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Hard Choice

I wish my mom had lived to see this election. Leslie Jones was the definition of a Loyal Democrat. In November 2000 she was dying of cancer—she’d chosen not to continue chemotherapy and we all knew that the end couldn’t be more than a few months away—but she was more depressed about George Bush’s victory than about the end of her own life. “God, I hate to go out on this note,” she said. “I was hoping I could at least leave you all with a Democrat in the White House.” She did, in fact, die a few months later, and over the past seven years I’ve often been glad that she didn’t have to see what was happening to her country. But I wish she was here for this one. I wish I could ask her who she would choose between Obama and Clinton.

My mother was a feminist: by instinct lifelong, by political self-identification starting in the late ‘60s. On camping trips our family game was Parcheesi, and one year, when I was twelve or so and newly in thrall to Marvel Comics, I named my four Parcheesi men after the Fantastic Four, writing the names Reed, Ben, Johnny and Sue on their wooden bases. My mother snatched my pen, tipped up her four "Parcheesi women" and marked them with the names of her heroes: Germaine, Gloria, Betty and Simone. (As in, for you younger readers, Greer, Steinem, Friedan and de Beauvoir, four great mid-century feminists.)

But before feminism, her driving political passion was civil rights. She was born in the piney woods of Mississippi into a family of Methodists who spoke up for racial decency in a time when the Klan spoke for the mainstream. She was finding radical civil-rights groups to join in the mid-‘40s, before most of liberal America found its voice on racial issues. She took non-violent resistance training through the Congress of Racial Equality in 1962, planning to participate in sit-ins or freedom rides in the South. Ultimately she didn’t go, I think because she didn’t want to die and leave two young sons.

My mother dreamed of the day she would someday be able to vote for a woman for president. One of her favorite elections was 1984, when she got to put a mark by Geraldine Ferraro’s name for the vice presidency, even though she knew Reagan was going to roll to victory. I know she dreamed too—though more privately, not daring to believe it could ever come true—of the day she would be able to vote for a black nominee.

Well, here is that election of her dreams. A woman and a black man as the sole contenders for the Democratic nomination in a year when the GOP seems bound to lose. It’s not Elizabeth Dole versus Colin Powell, either, but liberals who support nearly everything Leslie Jones believed in.

And yet, what a cruel dream it’s turned out to be. Because she would have to choose. She’d have to vote against one or the other. I can only imagine how agonizing it would have been for her—and how agonizing it must be for those millions of women who fought the feminist battles of the ‘60s and ‘70s—that in order to elect the first woman to the White House she would have to rise up against the first plausible candidacy of a black man. No wonder so many women in their fifties and older have said that they hope Obama will settle for the vice presidential spot, or just that they wish he had waited eight years.

In her essay Goodbye to All That 2 the feminist writer Robin Morgan casts her support for Hillary Clinton as a direct continuation of those struggles of the ‘60s and ‘70s. A Clinton victory will mean “Goodbye to the double standard…to the toxic viciousness…to the news-coverage target practice….”

“The real question,” she writes, “is deeper than her re-finding her voice. Can we women find ours? Can we do this for ourselves?

“‘Our President, Ourselves!’

“Time is short and the contest tightening. We need to rise in furious energy—as we did when Anita Hill was so vilely treated in the U.S. Senate, as we did when Rosie Jimenez was butchered by an illegal abortion, as we did and do for women globally who are condemned for trying to break through. We need to win, this time. Goodbye to supporting HRC tepidly, with ambivalent caveats and apologetic smiles. Time to volunteer, make phone calls, send emails, donate money, argue, rally, march, shout, vote.”

She concludes, “I’m voting for Hillary not because she’s a woman—but because I am.”

I get it. I understand the desire to believe that supporting Clinton is the right thing for any woman to do. But if my mother were still here, I’d have to ask her if she could really believe it was true.

Yesterday my friend Xandra, a feminist of the generation after Hillary Rodham’s, born in the ‘60s, told me, “I’m not sure Hillary Clinton is the feminist hero I’ve had in mind. For one thing, her life and her career are so completely intertwined with her husband’s. From her election to the Senate until the unspoken message of her campaign has been, ‘Let’s elect the two Clintons again.’” There’s no question that Hillary Clinton is extraordinarily tough, smart and capable, and her politics are mostly true to classic feminism. But she does trade on claims of experience that more accurately belong to her husband. Polls show that much of her support, especially among blue-collar males, is based on the expectation that we’re getting Bill back. She hasn’t been a very active or outspoken Senator in her own right. And why does her husband, when ostensibly campaigning for her, keep referring to “us” and “our agenda”?

And she’s made such painful compromises with male power. I can still visualize her on that talk show in early 1992, as her husband was working damage control on his Gennifer Flowers mess, talking about how strong their marriage was. I think how profound her humiliation must have been. And then she had to go through it again over Paula Jones, and then again ten-fold over Monica Lewinsky. Of course, her endurance of public humiliation by her husband is probably more than politics; she probably really loves him. But still. The feminist revolution of the ‘60s was supposed to do far more than merely knock down the barriers that kept women out of public power. The wife who would suffer any indignity silently in order to advance her man’s career was supposed to be one of its casualties too. And yet Hillary drags that ancient, prefeminist response to the philandering of powerful men into the 21st Century.

She’s also trying to play her relationship with that male power in a way that’s becoming embarrassing. She’s on record in many sources, including her own autobiography, as supporting NAFTA. But now that NAFTA has become a bone of contention among the blue-collar workers she’s courting, she’s trying to dissociate herself from it, implicitly saying, “That was Bill, not me.” She seeks equal credit for whatever is still popular about her husband’s administration (her “experience”) while making him exclusively responsible for what isn’t. Every politician dances a similar dance with his or her political history, of course, but in Hillary Clinton’s case this is compounded by a quality of ducking behind the male screen, minimizing her own public self. This too feminism was supposed to undo.

And then there’s the war. She supported that war, including troop increases after the fall of Saddam Hussein, more energetically than she now wants to admit. And when she speaks of ending it, she adds that first we must find a way to do so with “honor, dignity and respect,” words that echo eerily Richard Nixon’s “peace with honor,” which turned out to mean four more years of war. Are this the agenda of a candidate who embodies the values of feminism, or is it another uneasy compromise with an old male power?

I would tell my mom what my friend Xandra said. And what she said next: “At first I was sure I was going to support Clinton and I saw Obama mainly as a male threat to her. But after a while I stopped seeing the candidates as people of a certain gender or race. I started seeing them as people. And the more I learned about Obama, the more I felt he was the one representing me.” We will have our female president. Now that Clinton has shown that gender doesn’t stop a candidate from being a contender, more women will emerge. There will be one who fulfills the feminist dream in a way that Hillary Clinton cannot, one who has beaten her own path and not made so many deals with the devil along the way.

I don’t think the Democrats offer absentee ballots where my mother has gone. (They used to in Cook County, Illinois, but they’ve stopped the practice.) If they did, I’d say, “Mom. It’s okay. This is Obama's time."