed that social justice could only be achieved within a fairer and more humane world. We were pretty successful at achieving the first goal, but the second one got put on hold - not least by the climate of conservatism that prevailed in the '80s and '90s and which extolled the free market while denigrating any positive role for government in the solution of social and economic problems.

In the '90s, faced with a dominant conservative ideology, the mantra of "centrism" fostered by the Clintons seemed about as far as Democrats could go politically. I disliked many of the Clintons' pro-business and anti-welfare policies. But, and still, I admired Hillary's place as an engaged and politically active first lady; her advocacy of children; even her flawed effort to take a lead on the health care issue.

But this is a new world with new opportunities for reaching our feminist dreams. The conservative ethos of the '90s is on the wane; three-quarters of Americans, according to the latest poll, think the country is moving in the wrong direction. Neoliberal desires to "starve the beast" are in question. A large majority of our population now believes that we live in a "global" context, where we share environmental, labor and family concerns that we can resolve only by acting across national borders. More people question the value of an unrestrained free market; or say they are willing to increase taxes to pay for things such as universal health care; or debate the cost to an embattled environment of ever-increasing individual consumption.

In this context, the 2008 presidential election poses an opportunity for candidates to offer a new vision that evokes the sense of shared responsibility intrinsic to liberal democracy. Each of the three leading Democratic candidates has begun to talk about a more effective government, and one that balances the marketplace. From all three of them we hear calls for "change;" a cry to unify the nation; demands for accountability in government; a rhetoric of equality and of empathy for the economic problems of the neglected poor; an end to the war in Iraq; I like what I am hearing in general, but I'm waiting for each of them to mobilize us to reach for these goals.

I am not reassured by learning that John Edwards is the son of a mill worker, that Barack Obama is black, or that Clinton is a woman. Each of those identities reflects something about which I care deeply. But I can't vote for any of them because of who they are. Supporting Hillary because she is a woman fosters a debate about whether to place race or sex or religion at the top of our list of priorities. If I support Hillary (or any candidate) because I am drawn to her identity, I am simply encouraging others to support their candidates for the same reason. And identity is no guarantee that a particular individual will speak for feminist values and issues. Remember Margaret Thatcher supervised the dismantling of the British welfare state; Clarence Thomas has routinely made judgments that have closed the gates to economic opportunity for African Americans.

As a feminist, I want a president who will inspire us to achieve at least some of the values that I care about. I want a president who will use government resources to make this a more humane and equitable society by enhancing educational opportunity and economic security for the poor and constructing health care for all. I want a president who will actively protect our civil liberties and civil rights; one who will speak loudly against the grotesque impositions of secrecy, surveillance, torture and incarceration. I want a president who will not only end this war quickly, but who will change the direction of American foreign policy in acknowledgement of the new global realities; I want a president who will eschew fear-mongering, tear down fences, and work out dignified ways to cope more effectively and more humanely with the inevitable movement of workers across the borders. I want these things as a feminist.

Hillary's record, like those of the other candidates, falls far short of what's needed to achieve my desires. She has voted against expanding funds for subsidized day care or allowing poor women to use welfare funds to get an education; her health care program is still too closely tied to the insurance industry. Her foreign policy seems to look toward the more hawkish Democratic advisers of the '90s; she has equivocated about how rapidly she would withdraw American forces from the Middle East. But I have hopes that all three candidates will push the others into articulating the kind of vision that recalls the feminism I once knew. When and if Hillary gets there, I will be her most ardent supporter.



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