BACKWATER BREAKFAST: Pass (on) the Syrup, Please

Suzanne Pharr March 7th, 2008

By guest writers Pam Keeley, Jackie St. Joan & Kay Whitlock

They say what goes around comes around, but we didn’t think it would come around in quite this way. First, twenty-four years ago Ronald Reagan told us it’s Morning in America, speaking in bland homilies to create a tidy, white image of the nation. Now a group of leading feminists gathers in Manhattan and sends out a letter that it’s Morning in America (The Nation, March 17, 2008) again, and time for a series of kaffeeklatches or power breakfasts all over the country—to sort out the threats that the current election presents for feminists’ friendships and related movements.

We’ve felt the strain, too, but the NYC letter seems to us to be pretty lite. It’s not that we don’t respect these professionals with big institutional affiliations and media recognition. We do; many of them share parts of our own combined 120 years of activist history. We share the Hillary Clinton voter demographic, but we’re all active volunteers in the Barack Obama presidential campaign out West where we live.

So we took up the suggestion of more discussion, but we wanted to start just among ourselves—Obama supporters—before this well-intentioned rush to healing and unity muddled our thinking. We got together for a virtual breakfast, over tortillas, bad coffee, chicken-fried steak, granola, and orange juice reconstituted from concentrate, to figure out why we were so annoyed by the “Letter from Feminists on the Election.” Here’s how we see things:
Although they may be our friends who are doing it, we don’t want our politics confused with the politics of those feminists and others who through the Clinton campaign are doing the race/gender comparing and fueling resentments again. It’s not only the male media who is claiming that Obama is “stealing” the moment that belongs to…well, a particular white woman. And on the pro-Clinton blogosphere, who is comparing gender oppression to racial oppression, and insisting gender oppression is worse? We think that, at its root, the potential for racial resentment and rift is a (continuing) white (feminist) problem. (Jackie: Personally, I witnessed this in Iowa in January, where Hillary Clinton lost, fair and square. The next day at the Des Moines airport I overheard two different Clinton supporters on their cell phones bitterly telling friends back home, “They just can’t take the idea of a woman President.” I wanted to say, “No, sister, you’re wrong. Wake up.”)

None of us imagined that the “historic breakthrough moment for which we have all longed and worked hard” would become one moment, not two. We’re irked by the suggestion that it’s all marred by the false choice between race and gender. Nothing is marred. This is a potentially transformational moment in politics, where people seem to be making choices based on other considerations, as well. Even the old white guys seem to have accepted that we’ve ended up with a black man and a white woman running. Win or lose, these candidates are changing the American political landscape for all women and people of color. A large part of that potential, we believe, can be credited to the leadership and wisdom of Senator Obama, who took the lead in not playing any card.

What happened “to the last four decades of discussion about tokenism and multiple identities and the complex intersections of race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity and class” is that the women’s movement’s main strategy focused on developing big organizations that needed big funding to maintain themselves—all at the expense of continuing to do community organizing. As the movement went professional, professorial, and publishable, internal movement democracy suffered, and organizational agendas, decided in-house, replaced a commitment to mass movement building. Momentum plummeted. Some in our generation benefited personally, but politically we flubbed. But, today—good news!– cross-constituency organizing is alive and well in the Obama ground game and elsewhere, often led by young people of diverse colors and backgrounds.

Our sisters gathered in Manhattan worry “that the feminist movement’s real message is not being heard.” Which feminists? Which “real” message is that? We loved Rebecca Walker’s recent Huffington Post piece addressing this question. We see more creative and irreverent feminist energy out here than we’ve seen in decades. It’s in our sons and daughters who carry their children to Obama and Clinton rallies. What pisses us off is that this emergent energy is not being recognized by the women who helped create it. Now it is embodied in younger activists whose multi-issue organizing is touching people and exploding in different voices, and across generations in wild and astonishing ways. It’s not just about Obama/Clinton as popular music videos – Se Se Puede Cambiar and and Yes We Can – suggest. It’s about us.

Who is asking the candidates to deny their race or gender or to claim “by their very existence that misogyny and racism no longer exist?” The Clinton campaign’s belief that people are asking that of her may be part of why so many people feel she comes across as inauthentic. No one is asking Obama to deny being black. And he wouldn’t do so anyway. He wrote an entire book about that.

We think it’s OK for people to feel these days that many Americans are uniting for the first time around presidential candidates who are not white males. Of course this doesn’t mean that misogyny and racism no longer exist. And it doesn’t mean that we think the two Democratic candidates are equally good, or that there aren’t shortcomings on both sides. But some voters have transcended their own expectations of what is possible for female and black candidates. And some voters have even transcended expectations of themselves. This, even as sometimes both are “popularly and reductively caricatured in perniciously stereotypical ways.” We can rightly complain about the pundits. But what about the campaigns? Isn’t Clinton doing the same when she talks about Obama not being ready to be president? Or when she shouts out “Shame on you!” like she’s talking about a boy, not a man? And is the readiness on “day one” actually sexist code for the fact that she has a husband we can all fall back on in a crisis?
If “many women feel that a vote for Obama ‘cheats’ Clinton of her chance to break the glass ceiling, and many blacks feel that a vote for Clinton is a betrayal of the chance to break the race barrier,” then we urge any campaigns fostering such ideas to denounce and reject them. Loyalty to the issues of gender and racial justice should not be confused with loyalty to a female candidate and/or a candidate of color. Much as anyone might like the personal gratification of having someone who looks like oneself in the White House, we must be political beings first. We didn’t march and organize in the sixties and seventies to be guilt-tripped into voting for a candidate, on the basis of gender or race alone. The women’s movement at its best was never a voting bloc. It was a coalition that shared a belief in the power of women to change the world. There are men who believe this, too, and Senator Obama is one of them.
We do wish that both candidates would speak more directly to the problems women continue to face in this country and especially abroad—the impact of war, illiteracy, globalization, and feudalism on women and children, the ongoing gender violence everywhere, the growing, courageous movement of women to free themselves and their families through peaceful means, such as education, a pre-requisite for a sustainable democracy anywhere. Kavita Nandini Ramdas addresses this in her powerful article in The Nation, “Leveraging the Power of Race and Gender.”

How might we position ourselves so we’re not fighting one another?” By raising these issues, again and again, and insisting that our candidates do the same. Yet we should also recognize that there is no monolithic “feminism.” We will have strong political differences with each other from time to time. We should have more forthcoming and vigorous debates about these differences –disclosing our biases, defining our complaints, challenging claims with facts, analyzing and sharing – not less.

The times are changing, friends. We remember the older women (like ourselves now) who inspired us during the civil rights, farmworker organizing, anti-war, women’s movement days. Those are our role models now—with all our rowdiness, our history, our know-how—along with a good dose of humility and grace, which, frankly we also desperately need or no one will listen to us anyway. We can and will play a part, but, blessedly, it’s not just “our” movement any more. Move over and let younger generations have their day. We had ours.

So, on our morning in America we decided to extend an invitation for coffee on an upcoming August morning in Denver. Our place. August 24, 8:00 a.m. Give us a call. We’ll talk about how to nurture real movement building, not just electoral politics. You bring the blueberries, and next time we’ll skip the raspberries.

Authors’ Note:
Pam Keeley, an artist and nurse in Seattle, was an Obama staff member during the February caucuses in Washington and continues to work for his campaign. Jackie St. Joan, a writer and lawyer in Denver, volunteered for Obama in Iowa, Colorado, Texas and Ohio. Kay Whitlock is a writer and activist who lives in Missoula, Montana.

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