McCain’s Feminist Mistake

Susan Levine

With the announcement of Sarah Palin as John McCain’s vice-presidential pick, the Republicans are banking on the hope that the historic splits within the women’s movement are alive and well. Those splits, most notably over the urgency of racial and social reforms versus suffrage and women’s rights per se, have limited the scope of the feminist movement and divided women as a political constituency for over a century. 

This election has revealed that the old rifts still exist. Women, it turns out, have never agreed on political priorities any more than men have.

Pat Buchanan happily labels the anti-choice, deeply conservative Palin, a feminist. That kind of feminism brings to mind the tensions that have marked the women’s movement since its inception.

The media – and the McCain campaign – seem convinced that a large bloc of women voters will throw aside consideration of the issues to vote for another woman. This remains to be seen. Some women, however, have always put gender before anything else. While this group has usually been small and relatively isolated, it has consistently captured public attention – and fascination.

After the Civil War, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton left their abolitionist comrades and allied with the blatantly racist Democratic Party. They did so because the Republican Party, in crafting the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments to the Constitution balked at including women’s right to vote. Other veteran abolitionists, notably Lucy Stone, supported the amendments, agreeing with Frederick Douglass that this was the Negro’s hour.” A bitter split ensued among women, one that has lasted until the present day.

Over the course of the next half-century, Stanton and Anthony succeeded in defining woman’s equality in terms of the right to vote. At the same time, however, thousands of women became active in political organizations ranging from the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union to settlement houses, women’s clubs and the YWCA. These organizations pressed for a broad range of issues including property rights, educational opportunities, labor reform, prison reform and citizenship rights for women who married foreign nationals. All of these women supported suffrage but few of them believed that the vote alone would bring equality.

In the early twentieth century, a small cadre of women adopted the label feminist” and continued to press solely for the vote. Once again, they were willing to compromise the definition of equality – in this case, using both racist and anti-immigrant rhetoric to argue that white women needed the vote in order to protect American traditions.” After the nineteenth amendment was ratified, Alice Paul and the National Women’s Party, claiming the mantle of feminism, allied themselves with conservative interests (including the American Medical Association) against the efforts of other women’s groups to establish a modern health care system, outlaw child labor, protect free speech and pass anti-lynching legislation. Paul went so far as to ally herself with the National Manufacturer’s Association and other groups who accused women’s reform organizations of being un-American and un-patriotic.

The key issue that divided women from 1920s until the 1970s was the Equal Rights Amendment. Social reformers who believed deeply in equal rights feared that this amendment would annul their hard-fought for gains in labor protections. By the 70s, however, the old fights among feminists seemed to disappear as younger activists took up the call for the ERA and reproductive rights along with demands for political representation, economic opportunities, and racial equality. Even though the media characterized feminists as extremists, more women than ever before happily adopted the label. 

But this current election has revealed that the old rifts still exist. Women, it turns out, have never agreed on political priorities any more than men have. The so called Hillary dead-enders,” like Stanton, Anthony, and Alice Paul before them, seem ready to sacrifice every other issue for the sake of a female candidate. These women (and their male allies) are ready to play on the most racist and conservative elements of feminism. 

If women supported Hillary Clinton simply because she is a woman, they will have little trouble shifting their allegiance to the Republican Party because it is running a woman for vice president. But if women supported Clinton, as she herself claimed, because they care about health care, reproductive rights and reducing poverty, both at home and abroad, then the Republicans have made a bad gamble.

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Susan Levine teaches women’s history at the University of Illinois at Chicago and is the author of School Lunch Politics: The Surprising Story of American’s Favorite Welfare Program. She is the president of In These Times’ Board of Directors.
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