Picking a President: A Feminist's Right to Choose

What happened to supporting your sister's freedom of choice? It turned out it was often only evident when she chose what you chose.
03/03/2008 04:04 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

A few weeks ago, I had lunch with an old friend, a lawyer and a judge who has been a long-time activist in the women's movement. We discussed the exciting Democratic political field and I confessed, somewhat nervously, that I supported Barack Obama.

"I'm so glad," my friend blurted. "So do I." She explained that the decision to withdraw support from Hillary Clinton, the first woman with a serious shot at becoming president, had become so contentious that she had to refrain from discussing it with her women friends for fear of destroying relationships.

I was saddened by this, but not surprised. After all, hadn't I been nervous about expressing my own decision? But the division between women on this issue, coupled with anger and accusations of betraying feminism, is a serious one, not just for the presidential election, but for the women's movement itself.

In its earliest manifestations, the women's movement was never only about economic and professional opportunities, it was also about freedom of choice. We stood for a woman's right to break away from the stereotypes that defined and confined us. We spoke of the bonds that united women, our "sisterhood" and formed support groups to encourage and empower ourselves and each other.

But, inevitably, differences arose, and when challenged, many of us reserved our support only for those who agreed with us. When, in large numbers, mothers joined the work force and found substitute caretakers for their children while others decided to give up or put off careers and stay at home, an eruption of verbal fire sallied forth from both sides. I wrote an article about that development for Newsweek in 1990. We called it "The Mommy Wars", and it detailed the anger and accusations each group lobbed at the other.

What happened to supporting your sister's freedom of choice? It turned out it was often only evident when she chose what you chose.

The woman's movement has grown and transformed since the 1990's, but many of us still don't seem able to tolerate honest differences among us. We early feminists, those of us now in our '50s and '60s and '70s, need to realize that as we have matured so has the movement we champion. And a true sign of a mature movement is the recognition that there is room for more than one point of view. We have reached a level of empowerment where we no longer have to be governed by a kind of gender tribalism, and can, indeed must, think of the needs of our country as a whole. If a man is more compelling than a woman candidate, if he generates excitement and inspires idealism in a way that she doesn't, and if he runs for office with a women's agenda, we are not betraying our feminist credentials by voting for him. In fact, we are affirming them.

Just as we thought differently from the generation of women before us, young women define feminism differently from us. They have adapted the movement to the times and have moved to the next step in their empowerment. These young women are at the forefront of a new wave of feminism that includes the men who have embraced our arguments and believe in our goals. Progress is always in the direction of inclusion rather than isolation.

Both young men and young women have embraced Barack Obama in large numbers because they see in him the embodiment of the multicultural, forward-looking new world they inhabit. They believe that we cannot give up on politics and politicians, but that we must change them and they don't think someone who has been part of the old system can accomplish that as well as he can. And they no longer think that gender needs to determine justice.

We are older women. Many of us are mothers. It is time to listen to our children. It is their future we are deciding.

Nina Darnton, a former frequent contributor to the New York Times and National Public Radio and a former staff writer for Newsweek and the New York Post is now a freelance writer living in New York.