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A Note on Hillary Rodham Clinton's DNC Speech


As you may have noticed, part of my motivation in watching/supporting the WNBA is that I think it does have a role in empowering young girls as part of a much larger agenda for gender equity.

So after commenting yesterday on the power of Michelle Obama's speech, I have to take a moment to comment on Hillary Clinton's speech.

And I have to say I was moved. Some people may question whether the speech was genuine...but what got me so excited (enough to write about it) was that it was probably the most substantive speech I've heard of this campaign season, rivaled only by Obama's speech on race. It was the speech I was waiting for her to give a long time ago and never got.

So I was sort of bothered by commentators that immediately commented on how appropriate/effective the speech was in endorsing Barack Obama because I think that minimizes the potential significance of this speech. To be sure, I do think she had to do something to convince the more dedicated Clinton supporters to vote for Obama. It's absolutely necessary for the sake of the democratic party regaining control of the White House.

But there's something about that speech that seemed to call for a broader movement that partisan politics and I think it would be a trageshamockery if it was reduced to nothing more than a partisan endorsement for a male counterpart. That is the kind of speech that can serve as the foundation of a movement that goes beyond partisan politics. From Lani Guinier via TheRoot.com (and it's worth reading the whole article):
The advancement of an exceptional symbol of women's accomplishment is a powerful motivator. However, it does little concrete good for ordinary women, unless more attention is paid to organizing fervent supporters into a mobilized constituency that can hold the next president, the next Congress and the media accountable to a pro-women and pro-America agenda. Being agents of change will require rolling up our sleeves and holding all politicians more accountable, including those who wear pantsuits and pearls.

Why not come together around concrete proposals to better the lives of poor and working-class women, rather than merely championing the stepping stones to which many college-educated professional women now feel entitled? From the proliferation of HIV among black women to the double bind of work and family faced by all women, it is time for a women's agenda that enlists support from all classes, all races and from men as well as women.
It strikes me that what Clinton's speech could inspire and what Guinier is calling for is a grassroots women's movement that makes all these lofty claims tossed around in presidential politics real for the women who need it most.

So here's a what if that goes beyond the obvious what ifs of what it might be like if Clinton were the democratic nominee or selected as vice president: what if members of Clinton's campaign were able to use the same new media movement model that Obama used to win the nomination for the sake of empowering women? Why not start to turn all this talk into concrete action?

I know that Clinton's constituency tends to be older than Obama's so the new media strategy might not be quite as "catchy". But the opportunity to build something historic -- perhaps as historic as becoming the first black or woman president -- is in Clinton's grasp. And ironically, after spending the primaries critiquing Obama for lacking legislative experience, the lasting significance of Clinton's campaign will depend on her similarly untested capacity for grassroots organizing.

I only wish that Clinton had given a speech like this during the primaries. It not only voiced the need for change, but the outline of an agenda for a movement. That's not just something I could believe in, but something I could actually work for. But perhaps losing out on the presidency this year is a blessing in disguise -- there are limits to what one can say and do as a president...like leading a grassroots movement.

But the even greater opportunity that Clinton insinuated by skillfully integrating the narrative of Harriet Tubman into her speech is that of overcoming the false dualism of "blackness" and "feminism". Of course, the way that plays out in people's life is hardly false, but if Clinton were to make a genuine effort to reach out to black, Asian, and Latina feminists, as Guinier suggests, she could begin to address problems that no single elected official could solve alone.

And she already has a good starting point in building a relationship with Michelle Obama, both ideologically in following Obama's speech and politically as she campaigns for Obama's husband. What if the two of them worked together on a grassroots new media women's movement, drawing upon the best of Obama's organizing strategies and the momentum generated from Clinton's campaign?

(Actually, I was thinking immediately after the speech that Ella Baker would have been a nice movement leader to quote -- her model of grassroots organizing embodied to some extent in the Mississippi Freedom Schools was pivotal in the Civil Rights Movement. There's no link that does Baker justice, so if you're interested, pick up Barbara Ransby's book Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement. Great read, great political organizing insight, vastly underrated movement leader.)

OK...I'll stop dreaming now and get back to basketball...but sometimes we have to appreciate the power of the moment. And I think we all witnessed a powerful moment last night that helps remind us that even those of us who don't have the privilege of living in the White House for four years can influence radical social change.

Related Links:

Clinton's journey awakens a new women's movement
http://www.boston.com/news/nation/articles/2008/08/27/clintons_journey_awakens_a_new_womens_movement/