A few days before International Women's Day (March 8th, yesterday), a friend and I were talking about the results of the Ohio and Texas primaries. I shocked myself to notice how deeply devastated I'd been that Obama hadn't won big in both states, even though my rational mind knew he was still in the lead, there are months to go, etc. I had astounded myself, I told my friend, with the intensity of my feelings.
"I know!" she exclaimed. We are close in age and outlook, both having worked for decades in community arts, both children of immigrants, both Jews. My friend supports Clinton. "I realized that for me, the identification as a woman is strongest," she said. "I feel it so deeply. All the other 'others' kind of fade away. But really, I'd vote for Obama if he got the nomination, and you'd probably vote for Clinton."
Now, my friend didn't choose Clinton because of her sex: if Clinton had been a right-winger, my friend would have voted for a male candidate who more closely matched her own politics. Neither did I choose Obama on account of his race (or Clinton's sex): if Alan Keyes or Condoleeza Rice had been running instead, you can be sure I would have chosen someone who shared my values, regardless of race.
These pulls are real, no doubt, but we have the power to resist them. Yet some people feel resistance is a type of treachery: women who don't vote for Clinton or African Americans don't vote for Obama are betraying what should be their core loyalties. But I can't find any usable meaning in the idea of loyalty to a race or gender.
The first International Women's Day was declared in 1909 by the Socialist Party, in part to honor the legions of working women who had flocked directly from Ellis Island to the garment factories. When the Triangle Shirtwaist factory burnt in 1911, taking the lives of 148 young women who'd been locked inside by greedily indifferent bosses, the day became strongly associated with women's place in the labor force.
Coming of age in the sixties as I did, I was strongly impressed by the powerful, vibrant feminism of that period, which persuaded me to look at a great many things I'd taken for granted in my own life and encouraged me to set my own path independent of social expectations. I've had most of the experiences of discrimination common to women my age: making less money for the same work; having my contributions to a discussion ignored while a man drew agreement and acclaim by repeating exactly what I'd said; being chastised for making a scene when I yelled and swatted at a strange man who decided my sitting next to him in the movies gave him license to paw my body. I was lucky enough to escape being raped at knifepoint by crying so hard the assailant lost heart and fled. If I began right now to list just my own experiences and those of people close to me, I wouldn't stop writing all week.
But to recognize that women have endured great hardship and made great sacrifices in response to socially sanctioned discrimination and misogyny, to call strongly for an end to such practices and for proper redress—these truths cannot justify the conclusion that women's suffering has made us superior to men. Or that in power, we would behave differently from men. For every Mary Robinson there has been an Eva Peron: Indira Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher, Angela Merkel, Corazon Aquino and Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and dozens more.
The same thing is true in every sphere of power. List cabinet members, political advisors, corporate executives: you will find fewer women than men, precisely because discrimination persists, but among the women who hold these types of social power, you will find no more (and no less) virtue, wisdom and altruism than among men. It is as grotesque and damaging to say that women's suffering has made us superior as it is to assert the same thing of Jews, people of African descent, or any other category of inherited or imposed identity.
I hate tuning into the news and hearing commentators pontificate on what women as a class or whites as a class are doing in relation to the two Democratic contenders, as if it made even the remotest sense to draw a straight line from categories of identity to action in the world. Countless people are crossing these lines in every primary, as they have before. (Did every woman vote for Geraldine Ferraro? Did every Jew vote for Joe Lieberman? Obviously not.)
I would be ashamed to vote for Hilary Clinton because she is a woman or for Barack Obama because he is African American. If either is the best candidate (and I have no doubt that Obama is much the better of the two), then that person's having surmounted social obstacles and emerged intact, with dignity and the capability to face the challenges of the presidency, is an added asset, a test of mettle. But not a promise of virtue. So in honor of International Women's Day, two cheers for women: for having faced so much that is wounding and cruel in the cultures we're born into, for having displayed so much fortitude by doing such extraordinary things with what has been done to us, and for being merely human, no better and no worse than the rest of our species. Let's honor the day with nothing less than truth.