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You Can Keep Your Old Brass Ring

Women should push for substance over symbolism in this election.

Read what XX Factor bloggers have written about Hillary’s exit.

Hillary Clinton

Neither my mother nor my grandmother is a Hillary Clinton supporter. Maybe that helps explain why the generational split over Clinton and Obama has puzzled me a little. I take it seriously, for sure—reminders of the divide have hit us all over the head many times during this endless primary season, not least in the lamentations over Hillary’s exit Saturday. We have heard over and over again of late that Clinton’s defeat is a blow to feminists and to organized feminism. It is supposed to prove that women are at odds with their best interests. But on some level, I still don’t get it. (Though I’m all for my colleague Dahlia Lithwick’s suggestions for healing the rift.)

Yes, Hillary’s defeat was a blow if you define organized feminism as the New York chapter of the National Organization of Women, which spewed in fury against Sen. Ted Kennedy for endorsing Obama. Or as embodied by Gloria Steinem or Robin Morgan or Geraldine Ferraro. But other women’s groups, like NARAL, backed Obama. And even NOW was divided this spring, with some state chapters backing him or suggesting that the organization as a whole stay out of the fight.

You can endlessly parse how women splintered in this primary: white vs. black, old vs. young—no wait, what about the middle-aged? You can see the lesson in all this splintering as “divided we stand, divided we fall.” And you can make women’s failure to vote for Hillary Clinton by the overwhelming margins that African-Americans voted for Obama look like evidence of our own self-defeating naiveté.

Or you can see it as a difference over tactics in a fight to win the same war—that is, vaulting a Democrat into the White House—because that’s the best bet for making headway on the issues all feminists care about.

The feminist agenda isn’t just about breaking the glass ceiling.  Feminists also are supposed want to fight to pass actual legislation that could make lots of women’s lives better, by providing for paid family leave, for example, or universal preschool, or Social Security parity, or this year’s Fair Pay Act. If you’re pro-choice, there is fighting to maintain legal access to abortion via the next president’s Supreme Court picks. The prospect of a woman in the White House is heady stuff, yes. But in the day-to-day slog of schlepping and groceries and pregnancy tests and worries about subpar day care, wouldn’t some of these more mundane gains have a larger impact in the end? Why should women and women’s groups care more about the who than about the what?

This is, of course, an old fight. In arguing over the priorities of the feminist movement, women have been waging one version or another of it since at least the 1960s. Linda Hirshman traces one aspect of the battle in the Washington Post and argues that in broadening their focus from the problems that only women face to the problems of disadvantaged groups in general, modern feminists let their electoral magic melt away. Hillary’s defeat, then, is evidence that “women have trouble voting their own interests,” as a past president of the National Council of Women’s Organizations said to Hirshman.

It’s this mind-set, along with pure Hillary loyalty, that’s presumably fueling the drive on the part of her supporters to propel her to the vice-presidential nomination. Maybe this push will prove short-lived, a last burst of Clinton campaign energy, a stage of grieving on the way to greater resolution. If that’s the case, I don’t begrudge Hillary supporters their V.P. ardor. If it took their candidate a few days to come to terms with her own loss, her supporters—who don’t do politics for a living—are due a longer grace period.

And yet I’m surprised and disappointed that the voters and groups who had aligned themselves with Clinton’s candidacy aren’t using this moment of maximum attention to thrust into the spotlight the rest of what could become a larger agenda. What about choosing three priorities from my back-of-the-envelope list? Or creating another list, if you like, and then holding Obama to it? If women got behind and won national paid family leave or a big chunk of new federal money for expanding preschool, wouldn’t that be a better test of collective voting power than the symbolic V.P. brass ring?

This is a lesson that comes straight from our foremothers. They’re the ones who pushed as hard as they could for equal pay, who won legislative victories that aim to protect us against discrimination in the workplace and elsewhere. They wanted women at the top of every field, yes, but as the Cat in the Hat would say, that is not all, oh no, that is not all. Ruth Rosen, author of The World Split Open: How the Modern Women’s Movement Changed America, points out that the 1970 Women’s Strike for Equality, which culminated in a march down Fifth Avenue, was about legal abortion, equal pay for equal work, and child care. Rosen thinks that the broadening of the agenda in the four decades is as it should be. “There was a time when it was really important to point out the things that only affect women,” she says. “Now it’s important to point out how problems that affect everyone affect women worse. Like home foreclosures.” At the same time, legal abortion is looking a little shaky these days, equal pay has been achieved more in theory than in practice, and child care hasn’t really been on the national agenda since the Nixon administration.

So there’s a real place now for women’s groups that push legislation instead of candidates—organizations like MomsRising and   9to5, National Association for Working Women, to name just two. These groups didn’t endorse Clinton or Obama. Their tax-exempt status doesn’t allow them to, and they have that status because they’re playing a different role than political action committees like NOW. The MomsRising and 9to5 Web sites are stuffed with information about which states are moving forward on paid family leave (New Jersey, lately) and access to preschool (Oklahoma and Georgia). “We do have Moms Vote 08,” says Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, one of the leaders of MomsRising. “It’s candidate bingo: You watch a debate and see who’s saying what about our issues. The candidates get a point each time they mention one of them, because our goal is to get any candidate talking about the things our members care about.”

And to listen to what they say. This spring, John McCain has opposed the Fair Pay Act on the probably specious ground that it will lead to frivolous lawsuits, while Barack Obama—as well as Clinton—voted for it. Women can still swing this election in ways that have nothing to do with the president’s gender and everything to do with the pressing day-to-day needs of women. If it’s a man who we get to give us what we want, hey, we’ll take it.