Saturday, April 26, 2008

Hillary and Jeanette

Earlier this month, Hillary Clinton was campaigning in Montana and made an ill-informed mention of Jeanette Rankin, who Montana elected as the first woman member of Congress in 1916. Hillary said it just goes to show that men really will vote for a woman, since women didn’t have the vote in 1916. Except that women had in fact won the vote in Montana in a referendum (of male voters, natch) two years before. This is not just a minor gaffe about Montanan history but a gap in Clinton’s knowledge which illuminates a few things about her.

First, Clinton is a female senator, and an aspirant to be the first female president, who evidently in all these years has never been curious enough about the first woman in Congress to learn more than a tiny bit about her. Hillary doesn’t really consider herself part of a feminist history, doesn’t recognize that she stands on the shoulders of those who came before. She thinks she got where she is entirely by her own efforts.

Clinton evidently thinks, wrongly, that women in the US received the vote in one fell swoop with the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. In the same way as she remarked that while the civil rights movement may have organized and agitated, the real victories for African-Americans only came when Lyndon Johnson decided to push for them, so the decades of hard struggle by women to achieve political rights, including state-by-state (and territory by territory) suffrage campaigns like the one that Rankin helped lead to victory in Montana but many more which did not succeed, are completely disregarded and unacknowledged by Hillary, if she even knows about them. She does not understand how much organized, grass-roots effort over many many years it really takes to effect any sort of change in this hide-bound country; the only lesson she really learned from the failure of her health-care plan in the 1990s was that she, Hillary Clinton, did not have enough power. Her comments last week (this week?) denigrating party activists suggest that, like Bush, who remarked that “We had an accountability moment, and that’s called the 2004 elections,” she too has an impoverished view of the day-to-day role of the citizenry in democratic governance. Not that Obama is much better in this regard: when he leads chants of YES WE CAN, he does not mean to empower his supporters to do anything beyond getting him into the White House and then dispersing to their respective homes to quietly await the flow of manna and all things good from his capable hands.

Considering that Rankin is also known for her principled pacifism, having cast one of the few votes against American entry into World War I – which was also her first vote in Congress, and therefore the first vote cast by a woman in Congress – and the only vote against war with Japan in 1941 (she only served two terms in Congress: she was not re-elected in 1918, though mostly for reasons other than her position on the war, and not elected again until 1940; crappy timing, really), had Hillary known more about her, she might never have brought up her name in the first place.

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