Women should push for substance over symbolism in November.

Women writing about politics, etc.
June 9 2008 3:56 PM

You Can Keep Your Old Brass Ring

Women should push for substance over symbolism in this election.

Read what XX Factor bloggers have written about Hillary's exit.

Hillary Clinton. Click image to expand
Hillary Clinton

Neither my mother nor my grandmother is a Hillary Clinton supporter. Maybe that helps explain why the generational split over Clinton and Obama has puzzled me a little. I take it seriously, for sure—reminders of the divide have hit us all over the head many times during this endless primary season, not least in the lamentations over Hillary's exit Saturday. We have heard over and over again of late that Clinton's defeat is a blow to feminists and to organized feminism. It is supposed to prove that women are at odds with their best interests. But on some level, I still don't get it. (Though I'm all for my colleague Dahlia Lithwick's suggestions for healing the rift.)

Emily Bazelon Emily Bazelon

Emily Bazelon is a Slate senior editor and the Truman Capote Fellow at Yale Law School. She is the author of Sticks and Stones.

Yes, Hillary's defeat was a blow if you define organized feminism as the New York chapter of the National Organization of Women, which spewed in fury against Sen. Ted Kennedy for endorsing Obama. Or as embodied by Gloria Steinem or Robin Morgan or Geraldine Ferraro. But other women's groups, like NARAL, backed Obama. And even NOW was divided this spring, with some state chapters backing him or suggesting that the organization as a whole stay out of the fight.

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You can endlessly parse how women splintered in this primary: white vs. black, old vs. young—no wait, what about the middle-aged? You can see the lesson in all this splintering as "divided we stand, divided we fall." And you can make women's failure to vote for Hillary Clinton by the overwhelming margins that African-Americans voted for Obama look like evidence of our own self-defeating naiveté.

Or you can see it as a difference over tactics in a fight to win the same war—that is, vaulting a Democrat into the White House—because that's the best bet for making headway on the issues all feminists care about.

The feminist agenda isn't just about breaking the glass ceiling.  Feminists also are supposed want to fight to pass actual legislation that could make lots of women's lives better, by providing for paid family leave, for example, or universal preschool, or Social Security parity, or this year's Fair Pay Act. If you're pro-choice, there is fighting to maintain legal access to abortion via the next president's Supreme Court picks. The prospect of a woman in the White House is heady stuff, yes. But in the day-to-day slog of schlepping and groceries and pregnancy tests and worries about subpar day care, wouldn't some of these more mundane gains have a larger impact in the end? Why should women and women's groups care more about the who than about the what?

This is, of course, an old fight. In arguing over the priorities of the feminist movement, women have been waging one version or another of it since at least the 1960s. Linda Hirshman traces one aspect of the battle in the Washington Post and argues that in broadening their focus from the problems that only women face to the problems of disadvantaged groups in general, modern feminists let their electoral magic melt away. Hillary's defeat, then, is evidence that "women have trouble voting their own interests," as a past president of the National Council of Women's Organizations said to Hirshman.