A new piece in Time by Brittney Cooper has been making the rounds on Facebook and elsewhere: “It Matters That Elizabeth Warren Is a Woman. Why Do So Many on the Left Insist That It Doesn’t?”
Here is Cooper’s takeaway: “Wanting a woman to rise to the top of an almost all-male pack is not a position that needs defending. What should be defended is the uncritical desire to elect yet another man to a position that 45 men and zero women have held.”
I agree that wanting to see a woman as president is not a position that needs defending any more than ANY position needs “defending” if it is to be persuasive to others. I don’t need persuading, and I said this loudly in 2016 when I urged friends on the left to support Hillary Clinton: I would love to see a woman president, and I now would love to see that woman be Warren.
I also agree that a’ “uncritical desire” to elect another man is not simply something that needs “defending”; it is indefensible, in my view.
But I know of no major figure who supports Sanders who has this uncritical desire. Surely AOC lacks this desire. . . .
Among progressives, there is a real debate, among people who care about gender, class, and race, about which on the margins matters most, and about who to support, as a matter of policy more than descriptive representation. This is a real, legitimate DEBATE. And it cannot be resolved by appeal to any demographic attribute of any individual candidate nor by any simplistic ideological label.
I understand, honor, respect, and support my many female friends who have problems with Sanders or who love Warren in part because she is a progressive woman whose ascendancy is symbolically and thus politically important.
I am not a woman. I am a feminist. And I am still ambivalent about each of these two, both of whom I admire and support. But I would LOVE to see a woman president (I would also love to see a Jewish president, but I digress. . . )
At the same time, I find Cooper’s quotation from the famous feminist Zillah Eisenstein to be deeply problematic, even if it is a convenient quote for some Warren supporters to now invoke. Here’s the quote: “my query for 2020 is whether voting for a white man … when there is a field of women who are as gifted as most of the men, and with Elizabeth Warren who has a formidable progressive agenda and is more gifted than most of the men, is not misogynist? Maybe a vote for Bernie once again normalizes and endorses male rule / leadership / presidencies even if he is a socialist.”
If it is a serious question that is being posed, then the only reasonable answer is “maybe for some, but clearly not for many others.”
But I fear that it is not posed as a question but in order to imply an answer: that because Warren is a woman who is great (and she is a woman who is great), it is “misogynist” to vote for Sanders (or any other white man).
I think it is bad ethics, bad politics, and also contrary to the actual message of Elizabeth Warren, to hold this position. And if this is going to be Warren’s position moving forward, then I fear that it might well generate a self-fulfilling prophecy, making it MORE difficult for this fine woman to become the first woman elected president.
“Identity politics” is very important, and those on the left who disparage it, whether they be on the socialist left or liberals like Mark Lilla, deserve to be challenged. Feminists don’t need to offer special justifications for their — our — commitments, and feminist women who support Warren because she is a feminist woman have every right to do so.
But invoking broad-brush labels like “misogynist” to slander political allies who have a different opinion about the best candidate is very foolish, counterproductive, and simply wrong.
In addition, if one really wants to play this game, then why stop at Warren? Kamala Harris is both a woman and a woman of color. Why not insist on drafting her and denouncing everyone else as a “racist?” You think that’s a winning strategy against Trump? Really? It is not. It is a losing strategy. And the regrettable things we say now will come back to haunt us later.
Back in April of 2019, with the Warren-Sanders contest unfolding, I published a piece in the Nation whose thesis was summed up in its title: “For Agonistic Respect on the Left: More than ever, we must embrace the ability to be sharply critical without being destructive and hostile.”
It matters that Warren is a woman. To some of us, it matters a lot. But it is not the only thing about her that matters. Everyone on the broad democratic left, and indeed everyone not aligned with Trumpism, must face two interlocking questions in the months to come: (1) which candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination best represents the values that we hold dear, and best puts forward a campaign, and a political strategy, for winning the November election and trying to realize these values? (2) how can we participate in this primary contest in ways that allow us to come together at its end and work as hard as we can, together, to support the winner, whoever she or he is. Because nothing is more important than defeating Trump in November.
Jeffrey Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington.