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Ellen Bravo

Ellen Bravo

Posted: February 1, 2008 12:55 PM

Why So Many Feminists Are Deciding to Vote for Barack Obama


Something's happening in these elections that feels like a tipping point.

From a national women's media training to my local women's book club, from exchanges among long-time feminist activists to conversations with my feminist son, I hear a buzz about why so many feminists are deciding to vote for Barack Obama. Count me among them.

Almost without exception, we'd love to see a woman president. Anyone who thinks gender doesn't matter hasn't seen Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin or Wisconsin Lieutenant Governor Barbara Lawton before a room full of women hungry for solutions to low pay, unfair treatment and lack of time to pee, much less care for loved ones. To paraphrase Eleanor Holmes Norton, we're well aware that the under-representation of women in political positions has nothing to do with talent or merit. A woman in the highest job would inspire many more women to push against the barriers. And we're outraged at the sexist treatment of Hillary throughout the media.

But we know the Big Boys have also excluded people of color of both genders from the halls of power, and constructed a massive set of racial roadblocks and indignities. We won't allow ourselves to be pigeon-holed into choosing which matters more, sexism or racism. Both hurt women. Both profit the Big Boys and allow them to maintain the status quo. Justice matters.

In Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, voters have a choice between two smart, capable and energetic candidates, either of whom would be far preferable to the current occupier of the White House who has made our nation an occupier in Iraq. Both stand for many of the changes we want to see, including fair pay, living wages, workers' right to organize, and new standards like paid sick days and family leave insurance, so family values don't end at the workplace door.

So what's tipped so many feminists to Obama? For some, it was when the Clintons began treating him as women are treated -- patronizing him as merely a "good speaker," trivializing his accomplishments, minimizing the importance of his early judgment and risk-taking in opposing the war in Iraq, and using surrogates to demonize his morality.

For me and many others, the key attraction is Obama's vision that people need to be eager, desirous for and participants in the change we want to see (the very strength the Clintons either don't get or deliberately misstate). Barack Obama doesn't just make people feel hopeful about the possibility of change -- he inspires them to become part of that change, makes them feel it's the only way we'll get there. And in doing so, he's motivating the base, reaching independent and swing voters, and perhaps most important, inspiring young people and many undecided-whether-or-not-to-vote voters -- people most affected by injustice who often feel their votes, and their lives, don't matter in elections where money has so much sway.

This public mobilization is precisely what Hillary failed to do with health care reform in 1992. She owns that failure but not the reason for it.

As long as money determines elections, we won't have the perfect candidate. Many of us wish the two leading candidates took stronger stands, like Edwards and Kucinich have, against the role of lobbyists and corporate greed and the continuation of poverty. As activists, we know that whoever wins will be subject to huge pressure from the Big Boys and will go only so far as organized movements of people demand that they go. It may take a president to push through a law, but it takes a movement to say, "Ignore us at your peril."

I believe Barack Obama has the best chance of helping to galvanize that movement and to stay connected with it.

Ellen Bravo is a long-time feminist activist and author who teaches women's studies at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Her most recent book is Taking on the Big Boys, or Why Feminism is Good for Families, Business and the Nation.