(The News-Gazette, Lexington, Virginia, September 6, 2017)
Buena Vista (pronounced “Byuna Vista”), Virginia, hosts a big breakfast, parade, and speeches each year on Labor Day. The Democrats and Republicans break their fast separately, and then join together for the parade and speeches. Buena Vista’s residents are mostly Republicans; many of the very few Democrats in attendance at the parade drive six miles on Route 60 East from the neighboring town of Lexington. You know Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Well, the Labor Day parade is a tale of two towns, one red, one blue.
My husband and I drove separately to the Democratic Party breakfast because we had to head in different directions afterwards. As I made the short drive, I listened to radio news about the impending death of DACA. Gender shrapnel news and events of the past week pierced my thoughts. A nurse in Utah was handcuffed by a policeman when she wouldn’t violate patient protections and draw blood from an unconscious patient. A 2014 report on sexual violence was removed from the White House website. Statistics about the enormous gender pay gap at the White House resurfaced for the Labor Day moment. Head of the Office of Civil Rights Candice Jackson boasted on her resume that she had fiercely attacked Hillary Clinton. In my own little town’s lovely pie festival, 99% of the young volunteers were girls, being trained to do free labor for their community while the boys did whatever the hell they wanted. Some major items, a few minor ones—together they made for gender shrapnel stew. And when I’m stewing, and the weather’s beautiful, and you’re supposed to just eat barbeque and enjoy, it can be rough going. The people who usually kindly listen to you or patiently analyze with you or fervently fume like you have had enough. People experience shrapnel overdoses and a need to disconnect, but I was still stewing and fuming. Breaking fast with the Dems didn’t help a whole lot.
When my husband and I got to the breakfast, we picked up our name tags from the front desk. Two women were working there, and they seemed to be the owners of the handsome cursive writing on the tags. My husband’s tag included the title “Dr.,” while mine just had my first and last name. Men gave each other hearty handshakes and then introduced their “better halves” to each other. We sat up front with some nice people who seemed to be regulars at the event. They welcomed us warmly, and we all made small talk.
There in the high school atrium, cinder block walls with “Go Blue” written in big letters, and a vague smell of ham on bun and creamed corn from high school lunches past, we were four feet from the slate of Democratic candidates. Candidate for lieutenant governor Justin Fairfax and local candidate John Winfrey sat in between the master of ceremonies and the minister. On the other side of the dais sat Ralph Northam, Tim Kaine, Mark Herring, and Creigh Deeds, well known Democratic candidates and elected officials.
Each did the job he had to do, and each spoke quite well. The minister gave a prayer and blessed the meal. For an atheist who believes fiercely in the separation of church and state, the blessings and prayers made me roll my eyes, think impure thoughts, and glance around at everyone in a more curious way than I normally would. The MC spoke eloquently and graciously and thanked all the right people. John Winfrey spoke briefly to make room in the packed schedule for those who had a helicopter waiting to whisk them away. Justin Fairfax spoke with great warmth and charisma. Creigh Deeds demonstrated his decades of political knowledge in Virginia. Mark Herring spoke in concrete terms about the four years of work he has done as attorney general and the plans he has for the next term. Ralph Northam, clearly avoiding any talk of the pipeline or Dominion, hewed to the topic he knows best, healthcare. I had to remind myself to pay good attention to him because he looks and sounds so much like a former boyfriend that it was distracting. Tim Kaine thanked Democrats for their activism since 2016, talked about how Democrats need to make opportunities for all, and inspired the crowd to work hard on behalf of the party until November 7th. For the most part, the speakers were well-prepared and interesting.
I watched and noticed the rhetorical requirements of political speakers in this kind of event—an ability to modulate the voice in order to gently whip up the crowd, a certain false language of self-deprecation as the speakers listed their many accomplishments, a buddy-buddy network demonstrated through the personal stories the men told about each other, and an insistence on talking about the abnegating women who indulge the husbands’ “call” to public service and still feel hot and romantic towards them, all these years later, in a kind of Al and Tipper French kiss thrall.
Have you noticed where I’m breaking fast? Six Democratic candidates, all men. One of them black, five white. An older white man as MC and an older white man as minister. To use the overly popular new term, the optics aren’t good. At the same time, I really think I was the only person of the 200 or so at the breakfast who gave a shit about gender in that moment, who noticed how the men ran the public show and the women ran the private one, who wondered if there is a real place in any political party for 51% of the population. To use Danielle Allen’s words, is there a way for women in any party to be “democratic authors”—to make themselves trustworthy, to participate in tough public policy debates, and to foment conversations that include all the people? Is the big failed Hillary experiment a signal to the Democrats that they’re to blow off all women because women just aren’t the face of the party? These were big Democratic players on a small-town stage, and they made clear that they don’t even have to pretend to include women—not as emcees, not as pastors or ministers, not as small-town candidates, not as big state party candidates or officials.
I’ve made my political and ethical home in this party because the other one is abhorrent, and inhumane tides must be stemmed. But the utter lack of gender awareness within the Democratic Party means that we are as far from full gender representation as we’ve ever been. This is a big, hypocritical, sorry-ass mess.
So, yes, I’m still stewing and fuming and I’m thinking a lot about when I met with Lidia Falcón, famous lawyer, author, and founder of Spain’s Feminist Party (founded in 1979, just four years after the death of the Generalísimo). When I asked Falcón where on the political spectrum she saw feminism, she replied, “Well, it’s the overcoming of communism and the perfection of all the parties. It’s true equality.” A very Second Wave response, it’s now making me think that it’s about as avant-garde as we’re going to get, ever.
Is there a political party that is really ready to nominate, support, showcase, and elect women to run municipalities, congressional districts, states, and the country? I believe the answer right now is “no,” and I believe this means that this is no country for old women, or middle-aged ones, for that matter. The ridiculous bifurcation of public service for men and private service for women, of speeches, parades, and pavilions for men and booths, nametags, and phonebanks for women, of skateboarding and loafing for boys and serving up barbeque and pie for girls has got to stop. We are not your helpmates, men. We are your running mates.
A photo of blue town starts this post. A photo of red town ends it.