As recently as a few months ago, Democrats and feminists were preparing to support Hillary Clinton’s 2016 run for president. Their reasoning was simple: after Barack Obama made history as our first Black president, it seemed time for Clinton to make history again as the first female president. At the time, it seemed unlikely that there would be a woman on the Republican ticket. It seemed equally unlikely for the GOP to acquire many female voters. In the past year, the Republican Party had gained a reputation on the internet, and in some of the mainstream media, for being out-of-touch and ignorant about women’s concerns at best, and openly misogynistic at worst. While several women would be running as third-party candidates, among them Jill Stein on the Green Party ticket, and Shawna Sterling running independently, Hillary Clinton had the best chance of winning.
Yet, since his official announcement of his intent to run back in May, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont has gained incredible support from Democrats and progressives outside the party alike, particularly young people. It is no great surprise that he has managed to find followers, between his radical politics (he has self-identified as a Socialist in the past and ran for Congress independently, despite his current run as a Democrat) to his readiness to speak on hot issues such as racially-motivated police violence (a topic on which Clinton seems to have kept relatively silent) to his ability to navigate social media. Full disclosure: I intend to vote for him in the Democratic primary myself, as well as in the general election if he makes it that far. But even just a few years ago, when Republicans were touting Sarah Palin as a “feminist choice” solely on the basis of her sex and gender, the idea of an old white man being lauded as a radical choice for voters would have been shocking. How could a candidate like Bernie Sanders be winning the favor of feminists and leftists over a female politician who many in the media still consider to be a feminist icon?
Well, mainly because…Hillary Clinton is not really very feminist.
Hillary Clinton’s politics can charitably be described as “moderate.” In addition to her vocal opposition to same-sex marriage, which she maintained until 2010, she has also been anti-choice, has voted against gun control measures, called for the repeal of Obamacare, voted to extend wiretapping under the PATRIOT Act, and has supported increased military spending.
One could argue that at least some of the conservative-leaning votes and policies on Clinton’s record were political maneuvering to accomplish a goal, rather than Clinton’s personal principles. It is true that politics is a game of negotiation and compromise. But what does it say about Clinton that she was willing to compromise so far, on such basic feminist issues as the right of a pregnant person (usually a woman) to choose, or general issues of civil rights, such as marriage equality, or basic access to health care? What does it say about Clinton’s concern for women’s lives, not just in her own country, but around the world, when we look at her eager militarism both in Congress and as Secretary of State?
What about Clinton is actually feminist, other than the fact that she personally is a woman in a position of power?
The problem of Hillary Clinton, the not-feminist who must be branded as The Feminist Option in order to stay relevant, is part of a larger trend in the way we think about marginalization, social justice, and how everyone’s needs are best advocated. Back when terms like “post-feminist” and “political correctness” started to enter our cultural lexicon, there was a pervasive idea that someone managing to succeed individually, according to the capitalistic, liberal-moderate definition of “success,” despite their marginalization, was inherently radical.
However, this presents a problem, ideologically as well as in terms of real-world social change. By this logic, anyone from Ann Coulter, to a body- and sex-shaming columnist for Cosmopolitan, to the female executive who union-busts, puts people out of work, or exploits underpaid labor overseas, is Feminist. By this logic, these women were and are a testament to how Sexism is losing power, and soon will be over, thanks purely to hard work, cultural assimilation and the barest of legal reforms. Regardless of whether these figures actually had or have a positive effect on the lot of women, nationally or worldwide, they are Feminist by this theory because they are proof that women can individually “overcome” sexism – which, cleverly, put the onus on women to overcome sexism themselves, rather than on our culture and institutions to address and deal with their sexism, which could lead to truly radical reforms. This type of “identity feminism,” where it does not matter what you do as long as you Succeed While Being Female, allows the systems that perpetuate marginalization to stay in place, as long as a few token women – most often white, straight, cisgender, abled, class-privileged women – can slip through.
Of course, ending institutionalized misogyny and sexism is not that simple. Anyone who attempts anything under the umbrella term “social justice” must understand that a few people managing to succeed in a system does not mean the system itself is not oppressive. As Laverne Cox, a transgender advocate and feminist icon, once said of institutional transphobia and transmisogyny, “Just because I got an Emmy nomination doesn’t mean the lives of trans people aren’t in peril every day.”
If we hope to end sexism, transmisogyny, transphobia, or any other marginalization, we must end it for everyone, not for a few. “Equality” cannot mean simply that white, well-off, abled, cisgender, straight women get the same privileges as white, well-off, abled, cisgender, straight men, as it has meant for much of the past; indeed, for much of feminism’s history. Rather, “equality” must mean that there is no longer any “privilege”; instead, everyone has the same rights. This must naturally involve the groups that are currently privileged becoming less so, as their ability to speak over and profit from marginalized groups dwindles. So a truly “equal” society, when we achieve it, will not simply be a more “diverse” version of the current model. It will necessarily look much different than our society does today.
When we view feminism through this lens, we can see how the liberation of women relates to anti-racism, to LGBTQIA rights, to the labor movement and anti-poverty struggle, and to the disability rights movement. And with this new, inclusive view of feminism, and social justice in general, we must ask ourselves: who is truly a feminist candidate? A woman who gains wealth and power under patriarchy, but does nothing to subvert the systems that keep other women down? Or a person – even an old white man – who actively works to change our society into a more equitable one for all?
You may not agree with my answer, but when it’s time to vote, please at least consider the question.
Image courtesy of Daily Dot