Is Women for Obama limiting our feminist imagination?

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A SYTYCB entry

I’ve got to hand it to them: Women for Obama’s design team is pretty brilliant. This weekend, the campaign’s lady branch released some new ads, including this gorgeous image for gottaregister.com:

Women for Obama presents the 2012 campaign as the latest step in a long, progressive feminist struggle. The juxtaposition of white suffragettes with the image of young women of color connects the election with previous feminist victories while highlighting the youthful, diverse new faces of the movement. According to the ad, a vote for Obama is a vote for the feminist cause. This time, however, you don’t need a white dress—or white skin—to be publicly recognized for your contribution.

There are parts of this narrative I appreciate: I think the questions of race and representation it addresses suggest a commitment that both process and policy be led by the historically marginalized. And I think it’s important that we recognize what’s working in mainstream politics, because however disappointing and distasteful the current climate is, even the most radical among us don’t have the luxury of disengaging from electoral politics without sacrificing the health and freedom of real women. Nevertheless, I fear what it means for post-election reproductive justice efforts if we fully buy Women for Obama’s narrative and this election comes to define contemporary reproductive justice much in the way as suffrage defined the movement 92 years ago. Such a move risks seriously stunting our collective feminist imagination.

By imagination I don’t mean a Willy Wonka theme park delusion. I mean the ability to reject commonly accepted boundaries of the possible to construct a radical vision for the future. This (inherently queer) imagination has allowed feminists to see “facts” about gender and the structures of family, workplace, and state as changeable constructs, thus exposing new solutions to age-old problems. Angela Davis provides my favorite example of this sort of re-imagining: in a country that accepts mass incarceration as an inevitability, she wrote about the path to a world without prisons. So too have working women demonstrated imagination in their insistence that assumptions of a fundamental conflict between career and family are based on a lack of creative thought regarding childcare options like public nurseries and communal living.

Right now, the mainstream American reproductive justice movement is largely understood through its opposition to dangerously regressive GOP proposals to rollback women’s freedoms. The sad reality is that we have to fight these defensive fights. But if the goals of the Democratic Party in this election are accepted as those of the reproductive justice movement at large, we’ll have little room to imagine a world much better than 1990s America—and that just isn’t good enough. However diverse the range of feminisms in this country, surely we all have greater hopes than keeping a reactionary GOP at bay forever. When resisting regression, though, it’s all too easy to mistake settling for the status quo as striving for progress.

It strikes me that the key here is joining forces with the moderate Obama camp to fight GOP misogyny without accepting the campaign’s version of the alternatives: Plan B inaccessible to all or Plan B inaccessible to some, no funding for Planned Parenthood or Hyde Amendment-restricted funding for Planned Parenthood, closed abortion clinics or understaffed abortion clinics. Even as we GOTV, let’s follow the lead of radical grassroots organizers, who often live and work within the communities electoral politics overlook, and aim higher than the limited scope of the major parties. Let’s not just keep abortion clinics open; let’s fund and build more, supported by taxpayer dollars, so women in currently underserved areas are truly guaranteed the right to choose. Obviously personhood amendments and the repeal of Obamacare would be disastrous for contraceptive access, but that doesn’t mean we should settle for the Democrats’ counter-offer: we need free over the counter birth control of all types, including Plan B for girls under 16. What about reproductive health for the trans community, an issue absent from the electoral debate? What about stopping (already illegal) forced sterilizations in prisons? I bet we can start fighting for a better feminist future than Women for Obama has even imagined.

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