I've written a great deal about how this historic election season has led to a number of political firsts, but I've never seen it expressed quite this way: in a recent column for Newsweek, Martin Linsky wrote, "This campaign will always be remembered for the emergence of the first serious woman candidate for president: Barack Obama." It's a loaded statement that got me thinking beyond Linsky's particular charge to a larger summation: that this political moment has by and large been the result of feminism.
Everyone knows that Clinton's rise -- from her law degree at Yale to her Senate seat -- would not have been possible without the groundwork laid by feminists. March is Women's History Month, and as we acknowledge her historic ascent, it does us good to remember the years of struggle that launched it: the suffrage movement of the early 20th century, the demands for equal pay and equal rights (sans amendment) of the second stage, and the spirited work of the third wave to ensure that the 21st century will be the time for parity. Indeed, the possibility we now have for a woman to command the highest office in our country rests on the labors of the women and supportive men that have come before, and on those who continue to toil for gender justice.
Yet Linsky's comment begs us to probe further -- for what is rarely acknowledged is what feminism has done for men. How else could we arrive at such a moment when the male democratic frontrunner for the presidency is likened to a woman -- and is celebrated for it? Feminism has not only made inroads for women into the worlds of business and politics; it has challenged long-standing assumptions regarding masculinity, significantly expanding the box in which men and boys experience and display their maleness.
More and more men are taking an active part in the raising of their children -- and loving it -- thanks to both the policy shifts and cultural shifts brought by feminism. Workplaces are more family-friendly, gender roles are more flexible, and even the most masculine of institutions -- the armed forces -- boasts beneficial changes because women have entered the ranks. These transformations are palpable and positive, and have led me to wish for a major ad campaign spanning television screens, radio waves, and the sides of buses nationwide depicting how greatly men have benefited from the women's movement. Its caveat would read: "This Opportunity Has Been Brought to You by Feminism."
Of course, these changes have been very good for Senator Obama. Feminism has made it possible for him to do what Clinton, and many other women leaders, feel that they can't: actually own those leadership traits that are seen as feminine (a claim which brain research has shown to exist). Feminism has made it possible for men to be more inclusive -- soft even -- without being diminished. On the contrary, men who add these traits to their manly ways are in great demand, from your house to the White House.
Our country certainly needs to incorporate feminine styles of leadership -- cowboy diplomacy has left us in quite the dire domestic and global state -- and so I applaud our nation's approval of Obama's feminine approach. Yet this endorsement is a product of hard-fought feminist fights, many of which are far from won. And so as we honor this new era that we find ourselves in, and as we celebrate Women's History Month, I hope that the disparate and unfair situation in which women leaders often find themselves in is acknowledged and rejected as well. I hope Obama's rise is accompanied by a new movement on the part of male leaders to ameliorate their leadership -- and that we can learn, as a nation, to truly accept women leading alongside them.
Originally published at The Huffington Post.
Marie C. Wilson is president of The White House Project (www.thewhitehouseproject.org) and author of Closing the Leadership Gap: Add Women, Change Everything (Penguin, 2008).
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