New York University journalism professor Liza Featherstone is the editor of False Choices: The Faux Feminism of Hillary Rodham Clinton (Verso Books). She also writes for The Nation, with a focus on labor and student activism. In this exclusive interview for Truthout, Featherstone builds on the analysis that she offered to Truthout readers in February, discussing Hillary Rodham Clinton’s status as the presumptive nominee for the Democratic Party.
Dan Falcone: Recently, MSNBC and CNN highlighted and portrayed the Democratic nominee as a pioneering feminist of sorts. This coverage is amplified by Clinton’s own comments regarding her personal background and significance of the female legacies within her family. Some of this is obviously significant given our nation’s history, but how do you categorize Clinton’s usage and application of feminist history to correlate with her rise and political fame of the last three decades?
Liza Featherstone: The election of the first woman president of the United States will indeed be historically significant. But at present, Clinton is using this “milestone” and “breaking the glass ceiling” language to celebrate the victory of the financial industry’s candidate over the one representing the interests of ordinary people, which to me, is a misuse of feminism, a complex but often progressive movement.
Falcone: What is the overarching thesis of the book you edited, False Choices: The Faux Feminism of Hillary Rodham Clinton?
Our argument is that while the candidacy of Hillary Clinton is widely embraced as a feminist project, she has actually dedicated her career to austerity, state repression and imperialism — an agenda deeply harmful to most of the world’s women. We hope readers will read this book and be inspired to work for a far more egalitarian and radical feminism than the one Clinton represents.
Falcone: Can you explain what you mean by “trickle-down feminism?”
“Trickle-down economics” is the idea that creating wealth for those already at the top will somehow “trickle down” and benefit the masses. The term is a derisive one used by critics of mainstream economics, and became especially popular during the Reagan era. When I use the term “trickle-down feminism,” I mean the idea that somehow having a few women in power will benefit the vast majority of women.
Falcone: Often in the book, authors speak of Clinton’s paradigm of rescuing women while supporting policies that place them in danger. Is this the core problem of a “rescue” complex?
I think the “rescue” paradigm has been an important one and I would encourage readers to especially check out Margaret Corvid’s chapter on Clinton’s record, as secretary of state, of pursuing policies that punish women for sex work under the rhetorical guise of helping them. I’m glad you asked about this, because it is a really important chapter that hasn’t received enough attention as some of the others, even though there is a lot of interest in sex workers’ issues right now.
I’d also encourage readers to pick up Yasmin Nair’s chapter, in which she compellingly argues that Clinton negotiates the rocky shoals of being a female politician by being “tougher” (whether on “criminals” or welfare recipients at home, or “terrorists” abroad) than a man, while preserving her feminine image by doing so in the name of [protecting] innocents, often women and children. Of course, going to war over women’s rights, or “amping up” law enforcement efforts against brothels does precisely what you suggest in your question — puts more women in danger.
Sasha Silverman: You publicly stated that you are not voting for Hillary Clinton, pointing out that she has demonstrated contempt for a hallmark of social feminism: redistribution. If it’s possible to put it into a nutshell, why do you think redistribution will benefit women? If you could advise Clinton, and know that she’d take your suggestions seriously, what would you suggest?
Redistribution will always benefit women because women are more likely to head households living in poverty. Women are paid less than men on the job and also have far less personal wealth. So, while the Clinton campaign did its best this primary season to separate gender from class, they are deeply intertwined. I would suggest some policies that have been proven to help women advance: single-payer health care (including guaranteed reproductive health care — including, of course, abortion and birth control), higher minimum wages, universal high quality day care and free college tuition, along with labor law reform to make it much easier to organize unions.
Those kinds of policies were all part of the Bernie Sanders agenda and it is clear there is a lot of support for them among voters. But as Frances Fox Piven points in her chapter, even Sanders was not arguing for the kind of income supports — beyond work — that many women actually need in order to fulfill care-giving responsibilities, have more bargaining power in a low-wage job or simply pursue their talents. I would encourage Clinton to rethink her dedication to eviscerating traditional welfare, especially in this interesting moment when people around the globe and across the ideological spectrum are debating a universal basic income.
Silverman: Looking back on all the individuals you’ve worked with [perhaps namely in False Choices], is there a story that stands out to you? Or an individual who has made a lasting impression on you?
I often think of the women I interviewed when I wrote about Walmart. Hillary Clinton served as a then-token woman on the board of Walmart and never did anything to address the rampant sex discrimination in that company. Eventually in 2002, a cashier named Betty Dukes sued the company, in what became the largest civil rights class-action suit in history. I’m still close to Betty Dukes; we talk often and she has remained determined to fight for change for working women. I’m really impressed by her bravery and by her willingness to fight on for so long. But I often ask myself, “What does a supposedly ‘feminist’ politician like Clinton have to offer women like Betty Dukes?” Ultimately, not that much.
Silverman: Hillary Clinton’s “feminism” also fails to grapple seriously with the intersection of race and gender. Could you touch on how and why Clinton is so consistently criticized around the issues of race, too?
She should actually be criticized on this a lot more often than she is.
Historian Donna Murch wrote a terrific chapter for False Choices, called “When Black Lives Didn’t Matter,” about the way both Clintons advocated for more policing and harsher incarceration policies during what I’m now calling the first (since it looks as if we are about to get another) Clinton administration. Those policies, as we now know, disproportionately affected Black communities. During this election, a Black Lives Matter protestor rightly confronted Hillary Clinton for using the racist and dehumanizing term “superpredator” to describe some young people of color during this period.
In another chapter of our book, Tressie McMillan Cottom discusses the racist dog whistling in Hillary’s first presidential campaign, in which Clinton suggested she was the candidate of “hard-working white Americans” and derided the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., while her husband derided Obama’s campaign as a “fairy tale.”
It’s interesting to me that so many have assumed that Clinton was the “intersectional” and more anti-racist candidate despite these things.
Falcone: The Trump base seems to consist of a dangerous mix of populism and racism, but both Clinton and Sanders both had their own areas of ignorance on the trail. Neither seemed able to engage Black activists and their legitimate concerns, and they seemed out of touch with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. Do you consider these generational gaps or whiteness gaps, in addition to a disconnect with feminism?
Sanders and the people around him should have been building strong relationships with Black communities and leaders from the very beginning. Sanders in the moment responded badly to BLM protesters, and many of his supporters responded much too defensively. But he ultimately did take many of their concerns on board. He also got better at talking about the intersections between racial and economic injustice, though as with gender, he could have done this better. His campaign was really so short; he had been governing all these years in Vermont, a mostly white state — and for that reason, actually had a lot more sensitivity to the concerns of rural poor and working-class people than most candidates do — and just didn’t have enough ties to these communities. Even with the campaign spending a lot of time getting to know Black leaders and Black voters in South Carolina, he still lost badly there because they just started doing that too late.
The Clintons, for all their problems, have clearly been building such relationships for decades. However, Hillary Clinton’s own racial problems were certainly on display often, especially in her response to Black Lives Matter protesters. She felt so entitled to Black votes, as a longtime prominent Democrat, that I think criticism from Black people particularly irked her. It was particularly horrifying when she not only responded condescendingly to the young woman criticizing her for her “superpredator” language, but also allowed the woman to be roughly escorted out by security. What was on display there was not only a racist contempt, but also Clinton’s total fealty to the 1%: She did not want to disturb the wealthy donors’ fancy event with this messy interruption from a marginalized person who wasn’t supposed to matter.