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Individual rights vs. identity politics

By Wendy McElroy
web posted October 11, 2004

"Are there are any registered vaginas in the house?

"Step into your vaginas and get the vagina vote out!"

These were some of the comments shouted at the celebrity-packed "Vaginas Vote, Chicks Rock" night in New York City this September. Jane Fonda and Gloria Steinem were among the laudables at the event that urged women to register to vote in order to promote "women’s issues."

Underlying the surreal rhetoric is the idea that women share special political interests around which they should rally and vote as a solid block.

This is different from appealing to statistics. Saying "most women voted in X manner during the last election" is data analysis. Each party quite reasonably pores over such analysis to determine what it means and how it can be used to best advantage.

Saying all women should vote in the future according to the issues defined by their vaginas is an ideological contention.

Much could be said of the idea that all women have shared political interests. For one thing, it is false. Looking at just one election issue — abortion— there is no consensus among women who seem to be split equally into pro-choice and pro-life camps. Only by demeaning pro-life women as being "unenlightened to their own vaginal interests" can the advocates of shared-identity politics explain this schism.

Women don’t seem to vote on the basis of their genitalia. Instead, they vote for the candidate most closely aligned with their view of the world. Indeed, it seems bizarre for gender feminists to argue that a woman should think and vote as a sex organ. Whatever happened to their anger at the objectification and portrayal of women as body parts?

Nor is it obviously true that women’s interests differ dramatically from those of men. For example, it is difficult to see how pivotal election issues such as gun control, Iraq, the price of oil, better schools or terrorism are more important to one sex than the other or have a significantly disparate impact on either one.

The theory underlying the "Vote Your Vagina" assumption is that women have a shared political interest. The theory has many labels, but it is commonly referred to as "identity politics."

A fairly standard definition of the term is: "Identity politics is the politics of group-based movements claiming to represent the interests and identity of a particular group, rather than policy issues relating to all members of the community. The group identity may be based on ethnicity, class, religion, sex, sexuality or other criteria."

Identity politics divides society into distinct political classes and declares them to be antagonistic to each other’s interests: blacks against whites, women against men, gays against heterosexuals. The focus is on the "rights" of the specific group— that is, those things the group claims to deserve and wishes to acquire by law. The "rights" are commonly based on the existence of historical oppression.

Identity politics is a sharp departure from the traditionally American ideal that rights are universal, not particular. That is, that all human beings possess the same rights, which are not determined by differences such as sex or race.

The presence of slavery in the United States into the 19th century reminds us that the ideal was not always realized, and sometimes not even closely. Nevertheless, it was the ideal of the Declaration of Independence—"all men are created equal" — toward which politics consistently moved.

The abolition of slavery said race was irrelevant to the rights an individual could claim. The enfranchisement of women said much the same thing. When Susan B. Anthony argued for women’s rights, she did not ask for special treatment, only for the full embrace of human rights. She wrote, "We [women] have stood with the black man in the Constitution over half a century…Enfranchise him, and we are left outside with lunatics, idiots and criminals."

Identical rights under the law carries a strong presumption that all individuals share the fundamental political interest of having those rights respected. Consider freedom of speech. A woman benefits from the protection of free speech no less than a man does. Arguably, a history of oppression makes freedom of speech more personally important to a woman; it is part of what will allow her to rise through education and merit.

By contrast, identity politics says that women and men do not share a similar interest in freedom of speech. For example, if a man expresses sexist views, he is said to "silence" women and, so, his speech should be restrained through policies such as sexual harassment laws or campus speech codes. Thus, freedom of speech is converted from a human right into a tool of oppression that must be blunted by force.

Only if you advocate group rights and reject individual ones does it make sense to cry out for sexual solidarity in voting. Ironically, such a call reverses the political trend that secured the vote to women in the first place. Namely, the demand for inclusion in human rights. The demand by women to have their rights equally recognized so they were no longer in a separate legal category "with lunatics, idiots and criminals."

The early feminists who fought for true equality did not speak of "special interests." They spoke of human rights. The call for women to "step into their vaginas" dishonors the brave women who refused to define themselves as body parts and longed, instead, to participate fully in the richness of a broader humanity.

Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com and a research fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the new book, "Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century" (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.

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