By Mari Jo Buhle
Jun 14, 2016
I write as a feminist, a well-seasoned historian of American women, and a die-hard supporter of Bernie Sanders. Long-time colleagues disparage my loyalty to the Sanders campaign and chastise me, along with him, for not celebrating Hillary Clinton’s landmark achievement as the first woman to become the presumptive nominee of a major political party. I’m betraying my feminist principles, they suggest. Moreover, I’m denying the historical significance of Clinton’s victory, they pointedly add. Against this tide, I’m holding fast to my principles on both accounts. Both feminism and the historical moment weigh heavily in my decision.
If anything, the entire primary political campaign, on both the Republican and Democratic sides, drives home the message that the United States is at a tipping point. So much more is obviously at stake than electing the first woman as president. No one would deny that it is within the purview of feminism to consider issues such as gun violence, free trade, foreign intervention, environmentalism, and, of course, inequality. Some might say, it is imperative for feminists to address these issues before cheering the shattering of the glass ceiling for a privileged few. I readily acknowledge that the division and rancor begin here.
Writing as a historian, I underscore the importance of historical precedents for this antagonism. Two major, equally crucial moments come to mind.
The first occurred shortly after the Civil War. By 1866, the woman’s rights movement that began at Seneca Falls in 1848 came back to life. For the duration of the war, activists had put aside their own demands to help secure the abolition of slavery, and they now began to regroup to push for the right to vote. Optimism prevailed. “Now in the reconstruction is the opportunity, perhaps for the century,” Elizabeth Cady Stanton announced, “to base our government on the broad principle of equal rights to all.” However, Congress instead proposed the Reconstruction Amendments, extending the rights of citizenship specifically to black men and intentionally stopping short of including women.
In grappling with this situation, the women’s movement divided. One side, led by Susan B. Anthony and Stanton, went so far as to intervene in the state referendum campaign in Kansas, imploring voters to place the “Woman first, and the Negro last.” Meanwhile, other long-time activists organized alongside the African American abolitionist Frederick Douglas under the banner “The Negro’s Hour.” As one leader said, “I am willing that the negro shall get [the ballot] before me.”
By 1869, two rival suffrage organizations had formed. The National Woman Suffrage Association, led by Stanton and Anthony introduced itself by speaking against the
Reconstruction Amendments and pushing a 16th Amendment to the Constitution that would grant women the right to vote. The American Woman Suffrage Association pledged its support to the ratification of the Reconstruction Amendments, despite the limitations on gender. And rather than joining Stanton and Anthony in demanding a new amendment to the Constitution, this group decided to work locally, in city and state arenas to secure the ballot as well as economic, legal, and educational rights for women.
The complexity of this situation defies easy summary, but one can imagine the charges and counter-charges. How can you allow Congress and the states to introduce “sex” to stipulate the rights of citizenship? How can you forsake decades of struggle for black emancipation by refusing to acknowledge the urgency of the Reconstruction Amendments? There is, of course, no easy answer to these questions. Yet, it’s hard not to take sides. Historians may profess objectivity in narration, but they do a disservice by effecting neutrality in interpretation. I admit here: I have always admired above all the allies of Frederick Douglas.
Another example illustrates a split among women activists during a second pivotal moment in U.S. history. During World War I, one of the most popular songs in 1915 was “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier,” a sentiment that took political form as a woman’s peace movement. In that same year, Hull-House founder Jane Addams spearheaded the Woman’s Peace Party. She also recruited delegates to an international conference at The Hague that resulted in the formation of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. These organizations implored Wilson and Congress to keep the United States out of the European war and instead to press for international negotiations for peace. Meanwhile, the major woman suffrage organization took a different tack. Mainstream suffragists pledged themselves to “patriotic motherhood” and mobilized to prepare for war. In 1917, after the U.S. these suffragists supported the war effort. President Wilson, presumably impressed by legions of bandage-rolling suffragists, belatedly endorsed the women’s ballot.
Another “which side are you on” situation, greatly simplified here. As activists in the 1910s disagreed sharply on their priorities, historians have recorded differences among themselves with decided empathy. I admit here: I have always stood with the peace activists who refused to support this brutal, imperialist war.
How do these examples prepare us to assess the antagonisms sparked by Sanders’ persistence and the hollowness that many of us attach to the Clinton victory? Collective memory is undoubtedly too dim to make much sense of the historically distant and mostly forgotten disagreements I’ve sketched here. Nevertheless, in their day, what we now term “feminist” politics pivoted on the issues these examples illustrate. In my mind, we are at a similar point in political life, one demanding not easy or even expedient solutions but responses grounded in conscience. There is every reason to hold firm to our positions as Jane Addams did in her opposition to war.
I therefore see no reason to abandon my political principles amid the celebration of Hillary Clinton. I can appreciate, although I certainly do not share, the satisfaction that many, especially older women gain in finally seeing a woman compete for the presidency. However, to me, Hillary Clinton epitomizes neo-liberalism (a despised and undoubtedly overused term). As she admitted, Sanders failed to persuade her to modify her positions to the Left, as many Democrats naively contend; to the contrary, she found in his campaign only “passion,” never alternative policy. I worry therefore that we are about to witness the revival of policies that many of us suspected Clinton muted merely for the primary campaign: Cutting social security, promoting the TPP and fracking world-wide, edging toward privatization of social services, securing the place of Big Pharma and insurance companies in the ACA. Finally, but not least, and equally if not more worrisome, is her claim to experience derived from her position as Secretary of State: regime change and intervention. My aversion to her politics, whatever feminist kernel might remain, makes me hope #NeverHillary remains the watchword of the strongest of my own long-time allies.
I confess I have been “Bernie or Bust” from the beginning and now participate in the write-in campaign in Wisconsin. The Sanders movement for a political revolution revived an important element in my personal political history. Women’s Liberation in the late 1960s made me pursue the history of American women and feminist politics, but I came to this perspective from an equally vital historical interest in Debsian socialism. Like the women of my generation who never believed they could see a woman elected president, I thought the same about the prospects for a socialist in the White House. Sanders’s overwhelming dedication to equality and social welfare and social justice mirrored my admiration of Eugene V. Debs, who, like Sanders, demonstrated that integrity could thrive in the otherwise dirty realm of politics. For me, the Sanders campaign represents the ideals grounded in a much earlier political moment coming to fruition. I cannot, in good conscience, toss them aside for a candidate whose politics is anathema to me.
My feelings along these lines have been punctuated by a recent stay in Copenhagen, a beautiful, sane city dominated by bicycles and pure water –water so clean that kids swim safe from pollution alongside the ships in the harbor. Where 75 percent of all food consumed in the city is organic. Where the fossil-free energy is set for 2020 by the latest, The rest, including women’s participation in government and labor, is well known. But experiencing it for even a few days reinforces my belief that a single woman in higher office (think of Margaret Thatcher; I am) pales before the vision of a social democracy that brings a higher standard of life to so many.
Mari Jo Buhle is a historian retired from Brown University and has written widely on the history of socialism and the history of feminism.