What an election cycle for feminism! Both Democratic primary candidates are running as self-declared feminists. One of them, Hillary Clinton, would, if elected, also be the first woman to serve as president of the United States. Major feminist organizations like Planned Parenthood have endorsed her, as have feminist leaders and heroines as varied as Gloria Steinem, Lena Dunham, Roxane Gay and Eileen Myles.
Clinton and her supporters often point to the potential of a woman president to inspire little girls, letting them know that women can do anything. Yet her own life narrative is not a stirring feminist parable. It is probably true that neither Bill nor Hillary Clinton could have come so far without the other. But who wants to advise our daughters to marry an ambitious, egomaniacal man; stay with him no matter what; and be the first lady for many years? Eventually it will be your turn. Is this a career plan?
Hillary Clinton is not alone: Around the world, many female heads of state have attained their positions through marriage or bloodlines. While it is common for a woman to advance in this way, it is neither interesting nor feminist.
Lacking inspiration, then, her campaign is fueled by outrage. Older feminists – myself included – remember the 1990s, when Clinton, as first lady, was vilified by sexist right-wingers for everything she did: having her own legal career, using her maiden name and wearing whatever she wore (no matter what it was).
Sen. Bernie Sanders himself delivers disappointingly few sexist attacks for Clinton supporters to get mad about, but rest assured they are hard at work looking for them, because without misogyny, being a Clinton supporter isn’t much fun for feminists. While Clinton and her supporters have gleefully seized on a few non-opportunities to paint Sanders as a sexist, he commits few gaffes along these lines.
It’s understandable that Clinton supporters are only happy when they find sexists to attack – what else could give this campaign a righteous fervor? After all, her record shows that in her many decades in public life, Hillary Clinton has done an excellent job of advancing the Clintons, and an abysmal job of fighting for women less powerful than herself.
Single-payer health care is the only system in which health care is independent of employment or marriage.
In Arkansas, she was invited by the Walton family (personal friends of the Clintons) to become the first-ever woman on the board of Walmart. At the time, the company was grappling internally with the growing blight of gender inequality, which would lead, years later, in 2002, to Betty Dukes v. Wal-Mart Stores, the largest sex discrimination class-action lawsuit in history (which was eventually tossed out by the Supreme Court, not on its merits but on the grounds that Walmart was too big to sue). Data released during that lawsuit showed that women at Walmart were paid less than men in every position, and advanced into management at lower rates – even though their performance reviews were higher. While Clinton’s presence on the board helped to make the company look like a better place for women, there is no evidence that she took any measures as a board member to address Walmart’s systemic sexism. In 1990, while on the board, she declared, “I’m always proud of Walmart, and what we do and the way we do it better than anyone else.” Clinton has never acknowledged any regret over her relationship with the company.
Speaking of that relationship, Clinton has been trying hard to portray herself as a friend of labor unions this primary season. In Las Vegas, support from unions was critical to her success. (This was sometimes accompanied by deceptive tactics. For example, the Service Employees International Union distributed flyers painting Clinton as a supporter of the Fight for $15, a national campaign to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour. In fact, her Democratic primary opponent supports this demand, while Clinton has made clear that $12 would be just fine as a federal minimum.) Yet Walmart is also one of the most adamantly anti-union companies, notorious for violations of workers’ right to organize. This, too, is a feminist issue: The majority of Walmart’s workers are women, and union membership has been found to be one of the best ways to reduce workplace sex discrimination. In addition, most low-wage workers are women, so just allowing more workers the opportunity to join unions would greatly improve women’s wages and working conditions. While Clinton was on Walmart’s board, there is no evidence that she tried to change the company’s policies on unions, nor has she reflected on that issue since then.
Clinton’s biggest policy contribution as first lady of the United States was in the area of health-care reform. There she played a critical role in narrowing the national policy discourse – by disavowing a single-payer system, which would lower costs and ensure that everyone could have access to care, as in Canada. Clinton helped ensure that even most Democrats would continue to fight for nothing better than a slightly more accessible private insurance system. Granted, in that position, she faced massive opposition to even the smallest reforms, from Republicans and from insurance companies. But opposition to socialized medicine is also an ideological commitment on her part.
This is a feminist issue. As the Our Bodies Ourselves organization – authors of the indispensable women’s health book of the same name – pointed out in 2009, single-payer health care (also recognizable to US policy wonks as Medicare for All) is the only system in which health care is independent of employment or marriage, both critical considerations, especially for women. Women would benefit more than anyone from single-payer health care; our health-care costs are higher than those of men, and women make up two-thirds of low-wage workers. With an opponent, Bernie Sanders, supporting single-payer, Clinton has been campaigning aggressively against that idea, declaring that we will “never” have such a system in this country. It’s not just that she thinks it’s not practical; her campaign has even used right-wing arguments that it would raise taxes on the middle class, ignoring the massive savings to middle-class families that would result from such a plan.
If feminism only concerns itself with the women at the very top of our society, it’s not feminism at all. It’s just elitism.
Clinton’s feminism is not only elite, but also white and often explicitly racist. Recently Ashley Williams, a young Black Lives Matter protester, interrupted Hillary Clinton’s speech at a $500 per person fundraiser, holding a sign that read “We Have to Bring Them to Heel,” a direct quote from Clinton, referring to young black people in a 1996 speech on the crime problem. Williams said to Clinton, “I am not a ‘superpredator,'” and asked Clinton why she had used that word. An affronted Clinton responded rudely and dismissively, and Williams was quickly escorted out. Clinton later said she regretted her 1996 choice of words, but her record goes beyond name-calling and racist language: During her husband’s administration, she strongly advocated for policies that contributed to the mass incarceration of Black communities, as historian Donna Murch wrote recently in the New Republic.
With so many politically active young people fighting racism and the police state, it’s no wonder that so-called “millennial” feminists have been rejecting Clinton in favor of her opponent. Many have also been troubled by her personal conduct toward women outside of her elite circles, especially on another issue of salience to this generation: rape. Hillary Clinton has said, “Every survivor of sexual assault deserves to be heard, believed and supported.” But that has not been her attitude toward women who have accused her husband. Juanita Broaddrick, a nurse who accused Bill Clinton of raping her in 1978 and is now, at 72, still telling the same story, has said Hillary Clinton tried to pressure her to remain silent about the charges. (Bill Clinton has denied raping Broaddrick, and Clinton supporters point to a lack of documentation for Broaddrick’s charges that Hillary tried to silence her; anyone who thinks they know for certain what happened should be regarded skeptically.) Bill Clinton was also accused of rape and harassment by two other women.
During the Clinton administration, speaking about sexual harassment accusations against moderate Republican Sen. Bob Packwood, a needed ally on health care, Hillary Clinton grumbled to a friend, who later described Hillary as “tired of all the whiny women.”
Hillary Clinton’s mudslinging and slut-shaming campaigns against women who claimed to have had consensual sex with her husband are well documented. In his memoir, George Stephanopoulos, quotes Hillary Clinton as saying of one such woman, “We have to destroy her story.” Hillary biographer Carl Bernstein describes Hillary directing an “aggressive, explicit” campaign to discredit Gennifer Flowers, an actress who said she had a long affair with Bill Clinton. She referred to Flowers as “trailer trash.” In a tough 2008 essay for Slate, Melinda Henneberger and Dahlia Lithwick wrote that Clinton “consistently relates to and protects and stands with the oppressors in the gender wars … she invariably sees [Bill] as the victim, preyed upon by a series of female aggressors.”
Of course, as appalling as Clinton is, few of the other presidential contenders deserve feminist love, either. Neither Donald Trump nor Ted Cruz can credibly claim to represent women’s interests. Trump for example, would be well advised to shy away from discussing rape at all, given the many blunders he has made discussing the issue, and the disturbing statements his ex-wife, Ivana Trump, has made about him.
But the shallowness of Hillary Clinton’s feminism is worth discussing because feminism matters. And if feminism only concerns itself with the women at the very top of our society, condoning horrific abuse of those without power, it’s not feminism at all. It’s just elitism.