Democrats’ Success and Gender Equality Depends Upon Identity Politics

Democrats’ Success and Gender Equality Depends Upon Identity Politics

Women speakers made the greatest impact on the first night of the Democratic National Convention.  Clearly the Democrats aimed to exploit the Republican Party’s woman problem. Women like veteran Tammy Duckworth, republican defector Maria Ciano, NARAL president Nancy Keenan, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Lily Ledbetter, citizen Stacy Lihn, and Michelle Obama, all ventured to speak explicitly about a range of policies that the Republicans remained vague about during the RNC last week. Many of them explicitly placed very controversial issues like income equality, contraception, and Obamacare on the table, and not just during the early evening speeches, but during prime time.

NARAL president, Nancy Keenan

I made two observations about the first night of the DNC—a brief one regarding Ann Romney and another about identity politics.

First, I thought, “Wow, their speeches contrast sharply with Ann Romney’s speech.”  They clearly articulated the positive implications of a range of policies—health care, equal pay for equal work, reproductive rights, and veterans’ affairs—and demonstrated how women’s issues intersected with issues not often thought of as strictly about women like national defense and veterans’ affairs. Now, I am not a policy determinist. I do not believe that people will flock to good policy. Good policy does not magically translate into political power and positive political outcomes. That is the job of the organizer, activist, and the politician. But the way in which women like Duckworth, Ledbetter, Lihn, and Ciano, successfully connected personal experience to policy and pivoted into an argument for the common good and the pursuit of justice said more and spoke louder than  Ann Romney screaming, “I love you, women!”

Now, I recognize that the Republican Party did not charge Ann Romney with delivering a policy talk, so it is not completely fair to compare her speech with those delivered last night. It is just an observation. But my first thought leads to a second point—these women’s speeches also represented a fine articulation of what some white male observers have deemed “identity politics.”[1]

Joe Klein recently published an article in Time Magazine deriding identity politics. He argues that the Democrats needed to eschew identity politics and appeal to some sort of values that could appeal to white men.[2]  Klein contends that “identity politics” excludes white men and threatens the possibilities for the Democrats to construct an electoral and governing majority. The female speakers at the DNC, however, illustrated that the problem is not identity politics. The real problem lays in the Democratic Party’s historical problems with constructing a just economic policy that has broad appeal. Zero-sum thinking about U.S. politics also represents another problem. Critics of identity politics seem to presume that Democrats have chosen to focus on culture over economics when, in reality, the Democrats often either failed to create sound economic policies or they turned rightward economically. Thus, the Democrats’ failures in economics seem to only highlight their efforts to incorporate more groups within the party. Also, politically, women’s rights do not rely upon circumscribing the rights of men, unless its man’s right to oppress women. Gender inequity in jobs and income is inherently economic and it is the product of a sexist culture and policy. Addressing income inequality has broad appeal when one considers that equal pay for equal work can add to our collective wealth and the wealth of families. Even Lily Ledbetter argued that the law named after her was about “women and men,” “about families,” and “about equality and justice.”[3]

Lily Ledbetter

Joe Klein may have forgot— last night’s female presence at the convention is the product of feminist movements—and identity politics. The Democrats do not include provisions for reproductive rights and marriage equality in the party platform without women (and male allies) practicing identity politics. Michelle Obama has demonstrated that she is a woman capable of performing in public service or working in the corporate arena, but we may not think of her as a woman on the brink of her own political career if not for feminist organizations and struggles of black women who dared force black and white men to reckon with their identities and experiences. True, the women’s movement may not have totally closed the gender gap in America, but last night illustrated that prior generations of feminists did not act in vain.

Klein may have forgot—“identity politics” can represent a unifying force if and when one can communicate one’s principles clearly and translate them into policy. “Identity politics” is not necessarily an expression of individual or “tribal” values. Klein and other critics of “identity” or “cultural” politics forget that identity politics arose out of real injustice experienced by a particular group and our political system’s failure to recognize and correct oppression. Critics overlook how our political system has often asked people of color, women, gays and lesbians, and poor people to sit in the waiting room and wait for their opportunity to have their humanity recognized.  Thus, people of color, the poor, gays, lesbian, transgender, and queer individuals, and women, have had to force themselves out of the waiting room to advocate for their own rights.

It is interesting; a few liberal white males are asking these groups to relinquish their voice as they are acquiring greater influence. Klein is afraid that these groups’ demands may alienate white men? Stop playing and stop crying. What we should eschew is this zero sum thinking that one group’s success automatically equals another’s disappointment. We should strive to do away with the proverbial waiting room that our political system has enclosed women, gays and lesbians, immigrants, people of color and poor. Identity politics? Well, what do you expect when you ask anyone to wait for their inalienable rights?

Identity politics and the struggles of women, and others, have benefitted everyone and has expanded our very imperfect politics, economy, and culture, whether we are talking about greater liberty in family planning, for parents, regardless of gender and sexuality, to care for children, and to generate more income and wealth. The Democratic Party has been successful in part because of its ability to attract women and to support female candidates. Female Democrats have acted in the feminist spirit that the personal is political and the feminist promise that gender equality is possible. Identity politics may just prove to be the winning force for Democrats in this election. Ultimately, though, identity politics, at its best, represents a uniting force because it is about bending policy towards justice, and if justice is not a unifying value, I don’t know what is.

[1] The black radical lesbian feminist organization, the Boston-based Combahee River Collective, coined the term, “identity politics,” in their “A Black Feminist Statement,” published in 1977. They argue that “the most profound and potentially the most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression.” Their “Black Feminist Statement” is a seminal document, building upon Frances Beal’s “double jeopardy” thesis and anticipating future articulations of intersectionality in black feminist thought. Political observers and scholars began derisively using the term to express their dismay with the politics of people of color, women, and gays and lesbians.

[2] Joe Klein, “One for All and All For One,” Time Magazine, 4 September 2012,,9171,2123309-2,00.html, accessed 5 September 2012.

Many scholars and political observers have published articles and books criticizing what they consider the “identity” or “cultural” politics found in the Democratic Party. Eric Alterman, Joe Klein, and historians like Jefferson Cowie argue that the Democratic Party often relied upon practicing a “cultural,” or “identity,” politics that addressed the concerns of women, people of color, and gays and lesbians instead of appealing to class, unifying values, and/or constructing an economic policy that appeals to a larger swath of the American public (read: white men). For Klein and Cowie, democratic and U.S. politics are a zero sum proposition—rights are limited and one’s struggle for equality and justice threatens the standing of white men. Alterman does a better job in his article; he maintains that the Democrats can ultimately practice both cultural and economic politics.

See Eric Alterman, “Cultural Liberalism is Not Enough,” New York Times, 7 April 2012,, accessed 5 September 2012. Jefferson Cowie, Stayin’ Alive:  the 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class (New York:  The New Press, 2010).

My argument is similar to Alterman’s, but I argue that the Democrats do not need to eschew cultural or identity politics, but they need to do a better job constructing a more just economic policy that at least forces the wealth y to pay their fair share, that pushes for full employment, that allows workers to continue to earn pensions and even own their own enterprises if they desire, and one that encourages investment in America’s decrepit cities. Women must have the same access to job opportunities as men, the same goes for people of color in relation to whites. Women must retain control over their personal lives. Gays and lesbian partners must enjoy the same benefits that heterosexual couples possess, not just for philosophical and moral reasons, but also for economic ones. I can go on and on, but “economics” cannot often be detached from “cultural” and “identity” issues when we talk about citizenship.

[3] Lilly Ledbetter Speech Text:  Read the DNC Remarks, The Huffington Post, 4 September 2012,, accessed 4 September 2012.

Featured image caption: 2012 Democratic National Convention, Michelle Obama. Flickr

Austin C. McCoy is a Phd Candidate in History at the University of Michigan. He is writing a dissertation on progressives' responses to plant closings and urban fiscal crises in the Midwest during the 1970s and 1980s.