In May, I participated in a protest against Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump in Eugene, Oregon. A pro-Trump rally was scheduled and some of my friends figured it demanded a counter message. Armed with a pocket-size “Know Your Rights” fact sheet and a banner that read, “Women/girls and people of colour deserve better than Trump’s misogyny, racism, and xenophobia,” we gathered defiantly, in the face of the hostile climate fostered throughout the election season. I felt empowered by the spirit of social justice.
But one thing stuck with me that day that I haven’t been able to forget: When an activist friend explained that Trump’s policies would be horrific for marginalized communities and that his political rhetoric has already caused harm, my friend was quick to clarify, “But I mean, I don’t know him personally… Who knows what he’s like as a person, one-on-one?” Keep in mind that this is the man we were there to protest. We all nodded.
When, minutes later, the conversation turned to Democratic Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton, that generosity disappeared. The same person who’d just given Trump the benefit of the doubt said, “Yeah, she’s better than Trump but I just can’t bring myself to vote for her. You just know she is a liar. You just know that she has no principles.”
In preparing for this piece and researching policy positions, I read through the comments on a number of articles, including a brief news story about Clinton’s victory speech in the beginning of June. Some comments were nuanced, but many were vicious in a personal manner. One read:
“I really love this page, but Hillary is scum. She’s promoted fracking globally, and she’s a war hawk. She has had a long career of quite frankly being a terrible person. She is not a feminist; she is not going to make anything in this country better. She is an evil establishment politician who only cares about furthering her own career and does not care what lies she tells to do so.”
Another commenter chimed in, saying:
“Seems only white Western women are supporting her. Hillary Clinton is a war mongering, neoconservative figure whose policies in the past have contributed to the destabilization of the Middle East. If you were actual radical feminists you would know that and refrain from supporting her. It’s baffling why you would welcome her presidency. She and Donald Trump are actually more alike than different. Clinton is more snake like and subtle compared to the brashness of Trump. She is a shape shifter, changing around her views to suit her agenda. It’s baffling to me that feminists are supporting her. Read about her past actions and reconsider the person you are standing for.”
Yet another said:
“Take it from a little old lady from Arkansas, Hillary isn’t worthy of anyone’s vote. There is a lot of evil in that woman. I’m still voting for Bernie.”
This commentary replicates what I hear in my own progressive circles, with regard to Clinton. And it’s something I struggle with.
Whether or not Clinton is a feminist candidate is a question worthy of debate, but we still need to apply a feminist analysis when discussing her as a politician. Unfortunately, I see her dehumanized or turned into a one-dimensional figure more often than not.
Considering our history, it does remain a feminist victory for a woman to reach higher office in the US. Women were jailed, violently force-fed, and even died in their fight for women’s right to vote and hold office. To see a woman represented in higher office is gargantuan, whether or not she is the ideal woman for that role. Even if you don’t consider the possibility of a female president an important achievement, it is for many feminists who care about representative politics. And if we really do care about democratic principles, we need to let women support Clinton without being labeled “sellouts,” “white feminists,” or corrupt, anti-feminist monsters.
Some critics argue that, as a candidate, Hillary only represents white voices. But Clinton has been winning the vote of people of colour, substantially. During the primary process, Hillary Clinton had a stronghold on the African American and the Asian American vote. In some states, like South Carolina, Hillary won with 86 percent of the African-American vote. When Bernie Sanders dismissed Clinton’s many victories in the South by saying she was only supported in the most conservative parts of the US, Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight, corrected him:
“In addition to being important to the Democratic Party’s electoral present and future, Florida, Virginia, North Carolina and Texas are quite diverse. They’re diverse ideologically and they’re diverse racially. They contain not only a substantial number of African-Americans but also Hispanics and, increasingly, Asian-American voters.”
The way she has been portrayed on racial issues has been, likewise, skewed. Take, for example, the coverage of Hillary’s role in the Violence Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, a crime bill that was pushed by the Bill Clinton administration. In a public speech in support of the “tough on crime” bill, Hillary referenced “super predator theory”, a pseudoscience criminology theory that dehumanized black youth, referring to them as “super predators.” This bill was considered a key moment that spearheaded the rise of mass incarceration and the deliberate targeting of youth of colour by the State. This inexcusable statement is one that Hillary-haters point to as definite proof of her lifelong racism. She is often blamed for the spike in mass incarceration (particularly of young men of colour) that grew exponentially as a result of her husband’s bill. However, many analysts seem to forget that, as First Lady, Hillary didn’t vote for it, unlike some other so-called progressive candidates, including Bernie Sanders. They also forget that, at 24 years old, Hillary Clinton was a Civil Rights activist, going undercover to investigate racism in segregation academies. In fact, she put her white privilege to good use, investigating whether predominantly white public schools had continued to discriminate against black kids even after the Supreme Court banned race segregation in schools. This was no simple feat at the time and was far more brave than simply typing an irate comment online…
Bill Scher explains in an article for POLITICO, that many progressive voters feel Hillary doesn’t truly understand movement-style politics or share their passion so they “don’t forgive her as readily as they do other Democratic politicians,” but they are remiss in their analysis. Hillary herself was an activist during her teenage years and her college years, and has maintained that in her public persona today.
It was this activist fire that, some argue, resulted in one of the most transformational moments of her life. Younger generations may not remember US politics in the 90s, and the current narrative served up in the media doesn’t care to remind them, but policy wonks and history buffs know that the fight for healthcare was vicious. Officially titled the “Health Security Act” and dubbed by the press as the time “Hillarycare”, Clinton fought her heart out for a bill that she believed in, and got beat soundly. According to people in her circle, the shellacking she got from corporate America for pushing for a broader, more inclusive health care policy was so psychologically painful that both her and her team decided to downplay it and, in some cases, obscure it altogether.
This unwillingness to openly address her battle wounds and painful lessons, thus showing vulnerability, combined with the left’s denial that Clinton has, at times, stood firmly on their side, is in part responsible for the narrative painting her as a hawkish conservative and little else.
Other progressive candidates are read as mere politicians at the end of the day — capable of significant policy changes and the occasional conservative vote that leaves the left reeling for a while, but they are still permitted to carry the “progressive” mantle. They are granted the benefit of the doubt whereas Hillary remains a caricature. Sanders, for example, is widely perceived to hold the progressive position on a range of issues, despite his record of hawkish military policy. He supported NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999, voted in favor of funding the 2014 coup government in Ukraine, and supported Israel’s apartheid assault in Gaza, yet all this has gone mostly unmentioned throughout the election campaign. Beyond this, throughout his presidential campaign, Sanders and his supporters have brushed off critics that say he neglects race and gender issues in favor of a class analysis, and have yet to address the overt sexism, harassment, and patriarchal attitudes that occasionally come from both Bernie’s campaign and his supporters.
The reason for this lies in the subtle undercurrent of sexism that female politicians face. You know that stereotype that says that Hillary Clinton cannot be trusted because she is a liar with no soul? PolitiFact investigated her public statements and record and found that she was the candidate with the best truth-telling record as compared to all the 2016 presidential candidates.
It seems we hold women in politics to different standards than men. In the Guardian, Jill Abramson explains that, as former editor of the New York Times, she’s studied Hillary as a public figure for decades. She writes:
“Like most politicians, she’s switched some of her positions and sometimes shades the truth. Still, Clinton has mainly been constant on issues and changing positions over time is not dishonest. It’s fair to expect more transparency. But it’s a double standard to insist on her purity.”
Abramson quotes Colin Diersing of the Harvard Institute of Politics, who agrees, explaining that, when Hillary behaves like other politicians or changes positions, “it’s seen as dishonest.” He adds, “We expect purity from women candidates.”
When it comes to media coverage, it’s not just commentary on Hillary’s headbands and her sexuality that convey sexism, but the assumption that everything she does is evil that provides an extra layer. And by everything, I mean events such as the birth of her granddaughter or a tear rolling down her cheek. For the media, pillorying Clinton means big bucks.
Stand with her or not, but this is not the time to let our feminist analysis slip.
Today, when I think of Hillary, what comes to mind is a 12-year-old victim of sexual assault. The girl withstood the endlessly re-traumatizing process of taking her rapist (a 40-year-old man at the time) to court, facing a team of lawyers who argued on her rapist’s behalf. One of the lawyers assigned to the case was a young woman named Hillary Rodham. This was 1975, long before she was a prominent political figure. Back then, Hillary was a new lawyer and professor who had been assigned a case against her will. She asked to be removed from the case, but her request was denied. We can argue back and forth about the power a young lawyer has to refuse or accept a case assigned to them at the beginning of their career, but the truth is that, in 1975, Hillary Rodham was assigned the case and did her job, defending her client, as best she could.
Decades later and in hindsight, Hillary said, “When you’re a lawyer you often don’t have the choice as to who you will represent. And by the very nature of criminal law there will be those you represent you don’t approve of. But, at least in our system, you have an obligation. And once I was appointed I fulfilled that obligation.”
As a former law student, a former shelter advocate, and a survivor myself, defending a rapist of any kind, let alone a child rapist, is unthinkable. So I understand the criticism directed at her, but it remains unfair in many ways, considering that burgeoning lawyers are expected to take on cases regardless of whether or not they agree with those you are tasked with defending.
Rather than write her off because of this, consider all Clinton has done for women’s rights since then. Unlike other progressive candidates, she not only supported, but introduced legislation centering women and girls many times over. During the early stages of her career, she championed the rights of children under the law, pushed for the approval of Plan B, sponsored the Paycheck Fairness Act and did pro bono work for child advocacy. That famous Beijing speech at the United Nations in 1995, where she proclaimed “women’s rights are human rights and human rights are women’s rights one and for all” wasn’t just a photo-op for a first lady. My first job back in my hometown Santo Domingo was to follow up and write reports on the anti-violence strategies that were established during that conference for the Beijing Platform for Action. It’s almost as if we forget that while many in the press were busy writing about her clothes, she was out there engaging and enacting strategies that carried long-term effects.
These policies did not only center white women, as many critics claim, but working class women, working mothers, and women of colour, as well. Wealthy women have always had access to the services that they need, reproductive or otherwise, even where it has been clandestine. It is the most marginalized, not the most privileged, who benefit from accessible and affordable services.
It was under Clinton’s stint as Secretary of State that the Global Gag Rule was lifted. The mandate forbade the United States’ State Department from providing funding for local organizations in the Global South that centered women’s health out of conservative fear that tax dollars could end up funding abortions abroad. It effectively put a lock on funding that could have been instrumental in developing family planning strategies among local organizations in the Global South which, as we know, is fundamental to women and girl’s human rights. It was also during Clinton’s tenure that “women’s rights” as a political issue went from an often-ignored “soft power” strategy to a central foreign policy agenda item (to debatable outcomes). All this represents only a fraction of her career, but is disappeared in our efforts to turn Hillary into a one-dimensional figure.
As part of a POLITICO roundtable, Allida Black, a professor of History and International Affairs at Georgetown University, argued that “Hillary’s challenge is to move the Woman Card beyond polemics, beyond policy, and into the minds and hearts of voters. If she can do that, it will transcend politics and orchestrate a unity we have not seen in generations.”
Therein lies the impossible position that Hillary finds herself in. No woman or girl in the history of patriarchy has transcended the social construction of her femaleness — certainly Hillary hasn’t. She is not just a woman either — she has been the face of “ambitious women in power” in the U.S. public consciousness for decades, with all the reactionary backlash that brings. At best, Clinton will become president with roughly half of the US population opposing her and enormous pressure within her own ranks, pushing her as far left as she is able or willing to go, within the framework of a settler-colonialist, imperialist, prison-industrial complex-supporting country.
At Slate, Michelle Goldberg writes:
“I don’t blame Clinton for building a carapace around her true self. There is no person in America who has been subject to such constant, withering public dissection. Tens of thousands of words have been devoted to sneering at her hairstyles. She’s been jeered at for her laugh, her wrinkles, her ankles, her clothes. The entire planet knows that her husband cheated on her. The media proclaims, over and over again, that people simply don’t like her (though she was recently voted the most admired woman in the world for a record 20th time). Of course she has trouble letting down her guard! Without an enormous capacity for self-protection, how would she have survived a level of public ridicule that would have driven any other woman insane?”
The feminist battle cry, “Neither whores nor saints; just women” applies not only to our sexual politics, but to every aspect of women’s lives.
Like men, women are multifaceted people who can simultaneously support terrible policies and empowering ones. They are political candidates whose personal and political lives may make us cringe at points and cry with emotion at others. Feminists have pushed for more strong, complex, imperfect female characters on TV and in film, in order to get away from the one-dimensional women we are usually presented with in media. In Hillary, we have an influential woman who is just that: she is not the easy-to-figure out stereotype we expect women to be.
She won’t be your feminist dream girl. Maybe the fourth female president of the United States will be able to fill those shoes. Or the 12th. The current binary either puts Hillary on a pedestal as “a no-nonsense, indoor sunglass-wearing boss lady who eats enemies and shits policy!” as The Daily Show’s Michelle Wolf put it, or frames her as a “corporate democratic whore.” Maybe she isn’t either. What she is, is a female politician.