Is this what a feminist looks like?

I say yes, and I think Ms. Magazine’s cover is great. Obama has reportedly self-identified as a feminist, and has the legislative record to back it up. Is he a perfect feminist, or a perfect progressive? Not by any stretch of the imagination. Is he going to disappoint us over and over? Yeah, he’s already started. But he’s still pretty damned good, especially for a mainstream, center-left politician elected to the highest office, and I don’t really see the point in kicking him out of the club just yet.

The cover has been fairly controversial. But I think Ellie Smeal is right:

When the chair of the Feminist Majority Foundation board, Peg Yorkin, and I met Barack Obama, he immediately offered “I am a feminist.” And better yet, he ran on the strongest platform for women’s rights of any major party in American history. Feminist Karen Kornbluh, the platform’s principle author, ensured women’s rights, opportunities, advancement, and issues were addressed throughout the historic document.

Never has it been easy fighting for equality and social justice. The politics of Washington, our nation, and our world are tough. We have spent far too many years fighting to hold the ground we had already gained. Now is the time to move forward. We are in one of those rare transformational times in history.

But we are not giving President-Elect Obama a blank check. For our hopes to be achieved, we must speak out and organize, organize, organize to enable our new president’s team to achieve our common goals. Ultimately, we must hold our leaders’ feet to the fire or, to put it more positively, uplift them when they are caught in the crosscurrents of competing interests.

Now is our time to think big. We cannot settle for less…too many women’s lives, too many people’s lives, depend on it.

In loosely-related fangirl and self-promoting moments, I’m quoted in this issue of Ms, in their Visions for Change article, where feminist activists share their hopes for the Obama administration. Reading through the list of quotes — bell hooks! Kavita Ramdas! Alice Walker! Dolores Huerta! Ani Difranco! — I kind of feel like the kid who doesn’t belong, but it’s nonetheless immensely flattering to be on that list. So check it out. And you can share your vision for transformational change here (and let us know what it is in the comments).

What do you all think of the cover?

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30 comments for “Is this what a feminist looks like?

  1. Jeffrey
    January 14, 2009 at 9:51 am

    I love it. For one, I think he really is a feminist (though, as you say, not a perfect one) and we should be celebrating that fact. But also, I think that him calling himself a feminist rather than some wishy-washy substitute like “supporter of women’s rights” will help to destimatize the label. I’m lucky to have never been derided for identifying as a feminist but a lot of people, men and women, are. Maybe my fellow college-age men will realize that “feminism” isn’t a dirty word when a man like Obama proclaims himself to be one.

    Also, I think that Obama’s imperfect feminism is not necessarily something worthy of teeth gnashing. There was an article on a few days ago that expressed the hope that Obama isn’t the reincarnation of Abraham Lincoln. Although a progressive, Lincoln didn’t particularly want to free slaves or do anything much more than prevent disunion. He had to be cajoled and prodded into every abolitionist step he took. Even if Obama does end up disappointing us, I think it’s very likely that we can push him hard enough to turn him back around.

  2. January 14, 2009 at 9:53 am

    Ann Bartow argues that “Ms. is… symbolically looking to a male superhero to ‘rescue’ feminism,” and I have to disagree. I don’t think the image is meant to imply that Obama is somehow “rescuing” feminism, only that one of the world’s most influential, well-respected and potentially powerful leaders is a self-identified feminist. He will be expected to have Superman-like powers in the upcoming administration (ex. save the economy), but isn’t it reassuring to know that under the suit and tie exterior beats the heart of a feminist who’s looking out for the interests of women’s health, education, access to reproductive rights, and so many other important feminist issues? I personally love this cover and plan to buy a copy of the poster as soon as I get paid :-)

    Also, I love the quotes for visions of change, especially the ones by bell hooks and Andrea Smith!

  3. Caro
    January 14, 2009 at 10:56 am

    Agreed, Jill! I think it’s cute and fun and topical — what, were they gonna have a cover that didn’t have anything to do with the new President who so many feminists voted for and worked so hard to get elected?

    I suppose one’s feelings about the cover depend a lot on how one interprets it and what anxieties one projects onto it. For example, I read someone saying that making Obama into Clark Kent with a feminist Superman hiding underneath implied that “feminist” was a secret identity that one should hide and do only in secret — and I think that is a sensitive issue for all of us, figuring out how to balance our feminist identity with the practical concerns involved in trying to work with people who think “feminist” is a dirty word. There’s also the sort of awkward juxtaposition of this cover with the original Ms. “Wonder Woman for President” cover. Basically, I can see why people are upset, and it certainly wasn’t the smartest thing for Ms. to do. But I feel like it’s the same old fights we were having back during the primaries (about whether men can be feminists/feminist allies, etc. and whether feminists should support them) and frankly, I’m pretty exhausted by it all at this point. :)

  4. Matt
    January 14, 2009 at 11:04 am

    I think it’s a little premature. Self-identifying as a feminist is an important symbolic step, but I’m withholding judgment until we actually see some results from the Oval Office. The gap between campaign and government can be pretty big.

  5. January 14, 2009 at 11:27 am

    Thumbs WAY down. If Obama was to wear the shirt and pose with it, that would be one thing. But I have a big problem with the words being Photoshopped on his body, just as I would be furious if they were PSed on mine. Feminism has it bad with trying to Deebo (look it up) up some heroes, snatching and claiming every person who ever smiled at a feminist.

  6. January 14, 2009 at 11:37 am

    Well, I think McEwan put it best, in that it does have the imagery of a man sweeping in to rescue feminism. It would have been less so if it would have simply had him wearing a t-shirt or holding one. But the super hero imagery paints another picture altogether, and completely dismisses the work of women who have done actual feminist work and who have proclaimed themselves feminists in public, and not just in private meetings w/ people whose support they are meaning to court, to be reported later. If he wants to get up on national TV and proclaim it loud and proud, like other women politicians have, then this might be slightly less offensive in the future.

    It is also having the title thrust upon him, and not him personally choosing it. I am excited that he is my President, and in the end I supported him even if he wasn’t my first choice, b/c I don’t believe that he earned my vote or his 100% NARAL rating out right (he is pro-choice, but totally not perfect at all), but he was the best option available when I stepped into a booth. He is full of promise, and I do hope to see good things continue to happen w/ him at the helm, but this cover is like a slap in the face. The thing he has done are basics along feminist lines, the gimmes, and not at all the front line fights that other prominent women have been doing (like w/ the HHS rule change fight) and deserve this kind of credit for.

  7. marilove
    January 14, 2009 at 11:48 am

    Love the idea, and I agree — he is a feminist. But I am also a little bothered by the implication that he’s a Superhero Feminist Who Is Of Course Male!

    But, at the same time, I’ve seen other Superhero graphics/art featuring Obama, so I think that is where their insperation came from.

  8. January 14, 2009 at 11:53 am

    I knew that they would take a ton of flak the moment I saw it, and I unsubscribed from Ms. a couple of months ago for totally unrelated reasons, but I think it’s cute. My impression also wasn’t that they’re saying “he’s a super-feminist” but that they’re saying “he’s a superhero and a feminist.” Though I can see where the other interpretation comes from.

  9. Jeffrey
    January 14, 2009 at 12:48 pm

    I might be looking at it through overly rosy glasses, but I see it as Obama ripping off his suit (centrism/established powers) to put on the outfit he needs to save the day (feminism).

  10. January 14, 2009 at 12:50 pm

    I guess I saw it differently. To me it shows pride in using the word feminist instead of derision that we’ve had for years. I don’t think feminism needs to be saved I think we need to make women understand that they are feminists whether they know it or not, if they are making independent choices in their lives.

  11. SKM
    January 14, 2009 at 12:53 pm

    I am with those above who think this cover would be very different if Obama had publicly identified himself using the word “feminist”, and/or if he had worn the shirt rather than having the words Photoshopped in. As it is, the cover does not work for me at all.

  12. January 14, 2009 at 1:03 pm

    Well, I assume Ms. does have 11 other issues in the year, and somewhere in the neighborhood of 400-500 covers since it began in the early 70s. I assume they’ve recognized prominent women, given their pedigree and title, in those issues, and probably even within the pages of the issue at hand.

  13. Unree
    January 14, 2009 at 1:13 pm

    These “feminist” defenses of the image are tortured to the point of farce. Be interesting to see, in the future, what President Obama says or does that some apologist won’t say is just fine if you cross your eyes and look at it another way. During the campaign, the favorite was a candidate must do bad things (FISA, Pastor Donnie etc.) to get elected. I guess the rationales will be (1) he has to appease the right wing, (2) he has to get reelected, and (3) don’t forget, Superman has done many good things. And don’t forget, these rationales are feminist.

  14. January 14, 2009 at 2:22 pm

    In the 37 years of Ms.’ existence, it’s had only 12 where there was a pro-choice President, and I’m not enough of a Presidential historian to know whether Carter or Clinton successfully prevented any erosion of or encroachment upon Roe v. Wade. I do know that the Ledbetter fair pay bill would have been vetoed by Bush or McCain, and that the woman responsible (Lily Ledbetter) campaigned with the Obama-Biden team.

    Feminism is a spectrum and not binary, right?

  15. January 14, 2009 at 3:25 pm

    On the “superhero” imagery, I honesty parsed it thus:

    “Barack Obama’s secret hidden identity is as a feminist”. Just as Clark Kent’s secret hidden identity is Superman, etc.

    Obviously this leads back to questions about why a man would need to have “feminist” as a hidden identity, rather than something worn openly, but I don’t think that the “superhero” image is “man swoops in to save Womankind” the way some people seem to be reading it.

    Also, since Barack Obama has (according to others on this thread) openly stated his feminist self-identity, it would seem to be an inaccurate way to represent his relationship to feminism.

  16. marilove
    January 14, 2009 at 3:26 pm

    Uh, SKM? Obama has said he is a feminist. He makes no bones about it. He is not afraid to say it.

    “When the chair of the Feminist Majority Foundation board, Peg Yorkin, and I met Barack Obama, he immediately offered “I am a feminist.” ”

    He IS a feminist and he’s proud of it.

    hasn’t anyone else seen that image? I’m just using a random image off of google (“Obama superhero”), but I’ve seen variations of that everywhere. It is, in fact, the first thing I thought of when I saw the Ms. picture. I’m nearly positive they are playing off this image.

    ( direct link if for some reason the image doesn’t work. )

  17. January 14, 2009 at 3:34 pm

    I’m a big fan of superhero images in general – so I was delighted to see this one.

    As to what it means – people will disagree. I found it optimistic, and I could personally use a little optimism about women’s rights these days.

  18. January 14, 2009 at 3:36 pm

    With all due respect, the Visions for Change is nice, but sorely typical of Ms.

    I find it sadly ironic that the whole platform of Obama’s campaign (and what Jill spoke to) emphasized that change begins with people, everyday folks like you and me, who work at a grassroots level to organize for change.

    I would have loved to see at least half of those women or feminist “experts” come from somewhere other than the usual suspects. I see their point to highlight the well known warriors of feminism and its nice to see such a distinguished list, but a little more vision for the feminist vision list could go a long way.

    I would have loved to see other warriors – other faces of feminism – women whose names we would not recognize.

  19. marilove
    January 14, 2009 at 3:55 pm

    ALSO!! It is very well known that Obama is a HUGE Comic book fan.

    He’s going to be in his very own comic!

  20. Morgan
    January 14, 2009 at 3:56 pm

    bothersome. i can’t see someone as a feminist when they continually spit in the face of the LGBTQ community. i hope they pull it.

  21. SarahMC
    January 14, 2009 at 3:59 pm

    So only two people from the Feminist Majority Foundation have allegedly heard Obama say he’s a feminist, and he deserves to not only have the label thrust upon him, but superhero status? When Obama publicly identifies as a feminist I’ll call him a feminist. He’s doing the bare minimum required to be considered a friend-to-women, people. Don’t get ahead of yourselves.

  22. January 14, 2009 at 5:41 pm

    I think pretty much what Melissa McEwan thinks on the subject.

  23. January 14, 2009 at 7:24 pm

    I love the feminist community, but boy, we can make hay out of anything, can’t we? Sheesh. Anyone who gets sucked into this by getting angry has been used by Ms. Magazine to get attention. Good on Ms. for the PR stunt, and ha to anyone who got sucked in.

  24. Anne
    January 14, 2009 at 7:47 pm

    Someone calling themselves a feminist does not make them a feminist. He is not a feminist. A feminist would not be pandering to the right wing the way he has been. A feminist would not have Warren at their inauguration. A feminist would have fired that disgusting speech writer.

  25. Unree
    January 15, 2009 at 1:30 am

    I love the feminist community, but boy, we can make hay out of anything, can’t we? Sheesh. Anyone who gets sucked into this by getting angry has been used by Ms. Magazine to get attention. Good on Ms. for the PR stunt, and ha to anyone who got sucked in.

    Huh? Nobody should object when a storied feminist publication applies the word feminist to a man while calling him Superman? When it has never suggested that a feminist woman was some kind of heroic icon? When the man so honored has never declared (to more than two people in a top secret meeting) any desire to be known by this term?

    Speaking only for myself, I don’t think any feminist hay was made. I didn’t get sucked in and don’t see a PR triumph. If I’m angry–I don’t think I am, but let’s just say–how does Ms. profit from my reaction? I didn’t buy the magazine or even click on a website. I just think a bit less of the editors and their funders. I wish both Obama and Ms. mag well, but that cover was a mistake.

  26. lyra27
    January 15, 2009 at 12:40 pm

    Word to what Melissa McEwan said. The superhero imagery takes a nice idea (that the president is a feminist) and puts it waaaay over the top, complicating the message in the process. There were better ways to do this, IMHO.

  27. January 16, 2009 at 2:44 am

    I have been interested in how this cover is interpreted by it’s audience. As the artist who created the cover, I think it has done what it intended to do. All covers want to get noticed and to get people talking and take notice. I did not choose this concept but was hired to paint it. Sure it is not serious but symbolic. I liked the alternative idea that he is HIDING his feminist identification. I didn’t think of that. My reading of it is that Obama will be a positive force in the White House for women in this country. Whether this comes from a man or a woman should not be an issue.
    Thanks for the discussion.

  28. A Real Male Feminist
    January 22, 2009 at 1:57 am

    Looks like feminists are subdued into “uncriticalness” as well. I cannot imagine what horrible thing Obama will have to do before anyone except for the most extreme Leftists criticizes him. It’s amazing — bell hooks criticizes everyone but to put stock in a “president” of this country? I really hope I do not become mainstream like my feminist idols have.

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