« Cross the Border, Close the Gap (Part 1) | Main | Unwritten Rules »

Warm Regards & Power Chords

By Wesley Hogan

Robin Morgan is justly celebrated by liberty lovers around the world for her pioneering writing and cultural activism on behalf of women’s freedom. Her bold statements paved the way for women like me to pursue a professional and personal life free from the fetters binding my own mom, grandmother, and aunts. When I first read Sisterhood is Powerful and Morgan’s essays as a college student in the 1980s, I took time to write an exuberant note: “the huge great picture I am exploring is like finding words to every longing, every doubt, and every need I had but couldn’t articulate. These writings have launched an expansion of mind and soul for me - I hope I can give back someday the benefits of what I am absorbing.”

And when Hillary Rodham Clinton (HRC) became the first woman to have a real shot at the presidency over the last eighteen months, Morgan again fought courageously to expose the sexism Clinton faces down every day in the media, among politicians, and on the campaign trail. The first half of Morgan’s recent essay, “In Support of Hillary Rodham Clinton, Goodbye to All That, Part II,” Morgan lists the damning evidence that shows feminism is still essential to all people who aspire to be part of a free culture. From South Park’s plotline featuring terrorists who put a bomb in HRC’s vagina to men chanting “Iron my shirt!” outside a rally to Roger Stone’s new Hillary-hating 527 group, “Citizens United Not Timid,” Morgan says “goodbye” to all cultural and political hate against Clinton’s presidential run.

I thank her for this essential cultural service.

But Robin Morgan may well have fallen victim to her own anger and it has blinded her to what is happening in the nation. Her misreading is evident in her own clear prose. The result could be calamitous for Morgan’s future recruiting ability, either in presidential politics or other worthy causes that touch upon broad transformations in America. It is necessary, then, to find respectful ground, democratic ground, on which to stand on in order to hold accountable one’s cherished heroines.

So with some trepidation, but in tribute to the candor her own example nurtures in me, I seek to stand on that ground and respond to the last half of Morgan’s recent essay. Here, her critical eye turns from sexism in the wider culture to those women who support Obama. They support him, she thinks, because their male boyfriends and family members do. They support him, she states, because they’re fearful a strong woman is unelectable. They support him, she contends, because they “can’t identify with a woman candidate [who] is unafraid of eeueweeeu yucky power.” They support him because they are deluded that women are already free. Morgan quotes Harriet Tubman to make the last point: only if women know they are enslaved by a sexist society can they be guided to freedom from that slavery.

I am not deluded or fearful or trying to impress my man. I supported Obama before my partner, sons, father, or male colleagues did. Most of them were surprised that I didn’t support HRC, given my reputation within the family and community for speaking out for women’s rights. My uncle, whose affectionate if ironic term for me since college has been “the family femi-nazi,” could hardly believe his ears. How weird and sad that Morgan does not seem to believe hers either.

It is true – though not quite in the way Morgan intended – that I am skeptical, if not “afraid,” of yucky power. That is, I’m wary of the kind of power cultural commentator Starhawk called “power-over” rather than “power-to.” Power-over is hierarchical power, Bush-Cheney power, Lyndon Johnson power – it is power to put someone in their “place” through punishment: withholding a job, silencing a report, denying a raise, sending in the Marines. And I agree with Morgan, HRC does do a better job than Obama at wielding this kind of power: Power-as-domination.

Here’s the problem: sustainable democracies can’t run on this kind of power. Power-as-domination is the very fuel making possible sexism, racism, empire, ageism and oppression of every kind. Power-over knows no party affiliation: it appears to most Americans to be the coin of the political realm.

In contrast, the concept of “power-to” is less familiar in the West. It is a kind of power best been represented worldwide by people like Gandhi, Wangari Maathai and the Dalai Lama, (and is actually gaining a measure of currency among some American business management elites). In the American freedom struggle, women like Diane Nash, Casey Hayden, and Ella Baker helped make it visible throughout the South and eventually throughout the nation. “It is the power that comes from within,” writes Starhawk. “Our ability to dare, to do, and to dream; our creativity. Power from within is unlimited. If I have the power to write, it doesn’t diminish your power: in fact, my writing might inspire you or illuminate your thinking.”[1] This is the kind of power Obama invoked with his first stump speech: that “yes we can” reach for a better world that stretched the Founders, and the abolitionists, and the populists, and the pioneer industrial unionists, and those who sat-in at the lunch counters in 1960. Obama not only surpasses Clinton in his mastery of this kind of power, Clinton has never advanced it, much less mobilized others to act on it.

Nowhere is this more evident in the way they have conducted themselves on the campaign trail. Clinton will stop at nothing to win. Any tactic is permissible as long as it gets her to her goal: the presidency. Obama insists that the means must be consistent with the ends: he does not feel his kind of politics can prevail unless the process itself is clean.

And this is where I part ways with Morgan. I don’t support Obama because he’s black and racism is the country’s original sin, or because I’m fearful of going against my men folk, nor do I support Clinton because I’m female and feel HRC can better fight for my needs.

I’m voting for political substance over political identity.

The substance: I want a President who uses power democratically, not to dominate. So how does power-to work? This seems to be something that Obama himself has trouble describing, despite the fact that he is the most talented national communicator since FDR. It is people-power, the power to bring people together, listen to their goals and dreams, and then organize them to work toward those goals. Obama describes his apprenticeship in learning how to wield this kind of power as a community organizer in Dreams from My Father. Ironically, the skills required of community organizers often overlap with the culturally-sanctioned training of females: warmth, empathy, compassion, and above all, a singular ability to listen. Community organizers figure out what the community wants, and then help people stand up and act in public for their goals. Obama combines this with another trait common to community organizers: speaking truth to power. Clinton says she will get up every morning and work hard for the American people. I don’t doubt she would. The difference is, I don’t want someone working for me. I like the accountability Obama’s vision brings: he wants to work with us, not for us.

It’s all about listening. Though I’m freighting that term with something more than what’s ordinarily invoked by the word. I mean the kind of listening done by the Dalai Lama, by Ella Baker: it includes opening oneself up to the views of others in order to expand one’s capacity to see things from another perspective. It means opening oneself up to doubt and questioning one’s own thinking. Listening becomes an inherently communal act, drawing on the certainty that everyone – from Pat Buchanan to Sista Souljah, from Milton Friedman to Jim Hightower – has something to contribute to the civic conversation.

But you cannot hear people if you condescend to them, if you think you know better than them what they need. This kind of condescension from the nation’s politicians, intellectuals, and journalists defines nearly the entire range of civic conversation, marking attitudes from right to left throughout the twentieth century, from FDR, Roy Wilkins and JFK to Nixon, James Baker, Donald Rumsfeld and yes, the controlling condescension can be seen in Hillary Clinton. Simply put, HRC can’t hear from most of us because she condescends to us. She can’t imagine that ordinary every-day people are as important to solving critical societal issues as are political elites. She doesn’t believe that people-power is as potent as power-over.

Morgan tells us HRC is more qualified. Again, if one is looking at her ability to wield power-over, I believe Morgan is correct. But the future of the Democratic Party is not in power-over, but in power-to. Morgan claims HRC has better connections and funding and party-building background, ones that she notes “Obama was awfully glad about when she raised dough and campaigned for him to get to the Senate in the first place.” In this, Morgan is mistaken. While Clinton undoubtedly had the initial advantage (say, up through mid-2007) in fund-raising, DNC connections, and ward-level machinery, it’s increasingly clear that in all three areas Obama has recruited thousands of party functionaries to his vision of power-to. These include party veterans tired of Senator Clinton’s bag-o-dirty tricks (Bill Richardson, Al Gore, Jimmy Carter) and idealists – young and old alike — who believe that this country can still fulfill its mission of “government by and for the people.” Obama’s vision has resulted in the most effective and lucrative direct-contribution campaign since the mail-ins of the Religious Right in the 1980s. He has done a superb job – a job superior to Clinton – of raising funds from the average American, and in so doing has largely liberated himself from corporate influence.

Let me be clear: Clinton plays by rules I won’t play by. She wants to beat Karl Rove at his own game, and thinks that when she does, that is feminism. She presents herself as a “kill or be killed” kind of feminist who will fight for what she believes in even if she has to use unprincipled methods to get there. To this end, she isn’t democratic, even though she supports goals (universal health care, fairer tax policy, child care supports, educational improvement) that are necessary building blocks for a more democratic society.

Morgan says “goodbye to turning [Obama] into a shining knight when actually he’s an astute, smooth pol with speechwriters who’ve worked with the Kennedys’ own speechwriter-courtier Ted Sorenson. If it’s only about ringing rhetoric, let speechwriters run. But isn’t it about getting the policies we want enacted?” Morgan here seems blind to the difference between power-over and power-to as well: she still comes down with this "idealistic but misguided" line on Obama that is inherently pro-status quo. This is the politics of power-over in action. Where, after all, did Obama get the ideas in his speeches? Ted Sorenson? The Kennedys? Charisma? No. His ideas have matured over a long period of time, and yet are remarkably consistent. He has spoken the same language since his 20s. His vantage point is hard-earned experience: power-to works better than power-over.

Feminism’s genius is to liberate people – and the culture at large – from all gender stereotypes. And that brings me to one more harsh power-over chord that Morgan surely did not intend to strike. The baby boomer women Morgan and the feminist movement propelled upward in the 1970s are now in positions of authority in the academy, in business, in law, in medicine. They may not be at the very top, but they often end up supervising 20- and 30-year old women of my own generation. They serve on our dissertation or tenure committees, they vote for the new law partners, they decide on promotions, they help pick who will be chief resident. For me, these women have been fabulous: role models who support, nurture, mentor and advise. I’ve been so lucky to work with women like this, and could not have developed as an historian without them. And I think this is the general rule for women in the workplace. But as others of us can testify, a good third of these baby boomer women wield their “feminism” like a Neanderthal’s club. If you won’t subscribe to their brand of feminism (working full-time instead of 40%, having children only after you get to partner or tenure, traveling on the same schedule as the men in the firm), you can kiss their support goodbye. They hold back their vote, deny your promotion, reassign your patients. It’s the kind of “goodbye” that the second half of Morgan’s essay too easily and eerily echoes. It’s the same kind of power that Clinton wields – power-over rather than power-to. So when Morgan says she’s not voting for Hillary because Clinton is a woman, but because Morgan is a woman, it leaves plenty of us cold. And somehow, Morgan claims that Clinton is more practical and “to the left of” Obama. Too many of us have had too many experiences where the foot on our neck has been that of a self-described feminist for this to resonate.

Morgan concludes by saying “Goodbye to supporting HRC tepidly, with ambivalent caveats and apologetic smiles. Time to volunteer, make phone calls, send emails, donate money, argue, rally, march, shout, vote.” She says “goodbye to Hillary’s second-guessing herself. The real question is deeper than her re-finding her voice. Can we women find ours? Can we do this for ourselves? ‘Our President, Ourselves!’”

I think the question must be respectfully but directly raised: Who is “we women,” Ms. Morgan? Hillary isn’t representing me. She isn’t interested in my voice. She thinks she knows what I need, and thinks she knows better than others how to get it for me.

Despite my firm belief that Obama represents a renewal of the democratic promise, and Clinton represents not only the policies but also the processes of the past, I agree with Morgan that Clinton could be a good U.S. president. Obama, however, with his 21st century vision of power-to, would make a better President. Not because he’s a man. In fact, it might be in spite of the fact that he’s been raised to manhood in this culture. Rather than tell me to shut up and listen to elders who know better, who’ve fought longer, who “really know the score,” he invites me into the national conversation, and makes a seat at the table for me. It’s a seat with real power, not a seat in Clinton’s photo-op.


1 Starhawk, Web of Power, 7-8.

From April, 2008