Monday morning I took my own advice and went to The Eleanor Roosevelt Legacy’s Annual Spring Breakfast. Eleanor’s Legacy is dedicated to supporting Democratic women candidates, voters, and activists throughout New York State; and there was an abundance of each present. If my faith were ever to waver that New York is where Progressives have progressed most, I would need only to remind myself that three of the purported front runners in the upcoming mayoral election (none have declared their candidacy), City Council President Christine C. Quinn, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, and Comptroller John Liu all made a point to appear first thing in the morning of a busy work week. In New York, at least, women matter.
I don’t think I was the only one seeking some femme-positive spiritual affirmation. When President Nora Bredes introduced the newest Congresswoman from New York, Kathy Hochul, the applause that erupted in the room felt like a collective sigh of relief at having palpable proof that our sometimes frustrating efforts to promote feminist causes do pay off on occasion. If we are lucky, the reward can come in the form of a public servant like Hochul, who considers political activism a noble calling and believes it her duty to mentor women similarly inspired.
Bredes repeated the conventional narrative of Hochul’s election: Hochul’s win in the most Republican-leaning district in the state was a repudiation of Republican Paul Ryan’s plan to “reform” Medicare. Then she added that while she wished this were true, the real reason Hochul won was because she was a great candidate.
I happily accept Bredes’ either/and interpretation because it straddles the conflicting feelings many of us have about achievement in general and women’s achievements in particular. After all, part of the feminist critique of power is to contest the “Great Man” view of history, not to replace it with a hierarchy of “Great Women” instead. But if we wander off too far in the other direction and chalk successes up to abstractions like “cultural pressure” and “prevailing sentiment,” we run the risk of looking suspiciously like we are minimizing the contributions of individual women—and isn’t there enough of that already?
As I’ve said before, I’m a recovering academic, so it didn’t take too much to get me thinking that what I’m describing is the tension between the socialist critique of the individual and the capitalist over-estimation of him (and in this case it mostly is “him.”) But given that the breakfast was to celebrate leading women in American Labor—an oxymoron in itself, if you think about it—I feel a little less egg-heady for mentioning it.
The honorees are living examples of why feminists have historically been aligned with the political left. The first was Barbara Young, the National Organizer of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, who received the Frances Perkins Promise Award for her work on behalf of domestic workers. (If ever there were a group that could benefit from collective bargaining it would be these often-isolated individuals. The response to the arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn made it clear that neither France nor the United States truly practices the egalité that each country preaches.) The second was Randi Weingarten, President of American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO, who received the Frances Perkins Lifetime Achievement Award for her work on behalf of a more recently-demonized class of workers, teachers. (Thank you Republican up-and-comer Chris Christie!)
Part of me wants to make it simple: “It’s sexism, stupid!” Is it any wonder that the majority of people working in these two professions are women? But it’s sexism and racism and class bias when any one of them is problematic enough in a culture that wants to believe we are post post everything. (We have an African-American president, how bad could we be?)
Or maybe it really is about power. Not about how different economic theories configure it—but about how individuals wield it. Because unsurprisingly, gender matters, especially in American politics. An article in this weekend’s New York Times suggests that sometimes it makes all the difference:
Research points to a substantial gender gap in the way women and men approach running for office. Women have different reasons for running, are more reluctant to do so and, because there are so few of them in politics, are acutely aware of the scrutiny they draw — all of which seems to lead to differences in the way they handle their jobs once elected.
“The shorthand of it is that women run for office to do something, and men run for office to be somebody,” said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. “Women run because there is some public issue that they care about, some change they want to make, some issue that is a priority for them, and men tend to run for office because they see this as a career path.
So take my inspiration as your inspiration, and let’s get more women running.
Jodi is a freelance writer and recovering academic with more enthusiasm for sports than athletic talent and a prodigious taste for the health food known as dark chocolate.