Friday, April 12th, 2024

Close this search box.

There’s a strong feminist case for Hillary Clinton

No comment
Wednesday, February 24th, 2016
No comment


Breaking news: Having a uterus doesn’t qualify you to be president. That’s the message rapper Killer Mike, quoting feminist Jane Elliott, sent to supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders when Killer Mike said, to great applause, “A uterus doesn’t qualify to you to be president of the United States.”

To which students of history everywhere basically said, “No shit.”

There has never been a president of the United States who also had a uterus. Until just a few decades ago, most Americans believed femaleness was a disqualifying factor for the presidency. Yet to suggest that it would be important to have a female president, to suggest that perhaps someone like Hillary Clinton, who has lived for 68 years in a female body in a sexist culture, could be valuable — well, you’re voting with your vagina.

Killer Mike, to his credit, refused to apologize, telling critics to listen to the full context of his “uterus” line, which emphasized the need for a president who advocates for social justice. Sanders backed him up, saying gender shouldn’t matter in politics and “No one has ever heard me say, ‘Hey guys, stand together. Vote for a man.’”

Of course, gender does matter in politics. Women are sorely underrepresented at every level of elected office, while older white men dominate. Perhaps one reason is that we enjoy making spectacles of prominent women, holding them to a higher standard than we do men. Killer Mike refused to apologize and Sanders supported him. Compare that to the brouhaha over feminist leader Gloria Steinem’s statement that young women are dedicated and active feminists but may be leaning toward Sanders because “that’s where the boys are” and, well, guy stuff is just generally treated as cooler and more relevant than girl stuff. Or compare that to the firestorm that erupted when former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, in support of Clinton, said, “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women” — a line she’s been dropping for a decade. Steinem and Albright were both swiftly bullied into saying sorry.

Gender, it turns out, matters as much in politics as anywhere else — maybe even more. And there is a strong feminist case for Clinton, and that case is made not only on gender but also on efficacy and policy.

Aside from a handful of dustups, this Democratic primary season has been a joy. There’s a lot to like about Sanders, starting with his dogged commitment to income inequality. What a relief it is to see the two Democratic front-runners having incisive, intelligent, challenging conversations and debates about one of the most pressing issues in America. What a relief to see politicians who are dedicated and passionate and above the schoolyard-style squabbles and insult lobbing of their GOP counterparts.

I’m not throwing my support behind either candidate in the Democratic primary. But I do think it’s healthy for feminists to argue a case, advocate without apology and take unpopular or even dogmatic positions to force a more thorough reckoning with the issues at stake in our movement. So with that in mind: If the rights and interests of women are your primary concern, Clinton is the candidate who will be more effective in making a significant difference for women and girls.

We’re currently being bombarded with stories about how feminists are voting for Sanders (a claim not backed up by any actual data) or how Clinton isn’t a feminist or killed feminism (often upheld by people long hostile to feminism, making one wonder about their sudden investment in its fate). But let’s not forget that before Clinton was an insufficient feminist, she was too much of a feminist.

She contorted herself into the roles demanded of her throughout her husband’s scandals, then hers, staying solidly left-of-center but tamping down the feminist bombast. She downplayed gender in her 2008 campaign, perhaps not wanting to marginalize voters uncomfortable with a woman in power. Today she’s running for president not just as a woman but also as an advocate for women’s rights — and yet she’s still portrayed as somehow lacking.

Remember a few years ago when young feminists embraced boss lady Secretary of State Clinton, with her black sunglasses and her Blackberry and the Texts From Hillary meme? That era ended as soon as Clinton sought power also sought by a man.

Clinton has been an advocate for paid family leave, a child care tax credit and universal prekindergarten, all issues that would make an enormous difference in the lives of women and their families.

Her legislative style is to quietly get things done. (That is, she’s a prototypically female legislator.) Unlike Sanders, she’s not making big promises or campaigning on “revolution.” Her message is more constrained, with thoughtful, careful policy positions she’s reasonably confident can be put into action.

True, Sanders puts forward a more expansive, exciting vision — free college for everyone, health care for everyone, an executive order to allow 9 million immigrants to stay in the United States with the sweep of a pen. But he’s light on details. Lighter still is his track record of passing and implementing significant pieces of legislation. He’s a dreamer, and that’s lovely, especially in a primary.

In the long run, though, for women in the United States, it may be a smarter bet to take the candidate who can pass female-friendly laws than the one who promises them along with a panoply of social programs he is unlikely to deliver.

When it comes to women’s rights specifically, Clinton has real experience and a track record. She has long been in favor of abortion rights, occasionally moderating her rhetoric to capture a wider audience. (Despite what some might contend, embracing her husband’s line that abortion should be “safe, legal and rare” is hardly an anti-abortion stance.) She came out in support of both repeal of the Hyde Amendment, which blocks federal funding for abortion care for low-income women, and for U.S. funding for abortion care for rape victims in conflict zones — not exactly positions with a ton of historic popularity among mainstream politicians. She has the backing of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund and NARAL Pro-Choice America, the biggest pro-abortion-rights groups in the country. If you’re still not convinced, watch this video of Clinton testifying before Congress about reproductive rights. Those are hardly words of an inadequate pro-abortion-rights candidate.

Clinton has also been an advocate for paid family leave, a child care tax credit and universal prekindergarten, all issues that would make an enormous difference in the lives of women and their families — especially low-income women, including working-class millennial women who, unlike their wealthier counterparts, are more likely to forgo college or have children earlier or without a husband. Sanders, for all of his talk of inequality, doesn’t fold gender or race into the equation that often. His promise of free college is great but won’t do much for the many women for whom college isn’t a priority or isn’t on the radar.

And while Sanders also supports a bevy of family-friendly policies, he rarely mentions them. I’ve followed his campaign closely as a political writer, and I had to research what, exactly, his platform on pre-K and child care was. Even his health care plan made no mention of reproductive health care and rights — a stunning omission after abortion and contraception were central points of debate in President Barack Obama’s signature Affordable Care Act.

Clinton, on the other hand, is upfront about her positions on these topics, even if those positions aren’t quite as far left as many, myself included, would prefer. Political rhetoric doesn’t necessarily have a direct relationship with policy priorities, of course, but it’s tough to argue it doesn’t signify a real commitment, and in that respect, Clinton comes out on top.

In her time at the State Department, she appointed the first U.S. ambassador for global women’s issues. The Clinton Foundation has funded millions of dollars’ worth of projects benefiting women and girls worldwide, from programs promoting family planning and combating maternal HIV transmission to ending child marriage and fostering women’s economic security. The foundation has been criticized for accepting donations from countries with notoriously woman-unfriendly policies; by this logic, it would be allowed to accept money only from Norway or Sweden. But this contention has been used as a talking point in favor of Sanders, as if an imperfection amid decades of work is somehow worse than not doing much of anything for women abroad at all.

Policy aside, having a female president matters. Would it fix sexism? Not any more than having an African-American president fixed racism. That is, it didn’t, and in some ways it brought long-simmering ugliness and bigotry to the surface. But watch Obama’s eulogy in South Carolina after the vicious murder of black churchgoers there. Look at this picture of a little boy meeting a president who looks like him. Survey Obama’s track record — vastly expanded access to health care, more diverse judicial appointments than any other president in history, massive student loan overhaul — and say having a black president after 200 years of white leaders didn’t matter.

Women have not climbed the ranks as far as we should have or as far as we seem to think, and women’s work is routinely ignored, derided, underappreciated and rendered invisible.

We have had male presidents for 200 years. As much as Clinton’s detractors accuse supporters of voting with their vaginas, the truth is that for two centuries Americans voted with their metaphorical dicks. Less than 100 years ago, you couldn’t vote with your vagina, because you had to have a penis to vote. Through the 1960s, fewer than half of Americans said they would ever vote for a female president, even if the party they supported nominated her and she was the best qualified for the job. Today overwhelming majorities of Americans at least tell pollsters they would vote for a woman if she is the best qualified. Yet here we are, with an eminently qualified woman running for president — a former criminal defense lawyer and advocate for children’s rights, the first female partner at her law firm, the first female chair of the Legal Services Corp., a former senator, a former secretary of state, a liberal by any fair measure — and she just may lose the nomination to a 70-year-old white man who has been in politics for 35 years and yet somehow brands himself an outsider versus Clinton’s establishment candidacy. The truth is that the now coveted outsider status in politics is the status quo for women in male-dominated professions. But for women, it’s nearly always a detriment. Outsider status as an advantage is a privilege reserved largely for men.

Some say that women rejecting Clinton is itself an embrace of feminism: “The young women supporting Sanders are living the feminist dream, where gender no longer restricts and defines your choices, where girls grow up knowing they can be anything they want,” wrote Maureen Dowd in The New York Times. It’s a nice thought, but gender certainly does restrict and define your choices, from the choice of which birth control you can use under your insurance plan (which may be hampered by your boss’s religious views) to whether you can have both a baby and a job (pregnancy discrimination remains rampant, and a total lack of federally mandated paid parental leave and child care puts millions of women in nearly impossible situations) to whether your bright new idea gets funded (fewer than 3 percent of venture capital firms have a female CEO, just 15 percent have a woman on the executive team, and 97 percent of companies that receive VC funding are led by men).

Girls today may grow up being told they can be anything they want. But what the adults around them demonstrate is that they have to work harder, take on more burdens and perform better than anyone else to actually become anything they want — and even then, the exception seems to be president of the United States.

Seeing women in positions of authority changes cultural norms and expectations in important ways. We know that much of the sexism women experience today is the result of subconscious misogyny, not intentional discrimination. There aren’t newspaper ads advertising women’s or men’s jobs, separating the women’s jobs into opportunities for unmarried women and married ones, who should probably leave the workforce and rely on their husbands. But there are lots of people, male and female, who simply by virtue of seeing a female name on a resume presume the applicant is less competent and less qualified. Many Americans hear a female voice and read into it shrillness or anger. Many more interpret female anger as frightening or unprofessional and penalize women for it. Male anger, meanwhile, is seen as authoritative and commanding.

All those assumptions work against Clinton, just as they work against every woman in America. The way we change them is by stripping out associations between maleness and power, maleness and competence, maleness and influence. That doesn’t happen in one day of corporate diversity training. It happens by normalizing female power, female competence and female influence — including having women in charge, especially in the highest political office in the country.

It will be a slow process. Members of Congress, corporate board members, engineering program students, film producers, film directors, speaking roles in movies — they’ve all been stuck at about 20 percent female for years now. Perhaps we are so used to men dominating public space that we perceive there are more women in any given room than there actually are; maybe we look at a room (say, Congress) and see 80 percent men and think that seems fair. Maybe Clinton’s accomplishments and experience just don’t seem as impressive because we’re used to seeing women getting less credit for doing more and men getting more credit for doing less. After all, even at home, men overestimate how much work they do, while women do more than their fair share.

Women have not climbed the ranks as far as we should have or as far as we seem to think, and women’s work is routinely ignored, derided, underappreciated and rendered invisible.

A Clinton presidency wouldn’t be a magic feminist bullet, because there’s no such thing. But she is the only candidate who could take the ultimate position of executive power, a 200-year-old male-only institution, and turn it from a feminist goal into a reality. That wouldn’t be just because she’s a woman; she’s also a feminist woman who would promote feminist policies and whose experience means she may stand a better chance than her opponent of getting a progressive agenda implemented. That makes Clinton a pretty feminist pick.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *