No constituency is more eager to see a woman win the presidency than America’s feminists, yet — despite Hillary Rodham Clinton’s historic candidacy — the women’s movement finds itself wrenchingly divided over the Democratic race as it heads toward the finish.
At breakfast forums, in op-ed columns, across the blogosphere, the debate has been heartfelt and sometimes bitter. Are the activist women supporting front-runner Barack Obama betraying their gender? Are Clinton’s feminist backers mired in an outdated, women’s-liberation mind-set?
Ellen Bravo is a Milwaukee author and activist who advocates on behalf of working women — and is an Obama supporter. She faults Clinton for her 2002 vote authorizing the Iraq war and believes the Illinois senator would be more supportive of grass-roots political action.
At times, Bravo, 64, has been dismayed by the harsh criticism directed at women like herself from pro-Clinton feminists.
“I felt it was an ultimatum — vote for Hillary Clinton or you’re betraying the women’s movement,” Bravo said. “It’s very self-defeating and alienating, particularly to younger women who, regardless of who they support, don’t like to be told, ‘Do this. Do that.'”
Clinton supporter Gloria Feldt, former president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, accepts that the women’s movement is not single-minded, yet worries that the Obama-Clinton rift is eroding whatever clout it might have.
“We’re squandering an opportunity to be seen as a voting bloc that turns elections,” Feldt said. “Unless we are working together, in a strategically thought-out effort to vote in our own best interests, we are in danger of never having another election where people will say women can determine the outcome.”
Overall, Clinton’s now-endangered campaign has survived largely because of her 60 percent to 36 percent edge over Obama among white women voters in the primaries to date. But among college-educated white women — the demographic of many feminists and of Clinton herself — her edge is much smaller, 54 percent to 43 percent, according to exit polls conducted for The Associated Press and television networks.
One factor in play is generational. There is a widespread perception in the women’s movement that younger feminists tilt more toward Obama while most of their elders favor Clinton.
Indeed, 74-year-old Gloria Steinem, a Clinton supporter and icon of the women’s movement, riled some younger, pro-Obama feminists with a New York Times op-ed suggesting that they were in denial about America’s persisting “sexual caste system.”
Ariel Garfinkel, a sophomore at Mount Holyoke College, wrote one of the many counter-arguments in an online column. She and many other young feminists supported Obama because they perceived the Clinton campaign as trying to capitalize on racial divisions and to impugn Obama’s patriotism.
“This pattern of old-style politics and adherence to un-feminist values is part and parcel of the campaign Hillary Clinton has run,” Garfinkel wrote. “In this race, Barack Obama is the true feminist.”
New York-based author Courtney Martin, also an Obama supporter, wrote on Glamour magazine’s blog Glamocracy last month that she was not backing Clinton “in part because she reminds me of being scolded by my mother.”
But the 28-year-old Martin has joined in appeals for activist women in the two camps to tone down their hostilities and prepare to work together on behalf of the eventual Democratic nominee.
“I deeply respect what Clinton has endured as a woman painstakingly unknotting gender and power,” Martin wrote for The American Prospect.
Another young New York-based feminist writer, Hannah Seligson, backs Clinton and feels somewhat isolated among her mostly pro-Obama peers.
“I shy away from conversations with them,” said Seligson, 25. “They’re so passionate and there’s so much vitriol toward Hillary.”
For all the divisions among individual women, there was little dissension at the best-known feminist group — the National Organization for Women — before its political action committee endorsed Clinton in March 2007.
NOW’s president, Kim Gandy, sees Clinton’s determination and combativeness as among her strongest attributes.
“The women who’ve had to struggle the hardest and run into the most difficulty because they’re women are clearly gravitating to a candidate they identify with,” Gandy said. “They see her fighting.”
Gandy knows some feminists dismiss Clinton as a woman whose political ascension depended on her husband’s career, but she rejects that thinking.
“She might have been president instead of him if things had gone a little differently,” Gandy said. “No one will ever know whether her marriage to Bill Clinton held her back politically as much as it moved her forward.”
While still holding out hope that Clinton can win, Gandy suggests that her defeat would be a huge blow to some feminists. “It’s hard to imagine that anytime soon there will be another candidate as extraordinary as Hillary Clinton,” she said.
Gloria Feldt conveyed similar sentiment.
“I’d feel very sad to miss this enormous opportunity to bring the United States of America into the circle of nations that have had women as their leaders,” she said. “I feel strongly when you have the opportunity to support a women so clearly qualified and capable, do it. Do it for your daughter.”
The campaign has brought the women’s movement to a crossroads, according to Obama supporter Kate Michelman, the former head of the abortion-rights group NARAL Pro-Choice America.
“We’re at a time and place where we don’t have to base everything we think about in terms of gender, and that’s a sign of progress,” she said. “This rigid view that when any woman runs, we have to all fall into line — that’s contradictory to what I consider feminism to be about.”