Panelists Discuss Gender in Historic 2008 Election
by Alex Cabot


As the anticipation of the upcoming inauguration builds both on the UCSB campus and across the nation as a whole, the UCSB Women’s Center hosted an informal panel of speakers on Jan. 8 to discuss the implications of the historic 2008 U.S. Presidential Election, particularly with regard to the ongoing struggle for gender equality in America. 

The panelists consisted of UCSB’s own Dr. Gayle Binion of the Department of Political Science and Dr. Tania Israel of the Gevirtz School of Education, alongside Susan Rose, a local community activist who was a delegate for Hilary Clinton at the 2008 Democratic National Convention.

Although Barack Obama’s election to the presidency will probably be remembered by history as the single most defining feature of the 2008 election, of no less significance is the fact that the past election also marked the first time that a female candidate, Hilary Clinton, was a serious contender for a major party nomination. In addition, it was only the second time that a woman, Sarah Palin, was running on a major party ticket, and the first in which she actually had a reasonable chance of entering the White House; Geraldine Ferraro was chosen to run with Walter Mondale in 1984 against the popular incumbent President Reagan in a race that was considered a long shot from the beginning and ended with Reagan winning in a landslide. 

Binion began the panel by pointing out that although she found the treatment of Clinton by the media “repulsive,” the exit polls on Election Day clearly showed that women voters had won the day for Obama. While American men nationwide split their vote roughly evenly, American women voted for Obama over McCain by a margin of nearly 15 points. She went on to say that Obama owes a considerable part of his mandate to govern as president to women voters and therefore needs to address their most salient political concerns. In particular, she expressed hope that the new president and the next session of Congress would move fast to repeal the current “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy concerning homosexuals in the armed forces, the Defense of Marriage Act, signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996, and the Global Gag Rule issued by President George W. Bush early in his first term, which prohibits the allocation of US federal funds to foreign humanitarian agencies that perform abortions or even counsel women on the practice. 

In addition, Binion argued that Obama should sign the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which would make it easier for women to file suit against employers who practice wage discrimination. The piece of legislation was initially defeated in the Senate in April 2008, but was re-introduced and passed by the House on the ninth of this month, just one day after the panel met at UCSB. If passed by the Senate, it would be on President-elect Obama’s desk within the next several months. 

Israel, who teaches counseling psychology at the Gervitz School, was an Obama delegate at the Democratic National Convention in August, and spoke about her support of Obama over Clinton in spite of her strong feminist views. In particular, she discussed reading “The Audacity of Hope,” in which Obama outlines many of his core values and political beliefs. Susan Rose, on the other hand, who was the third panelist and founder of the Santa Barbara Women’s Political Committee, described her unwavering support for Clinton throughout the election cycle, but expressed optimism that the incoming Obama administration could still do much to promote women’s rights and gender equality. 

The issue of Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, who, though chosen by McCain partly in order to draw disaffected Clinton supporters into his camp, in the end turned away many more feminist voters than she brought in, elicited mixed responses from the panel. Although Binion professed she was glad that Palin had not been the first woman to successfully enter the White House, Rose ventured that Palin had still accomplished much as a candidate, and should not necessarily be scorned by women’s right supporters. In her opinion, the horrific treatment of Palin by much of the U.S. media illustrates the entrenched sexism that still exists in American journalism and among American society at large. Palin had been a stay-at-home mom prior to her entry into Alaskan politics 10 years ago, and is also fervently pro-life, both of which left her open to attack after she announced her candidacy for vice president. 

Opinion was also divided on Obama’s controversial decision to choose Pastor Rick Warren to deliver the invocation. Binion stated that it was an unrealistic attempt by him to reach out to right-of-center voters while trying to distance himself from the left-wing image he had presented in the primaries. Israel, however, was more optimistic that Warren’s presence might give Obama additional political capital at the start of his term. Several of the audience members commented on some of Warren’s contentious religious beliefs, including his lack of concern over the current HIV pandemic. 

Members of the audience questioned the three panelists on a number of issues relating to gender and the election, notably the contrasting roles of Michelle Obama and Cindy McCain to their respective husbands’ campaigns. While Mrs. McCain appeared next to her husband at almost every one of his campaign events, Mrs. Obama had a much more low-profile role in her husband’s campaign, in part because she had pledged to spend as much time as possible at home with their two grade-school aged children. 

“Altogether I think the event went very well,” said Jess O’Keefe, Program Director of the Women’s Center. “The dynamic between the three panelists was the most striking aspect of the event; having Susan Rose, who is a community activist and not an academic at all, and who was a Clinton delegate, with Tania Israel, who was an Obama delegate and is very well established in the academic world, let people see you can have political difference within the Democratic party, and still come together…Dr. Binion really spoke about how the President-elect can influence women broadly.” 

For those students interested, the Women’s Center is located on the first floor of the Student Resource Building and will hold a number of events over the coming quarter discussing issues of race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation, and how they are reflected on the UCSB campus.