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Sexism, the Women's Vote and Hillary Clinton's Foreign Policy

Stephen Zunes

I recently received a short note on a list-serve from a New Hampshire woman - a committed progressive and peace activist - who, despite Hillary Clinton's unapologetic support for the U.S. invasion of Iraq and other right-wing foreign policy positions, decided at the last minute to cast her vote for the New York senator in the Democratic presidential primary. A deciding factor for her was that, just days before, she had been bypassed for an anticipated appointment for a position in her town government in favor of a younger unqualified male.

Many of us who continue to be disappointed by the strong support Senator Clinton has been receiving from politically left-leaning women despite her militaristic foreign policy positions and pro-corporate agenda often forget how the prospects of electing a female president constitutes a powerful contradiction to the pervasive sexism in society.

In addition, from depictions in political cartoons to questions regarding her temperament to commentaries about her hair, clothes, voice and other superficial attributes, these sexist attacks against Senator Clinton has put millions of conscientious women on the defensive, even those who would not be prone to support her based upon her policy positions, particularly regarding the U.S. role in the world. There is also a sense by many that if Clinton is denied the nomination in part as a result of this kind of sexism in the media and elsewhere, it would discourage women from running for president any time in the near future and be a major setback in the struggle for women's rights.

Historically, it is unusual for women - who tend on average to be more liberal on foreign policy matters than men - to support the most hawkish candidate in the Democratic primaries. Still, many female Clinton supporters hold on to the belief that she is actually far more progressive than she is letting on and that she has to appear tough on foreign policy to overcome sexist attitudes about having a female commander-in-chief in a time of war. This may be naíve, but it is widely-held among liberal and progressive Democrats, particularly among women middle-aged and older.

In addition, the surge in female support for Senator Clinton in New Hampshire and Nevada may have been impacted by the prospects of her longstanding presidential aspirations being derailed by freshman Illinois Senator Barack Obama following his victory in the Iowa caucuses. For many women, this possibility seemed a little too familiar: an experienced well-qualified older woman being passed over for promotion by a younger less-experienced man.

Reaction to the omnipresent sexism in American society as a major reason for the strong support by progressive women for Clinton's candidacy should not be underestimated. One indication of this is that polls indicate that Clinton's dramatic edge in female support is largely restricted to women over 45 years of age, while younger women, who have not faced as much institutionalized sexism as women of older generations, are more likely to support Obama. Identity politics can remain a strong factor in a nation which has had nothing but male leaders at the helm for its entire 231-year history.

Foreign Policy Implications Feminists with an interest in foreign policy are divided on the prospects of a Hillary Clinton presidency, with some noting her willingness to speak out about global feminist concerns, a subject almost never mentioned by her male rivals. These feminist supporters of Clinton's candidacy have noted how even critical discourse on the U.S. role in the world often avoids mentioning women's issues, such as the Bush administration's eliminating of funding in support for women's reproductive health in developing countries and allying with Iran and Saudi Arabia on some key women's rights issues at international forums.

The question is: do the areas in which some feminists argue that Clinton's election would be of positive benefit to millions of women around the world make up for the negative impact from the sum total of her other foreign policy positions, particularly as compared to the somewhat more progressive foreign policy agendas of her male Democratic rivals?

For example, which has had a greater negative impact on Mexican women: the denial of U.S. support for projects of International Planned Parenthood and some other reproductive health providers - which Clinton, like her male rivals, would restore as president - or NAFTA, which Clinton has so strongly supported?

Similarly, the Iraq war, made possible in part through Clinton's vote to authorize the invasion, has been a disaster for Iraqi women, as the secular regime overthrown by U.S. forces was replaced by Islamic fundamentalists. Clinton also backed Israel's massive 2006 assault on Lebanon, which killed hundreds of female non-combatants, and she has defended Israel's occupation of the West Bank and siege of the Gaza Strip, which has resulted in enormous suffering among Palestinian women. She has supported legislation many fear could be used by the Bush administration to launch a war against Iran and has threatened to make war with that country as president, a tragedy that would disproportionately impact upon Iran's already oppressed female population.

Indeed, given that modern warfare results in far more civilian than military casualties, women are often its primary victims. Given her militaristic predilections, it raises questions as to whether - despite a strong record of supporting women's rights in the United States and certain overseas programs of benefit to women - Clinton really cares that much about the rights of women outside her constituency.

There are therefore serious questions regarding the argument by some feminists that, as a woman, Clinton may be able to better understand certain phenomena effecting women overseas and take a perspective that others in the male-dominated sphere of foreign relations cannot. Indeed, if one examines the record of the women who have taken the most significant leadership in U.S. foreign affairs - Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Madeleine Albright, and Condoleezza Rice - it should be pretty apparent that being female doesn't exempt one from embracing patriarchal notions of militarism and dominance or being a forceful advocate for U.S. imperialism. And, as the election of Margaret Thatcher in Great Britain demonstrated, being the first female head of government does not guarantee a more compassionate foreign policy.

Clinton supporters, however, note how Thatcher - unlike Clinton - did not have much support from feminists in her country and did not have a history of supporting women's rights in general. Since she has such a strong base among women and arguably has the strongest record in support of women's rights domestically, so goes this argument, there is reason for hope. At the same time, it is hard to imagine how she would find a way to pay for many programs to help women at home or abroad, given how much she wants to increase military spending and expand U.S. hegemony. (See my article Hillary Clinton on Military Policy.) Furthermore, her record on human rights and international law gives little indication that she has much of an interest in protecting the most vulnerable. (See my article Hillary Clinton on International Law and Human Rights.)

Global Feminism in an Imperialist Context

Given Hillary Clinton's history of backing neo-liberal economic policies and war-making by the United States and its allies, her advocacy of women's rights overseas within what is widely seen outside this country as an imperialist context could actually set back indigenous feminist movements in the same a way that the Bush administration's "democracy-promotion" agenda has been a serious setback to popular struggles for freedom and democracy. Just as U.S. support for dictatorial regimes in the Middle East has given little credibility to President George W. Bush's pro-democracy rhetoric, would a President Hillary Clinton's call for greater respect for women's rights in the Arab world have much credibility while U.S.-manufactured ordinance is blowing up women in Lebanon, Gaza and Iraq?

Just as pro-democracy movements in the Middle East and elsewhere have suffered as a result of autocratic regimes linking such movements with Bush's hegemonic agenda, a similar fate could befall the women's movement in that part of the world under a Clinton presidency.

Since an authentic global feminism requires a high level of moral integrity, there are serious questions regarding Clinton's ability to deliver: Does her steadfast refusal to apologize for her vote authorizing the invasion of Iraq in light of the humanitarian, fiscal, and strategic disaster that resulted indicate a lack of any sense of moral responsibility? Does the fact that she made a series of demonstrably false claims regarding Iraq having chemical and biological weapons, offensive delivery systems, a nuclear weapons program and ties to Al-Qaeda in order to justify the invasion indicate a certain lack of credibility? Does the fact that she continued to defend her vote as the right thing to do more than four years after it was revealed that none of these claims were true indicate that she might have had a more nefarious agenda in supporting a U.S. takeover of that oil-rich country? (See my articles Hillary Clinton on Iraq and Obama vs. Clinton - October 2002.)

Defensiveness and Sexism I have often found many female supporters of Clinton very defensive when I have raised these and related concerns. Indeed, as a result of my outspokenness in opposition to Clinton's candidacy - particularly her militaristic foreign policy agenda - I have even been accused on the pages of at least one national magazine of being sexist and opposing her simply because she is a woman. (Ironically, one of my earliest presidential campaigns was in 1972 on behalf of New York Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, who was - opposite that of Clinton -the most progressive Democrat in the race for the nomination that year.)

It is important, however, to understand where this defensiveness is coming from.

As a result of the vehemence of the anger and distrust many of us direct at Hillary Clinton for her support for the Iraq war, her threats against Iran, her poor voting record on human rights, her opposition to the enforcement of international humanitarian law, and related issues, it has become difficult for many of us to fully appreciate just how serious the sexist attacks against her have been, how that must feel to millions of women in the Democratic Party and how that brings up a lot of old resentment regarding their own sexist treatment over the years. As with walking alone along the street at night, there are certain fears and perceptions I will always have hard time fully appreciating about what it is like to be female in a sexist society.

Indeed, I've begun to recognize that the way in which I essentially "forget" that Hillary Clinton is female is not a sign of a lack of sexism on my part, but a lack of awareness that contributes to the climate of sexism which has permeated the campaign.

This does not mean that progressive Democrats should struggle any less hard to deny Hillary Clinton the nomination.

What it does mean is that we need to recognize that not all Clinton supporters embrace her militaristic foreign policy agenda, but in reaction to right-wing sexist depictions of her and her fitness for office, many Clinton supporters are in denial as to just how far to the right her international agenda is. We need to understand that the excitement, especially among women middle-aged and older, of seeing a woman elected president - and the despair that would result if she lost due to sexist depictions and attitudes - has made it difficult for many to recognize Clinton as not just what she symbolizes, but where she actually stands in terms of her foreign policy.

It also means that - both in order to stop Clinton and simply because it is the right thing to do - those of us critical of her candidacy from the left need to acknowledge how serious sexism remains in American society, how it is manifesting itself in the personal attacks against her, and how we must challenge such sexism whenever and wherever we come across it. We must make sure whatever criticisms we make of Hillary Clinton be about her policies and not about her personally. We must listen, listen and listen some more to women who might feel compelled to vote for her despite her militarism and validate their concerns, even as we share the often hard-to-hear reality of where Clinton is coming from politically. And we must remember that the issues that face us today - from sexism to imperialism - are much greater than anything that can be resolved simply by electing a new president.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Stephen Zunes

Stephen Zunes

Stephen Zunes is a Professor of Politics and International Studies at the University of San Francisco, where he serves as coordinator of the program in Middle Eastern Studies. Recognized as one the country’s leading scholars of U.S. Middle East policy and of strategic nonviolent action, Professor Zunes serves as a senior policy analyst for the Foreign Policy in Focus project of the Institute for Policy Studies, an associate editor of Peace Review, a contributing editor of Tikkun, and co-chair of the academic advisory committee for the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict.

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