Individual Rights vs. Identity Politics

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“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
that urged women to register to vote in order to promote
“women’s issues.”

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
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

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.

8, 2004

McElroy [send her mail] is
the editor of
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).

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