Sunday, June 15, 2008

Among women in Minnesota

I’m in the States at the moment and, for reasons I won’t go into, I’ve found myself tagging along at the Berkshire conference on the history of women, held at the beautiful University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. Most of the conference participants are women, as can be expected, though I don’t see why this should necessarily be the case in the long run—many panels deal with issues that would fascinate historians who don’t primarily focus on women’s history. At any rate, it has been very interesting to learn more about the field.

I’ve gravitated towards panels dealing with Asian women’s histories, but the most exciting talks were in a panel included in the conference at the last minute, entitled “Clinton and Obama: Historians Reflect on Historic Candidacies.” Yes, this blog does deal primarily with China, but I am in the U.S., I am excited about the election, and it is a personal blog after all, on which I can write about whatever I wish! But I promise it will not turn into a blog about American politics.

The auditorium in which the panel was held was overflowing; it was one of the most extraordinary presentations I’ve ever seen. Picture this: a roomful of extremely intelligent, extremely knowledgeable, extremely well regarded feminist American historians. Many have an activist background; their speaking skills are forceful; they have something to fight for. They delve deep into the workings of the primary season that has just come to a close.

Most were furious at Hillary Clinton, though all were excited about how far a woman (and a black man) managed to get in the political process. Here’s a list of some of the points they brought up that I made note of—I just wish I could replicate the energy in the room and the forcefulness of the argumentation.

American media often cast the democratic primary contest as “gender vs. race.” This is a false dichotomy and harmful to the overall progressive cause. In addition, media coverage has revealed much misuse and misunderstanding of terms like “gender”—people say gender when they mean sex. Americans don’t have a sufficient understanding of categories of analysis when it comes to gender conceptualizations.

Jesse Jackson has frequently been invoked in the media and by politicians such as Bill Clinton as a warning—he has been painted as a candidate purely of black grievance. That is false; in reality he had wide support and won several primary contests.

While Hillary Clinton was able to rouse people based on gender (though she didn’t base her campaign on a feminist agenda), Obama has been reluctant to rouse people based on race—he wants to avoid the appearance of an angry black man seeking power, as that would scare people away. He partially succeeded in working through this problem with his remarkable speech on the complexities of race in America. In addition, he largely succeeded in depicting a non-threatening masculinity, though in the process he worked to separate himself from “blackness”—if he were darker or if he were more closely associated with activist black politics he would not be the Democratic candidate for President.

Very few people know of women who have run for President, but there are several—Shirley Chisholm, Margaret Chase Smith, and many, many more. Why have they been so ignored in histories of American politics? Students have said that men have many presidential role models, but women don’t—this should not be the case. There is severe ignorance about the history of female presidential candidates in the latter half of the twentieth century.

While the glass ceiling has been cracked (as Clinton said) or shattered (as Obama said), it will be difficult for future women candidates to gather the same kind of resources that Clinton had at her disposal. However, the barrier has been breached, and a woman President is now more of a normative concept.

Many participants voiced appreciation that John Edwards raised the class question during the primaries. That is often a hidden issue; in this election, there has been a “gender question” or a “race question” but class has often been left out, a common feature of American politics. One participant speculated that Edwards may have asked Obama to work on class before endorsing him.

Hillary performed well as a woman pretending to be a man. The “masculine mystique” has become a very important discourse in American politics, especially since 1964: Reagan and Bush succeeded in deploying it, while Dukakis (riding in the tank) and Kerry (windsurfing) were depicted by their opponents as non-masculine. In the 19th century presidential candidates did often include “domesticity” in their images, such as being good fathers. This is still present to an extent, but has been overridden by “toughness.” Hillary made passing the “masculine test” her top priority with her focus on the military, the red phone ad, etc. But she got left behind when Obama did well in deploying an anti-war message. The next female candidate for President should challenge the masculine mystique itself, and focus instead on a humanist message. (As one participant put it, “George Bush-like men are not helpful for the environment and other living things”—why should we subscribe to that kind of tough masculinity?)

Finally, a participant said that America is a “sick country” and we still have an enormous amount of work to do. I would note, however, that discussions about race, gender, and other social issues in America—discussions such as this panel itself—are remarkable in their depth and their vitality. Coming as I do from working in journalism in China, where the media and intellectuals are, publicly at least, deathly silent on issues such as minority rights, race, and gender—“everyone is happy and everything is fine, just fine”—the vigor of the debate in the U.S. is stunning. We have come so far, and though we have a long way to go, intellectuals like the ones I heard at this panel don’t make the future depressing, they make it exciting.

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