We Will Survive
Rumors of the death of feminism are greatly exaggerated.
At first, the headline in Sunday's Washington Post really cooked my chili: "After a Heartbreaker, Can Feminism Rally?'' (From the narrow defeat of a woman who in her determination not to "run like a girl"' actually bragged about obliterating Iran—and her opponent? Yes, it can!) In fact, I'd argue that a Jebbie-like "Hank Clinton" of equivalent political skill—even with connections, a fortune, the presumption he'd prevail, and proven willingness to play rough—would not have come nearly as close as Hillary did to clinching the nomination. Because it was gender grievance that her staunchest fans most identified with—to the point that while Obama became the receptacle for our hopes—glass-half-empty Hillary was eventually pinned under the weight of our disappointments. All of the trash talk by pundits and those nitwits hollering "Iron my shirts!'' inadvertently helped her, but they could take her only so far. Her sense of "female crucifixion'' won her a fervent following, but by definition, martyrs never win. (Not here on earth, anyway.) Ultimately, it's hard to make the case that you are the more electable candidate when the animating credo of your entire campaign is that walking around with breasts and a uterus is, as Gloria Steinem wrote, "probably the most restricting force in American life.''
Though feminism was supposed to expand our menu of approved options, throughout this primary season we were told there was only one correct answer for right-thinking women. Only, that's not how it worked out, is it? Although the media that supposedly hate Hillary presented her as the natural standard-bearer for women in general, she had only a nine-point advantage with female voters across all states with exit polls, as the "Can Feminism Rally?"story by Linda Hirshman pointed out. (Though it's not quite apples to apples, both Al Gore and Bill Clinton were more heavily favored by women than Hillary Clinton was.)
The question going forward is not so much what Hillary will do as what Edith of Silver Spring, Md., will do without her. ("I would die and slit my wrist before I'd vote for Obama,'' she told the Post. Edith, if you are out there, I urge you not to let it come to that. McCain is just not that bad.)
Yes, some of Hillary's strongest supporters once swore they'd never vote for her, either. Yes, pollsters will tell you that more than 90 percent of primary voters will end up going with their party's nominee in the fall and, oh yes, the party will try to downplay the threat of defections. In time, it may occur to Edith that it wasn't Obama who heckled Hillary or called out for medium starch. He wasn't even the candidate who laughed and said, "Excellent question'' when a supporter asked, "How do we beat the bitch?'' But then, if voters decided strictly on the issues, Gore and Kerry would have won their races easily. After the '04 election, I was shocked by the number of women who told me they agreed more with Kerry but related more to Bush and voted for him on that basis—in spite of the war rather than because of it. And if they could relate to the towel-snapper, I take very seriously the possibility that they might sit this one out for Hillary's sake, or even go for McCain, for the sheer satisfaction of beating the guy who beat their girl.
Perhaps that's because I can't remember the last time I myself perused the presidential nominees and thought, oh, now here are two fine people—two people who love America, as Bill Clinton once said (only he meant McCain and Hillary)—and just have different notions about how to proceed in her best interest. In fact, on a personal level, I like a lot of the same things about McCain and Obama, dissimilar as they are in age, background, and temperament: First, no matter who says otherwise, neither of them is George W., trying to one-up or prove something to his daddy. Neither of them is Hillary, either, trying to one-up or prove something to what's-his-name. So far, I'm daring to hope that neither would govern in response to any family psychodrama whatsoever—and how refreshing would that be? So that if, God forbid, we did go into Iran, I might not support it but would not have to wonder for whose benefit we were really suiting up.
Both Obama and McCain not only made youthful mistakes but are still capable of recognizing and admitting to their imperfections, which looks like the beginning of wisdom from where I'm sitting. Both at least appear to be members of the reality-based community, too, and each sometimes seems to say what's actually on his mind. (The other day, for example, McCain scoffed that only a fool or a fraud would romanticize war. You mean like this?) Sure, all things being equal, I would rather have voted for a woman. But all things never are equal, are they? Right now, I have to say I'm pretty happy with the choices we have. And feminism won't have to "rally,'' because this campaign did nothing to undermine our ability to ignore repeated instructions to do as we're told.
Melinda Henneberger is a Slate contributor and the author of If They Only Listened to Us: What Women Voters Want Politicians To Hear.