I AM, AND HAVE LONG BEEN, KEENLY AWARE of the fact that, had I been born in another time or in certain parts of the world, I would not have been able to make the choices I have made in my life. In other times and places, “woman” has and continues to define a person and confine her to a limited number of possibilities. Today, in the U.S., that status still comes with certain pressures and struggles. But I have more choices than many women today, and most throughout history, have had.
Hardly a day passes when I don’t take a moment to think of the women who worked for my rights to be protected and for my self-concept to be open – thinkers like Mary Wollstonecraft and Simone de Beauvoir, who challenged essentialist ideas of womanhood and femininity; the women who marched and rallied for the basic political and personal rights of enfranchisement and bodily autonomy; and women like former secretaries of state Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright, whose careers were an assault on gender norms.
This has been a rough month for young women like myself, with prominent women both back-pedaling the progress they contributed to and insulting young women’s political agency at once. In an interview with Bill Maher, Gloria Steinem, a feminist icon since the 1960s, said that young women decide which campaign to support based on where they can find the most boys to chase. Her ridiculous comment, as well as her weak tea “apology,” have earned their share of criticism, open letters, and discussion. There’s much more to talk about behind the now-infamous comment of Madeleine Albright: that there’s “a special place in hell” for women who don’t help one another – the suggestion in this context being, for women who don’t help Clinton win the presidency.
The first ever female Secretary of State, who served during Bill Clinton’s presidency, Albright gave her pitch to young women while introducing Hillary at a rally in New Hampshire. Albright suggested that we forget how hard women like herself and Hillary worked to “climb the ladder.” Some of us think that gender equality is “done,” but we’ve still got a ways to go, Albright said, and women have an obligation to help one another. In particular, young women voters have an obligation to vote for Hillary Clinton.
After incurring backlash for the “special place in hell” comment, Albright apologized for the statement in The New York Times, but defended her overall point that women have an obligation to vote for Clinton. There, Albright reduced the lack of support for Clinton among young female voters to the pressures women face to be judgmental toward one another. Personally, I admit that I am judgmental, but not specifically of women. When it comes to candidates, I’m judgmental of track records, of campaign funders, of proposed policies, and of the timing of those proposals. This is not an act of cattiness; it is critical thinking. It is political responsibility. Some of us emerge from this judgment process in favor of a candidate who’s not the woman. Not because of her hair or her outfits or her voice, but because of the records, the funders, the policies, the timing.
I want to tell Albright that I’m not ignorant of the ladder-climb, that I have not forgotten the work of women who made my situation better. I’m aware that women’s advances need protecting, and I know that we’re not “done” – that gender equality is a work in progress. The thing is, today’s young feminists generally don’t see the progress or the struggles of women in isolation. We can’t look at how hard things are for women without seeing how hard they are for women of color; for men of color; for LGBT individuals; for those living in poverty; for those abroad subjected to the ravages of U.S. wars and interventions. We don’t cut out gender equality from the patchwork of goals and hold it over and above, or even separate from, the ascent of others facing various forms of oppression. Our understanding of oppression is complex and nuanced. I think we are capable of this broader, more inclusive perspective today because of the work done by feminists of the past who focused more narrowly on women’s rights, a focus that proved too narrow, but was perhaps a necessary step. Helping out a woman by giving her our vote is not an effective method for addressing the range of problems we perceive, experience, and care about as feminists today.
I am grateful for the work women like Albright have done in terms of challenging gender norms. They have helped create a situation in which I can see myself beyond the confines of traditional ideas of what women can and should be. My way of helping other women is by refusing to be confined by that identity. My vote will not be an expression of gratitude, or an obligation to a woman from a woman. It will be a political act from a political actor whose concern extends to all who confront systemic limitations of their possibilities, whether because of their gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, race, income level, or homeland.