Excuses, Apologies, Silences and . . . Whither the Category of “Woman”?

Dr. Krista Comer

The best speech of Clinton’s 2012 run for President came as she conceded defeat . It was “the best” in part because that habitual reserve of hers at last gave way, and she opened up about, among other things, one of the topics she had refused otherwise to comment on: that she was a woman running for President. And that the fact meant something to her.

She had avoided the topic, as Obama had avoided direct identification of himself as an ungendered African American, because to do so would have been to play “the woman card.”  Playing it was understood to link her to some form of excuse, to present herself as someone unable to stand alone as an individual on merit.  In the moment of defeat, though, the stakes were altered; whatever was at risk before was not quite the point any longer.

The charge of being an Ice Woman, a Woman No One Liked, unlikeable in fact, had dogged Clinton’s campaign persona. The only way to answer that charge was to refuse its premise, to deny the reality of what the attack presumed about the need for women to make others find them appealing in order to qualify for any job. It was as if the political moment was “too fragile” somehow to speak aloud the fact of her and Obama as different sides of the same utopic coin of that Democratic primary season – the one that seemed to make good on the social revolutions of 1968. Instead of opening the feminist issues her candidacy possibly could raise about the conditions of women’s lives and the gendered machinations of official politics, the strategists around her took their lessons from some How to Get Elected in Mainstream Politics primer. The meta-lesson directing them all: stick to the script.   If the master’s tools will never dismantle his house, the inverse was true too: the master’s Tools will help you. Use of them confers legitimacy.

Both Obama and Clinton used the tools as best they could and in the end, a “black President” was ultimately elected (not a “man”), and a “woman” (not a white person) was not the Party’s candidate.

Today Clinton is making a bit more of herself as a “woman candidate.” At least she does so when Bernie makes it politically expedient. And then, at the very moment it seems clear that she will not only secure the nomination but likely, win the Presidency, the charge by Donald Trump of the “woman card” is put into public play.

Can one speak women’s issues as a woman, and not play the card?     Does someone, anyone, merely need to say a woman is playing the card for the card then to be played?

Of course, Hillary now has said “deal me in” in response to what is basically a masculine dare.

How might feminists and feminist researchers specifically deal themselves into the hand of this public conversation in which feminism as a contemporary politics or vision has so much to say?

One promising development is the resurgence into public discourse of the term “sexism,” a term strangely underused in the 2012 campaign and one today usually thought to be politically unnecessary or outdated. The term offers at least some basic diagnostics for why, no matter which way Clinton plays the hand, the woman card will be both a problem as well as an opportunity. It’s a problem insofar as it’s always a problem to be a not-man, a not-individual, to be someone who is Other, in whatever race, class, sexuality and so forth way Othering arrives. Put differently, it’s a problem as long as the conversation is staged along identity lines rather than on feminist political ones. The issue isn’t whether one plays a woman (or any other )card, or whether banal accusations get press, but what kind of politics any of us is playing for, what the stakes of this or another card allow or disallow. That conversation, that public fight, is worth having.