The lesson the Barack Obama era should have taught us is the foundational faultiness of specious claims to a post-racial America. For those who refused to see how entrenched racism remained even after Obama’s ascent, Trump emerged a more profane object lesson in the failures of marching away from clarity about who America has been and is perfectly willing to be again with regard to racial matters. The lesson we continue to struggle with, however, is the faultiness of a belief that we are post-feminist or, more to the point, that we are post-patriarchal. This is exceedingly apparent as we watch the Democratic left stumble and fumble over whether and how gender should matter in the current presidential election.
On Tuesday night, I watched the final presidential debate before the Iowa caucuses. It happened during a week where Bernie Sanders was accused of telling Elizabeth Warren in a private meeting in 2018 that he didn’t believe a woman could win the presidency. We have no way of verifying who said what to whom. Warren says he said it. Sanders denies it. But what their conflict in the press and on stage the night of the debate points to is a continuing challenge on the radical left, among both white people and people of color, to fully understand how patriarchy works and what their responsibility is as progressives in combating it.
Yes, we have seen a sea change in gender conversation in this country. The 2010s brought us the legalization of gay marriage and a robust conversation about queer, trans and gender nonbinary identities. Given the persisting high rates of murder of trans people and the routine and quotidian misgendering of folks by people who insist that maintaining the integrity of English grammar matters more than referring to people by their proper pronouns, we have a long way to go before we can be self-congratulatory. But the fact that my gender studies students now know the difference between cisgender and transgender identities on the first day of class when a decade ago they didn’t is a testament to an important cultural shift. It seems then that gender conversations and struggles are ubiquitous. And it is precisely this set of social circumstances that have obscured the enduring operation of the patriarchy when it comes to the issue of women ascending to the highest levels of leadership.
Many on the progressive left, for instance, argue that representation is not enough. Electing a woman to the presidency, giving her the “vagina vote,” as it was called in 2016, does not ensure that she will actually do a good job representing women’s issues. This is, of course, correct. Women voters and women politicians often take positions that are antithetical to women’s collective and individual well-being. But are we really prepared to say that gender is now merely incidental to leadership? That’s a post-patriarchal dream, but nowhere near being a reality, and it is as specious as any claims to a post-racial America. Given that we are in serious danger of having Roe v. Wade overturned, a decision that affects reproductive freedoms across gender categories, arguing that gender is merely incidental to the election and to Warren’s candidacy is faulty.
Author: Brittney Cooper