Which Womanhood?

I wish I felt what Robin Morgan feels. "Our President Ourselves!" she cheers, in a rousing pitch for Hillary Clinton. "We need to rise in furious energy - as we did when courageous Anita Hill was so vilely treated in the US Senate, as we did when desperate Rosie Jimenez was butchered by an illegal abortion, as we did and do for women globally who are condemned for trying to break through."

Morgan asks, "Why should all women not be as justly proud of our womanhood and the centuries, even millennia of struggle that got us this far, as black Americans women and men are justly proud of their struggles?"

I wish I felt her poet's passion for Clinton as a player in the global women's movement, but I don't. Indeed, I'm reminded that there are parts to be proud of in this movement of ours, and less attractive parts, of which Hillary Clinton, I'm sad to say, constantly reminds me.

Morgan recalls how Clinton defied the US State Department and the Chinese Government to speak at the 1995 UN World Conference on Women. I saw Hillary Clinton speak that rainy day in China and her defiance was something of which to be rightly proud. But even as Clinton called for the recognition of women's rights as human rights, the rigged-for-profit trade policies that she supported then and continues to endorse were encouraging a global sweatshop economy that has all but eradicated the right to unionize in most of the world -- a working woman's best protector. (It took her six years to get off the board of the anti-union giant Wal-Mart.)

"For too long the history of women has been a history of silence," Clinton told the World Conference then. But almost exactly a year later, she supported her husband's signing of the so-called Personal Responsibility Act, which successfully shifted responsibility for poverty in an affluent society off that society and onto the backs of poor mothers. Those moms barely got to say a word, while DC pols slandered and steamrollered them.

Clinton writes in her autobiography "Living History" that she would have opposed her husband over welfare reform if she thought it would hurt young children. (One wonders what she thinks happens to kids in poor working and over-working families.) On the campaign trail, she recalls her dedication to Marian Wright Edelman's Children's Defense Fund. But I can't forget Peter Edelman's resignation from the Department of Health and Human Services in protest. In 1996, welfare "reform" cut almost 800,000 legal immigrants off aid entirely and even denied them food stamps, but no one denies that it helped get Bill Clinton re-elected. "Welfare reform became a success for Bill" writes Hillary in "Living History." It was all about politics, not poor people, said Edelman.

And that's the saddening, shaming part of Clinton's record - and the part that reminds me just how often white middle class women have advanced our own fortunes at the expense of other women.

There is a heterogeneous, global, diverse women's movement that has indeed raised women out of servitude and fought - and fought again - for reproductive, economic and social/sexual self-determination as a human right.

But there is also a history of some "womanhood" advancing apart, when the "we" of womanhood became too burdensome. In 1976, when the Hyde Amendment banned most public funding for poor women's abortions, too few of us rose up - but some of us rose in society thanks to obtaining abortions anyway. Today Senator Clinton calls abortion "tragic" and looks for "common ground" with choice's enemies. Later, when every-woman's ERA failed, most of today's politicians moved on. And then, as the "war on drugs" advanced, most female lawyers (including Clinton) carried on rising up, even as thousands of disproportionately poor and drug-addicted women were sent down. Women - as a whole - didn't do much at all, when, in the name of "defending marriage," our government (under President Clinton) banned some women's marriages.

I'd like to believe a female president would be good for the advancement of "womanhood" worldwide. But so far Senator Clinton's votes have not been good for Iraqi, or Palestinian, or a whole lot of global womanhood. One million dead in Iraq alone. (US forces killed another nine civilians including a child today.) At what cost does one woman prove she's ready for the White House?

The fact is, I'm ready for leadership that means "we" now, not sometime when the wars on "terror" or "drugs" or the "vast right-wing conspiracy" are over. (Or when there's a budget surplus, or a woman in the White House, or maybe after she's won re-election.) And so me and my womanhood are rooting for a movement that might someday build for structural change -- and that kind of leadership. Today, with fingers crossed, I'm voting for Barack and Michelle Obama. At least we can call their community organizers' bluff. Or we can go down -- or rise up -- trying.

Laura Flanders is the host of RadioNation and the author of Blue Grit: True Democrats Take Back Politics from the Politicians, out now from The Penguin Press.

(c) 2008 The Nation

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