Obama feminist controversy raises more questions
Sunny Hundal // 19 January 2009
Zohra earlier highlighted the Ms Magazine cover featuring Obama on the front. In the CNN debate below, you can see how the ruptures that are playing out, once again, as a result of consequence of the election.
I think there’s two issues here that need to be separated, as Naomi Wolf does quite well in the discussion.
The first is symbolism versus actuality. Is Obama not a feminist because he hasn’t elected enough women to his cabinet? Possibly. But I think playing the numbers / representation game is a tricky road to take because there’s no indication that its more likely to mean a woman President or PM; Obama was the only black Senator before he managed to break the glass ceiling. As Ms Wolf also points out, GW Bush was great at playing up feminist symbolism to cover up his own agenda.
What matters is what Obama will do once he becomes President, before we can judge whether he remains true to his earlier (largely) feminist voting record. To that extent too, electing women may matter less in actual impact on women when compared to issues like raising the minimum wage; raising benefits and alleviating poverty – which all disproportionately affect women. I think there is a real danger, as has already happened with the race debate, that symbols end up mattering more than actual legislation and the impact it has on women, even if it isn’t directly targeting women.
Naomi Wolf wants a post-label era, which will no doubt prove controversial with a lot of people.
The second point is that US feminists will have to keep up the pressure on Obama to ensure he follows through with his promises. That not only requires building coalitions with other groups such as trade unions, and progressive groups, but also continually highlighting legislation that could negatively impact women – whether directly related issues such as abortion rights, or anti-poverty campaigns. It’s a tall order, but then US feminist groups are quite well funded.
I think the same issues apply here. My impression, and criticism I guess, of activist feminist organisations here is two-fold: first that not enough attention is paid to Westminister and tracking legislation on issues that indirectly affect women. And second that my impression is still that we’re not engaging other groups outside the traditional ‘feminisphere’ when these issues come up. Unfortunately, I have a habit of saying this a lot. Am I wrong to have those impressions? Be happy to hear other thoughts.