As the US presidential primaries drag on, political opinion spaces have filled with material covering a variety of viewpoints. One perspective that’s been conspicuously absent, and especially so in a political atmosphere where gender is a hot topic, is a feminist critique of the Democratic Party’s presumptive nominee, Hillary Clinton.
It may surprise some to know that feminists do not stand unified behind the woman who is frequently portrayed as a feminist icon and the presidential candidate of choice for all women. The dominant narrative of monolithic feminist support for Clinton has drowned out dissenting voices, instead focusing on the significant number of well-known feminists who publicly support her. Opposition to Clinton’s feminist status and suitability as the US President, whether coming from the political left or right, is commonly dismissed as nothing more than sexism.
Clinton is a prominent member of the Democratic Party, generally considered the centre-left option in US politics, but she occupies a political position that is far more centre than left on a range of issues including economic, social, and foreign policy. Notable are:
- Clinton’s foreign policy track record, including her support for the 2009 Honduran military coup d’état, the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan, US intervention in Libya in 2011, and the 2003 US invasion of Iraq – all of which proved disastrous for those countries
- A history of supporting policies that have actively harmed the United States’ black population, accompanied by instances of racially-charged rhetoric on crime
- That she did not publicly support marriage equality until 2013 after years of explicitly-stated opposition
- Clinton’s position on abortion, which is more restrictive than that of her Democratic primary rival Bernie Sanders
- Clinton’s long history of ambivalence towards organised labour – including a six-year stint as a board director of Wal-Mart, the largest private employer in the United States, in which she never spoke in favour of their workers’ right to unionise even as other directors were actively preventing them from doing so.
Clinton has delivered mea culpas on certain issues including marriage equality and her infamous ‘superpredator’ statement, but she did so in circumstances that make these changes of heart look more like politically expedient flip-flops.
Many of Clinton’s supporters have chosen to deride or disregard these concerns about Clinton’s suitability as head of state and a feminist role model, suggesting that these issues are exaggerated, distorted, and motivated by rank sexism. Some women have claimed to receive excessive criticism and condescending lectures from men when they voice their support of Clinton, but rarely acknowledge that much criticism of Clinton isn’t actually sexist, and often comes from other women.
It is apparently unthinkable that a left-wing woman could have genuine opposition to a woman politician who is ostensibly also on the political left, and so this must be explained away – as feminist icon Gloria Steinem did when she suggested that young women gravitate towards the Bernie Sanders campaign in order to meet and impress young men (comments that she later apologised for). Needless to say, suggesting that certain women are not capable of political agency is profoundly patronising and un-feminist.
What is also unthinkable to Clinton’s largely liberal feminist base is that they and their preferred candidate do not hold a monopoly on progressive politics. The mainstream US political landscape has lacked a high-profile left-wing presence for some time, but the relative success of social democrat Bernie Sanders has boosted its prominence considerably – which has created new space for the appearance of left-wing critiques of Hillary Clinton. Without targeting her gender, these arguments instead inspect Clinton’s political record, her positions on social and economic policy, and the ideological underpinnings of her campaign and find these things wanting. A prime example is the recently-published False Choices: The Faux Feminism of Hillary Rodham Clinton, a collection of essays from leading left-wing writers who present various critical perspectives on Clinton’ political life. Also highly recommended are ‘My Kind of Misogyny’ by Amber A’Lee Frost, ‘Hillary Clinton and the Feminism of Exclusion’ by Rania Khalek, and ‘The Problem with the Bourgeois Feminist Defense of Hillary Clinton’ by Roqayah Chamseddine, with many more fantastic articles available online.
As Clinton’s supporters decry the criticism she faces from commentators of many different political persuasions including the left, the question must be asked: when women have fought for so long to be accepted and treated as equals in the political arena, why should there be any concessions made for the actions of an extremely powerful, privileged woman who is thriving in the upper echelons of politics? Why, indeed, should we mollycoddle any of our political elites?
Many fear that criticism of Clinton is a manifestation of sexism that encourages subconscious bias against women leaders. We may all exhibit sexist biases in many ways, often unknowingly, and we should take efforts to eliminate this both personally and structurally. It is absurd, however, to think that this kind of bias really affects someone like Hillary Clinton as much as it affects, say, a domestic cleaner or a worker in a textile factory. She, and many women including Condoleezza Rice, Madeleine Albright, and Nancy Pelosi, have risen high in US politics despite the identity-related challenges they have no doubt faced throughout their lives. (The same might be said for the UK’s new prime minister, Teresa May.) None would have been able to reach their respective positions without support from both men and women, and were indeed forging their careers in decades when attitudes towards women in areas such as politics and law were hostile.
Times have changed, however. Recent research has shown that women in politics do not face nearly as much sexist bias as we may assume, and that it is the anticipation of experiencing sexism which can actually discourage women from stepping up to run, rather than widespread systemic attempts to stop women from entering the field. Let’s not overstate the barriers women face in politics, especially when they have wealth, education, and power on their side – and Clinton has these things in spades. There’s simply no reason to cosset one of the most high-profile women in the world during her hugely successful campaign for the presidency of the United State of America.
With her nomination all but inevitable, it seems that Clinton has finally smashed the glass ceiling of US politics. If we decide to evaluate gender equality by the metric of representation then this is certainly something to be celebrated. Anyone can recognise the inherent notability of someone being the first to do something. For many feminists, the latter is the most that Clinton’s nomination deserves. The ascension of one woman may be an historic moment, but the success of an individual will not necessarily lead to greater numbers of women at all levels of politics – and nor does it necessarily pave the way towards the more important goal of improving the life of every woman.
Hillary Clinton does not represent all feminists, and not all feminists stand behind her. We do not all support her political actions, and especially those actions that do not match up with the feminist rhetoric she often employs. Many of us reject the liberal, identity-based feminism of Clinton and her ilk and instead value political change that will positively affect the material conditions of all women. We recognise the basic significance of Clinton’s achievements, but place true value on collective action that improves a multitude of lives – not the elevation of one woman who has demonstrated that she does not want to extend a hand to help all other women up, too.