What is being a feminist all about?

I’ve got credentials.  I was a delegate from Virginia to the First National Women’s Conference held in Houston in 1977.  I shepherded one of the early pay equity cases – a professor at Old Dominion University who was being paid less than her colleague with similar degrees and experience – to a successful conclusion.  I worked to make marital rape a crime and to ratify  the Equal Rights Amendment in the Virginia legislature.  The first successfully, the second not.  I’m the same age as Hillary Clinton.  And I am very disappointed in how her campaign somehow feels entitled to my vote.  Some how I lose my standing as a feminist if I support Bernie Sanders.  She seems to have migrated a long way from her wonderful speech in Beijing.

Women listening to Hillary Clinton at a campaign event in New Hampshire

Women listening to Hillary Clinton at a campaign event in New Hampshire

I was trying to figure out how to write about this when I read Frank Bruni’s column this morning in the New York Times.  I think he was hit the nail on the head.  He begins

I’m 51. My health is decent. And while my mother died young, there’s longevity elsewhere in the family tree.

I could live to see an openly gay presidential candidate with a real chance of victory.

Will there be a “special place in hell” for me if I, as a gay man, don’t support him or her?

I can guess Madeleine Albright’s answer. She more or less told women that they’re damned if they’re not on Hillary Clinton’s team.

I’m still trying to get my head around that — and around Gloria Steinem’s breathtakingly demeaning assertion that young women who back Bernie Sanders are in thrall to pheromones, not ideas or idealism, and angling to score dates with the young bucks in the Sanders brigade.

I could substitute Asian American for gay and ask the same question.

There’s a weird strain of thought swirling around Clinton’s campaign: that we should vote for her because she’s a woman. Or that she’s inoculated from certain flaws or accusations by dint of gender. Or that, at the least, there’s an onus on forward-looking people who care about gender inequality to promote her candidacy.

I care about gender inequality, and I don’t buy it. It’s bad logic. It’s even worse strategy. People don’t vote out of shame. They vote out of hope.

Perhaps that was among the lessons of Clinton’s defeat in New Hampshire on Tuesday, where she lost to Sanders among all women by at least seven percentage points, according to exit polling, and among women under 30 by more than 60 points.

Somehow we got from the positive nature of a woman running for President to what must seem like a bunch of old women scolding young ones for supporting – gasp -a man instead.

Clinton’s gender indeed matters. Just as you couldn’t properly evaluate Obama’s arc without factoring in race, you can’t see her accurately without recognizing that she’s a woman of her time, with all the attendant obstacles, hurts, compromises and tenacity.

That informs — and, ideally, illuminates — her perspective. And her presidency would carry a powerful, constructive symbolism that can’t and shouldn’t be ignored.

But those are considerations among many, many others in taking her measure and in casting a vote. To focus only or primarily on them is more reductive than respectful, and to tell women in particular what kind of politics they should practice is the antithesis of feminism, which advocates independence and choices.

We’re all complicated people voting for complicated people. We’re not census subgroups falling in line.

I’ll go to the barricades for that imagined gay candidate if he or she has talents I trust, positions I respect and a character I admire. If not, I’ll probably go elsewhere, because being gay won’t be the sum of that person, just as womanhood isn’t where Clinton begins and ends.

I will be voting for her in November should she be the Democratic nominee, but I will never quite admire either Madeline Albright or Gloria Steinham in quite the same way as I did before.

Photograph:   Richard Perry/The New York Times

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