Recently Nancy Fraser wrote an interesting article titled “How feminism became capitalism’s handmaiden – and how to reclaim it.” Her first paragraph stated the core idea: “As a feminist, I’ve always assumed that by fighting to emancipate women I was building a better world – more egalitarian, just and free. But lately I’ve begun to worry that ideals pioneered by feminists are serving quite different ends. I worry, specifically, that our critique of sexism is now supplying the justification for new forms of inequality and exploitation.”
Of course, it is quite common, not to say the rule, for ideas to be subverted or inverted and ideologies to change their meaning when invoked by different political groups. The young libertarian socialist Marx was claimed by the ugly Stalinist and Maoist régimes; Orwell is treated as a hero by the most reactionary thinkers like the neocons, and feminism was kidnapped by the Bush administration to justify its wars of choice.
Nancy Fraser’s key point applies now with the gearing up for the US presidential election in 2016. Feminism is mobilized by Hillary Clinton’s supporters to sell her presidential bid, but the key point is this: Would a Clinton presidency improve the lot of women in the United States and abroad, and would Clinton be a progressive president?
Because the United States, in spite of its shutdown follies and NSA surveillance bungling, remains the pivot of the world system, American presidential elections are of global interest. So even three years before the next presidential election, global media have started following the budding campaign. Although Clinton did fight for some feminist ideals in her youth, she famously declared she was not going to bake cookies while her husband ran for president before baking those cookies and kowtowing to the rules of the political game. In the Democratic primaries of 2008, Clinton ran against Obama as a war hawk and appealed to the right of the Democratic Party, which had itself already moved to the right of Eisenhower on many fronts. Her feminism was a thing of the past – or reduced to symbolic gestures merely.
Her web site “Ready for Hilary” is a sign that she has prepared the campaign in a thorough fashion. Already many famous people are praising her and calling for a woman to be elected president. This is predicated on the idea that a woman president would be a good sign for feminism and American women in general. The key question, though, is which woman and mostly which political platform – for, as everyone knows, any woman cannot be an improvement on past presidents (all men so far). Imagine a president Sarah Palin or Michelle Bachmann: Would feminism get a boost? Clearly the gender of candidates cannot be a valid reason to vote for or against them.
A situation like this existed in France in the 2007 presidential election. Ségolène Royal was the candidate for the left (socialist party), and there was a movement afoot that decreed that criticizing her was sexist or at least anti-feminist. Some of her views were quite conservative (like sending delinquents to army boot camps). Yet in the heated last months of the campaign, many critics were accused of being prejudiced against her on account of her gender. It is always difficult to determine whether a critique is legitimate or the product of prejudice, yet analysis of policy proposals should not be gender-dependent. The best or the worst politicians may belong to any ethnic, racial, class or gender group.
Equality between men and women should lead to the emergence of many women leaders and an increased presence of women in politics. It should therefore lead to an increase in the number of women candidates at all levels of political representation. The fact that a woman is in a position to run for president is thus positive. Does it mean that voting should be restricted to a gender issue? Clinton already has done what George W. Bush and his daddy had done before: amassed money to build a war chest to crush opposition during the primaries. This is also the way Romney eliminated his Republican rivals. In other words, the Money Power sides with a candidate who then outspends and therefore outlasts all others.
In the past, when Clinton talked about a vast “right-wing conspiracy,” she and her husband had a lot of enemies on the right who are still around today. Yet the Clintons have made many friends among the 1% and are supported by plutocrats who hardly differ from the fat cats in the Republican camp. In what way could she transform American politics when she already has shown her willingness to play by the rules of plutocracy? Her gender is neither here nor there.
Famous women in politics like Thatcher, Gandhi and Meir were tough and ruthless. Some feminists, usually differential feminists, argue that in a man’s world women have to play by men’s rules to get ahead. Maybe so. Yet this also implies that electing a woman president would not change these rules unless there were social movements to agitate for such a change.
Electing an African-American president was a strong symbol. Yet, as Cornell West and others have pointed out, the lives of most African-Americans have not been improved by this potent symbol. In New York, the gender or sex-orientation issue was deemed secondary by Democratic primary voters who preferred De Blasio to Quinn (before New Yorkers in general confirmed this choice). The Ready for Hillary supporters might be trying to play the gender card, but it would be risky and politically problematic. If I were American, I would prefer a candidate like Elizabeth Warren, but I also know her left-liberal anti-plutocratic positions make her almost unelectable as president. Warren would not survive the money or hidden primary.
Hillary Clinton constantly has moved toward the center of US politics. And when the center migrated rightward, she migrated with it. She might be more electable now – not because she is a woman, but rather because she is a friend of the Money Power and willing to compromise on the issues that matter to it. Feminism in this context is just a gimmick to attract some voters who place gender above any other issue. Respecting the rules of the Money Power during a campaign means toeing the line of oligarchy while in power. Neither men nor women benefit from this. Clinton and her neoliberal allies are hijacking feminism and the rhetoric of diversity.