'I am the grandson of a working woman, the son of a single mother, the
husband of a working wife who earns far more than I, and the father of a
daughter who wants to build space stations in the sky....I have learned
that building up women does not diminish men.' This was how presidential
candidate Bill Clinton introduced himself to the women's caucus at the Democratic
The New York convention was stage-managed to parade the six women candidates
whom the Democrats are putting up for election to the Senate, and their
34 female candidates for the House of Representatives. It may not sound
like many, but it was enough to inspire one leading Democratic feminist
to declare that, 'we are on our way to the top and nobody can bring us down'.
The Democrats' emphasis on playing the 'gender card' this year has been
portrayed as just another sign of the times, an indication that the old
chauvinistic ways are gradually being replaced by windows of opportunity
for women. American papers are fond of describing 1992 as the Year of the
Woman. They claim that women's issues now dominate the political agenda
and cite the Anita Hill sexual harassment case and the recent supreme court
debate on abortion as key issues which pushed women's interests to the fore.
This is a curious observation since in neither case can women's interests
be said to have prevailed. Clarence Thomas made it on to the supreme court
despite allegations that he had sexually harassed women colleagues. He then
participated in the supreme court decision to allow Pennsylvania state to
restrict abortion - a decision which effectively drove a coach and horses
through the constitutional right to end an unwanted pregnancy early.
In the light of all this, Clinton's feminist declarations will most likely
be felt as a breath of fresh air. And one problem with fresh air is that
if you're not used to it, it can go to your head. There's a danger that
after the crusades by Reagan and Bush to elevate conservative values, the
slightest hint of liberalism in Clinton's rhetoric will be seized upon as
evidence that better times for women are around the corner. In fact, the
way in which the Democrats are playing the gender card will be of far more
benefit to Bill Clinton than to American women.
The Democrats are using women's issues to win votes and embarrass the Bush
administration. Pushing women to the front of the convention stage was good
for Clinton's image. Opinion polls show that US voters, especially women,
are cynical about the traditional parties and want change. Clinton has no
new policies, but he can at least give the party a new look. The women candidates
and the quasi-feminist rhetoric are part of the image change.
This may win some votes from Republican women, but the main intention is
to galvanise and inspire the Democrats' own party activists, and help create
a sense of momentum behind the party.
Even Clinton's declarations that he is 'pro-choice on abortion' may mean
little more than an attempt to hit Bush where it hurts. During election
time, it makes sense for Clinton to carry the pro-choice arrow in his quiver.
Bush's well-known anti-abortion sentiments are an issue of grave concern
to many Republicans. A survey earlier this year in the Washington Post
found that more than half of registered Republicans support legal abortion.
So Bush's stated intention to use his presidency to pack the supreme court
with pro-life judges is not thought to be a vote winner.
Bush is caught in a political quandary. If he softens his stand on abortion,
it will make him look even more indecisive and opportunist. But if he sticks
to his guns and is re-elected, he will undoubtedly have the opportunity
to carry out his threat. The prospect of a possible end to legal abortion
is said to be making otherwise die-hard Republicans think about switching
Every time Clinton makes a pro-women speech or mentions abortion, he is
rubbing salt into Bush's wounds. That is why he will play the gender card
at every opportunity. But Clinton also understands that to be successful,
he mustn't appear to undermine old-fashioned family values. The result is
a curious paradox.
While Clinton pushes career women to the fore in one context, he stresses
their importance in family life in another. Every concession he makes in
favour of women's right to independence is underwritten with a promise not
to undermine traditional family life. And while it is possible to be committed
to both in the sphere of rhetoric, it is impossible in practice. After all,
traditional family responsibilities are precisely what women must be liberated
from if they are to experience real equality.
An incongruity that has not escaped some Democrat supporters is that while
women have been paraded on the political rostrum, Mrs Hillary Clinton has
been wheeled out to provide the traditional role of all-American cookie-baker
Hillary dropped a clanger earlier this year when she tried to fight
back against accusations that she was a careerist with the retort that she
didn't want to waste her life baking cookies. When the Republicans picked
on this as a slur against the nation's cookie-bakers, she responded by challenging
Barbara Bush to a cookie-baking battle.
Women across the USA are now being invited to try out, and vote their preference
for, the favoured cookie recipes of Hillary Clinton and Barbara Bush. The
women's magazine which has organised the contest will announce the cookie
war results to coincide with the presidential election results in November.
I suppose it could be argued that Bill Clinton is not responsible for his
wife's antics (it seems much more likely that she tells him what to say).
But the cookie carry-on should sound a warning bell for American women expecting
some far-reaching change for the better. This may be the year of the woman
candidate, but not much has changed for the male candidates' wives.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 47, September 1992