For Feminists, The Time is Now
Obama has reversed some of Bush's most egregious policies concerning women. We can't let him stop there
It's been a good couple of weeks for American feminists. Newly-minted president Barack Obama overturned the deadly global gag rule, potentially saving the lives and preserving the health of tens of thousands of women around the world; he promised to restore funding to the UN Population Fund, a move that could prevent an estimated 800,000 abortions, 4,700 maternal deaths and 77,000 infant and child deaths every year; and he signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which allows employees a reasonable amount of time to sue for pay discrimination.
But don't start unlacing your combat boots yet, ladies.
After eight years of George Bush - eight years of curtailed reproductive rights, a war on birth control, right-wing supreme court nominations, "feminism" as an excuse for warfare and ideology over science - feminists and liberals are used to being on the defensive. We're seasoned pros when it comes to frustration and disappointment, and even better at channelling those feelings into collective hell-raising. We know how to battle anti-choice ideologues, fight bad judicial nominations and organise in our own communities to provide resources where the government fails. When something positive seems to be on the horizon, we know how to hold our breath and wait for the other shoe to drop.
We aren't quite as sure what to do when those shoes are being hurled.
Mainstream progressives aren't doing much better. Apparently paralysed by having real power for the first time in a decade, the usual talking heads and Beltway insiders have turned to bloviating a lot about "building political capital" - as in, "Obama shouldn't focus on "don't ask, don't tell" / Medicaid coverage of birth control / any other progressive programme with widespread support until he builds political capital." Which would be fine if he didn't already have political capital up to his ears and the programmes that should supposedly wait are, even in much-maligned "middle America", relatively uncontroversial (81% of US citizens believe that openly gay people should be allowed to serve in the military, and 98% of American women will use contraception at some point in their lives).
Conservatives have been so thoroughly successful in convincing us that they speak for "the real America" that we actually take them at their word when what they say that "real America" concerns itself primarily with loving guns and God and hating women and gays. The progressive solution, so far, has been to just tell the supposedly hated groups (plus poor people, immigrants and people of colour) to keep quiet and wait their turn. The political capital to help marginalised groups is coming someday, right?
If feminists can get out one message in the coming months, it should be that the time is now. Obama has some of the highest initial approval ratings ever. His executive orders have been met with overwhelming approval. But his efforts at bending to Republican pressure on social issues - taking Medicaid coverage of birth control out of the stimulus package in order to foster bipartisanship, for example - have been largely ineffective.
As much as I would love Obama to brush off the "political capital" mentality and just do the right thing - and I do believe that he's pro-feminist at heart - he is nothing if not pragmatic, and at the end of the day, he's still a politician. So progressive groups, and feminist groups in particular, need to step it up and make sure Obama knows he has broad support for a liberal agenda. And we need to push him to actually pursue it - which requires raising our voices about the issues we want on the table and not using "political capital" as short-hand for "wait your turn".
We also need Obama to prove that his feminism goes beyond executive orders and bill-signings. You don't need two X chromosomes to be a feminist, but it is (and should be) a woman-centred movement. The proof of Obama's feminism isn't just in his legislative agenda - although it's certainly there too - but in his commitment to listening to and sharing power with women.
To that end, Obama has been better than past presidents, and we can give credit where credit is due - like in his incredible choices for his foreign policy and national security teams, and his appointments of talented feminist-minded women like Hilda Solis and Ellen Moran. But Obama and his people also need to turn an ear to women on the ground. His Middle East "listening tour" would be a good place to start, especially since Muslim women are oft discussed by rarely listened to.
Not even the most devoted Obama fans expect him to be a feminist-in-chief. But we do expect that he'll represent the interests of those who elected him - and 56% of women voted for Obama.
The ball is in our court, and women were instrumental in raising the huge amount of political capital Obama holds. So let's not play defence or wait for him to disappoint us. Let's celebrate what he does right, urge him to do better and not give him a pass on the inevitable screw-ups.
Contrary to what the Ms Magazine cover may imply, Barack Obama isn't Feminist Superman. But with enough of a push from the feminists who do good progressive work every day, he may not make too terrible of a sidekick.
© 2009 Guardian News and Media Limited