For anyone who has ever felt--because of race, gender, sexual orientation, or class--like an "other," last night was a triumphant night. But as I watched the jubilant crowds in Grant Park, the impromptu celebrations in front of the White House, and the tearful embraces in churches and bars across America, I couldn't help but feel a little sad that this political season has been so disappointing for women.
While Barack Obama succeeded in running a post-racial campaign, neither of the two women candidates succeeded in running a post-gender one. Hillary Clinton came closest, running on hard-earned competence in the early months of the primaries, but both using and succumbing to identity politics once her organization was tested. Sarah Palin, who was clearly out of her depth and shamelessly allowed herself to be used as a token, may have singlehandedly reversed Clinton's feminist gains.
To be fair, especially to Clinton to whom much of Obama's victory is owed (by virtue of airing potential scandals early and forcing him to compete in all 50 states), the polarizing stereotypes that plague women--ballbuster, ditz, diva, bitch--are stunningly hard to avoid. That's not say that they are harder to avoid than the stereotypes that black politicians face (it's time to bury the hatchet in that particular identity politics contest); just that we haven't yet found the woman politician who has the combination of competence and quiet self-confidence to do for gender what Obama has done for race.
While we wait, we can take heart in the many ways in which an Obama administration will likely help women--from stopping the pro-life progression of the Supreme Court to reforming a health care system in which, as the NY Times recently reported, women are routinely charged higher premiums than men (despite the fact that they make 77 cents for every dollar earned by a man). Obama, it's also worth noting, was raised and shaped largely by women--namely, his unconventional, highflying mother (I highly recommend David Maraniss's excellent profile of her) and his resolute, grounded grandmother, who up until her death the day before this election seemed to serve as the candidate's emotional bedrock. Despite his memoir's focus on his absent father, it's really women who made Obama who he is today.
But after this political season of big dreams and soaring possibilities for women, to be left with the old adage that the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world doesn't quite feel like enough. The sense of sadness I feel over women's fortunes doesn't temper my enthusiasm for Obama, whom I've long supported on his merits. But it does make me hope that the women's movement can reinvent itself--balancing acknowledgment of the very real sexism that exists with standards and support systems that encourage women's achievement and confidence as people and not just their victimhood. And just as various generations of the civil rights movement have learned to find common cause despite their different conceptions of progress (i.e. Jesse Jackson, Sr. vs. Jesse Jackson, Jr.), the various waves of feminism need to stop sniping at each other and do the same. Obama has given a valuable blueprint for "others" of every stripe: You need to acknowledge what makes you different, but then run on the person you are. Only then, I think, will the hand that rocks the cradle also rock the vote--and rule the world.
Also, be sure to check out why Britt Peterson thinks women have actually taken a few steps forward this year.