As should be increasingly clear to most people by now, Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid is slowly coming to an end.
As a teacher of race and gender issues, I have been more than a little bit concerned at the widespread idea that the current Democratic nominating process pitted “race” against “gender.” This kind of analysis pinpoints our collective inability to understand the historic and present-day power of either social concept. More troubling, it also highlights the ways faulty understandings have actually filled the gaps created by this collective ignorance.
A small reminder of this has been the political line unquestioningly associating a vote for Hillary Clinton with feminism. In her widely-circulated editorial in last January’s New York Times, Gloria Steinem opined “gender is probably the most restricting force in American life.” She cautioned against “advocating a competition for who has it toughest”–often called the “oppression Olympics”–writing “the caste systems of sex and race are interdependent and can only be uprooted together.” Still, her primary argument did just that, asking “why is the sex barrier not taken as seriously as the racial one?”
In a similar vein, feminist activist Robin Morgan wrote an updated version of her classic 1970 piece “Goodbye To All That.” She does some of the work of “unpacking” the complex ways racialized and gendered notions have characterized the political process, often pitting one against the other, before suggesting support for Clinton is about women supporting themselves. She declares:
So goodbye to Hillary’s second-guessing herself. The real question is deeper than her re-finding her voice. Can we women find ours? Can we do this for ourselves?
“Our President, Ourselves!”
Both women were careful to frame their support for Clinton in terms of her qualifications (Morgan even going so far as to say of Obama: “I’d rather look forward to what a good president he might make in eight years, when his vision and spirit are seasoned by practical know-how—and he’ll be all of 54”), yet both substantiated those positions within the analytical terrain of a persistent gender bias in our political culture. In the end, support for Clinton becomes a feminist act because (in this way of thinking) it stands in opposition to the assault she has suffered for being a woman.
This is the context giving shape to seemingly profound divisions not only within the broad Democratic base but also, according to a recent AP article, among feminists themselves. Envisioning a female president as the fulfillment of a historic struggle stretching back to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, some Clinton supporters even chide and deride female supporters of Obama as “gender traitors.” As this recent story in the L.A. Times suggests, race plays a part in the Clinton-support stances of some Americans, but most continue to voice a belief that her campaign embodied a change that is now going to defeat.
I do not want to suggest that Hillary Clinton has not faced sexism in the course of her presidential bid. Negatively gendered ideas have met her candidacy from its first days. While these are difficult to tease out from other beliefs and positions fueling an anti-Clinton stance, that part of this fuel is constituted by a persistent and ubiquitous patriarchy in undeniable. However, the political demise of her presidential bid should not be construed as the victory of sexism over feminism, of patriarchy over progressive gender change.
To put it bluntly, feminism isn’t as simple as a vote for Hillary Clinton.
Just like a vote for Barack Obama won’t solve the nation’s “race problem,” a vote for Hillary Clinton does not mount a substantive challenge to U.S. patriarchy. While definitions of “feminism” may be as numerous as feminists themselves, there are collectives of understanding which might shed some light on this situation.
Noted feminist author bell hooks, in her classic text Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, put forth a definition of feminism rooted in the experiences and struggles of women of color to mobilize for change in the late 20th century. “Feminism,” she wrote, “is movement to end sexist oppression.”
hooks complicates the suggestion that feminist is about “equality with men” since men are not all equal in the modern (or historic) United States. She is careful to link the struggle of feminism to other forms of movement geared toward combating “domination” whether in the social, political, or economic realm. In her vision, shared by a multitude of “third world feminists,” feminism could never be reduced to the mere cause of representation. In fact, the political culture which equates feminism with women achieving positions of power regardless of what they do with those positions serves the forces of oppression more than it does those of liberation.
This doesn’t mean that Hillary Clinton is not a feminist or that her hypothetical election would not be a feminist act. But it does refocus our attention by challenging that assertion without some proof. It puts the burden of proof not on her gender but on her politics. How does the election of Hillary Clinton create any challenge to sexist oppression?
Her election may have been a symbolic victory on this front, but there is no basis to claim it would have meant much more. A political history which includes votes to support the war in Iraq and free trade policies which have led to economic dislocation and familial separation in Latin America; and which includes an unwavering support for welfare reform which mobilized around the image of the mother of color as a lazy addict of government aid and an education policy that has meant declining numbers of young, poor women of color to succeed; all suggests less of a challenge to systems of gender oppression than one would hope. While she undoubtedly also has a record any feminist could take pride in, that pride begins to wane as one looks at which women benefit from and figure into these efforts.
All this is to say, the defeat of Hillary Clinton is just that, the defeat of a political candidate. She was a historic candidate, who will continue to serve in a historic capacity in the Senate. But her defeat is not a blow to feminism. It does not say anything about the status of feminist movement in this country. It also says little about the prospects for true feminist change in the future.
So mourn, if you must, but take heart as well. All real change comes from masses of people united in movement, anyways.