Voting for Hillary Because of Her Gender Doesn't Make You a Good Feminist - Bernie's Record Is Better
The following is an excerpt from the new book False Choices: The Faux Feminism of Hillary Clinton edited by Liza Featherstone (Verso, 2016):
Hillary Clinton would be America’s first woman president. And for many, that is all she needs to be. Feminist writer Jessica Valenti declared her fealty as early as 2013, in The Nation op-ed titled “Why I’m Voting for Her,” illustrated by a silhouette of then secretary of state Hillary Clinton. In a moment of 2008 youthful indiscretion, Valenti admitted, she had voted for Obama, but, she wrote, “this time around I’m voting for a woman ... because I’m fed up.” Once Hillary finally announced her candidacy in the spring of 2015, Valenti continued to editorialize in her favor, sticking to the same point: Hillary Clinton is a woman. Valenti was not alone in making this argument, if it could even be called that. Gloria Steinem, icon of second wave feminism, takes every opportunity to proclaim that “it’s time!” and that the country is ready. Feminist writer and co-author of The Book of Jezebel Kate Harding went with the subtly titled Dame magazine think piece, “I Am Voting with My Vagina: Hillary Clinton for President.”
Clinton’s elevation to feminist-in-chief has been enthusiastic. The level of support from celebrities such as Jennifer Lopez and BeyonceÌ, endorsements from national feminist organizations, and cheering from the ranks of the Internet make this conclusion seem obvious. A viral phenomenon from Clinton’s secretary of state days in 2012 called “Texts from Hillary,” using a photo of Clinton looking badass in sunglasses, Blackberry in hand, seated aboard a military plane, is now again revived daily online. Feminist writer Sady Doyle—who describes her politics as well to the left of Clinton but has never wavered in her support—posted one of these memes on her own tumblr in October 2015. Reflecting on the possibility of a Clinton vs. Trump race, she exulted, “Ohhhhhhh, I have so rarely, in my little lifetime, ever, ever, ever been so excited.” Lena Dunham, director and creator of the TV series Girls and media-anointed voice of millennial women, interviewed Clinton, asking the candidate if she would call herself a feminist. When Clinton answered in the affirmative, Dunham squirmed with irrepressible childlike delight. Given the ecstasy of feminist opinion makers over the low bar of Clinton’s gender as sole criteria, we should perhaps not be surprised by their excitement when she began to invoke the f-word. At The Nation Katha Pollitt declared herself “excited for Hillary” in June 2015, saying, “Clinton is running as a feminist—and that matters for all women.”
But what of those feminists who do not agree? Some mainstream feminists argued away sincere political differences, instead pathologizing women who disagreed as neurotic and sad. Gloria Steinem was confident that women who hated Clinton were jealous that her marriage was more egalitarian than theirs—a strange claim given the many public compromises Clinton has made in her relationship with her husband. In her book My Life on the Road, Steinem wrote:
"Haters condemn her for staying with her husband despite his well-publicized affairs. It turned out that many of them had suffered a faithless husband, too, but lacked the ability or the will to leave. They wanted Hillary to punish a powerful man in public on their behalf. I reminded them that presidents from Roosevelt to Kennedy had had affairs, but the haters identified with those first ladies and assumed they couldn’t leave. It was Hillary’s very strength and independence that made them blame her.
"Finally, I resorted to explaining my own reasons for thinking the Clintons just might be, in Shakespeare’s phrase, “the marriage of true minds.” Yet when I brought this up, some Hillary Haters became even angrier. The fact that Bill valued Hillary as an equal partner—and vice versa—seemed to make them more aware that their own marriages were different ... I began to understand that Hillary represented the very public, in-your-face opposite of the precarious and unequal lives that some women were living. In a classic sense, they were trying to kill the messenger."
Then again, in early February 2016, Gloria Steinem explained the Hillary campaign’s lower poll numbers among young women than those of her socialist opponent, Senator Bernie Sanders, via the bizarrely sexist suggestion that they were flocking to be “where the boys are”—discrediting their political agency, painting them instead as under informed and merely infatuated. She later apologized, calling it a moment of “talk show interruptus” and bad editing, but it is apparent that critical feminist analysis comes secondary to a certain class of feminist groupthink.
This has long been true: over the course of Clinton’s political career, commentators have suggested that women voters felt intimidated by her and everything she had accomplished. Still other so-called feminists have been willing to throw even more basic principles under the bus to back their girl. Back when then intern Monica Lewinsky famously gave Bill Clinton a blow job in the Oval Office, a roundtable of prominent feminists in the New York Observer made fun of her looks, implied that she was stupid and slut-shamed her. Nancy Friday even suggested that Lewinsky “rent out her mouth.” None of this was Hillary Clinton’s fault—she did call Lewinsky a “narcissistic loony tune,” but it was a private conversation and one can understand her annoyance—but the fact that establishment feminists were willing to say such deeply misogynist things about a young woman with no power revealed just the sort of feminism that Hillary represents: one that is for insiders only.
Many more feminists claimed that liberal and left men who criticized Clinton just didn’t like women. Joan Walsh complained that Clinton-haters sound like “they’re talking about Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction.” After the first Democratic debate, such Hillary stalwarts were outraged by the sexism of anyone who was impressed by the performance of Senator Bernie Sanders. A blogger at the Daily Kos saw a vast somewhere-out-there conspiracy: “Hillary can’t even win a debate without being told she sucks by the Internet.” Amanda Marcotte wrote a column for Salon equating the “silly sexism” of the “lefty smartypants crowd” with that of Fox News.
Such a way of thinking could only be accepted in a public discourse that has a limited understanding of feminism and its function, blithely deploying gender politics to boost the status quo. But capital-F Feminism is not an anatomical Super Bowl in which all adherents root for Team Vagina.
Instead, feminism is a set of political ideas, or several sets of political ideas that are often wildly at odds. This book advances a vociferous disagreement with the type of feminism that has produced and sustained Hillary Rodham Clinton. While she is indeed a woman, she also, as Kathleen Geier observes in this book, served as the first (and at the time, only) woman on the board of Walmart, a company that has systematically discriminated against its low-wage female employees for decades. As the largest private employer in the nation, Walmart employs 1.4 million people in the US and 2.2 million worldwide. Although the company boasts a majority female workforce of “associates” (making it the largest employer of women in the country), it’s a notoriously wretched company for women, built on horrifying labor practices worldwide, including sweatshops overseas, wage and promotion discrimination, wage theft, sexual harassment, cuts to hours, wrongful termination, and abysmal benefits and pay. There is no evidence that Clinton ever attempted to seriously address the problems faced by low-wage female workers during her time with the company, and she has always declined to give interviews on this subject.
Clinton once said: “As a shareholder and director of our company, I’m always proud of Wal-Mart and what we do and the way we do it better than anybody else.” Meanwhile interviewers like Lena Dunham never ask her about such relationships, which might disrupt the lovefest of giggles and retweets that serve to make us all feel good about electing a woman president.
Sure, as Amanda Marcotte and others have been quick to point out, Clinton is talking about feminist issues like family leave on the campaign trail. She has “introduced herself” to the American people many times over—reminiscent of that important person at the cocktail party who never seems to remember you’ve, in fact, met before—but this time around, she is doing so more explicitly as a feminist. But her entire record suggests that she is bad news for women—and for that matter, most of us who are not part of the Hollywood, Washington, or global financial elite.
Clinton was instrumental in her husband’s decision to deprive poor women and children of the basic social safety net that welfare once provided. In interviews, Clinton has described women struggling to raise their children on welfare as unproductive “deadbeats." In Arkansas while Bill was governor, Hillary played a crucial role in demonizing public school teachers— many of them African American women—and dismantling their unions, a sexist and racist tactic that succeeded then and has set the tone in the continuing American political debates over education.
But Hillary Clinton hasn’t just been bad for American women. As secretary of state, she lobbied to ensure that Haitian women toiling in garment factories would not receive an increase in the minimum wage, because American corporate interests objected. Secretary Clinton’s indulgence of and behind-the-scenes assistance to an undemocratic coup in Honduras is responsible for a dramatic increase in murder—and yes, femicide—in that country and the profound social destabilization that inevitably follows each incident of American imperialism. At a time when younger feminists, and even mainstream human rights groups like Amnesty International, were questioning the logic of punitive approaches to sex work that only endanger those who work in the sex trade, Hillary Rodham Clinton’s State Department was actively rewarding such policies, even punishing those groups who wouldn’t go along.
Medea Benjamin, founder of the direct action group CODEPINK, describes in this book a warmongering secretary of state, whose policies perpetuated violence—including rape and femicide—in the Middle East. While many have resisted, on both feminist and plain empirical grounds, any suggestion that women are inherently peaceful, there has long been a robust feminist anti-war tradition, from Virginia Woolf’s book Three Guineas to Women Strike for Peace in the 1950s to, more recently, CODEPINK itself. This tradition emerges from a principled opposition to state violence but also from a critique of the kind of masculinity that rewards war and imperialism. Feminists supporting Hillary Clinton are willfully overlooking her war record and choosing to reject that deeply humane tradition.
Clinton has advanced feminism, yes. Just by standing up and insisting on staying in public life, despite all the right-wing misogynist attacks, she has been an important icon to many women, a symbol of decades of changing gender norms. And in 1995, as first lady, she made history by declaring at the United Nations Fourth World Congress on Women in Beijing, “women’s rights are human rights.” But hers is the kind of feminism that has also advanced the punitive policies that have led to our current mass incarceration crisis, often in the name of protecting women and children. Black Lives Matters protesters had just interrupted a Clinton speech in Atlanta and been escorted out of the room. Clinton’s feminism is the sort that only benefits a handful of wealthy, white Americans—most saliently Hillary Clinton herself.
Senator Bernie Sanders, the only American politician of national stature who calls himself a socialist, is at the time of this writing still running a visible and popular primary challenge to Clinton. He is better than Clinton not only on economic issues, but also on reproductive choice and gay rights. Yet our liberal chattering classes frame the choice between Sanders and Clinton as a choice between democratic socialism and feminism—and the two are assumed to be incompatible. At a feminist bookstore event in late October 2015, Gloria Steinem repeated her enthusiasm for Clinton and noted pityingly that Sanders was an “old-fashioned socialist.” She liked him for it but added, “He’s not my candidate.” Salon’s Amanda Marcotte did her best to portray Bernie Sanders as the favored candidate of creepy misogynists on Reddit, and dubbed his supporters a “he-man woman haters club,” ignoring the thousands of women showing up at his events around the country and the 44 percent of female New Hampshire Democratic primary voters who intended to vote for him, according to a December 2015 poll (just one percentage point behind his far more famous rival).
We thus see in Clinton’s campaign a new, troubling era in which feminism, now a proper media subject, is used rhetorically as a cudgel against any sort of left politics which might actually help the vast majority of women. We saw this recently in the UK as well, with the liberal campaign against democratic socialist Jeremy Corbyn in 2015 denouncing him for being little more than an old white man, even though his female challengers were politically far to his right.
Why should socialism and feminism be incompatible? This persistent framing shows how horribly both feminism and the left have failed to make the case that for the vast majority of the world’s women, liberation requires socialism, or something much like it.
Not all the contributors to this book support Bernie Sanders in his campaign, and almost surely, each of them would find fault with him, especially on foreign policy. But there is no doubt that most women have more to gain even from Sanders’s watered-down social democracy than from the ruthless neoliberalism that Clinton represents. As they compose the majority of college students, women stand to gain immeasurably from making college tuition debt-free, as Sanders advocates, far more than from the tepid tinkering on the issue in Clinton’s platform. Sanders’s attention to living wages and the creation of decently paying jobs and single payer health care, as well as his focus on economic inequality, has the potential to speak to almost everyone, but women especially, since women make up the majority of low-wage workers and head the majority of households below the poverty line. Gender and economic justice are deeply intertwined, and it is embarrassing how easily Americans get distracted from this fact. Sanders’ platform also has plenty to say on gendered matters like abortion rights and equal pay—he even mentions the storied Equal rights Amendment, subject of a decades-long feminist battle for ratification.
To her credit, unlike so many of her supporters, Hillary Clinton has not argued that she deserves to be president more than Sanders solely because she would be the first woman. She has played that card, but who wouldn’t? The first woman president would indeed be historically significant. But Clinton has not reduced the race to one of anatomy; instead, she has argued in vigorous defense of the destructive politics she represents. She claimed in the first Democratic primary debate of the 2016 election cycle, held in October 2015, that capitalism was better than socialism, and memorably pointed out that the United States is “not Denmark.” Indeed, it is not: almost all Denmark’s social indicators—poverty, food security, happiness—are better than ours. With this dramatic remark, Clinton made clear that Americans should vote for her if they prefer a child poverty rate higher than that of any wealthy country besides Romania.
Hillary Clinton doesn’t represent a promising sort of feminism. But perhaps more importantly, there is a feminism beyond Hillary, a set of politics critical of the harsh, capitalist, warmongering, punitive, and compassion-free policies to which she has devoted her career.
Let the rest of the punditocracy, ordained feminists among them, yawn and dismiss left ideas as “old” or “unrealistic.” Meanwhile, people around the world remain outraged at and suffering under the deprivation created by the extractive, neoliberal style of government that benefits only millionaires like Hillary Clinton. In recent years, long after Clinton’s stint at Walmart, workers there have slowly been improving their conditions by organizing. That’s the kind of feminism we represent—a left feminism rooted in an understanding of women’s material conditions. Our kind of feminism will outlive Hillary Clinton. But we must work hard to make sure it triumphs over the ruling class feminism that she represents.
This essay originally appears in Verso Books’s False Choices: The Faux Feminism of Hillary Clinton, on sale now.