AUSTIN, Texas—Feminist icon Gloria Steinem took to the stump on Hillary Clinton’s behalf here last night and quickly proved that she has lost none of her taste for provocation.
From the stage, the 73-year-old seemed to denigrate the importance of John McCain’s time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. In an interview with the Observer afterward, she suggested that Barack Obama benefits—and Clinton suffers—because Americans view racism more seriously than sexism.
Steinem also told the crowd that one reason to back Clinton was because “she actually enjoys conflict.”
And she claimed that if Clinton’s experience as First Lady were taken seriously in relation to her White House bid, people might “finally admit that, say, being a secretary is the best way to learn your boss’s job and take it over.”
Steinem raised McCain’s Vietnam imprisonment as she sought to highlight an alleged gender-based media bias against Clinton.
“Suppose John McCain had been Joan McCain and Joan McCain had got captured, shot down and been a POW for eight years. [The media would ask], ‘What did you do wrong to get captured? What terrible things did you do while you were there as a captive for eight years?’” Steinem said, to laughter from the audience.
McCain was, in fact, a prisoner of war for around five-and-a-half years, during which time he was tortured repeatedly. Referring to his time in captivity, Steinem said with bewilderment, “I mean, hello? This is supposed to be a qualification to be president? I don’t think so.”
Steinem’s broader argument was that the media and the political world are too admiring of militarism in all its guises.
“I am so grateful that she [Clinton] hasn’t been trained to kill anybody. And she probably didn’t even play war games as a kid. It’s a great relief from Bush in his jump suit and from Kerry saluting.”
To the Observer, Steinem insisted that “from George Washington to Jack Kennedy and PT-109 we have behaved as if killing people is a qualification for ruling people.”
Other Clinton proxies, notably Black Entertainment Television founder Bob Johnson and a New Hampshire campaign chair, Billy Shaheen, have generated controversies with their criticisms of Obama. By contrast, Steinem told me the Illinois senator was “an intelligent, well-intentioned person.” She added: “I would like very much to see him be president for eight years after Hillary has been president for eight years.”
But she also opined that “a majority of Americans want redemption for racism, for our terrible destructive racist past and so see a vote for Obama as redemptive.” Then, using a term for the mass killing of women, she added, “I don’t think as many want redemption for the gynocide.”
“They acknowledge racism—not enough, but somewhat,” Steinem continued. “They would probably be less likely to acknowledge that the most likely way a pregnant woman is to die is murder from her male partner. There are six million female lives lost in the world every year simply because they are female.”
Steinem has been a Clinton supporter for several years—even though, as she reminded me, she protested against Bill Clinton’s welfare reforms outside the White House. Her support for the former First Lady has become more high-profile of late. She penned a January op-ed for the New York Times backing Clinton and asserting that “gender is probably the most restricting force in American life.” She was also one of the women’s rights activists who signed a February 15 letter published on the Huffington Post that insisted, “It’s time for feminists to say that Senator Obama has no monopoly on inspiration.”
Yesterday’s event, billed by the Clinton campaign as “One Million for Hillary with Gloria Steinem,” was one of several appearances scheduled for the veteran feminist across Texas as Tuesday’s primary looms. It was held in a downtown music venue and was attended by around 200 people, the vast majority of whom were women. Before Steinem spoke, two Clinton campaign ads focusing on female support were shown, to applause.
In her speech, Steinem argued that there was a major sexist component to the murmurs from some quarters suggesting Clinton should abandon her presidential quest.
There is, she said, “a great deal of pressure at play for her to act like her gender and give in.” Several shouts of “No!” came from the crowd. Steinem went on: “It’s a way of reinforcing the gender roles, right? Men are loved if they win and Hillary is loved if she loses…But maybe we shouldn’t be so afraid of an open convention that actually decides something. After all, it was an open convention in New York City that gave us Abraham Lincoln.”
Steinem’s speech offered, Letterman-style, ten reasons why she was supporting Hillary. Most were serious, though one of the more flippant was “We get Bill Clinton as Eleanor Roosevelt.”
Steinem, like any good politician, also made sure to praise her surroundings. True to her own spirit, though, she did so in less decorous terms than any candidate for office would dare.
Other than Austin, she said, “there is no community in the whole world that understands how to include everybody, how to be serious and have a good time at the same time, how to be fan-fucking-tastic” quite so well.
UPDATE: The Clinton campaign sends over the following statement from Howard Wolfson: "Senator Clinton has repeatedly praised Senator McCain's courage and service to our country. These comments certainly do not represent her thinking in any way. Senator Clinton intends to have a respectful debate with Senator McCain on the issues."