Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Hillary's Feminist Problem

When I was having babies midwifery was all the rage. Feminists pointed out that the patriarchal medical establishment had squeezed them out, and that that was unfortunate because they generally did a better job delivering babies. This was probably true. Midwives were more specialized and more experienced, and they didn't come to the job with their hands dirty from treating infected patients. Midwives had clearly gotten a raw deal.

However by the time I was in the birthing business, women were flooding into med school and joining the patriarchal medical establishment. They posed a Feminist Problem: should we support women or women's ways? should we glad that women were now doctors or should we still be angry that ob/gyns, including women, had squeezed out midwives?

To me this was a no-brainer. When Jackie Robinson broke the color-barrier in major league baseball, the old Negro League collapsed. If you can play in the majors there is no point in preserving an alternative institution whose sole purpose is to provide a place for players who've been excluded from the major leagues. If women could be ob/gyns there was no point in promoting an alternative, sex-segregated profession. Women's ways are nothing but a response to exclusion: there is nothing good about outsider status.

Not everyone agreed. After being outsiders for millennia it seemed some women had come to believe their own rationalizations and had the idea that outsider status was not only unobjectionable but positively desirable. We're repeatedly cautioned about the temptations of selling out. Feminism, we're told, has gotten beyond the old liberal campaign to enable women to play the male game. But why, I wonder, is this beyond? We still don't have a level playing field, we're still disadvantaged, still face discrimination but these people talk is if the war has been won and it wasn't worth fighting in the first place. I have a sneaking suspicion that the valorization of women's ways and outsider status is a symptom of battle fatigue: the fight has gotten tough, the remnants of sex segregation are difficult to dislodge and in the current political climate affirmative action is in bad oder.

Enter Hillary, the leading Democratic candidate, the tough, professional, mainstream politician, a political insider "playing the male game." So long as she was an outsider (of sorts), exercising power from within a traditionally female role as First Lady feminists loved her because that was what feminists were supposed to do: empower outsiders as such, elevate the status of women's roles and get respect for women's ways. When she became an insider, however there was a feminist problem and the old feminist sore opened up: should feminists support women or women's ways?

At a more abstract level this is the dispute that underlies discussion of multiculturalism. Here is a disadvantaged group whose members have been denigrated and excluded. That's bad. But where do we go from here? Prove that their role, culture, ethos, way of doing business is just as good or better than the mainstream from which they've been excluded and, indeed, that they're in some privileged epistemic position in virtue of their outsider status, or level the playing field and enable them to join the mainstream? Multiculturalism or assimilation? Midwives of female ob/gyns? Comparable worth for traditional women's work or access to traditionally male jobs? Improved and refurbished ghettos or integration?

Hillary isn't my favorite Democratic candidate because I'm a monomaniacal liberal: the only issue I care about is the economic one--social safety nets and progress in the direction of a welfare state. Yeah, I'm against the war, and I'm pro-choice, and I'd like to see better policies concerning the environment. But I don't really care about these issues. I'm still for Edwards. He won't get the nomination and I'll vote for any Democrat who does--because any Democrat will push us a little further in the direction of the welfare state, and even a millimeter is worth it. But what I like most about Hillary is precisely the fact that she's running as a political insider, playing the male game and winning.

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