Obama feminist controversy raises more questions

// 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.

Comments From You

Laura Woodhouse // Posted 19 January 2009 at 12:04 pm

I agree, Sunny. Feminist groups can’t just work with other self defined feminist organisations – there are plenty of organisations out there who don’t define as feminist but do important work which impacts positively upon women’s lives.

zohra // Posted 19 January 2009 at 12:42 pm

Hi Sunny

Great first post.

I would like to challenge your idea that appointments to Obama’s cabinet are about ‘symbolism’ and not ‘actuality’ (which I would phrase as ‘substance’).

More women in power positions is not just symbolic: it means more women have control over major decisions, get to set priorities for society, determine how resources are allocated, help set the terms of debate. There’s nothing symbolic about that. If there were, then we wouldn’t have the dirty contests over the slots in the first place.

Where I agree with you is your idea that this is not a sufficient test of Obama’s feminist credentials.

Re Bush also appointing women: just because a woman is in power doesn’t mean she’ll make feminist decisions. One of the core dilemma’s I face when advocating increased representation for women in, for e.g., Parliament in the UK.

On your second point, can you name which ‘activist feminist organisations’ you are referring to in your critique?

polly styrene // Posted 19 January 2009 at 3:10 pm

Can I suggest people take a look at the material on reclusive leftist


on, for example, Rick Warren – the misgoynist, homophobic preacher Obama has chosen to speak at his nomination – and a load of other stuff. Incidentally this website is the origin of the New Agenda, which Woolf implied is some kind of right wing faux feminist plot.

Whether Obama passes feminist policies is one thing. However is it possible to ignore the misogynists he’s chosen to associate himself with such as Warren? There would be plenty of complaints if McCain had won and had a racist preacher giving the address at his inauguration.

Sunny // Posted 19 January 2009 at 5:03 pm

Laura – agreed.

zohra, thanks and I don’t deny that having more women in power can lead to more feminist friendly policies. I also think that unless the percentages are roughly in proportion then we can still say there is some inequality holding women back.

But there’s a problem here. Bush recruited people ideologically and surrounded himself with loyalists who helped perpetuate the rot he was in by the end of his establishment. Now if Obama is choosing people to the cabinet based on their relative merits (apart from his close friends, who are mostly black women) then its difficult to argue for more women to be elected merely because of their gender. That could bring down the Obama presidency if things go badly.

This isn’t an excuse, but to say that the system (and the intense scrutiny it places people under) makes change a very slow process.

On my latter point, I don’t want to name names… I think that might be unfair. I would rather ask for people’s opinions.

Hi Polly,

there have been tons of complaints and anger at Rick Warren being selected. I can see where its coming from.

My view is this. Obama needs to bring conservatives on board if he is going to push his (economically and socially) radical agenda. This much is undeniable since large parts of rural US remain very conservative places that instinctively find him suspicious. If the net effect of bringing over Rick Warren is that he passes legislation that helps women, would you still object?

Besides, what’s also instructive about the Rick Warren move has been how Mr Warren himself has tempered many of his previously homophobic stances. In that sense Obama is actually helping move the consensus to a more tolerant position. Isn’t that also to be celebrated?

Lorelei // Posted 19 January 2009 at 5:55 pm

I’d rather have a cabinet that was all male but held feminist views and promoted a non-gendered society, than one that was all female and anti-feminist (Sarah Palin, anyone?), since the former will eventually lead to a cabinet which is made up of the best people for the job, regardless of gender (or race/class/whatever), while the latter will only benefit those individual women.

Surely it’s falling back into the gender trap to assume that women will always be more helpful to other women than men? We should be looking to educate everyone in the principles of feminism, and supporting those who forward the rights and interests of women, intersex, and non-“macho” men, regardless of their sex. We can only judge people by their actions, so I will consider Obama (and Biden as well, for his Violence Against Women Act) a feminist until he proves otherwise.

JENNIFER DREW // Posted 19 January 2009 at 7:23 pm

I agree with Polly can we and should we ignore the misogynists Obama has decided to have on his ‘team.’ Is it acceptable that such men as Larry Summers famous for claiming women are apparently innately inferior intellectually to men. Not forgetting Rick Warren a blatant misogynist who believes wives should submit to their superior husbands and who also condones and excuses intimate male terrorism. Oh, but Warren and co. just might change their minds -yes and the moon is made of green cheese.

Warren has tempered his views – ah so this means that if a blatant racis is appointed to Obama’s team it is okay because Obama will rein in said racist’s views. No, that excuse will not wash – a misogynist is a misogynist and having Summers and Warren in Obama’s team sends a clear message to all women. Namely, women’s rights and women’s issues are irrelevant because it is once again all about the men.

Do not forget the virulent misogyny lauded at Hilary Clinton by Obama’s supporters. Were they reined in? No of course not and neither did Obama speak out against misogyny. So I see little to claim Obama is feminist unless one believes that feminism is all about men and women are irrelevant.

Jess // Posted 19 January 2009 at 8:21 pm

I agree (obviously) that getting Rick Warren to speak at the inauguration was fucked up (although, quite possibly as Sunny says, a strategic move – it’s disappointing, but not surprising – I mean, who gets to be president without making serious political and moral compromises? Obama has already totally done a uturn on support of same-sex marriage before getting into office.).

But Warren’s speaking at the inauruguration, he’s not in government, Jennifer.

Frankly, I think the biggest problem is that Obama’s pretty small-c conservative, really. That is most likely going to lead to some disappointing decisions.

polly styrene // Posted 20 January 2009 at 1:05 pm

Re Obama and gay marriage. He has as I understand it always been personally opposed to gay marriage because he believes that marriage should be ‘between a man and a woman’. He hid behind the constitution to oppose proposition 8, in that he said he was opposed to tampering with the constitution.

He has a long record of associating with homphobes (Donnie McClurkin). Personally I think this is politically expedient fence sitting rather than anything else – not wanting to alienate homophobic voters.

But Rick Warren is NOT a politician. (and AFAIK hasn’t tempered his misogyny at all, he thinks women should stay with violent husbands because that’s what the bible says. Why does he (or McClurkin) need to be brought on side at all? There can hardly have been a shortage of suitable people to deliver the address at the inauguration, surely?

It’s not like Obama is negotiating with right wing opponents in government to push key legislation through. Which would be understandable. And why appoint a misogynist like Summers?Who for anyone who doesn’t know believes women are naturally intellectually inferior to men.

Overall the legislative programme that Obama proposes may well be more beneficial to woman than that of McCain. However to call him a feminist when he associates himself with so many misogynists, is as insulting as it would be to call McCain anti racist if he’d had a notorious racist speaking at his inauguration.

Jess // Posted 20 January 2009 at 3:36 pm

In 1996 Obama supported same-sex marriage – Pam Spaulding wrote about it here.

Politicalguineapig // Posted 20 January 2009 at 6:44 pm

Polly, I’ve been to Reclusive Leftist. If feminism now includes racist ideas, slut-shaming, the suggestion that we can do without contraception and abortion, and believing that the younger generation of feminists is collectively dumber than a box of rocks, I frankly want no part of it. And I think Obama will have his feet held to the fire by U.S. feminists.

Sunny // Posted 21 January 2009 at 5:02 am

“Warren has tempered his views – ah so this means that if a blatant racis is appointed to Obama’s team it is okay because Obama will rein in said racist’s views.”

Well – Prince Harry recently used racist language while making personal videos – but its hardly helpful if I run around asking that the Royal family disown him.

To me, there are contexts to battles and certain battles are worth fighting for (even if you could lose) and others are not worth the effort because they do more harm than good in the long term.

It applies to Harry and it applies to Rick Warren. Warren isn’t directing government policy and if Obama wins over conservatives to help drive more change that helps women – then I’m all for it. Call it unprincipled pragmatism if you will (or worse) but I would like to see policies that help women. I think the disgust at Rick Warren’s choice has been made clear. Its time to move on…

Kez // Posted 21 January 2009 at 12:02 pm

I agree with Sunny. Obama has an incredibly difficult job to do, and in order to do it effectively he is going to have to build alliances with all sorts of people, not all of whom one would (in an ideal world) necessarily want to be dealing with. People have huge expectations of him and I believe he will rise to the challenge – I think he’s a remarkable individual, and absolutely the right person for the job – but he is not (as his inauguration speech made clear) able to usher in a brave new world overnight.

Pragmatism all the way.

v // Posted 21 January 2009 at 12:51 pm

sunny that might be a relevant analogy if harry was in a position of any real influence and made any effort to use it. is harry in a comparable position to rick warren? i dont think so.

besides which, i doubt many feminists who are appalled by the Warren thing would defend Harry. you cant use an analogy like that unless the person you’re arguing with supports what you’re moaning about, and i doubt very much that polly is a fan of the royals, or of any government member that tries to excuse harrys behaviour.

but really, on one hand theres some idiot royal making a dumb home video with some clearly racist language. and on the other there’s the so-called most powerful man in the world chumming up with and promoting misogynist homophobes.

its just a total non argument – harry was bad so we should not notice what obama is doing? huh?

Gregory Carlin // Posted 28 January 2009 at 10:25 am

He is President of the United States, which is a federal republic, he wants a second term,

I wouldn’t hold great hopes for CEDAW ratification, I would doubt that would happen as a matter of course.

Ms Magazine’s idea of President Obama saving people from global warming, war, torture, all the horrible things that have been happening with the Bush administration

Well, he has a recession, foreign wars, the military will tell him the exact same thing they told Bush.

“and others are not worth the effort because they do more harm than good in the long term.”

Sunny is right, he gets re-elected by keeping the voters he has, if he can’t do that, then he loses and quite frankly,there are people to be a one-term slot.

That is not a criticism of his ability, it is remark upon the political environment,

it is easy to make mistakes these days, and if a problem is something one can do something about, it could be the recession and war are not problems and simply the decor.

Polly styrene // Posted 10 February 2009 at 6:52 pm

Whatever Obama did in 1996 (12 years ago?) he opposes gay marriage now.


Polly styrene // Posted 10 February 2009 at 7:22 pm

Sunny Hundal your comparison between Prince Harry (who got his position by birth) and Rick Warren is completely irrrelevant.

FWIW anyway, I’m a republican and don’t think there should be a Prince Harry at all. And I haven’t defended his racism, and neither did most of the media. And he apologised. His employers (the Army) have made it clear that he will need to attend training in appropriate workplace behaviour. So action was taken about his racism. Some may not think it was enough, but action was taken. He wasn’t given a prestigious position as a reward.

Rick Warren is a right wing, misogynist, homophobe. There must be thousands, or even millions of people who Obama could have had speaking at his inauguration. How far is Obama meant to go to appease right wing, misogynist homophobes exactly?

Rick Warren is not a politician. He’s a preacher on TV. So why does Obama have to make links with him at all ? He’s not in the legislature. Obama does not need his help to pass legislation at all.

There’s no logical, or pragmatic, reason for Obama to have picked him as a speaker. And as Obama himself is a Christian, wouldn’t it have been a good idea to have a speaker from another faith if he wanted to build alliances?

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