Cross-posted from Huffington Post with permission from the author.
The budget battle that turned on funding for Planned Parenthood, on the heels of Michele Bachmann’s announcement that she will likely form a presidential exploratory committee, along with the passing of Geraldine Ferraro, marked the end of an important chapter of American women’s political history, and the beginning of another, what looks to be very different, one.
Ferraro’s nomination, capping consideration of several women to be Walter Mondale’s vice-presidential running mate, proved the modern feminist political movement right: the nomination, remarkably just a couple years after the ERA was soundly defeated, was proof, notwithstanding, that one of the two major American political parties thought a woman could hold the most important political office in the world.
Importantly, however, this view came with two conditions: that this woman be pro-choice, and, second, that she be committed to helping women and girls achieve legal equality and equal economic opportunity through the instrument of the federal government.
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National Democratic Party leaders held this view for two important reasons. First, because a pro-choice position would signify that the candidate concurred with the party’s threshold premise for achieving women’s equality: the right and ability to control one’s reproductive destiny. Second, because they believed that any Democratic vice president or president must be committed to social policies that advance opportunity for the least among us, i.e., women and their families.
And so, in 1984, the nation got, amazingly enough, first time out of the box for a major political party, a pro-choice, pro-social justice woman as a vice-presidential candidate.
Tragically for the women of this country, in the years since Ferraro’s nomination, the nation’s view on the requisite qualifications for a woman presidential or vice-presidential candidate has radically shifted.
Now, the prevalent notion is that any woman might well be sufficient to the need (the need for more women to hold high political office), just because she’s a woman. No matter her views, on anything.
So, in 2008, when the Republicans thought they needed women to vote for John McCain, the answer was to nominate a woman, any woman.
In the end, as we all know, the choice was Sarah Palin, vociferously anti-women’s reproductive rights and with no demonstrable commitment to federal policies that would systematically aid women and girls.
The final proof came that the Ferraro era was over when Sarah Palin mourned the passing of Geraldine Ferraro, mourned Ferraro’s passing as though the two were comrades-in-arms, blithely ignoring the fact, and the implications of the fact, that the two are of two different ilks: Ferraro being for women, as well as of women; Palin being, at best, a caricature of a woman who cares.
I attribute this sea-change in the American political climate since 1984 to the quarter-century-long-and-counting failure of the national women’s reproductive health movement to couch the case for women’s reproductive health as a right, but, instead, to couch it as a “choice,” as though the decision to seek an abortion, say, is like choosing a new dress.
Further, by characterizing women’s reproductive rights as women’s reproductive choice, the movement’s leaders implied that reproductive rights aren’t fundamental to women achieving any other sort of equality, when, in fact, they are. (Look anywhere around the world, and you will see the proof of this. When birth rates go down, women are better educated, and families are more prosperous.)
As a consequence of this tragically flawed strategy, the door opened — wide — to women politicians of a whole new kind, e.g., Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann, who could be perceived, and now have been, as legitimate political leaders of women, despite being opposed to the most fundamental right of women, the right to control their reproductive destiny.
As if matters could get worse, yet they have, this reproductive health movement strategy also has made the rest of the feminist agenda, i.e., creating public policies that advance and secure women’s equality across the board, all that much tougher to achieve, just because it mooted the first premise of achieving that equality.
Now, all that is left of the Ferraro-era message is the simplistic notion that women can do anything men can do, including running for office — a message that any woman with political ambitions could appropriate, whether she is for women, or not.
In the 27 years since Geraldine Ferraro was nominated, three generations of women have entered the American political arena, hearing and assimilating this simplistic and useless to the women of America message: just because I’m a woman, you should vote for me.
One has only to look at the fight we’ve just witnessed over funding for Planned Parenthood, and how the sides break down along political philosophy and party lines, not gender lines, to understand that the Ferraro era is past, done, gone. If it weren’t, that fight wouldn’t have looked the way it does.
And so we come to the prospect of a presidential run by Michele Bachmann: the prospect of a serious presidential run by a woman whose candidacy would have nothing to do with advancing the rights and security of American women. How far we have fallen.
Yes, 2008 was a watershed year for American women politicians, but 2012 may prove to be even more significant.
For, in 2012, we may well learn what sort of woman candidate will carry the American day for years to come: the woman who takes Geraldine Ferraro’s approach, i.e., a woman who governs for women, including for their most basic human right, the right to control their reproductive destiny, or the woman who takes the Michele Bachmann approach; women, it’s sufficient to elect me, just because I happen to be a woman. Nothing could be further from the truth.