Thursday, August 19, 2010

The White House Project in the Age of Sarah Palin and the Mama Grizzlies

I attended the White House Project workshop at the 2010 Blogher conference although I had been feeling increasingly ambivalent about non-partisan efforts such as the White House Project and the Women’s Campaign fund, “She should Run” Campaign.

After the White House Project workshop, it was a relief to see Emily’s list put out a frankly partisan attack with its hilarious video “Sarah Doesn't Speak for Me” .

For the past several decades, electing women has been a major focus of my activist life. I first heard Marie Wilson at a Womens Way conference in Philadelphia in 2004 and was convinced she was on the right track. I attended Emily’s List training sessions and over the years participated in numerous local workshops on women in politics. I organized a series of workshops in Philadelphia to encourage women to run for committeeperson, and worked on numerous campaigns to elect women candidates, etc.etc.

So why was I doing all this? It wasn’t just the belief that both genders should be represented in roughly equal numbers in positions of political power. I saw gender parity in politics as way to achieve a progressive agenda. More women in power would mean redirecting funds from a bloated defense budget and investing instead in human needs. Sure, there were the Margaret Thatchers, but I explained them away as women who had clawed their way to the top in a male-dominated political culture. When women achieve critical mass, they will support each other and make it possible for more progressive leaders to emerge.

Well, it turns out the Thatcher types have their female support networks too. And focusing on women does not automatically lead to advancing a progressive agenda.

In this context the White House Project did not resonate with me the way it did in 2004. I understand that the White House Project is a 501c3 and cannot be overtly partisan without jeopardizing its tax exempt status and funding sources. And I grant that the kind of skills-oriented, non-partisan training the White House Project provides is valuable for women new to the political process.

The speakers were excellent. Jill Miller Zimon who described her journey from blogger to elected official was really inspirational and Kathryn Poindexter who did the practical “everything you need to know to run for office” workshop provided all kinds of useful advice. She encouraged everyone at the session to think about running for office.

But not everyone should run. Over the years, I’ve seen workshops like these encourage women who lack the skills/ temperament /the politics which are good fit for their district take up supporters’ time and money on doomed campaigns.

Every successful woman candidate needs a good team behind her and that’s the role I’ve played, but I have become increasingly resentful of candidates with little or no chance to win asking me for my time/money.

After Poindexter’s session, I expressed some of my reservations. She had some good answers: there are so many women out there who have difficulty thinking of themselves in this role. We need to get more women running if we are ever to get that critical mass. Gender parity changes the political dynamic. So if we encourage some weak or inappropriate candidates, that’s a small price to pay to get the word out to large numbers of women.

She and I are on opposite trajectories. Poindexter said she began her career as a campaign consultant, focusing on candidates with progressive /feminist politics—-not on the candidate’s gender. The 2008 election was a real turning point for her; when Cris Matthews said that Hillary Clinton just didn’t sound "presidential," Poindexter decided she’d had enough and wanted to focus on advancing women.

I agree we have a real problem here and grant that at least Sarah Palin and her Mama Grizzlies help to normalize the idea of women in high political office. But with their emergence on the national scene, I’ve begun to question my earlier focus on electing women as a kind of magic bullet.

Yes, I want gender parity but don’t want to achieve that critical mass of women leaders through electing women like Sarah Palin. I want to elect more feminist women (and men). Sarah sure doesn’t speak for me.


  1. I think this is a very very fair critique and obviously a heartfelt expression of your perspective, and I'm certain many others share it with you. I'm glad you were there (though I'm sorry we didn't find each other!!!)

  2. I too am sorry we didn’t meet in person, but maybe at the next blogher conference! Let’s keep in touch!

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  4. A while back, I posted something flippant about Sarah Palin, and an anonymous commenter blasted me, saying, "Can't you just promote women and leave the politics alone?" And the answer is, "Hell, no!"

    I was naive to think the answer to bad leadership was a gender-based answer. An ambitious, low-brow, misanthropic, celebrity-focused barracuda proved me wrong. Now, I see that just promoting women for office can be really dangerous for the country.

  5. This was interesting reading for me and I enjoyed meeting you at the conference. One thing for your consideration; you say "And focusing on women does not automatically lead to advancing a progressive agenda."

    But I think that focusing on women IS PART of a progressive agenda. It's not just a means, it's an end too.

    Shouldn't we live in a world where Barbara Boxer's hairstyle is never news, where when two women experts argue on TV it's never billed as a catfight, and while Sarah Palin may be "an ambitious, low-brow, misanthropic, celebrity-focused barracuda" as Nance says, it's a much bigger problem that she is actively working to restrict religious, speech, immigrant and reproductive freedoms that are critical to this country's health.

    To me, moving toward that world is and should be a key part of any progressive agenda. But there are probably as many progressive agendas as there are progressives; mine includes buying eggs today.

    And as part of my agenda I am working for the day when I can choose between two women running against each other for President. Then I'll do my best to take down the opponent based on her voting record, her policy positions and her promises. But never based on her ambition, her child-rearing choices, the size of her ankles or her fashion sense.

  6. Nance, I agree "just promoting women for office can be really dangerous for the country," and, Kathryn, you are right that "focusing on women IS PART of a progressive agenda."

    It’s more complicated than I once thought.

    It looks like Blogher is going to front page this post on Monday. If you get a chance, it would be great if you both could post your comments there.