I DREAM of Iowa.
Hillary Clinton has just made her first public appearances since resigning as Secretary of State, and I am enthusiastic about her presumed candidacy; it’s making me dream of Iowa. I long to go there to work on electing the first woman president.
I watched Barack Obama there last November at the final stop of his final campaign, just before midnight on the chilly evening before election day in Des Moines, the crowd of 20,000 strong doing call and response along with our president. “Fired up!” “Ready to go!”
This is not post-racial America, despite what some would try and have us believe. This is still racist that-nigger-messed-up-the-country America and I am crying from true joy to think that 20,000 mostly white folks are out there in Iowa—in Iowa!—for our president. For Barack Obama. For a black man. A black man! (I don’t believe that Iowans are any more likely to be racist than the rest of us, but the heartland of America is not the first place that jumps to mind when I think of racial progress.)
I am happy and proud that we re-elected Obama, a great president, and I am happy and proud that we re-elected a black man. Knowing something in the abstract—that a black man can be president—isn’t the same thing as knowing it in reality, watching it manifest. No one needs it spelled out to them what a tremendous thing this is. That now, when black kids look in the mirror, they can see themselves as president. That now, when any of us think “president,” we don’t just think of all those white men, we think about Barack Obama alongside Washington, Jefferson, the Roosevelts, Kennedy, and all the other whites, great and mediocre. We understand that it is a good thing to add president to the list of associations we have with black men—along with the stereotyped associations like athlete, entertainer, and criminal. We inherently understand that it is a good thing for our country, for we the people, to dismantle and reconstruct our notions of power and leadership by electing a black man to be our president and the leader of the free world.
Yet when I say to people who get these things, who believe them, that it would be a great and tremendous thing for the country to elect a woman in 2016, I am often met with stares. Squirms. Shrugs. Begrudging acknowledgement, the occasional “Yeah, I guess” or “I don’t know if we are ready to elect a woman.”
So we were ready to elect a black man but we’re still not ready to elect a white woman? I don’t get this logic, this hierarchy that exists in people’s minds. My rudimentary understanding of the way racial relations have worked in this country is that for many people white trumps black. Except male trumps female? Is that it? So black men, who had the right to vote fifty years before women were enfranchised, are higher in the establishment pecking order than women? Except, say, when a black man rapes a white woman? In that case the white woman takes primacy? (Maybe that’s not really about ranking women higher than black men, though—maybe that’s just about considering white women the property of white men.) Those scary black men coming to rape and kill apparently aren’t nearly as frightening as all those ball-busting bitches and angry dykes.
Let me be clear, I’m not saying sexism is worse than racism; it’s not, but let’s stop pretending it’s somehow better. Let’s stop acting like it’s not as important to dismantle. I’m also not in any way implying that we should have elected a woman before a black man. In no way do I want to dismiss the enormous racial issues in America. Nor do I mean to imply that other forms of discrimination—homophobia, classism, anti-Semitism, etc.—are less important.
But electing a woman advances the nation in many of the same ways that electing Obama did. It changes what girls and women see in the mirror. It changes what we think about when we think about women. We add president to the list of associations with the word along with all those commonplace associations: wife, mother, entertainer, bitch. It changes our notion of what power and leadership are.
And yet the statistics tell us that many people, mainly men, don’t seem to get that (or perhaps do and just don’t care)—that there is not the kind of excitement to elect a woman among white men that there was to elect a black man. Again, I’m not talking about excitement to elect Obama or Hillary Clinton specifically. I’m talking excitement about electing a black man versus excitement to elect a woman. To me, it’s yet another indication of the way we tolerate sexism without considering it as important, as critically important, as racism.
I was discussing all this with my partner: Hillary Clinton’s numbers among women (75 percent of women versus 95 percent of blacks who supported Obama), and my belief that women’s anger has hit some critical mass, and that that anger was going to be a force in electing Hillary Clinton in the general election in 2016. “I don’t think women are as angry as you think they are, baby,” says the man I live with, and I want to kill him.
One thing I know is that most men are not angry enough about sexism. They should be. The same men who regularly discuss the racism inherent in attacks on Obama dismiss out of hand—sometimes with a roll of the eyes—questions about whether or not their lack of support or lack of enthusiasm for Hillary is rooted in some sexism. Will the same men who declared a great deal of the disparity between whites and blacks voting for Obama as racism also decry the disparity between men and women voting for Hillary as sexism?
We need to call out sexism and tease out the dislike for Hillary beyond “I just don’t like her,” which is often sexism dressed up. When we do talk about our specific dislikes about Hillary, many of those complaints are misogynistic. We say she was nasty in the campaign. We say she was tough. We fault her for being a ball buster. Unsurprisingly, people have issues with strong women, effeminate men, transgendered folks. We still live in a country where any prosecutor will tell you that it’s nearly impossible to get a murder conviction of a mother. We like our roles on the traditional side, and we want to cling to them. Sometimes we go the other route and criticize Hillary’s decision to stay with Bill. She’s too tough, but not tough enough. That’s what we do to women in this world—they are always either too much or not enough of something, and often at the same time.
I understand why some feminists weren’t supportive of Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2008. I was for Obama in 2008. I felt he was more progressive and I thought ultimately would be better on progressive issues. Until I saw Carl Bernstein talking about Hillary on CNN, expressing his disdain that she had kept working so diligently on issues during the impeachment crisis and Lewinsky affair. The nerve of her to keep focused on policy and not crumble! I decided to support her because it felt important to me to manifest my beliefs by doing so. To stand in solidarity with her was to stand in solidarity against a lifetime of sexist hate. And on some very visceral level I believe that having a woman as president means that respect for women increases and the days of calling out “Iron my shirts!” at a rally—as many men did during Hillary’s campaign—would be seen as reprehensible as calling racial epithets and not dismissed, as it was among the media, as “a minor disturbance,” with footage of the men holding shirts and signs. Would we have shown signs at an Obama rally if they had read “Plow my field”? Maybe, but blatant displays of racist images are rightly considered reprehensible and not “good TV”; why are they so much more anathema to us than blatant displays of sexism?
Having a strong candidate like Hillary gives us the opportunity to elect a woman, which is a good thing. But not at any cost. I think any electoral choice is an algorithm—and women in office counts for a great deal—but not if those women are going to do harm to a progressive agenda, because all aspects of a progressive agenda benefit women. The 2016 election seems of particular significance to the progress of women; after Hillary Clinton’s narrow primary defeat in 2008, it’s important to continue the momentum of the idea of a woman as president, and not, to borrow a line from Joni Mitchell, as just a dream some of us had.
I would like to think that men would want for all women what they want for their daughters. But maybe a lot of men are sexist enough to not truly support the notion of their daughter as president, even though they want the world for their daughters, and for many men having a daughter encourages them to become less sexist. But I was someone’s daughter before you had a daughter, and more importantly, I am a person, and I matter. And women matter. And, memo to the man I live with: we are that angry, baby. So very many of us are. But more importantly, we are fired up, and ready to go.