Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright tried to issue a mea culpa in The New York Times last week for her recent remarks suggesting that women who are not planning to vote for her friend Hillary Clinton should be condemned to hell. Although it was “the wrong context and the wrong time to use that line,” Albright wrote, “I so firmly believe that, even today, women have an obligation to help one another.”
The battle for gender equality is still being waged, and it will be easier if we have a woman who prioritizes these issues in the Oval Office and if the gender balance among elected officials reflects that of our country. When women are empowered to make decisions, society benefits. They will raise issues, pass bills and put money into projects that men might overlook or oppose.
It is true, of course, that the more women are making decisions, the more likely it is that women-centered policies will emerge. But it is also true that simply having female politicians in office will not ensure that feminism, progressive values or compassion are priorities. In fact, to assume so is sexist.
Women like Albright and Clinton—who have climbed the ladders of the political establishment—are to be strongly commended for the chauvinist barriers they have undoubtedly faced and overcome. But in breaking through the glass ceiling, they have conducted themselves first and foremost as skillful politicians rather than as progressive women.
Reading Albright’s op-ed instantly reminded me of a different arena in which the same dynamic has played out: Afghanistan.
Remember that the war in Afghanistan was supported by liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans alike. After a GOP president started the war, a Democratic president continued it. Rebuilding a post-Taliban Afghanistan that was friendly to women was touted as one of the great post-9/11 U.S. foreign policy achievements—except that it didn’t work. Today, Afghanistan is such a hostile place for women that they might as well be living under the Taliban, as the horrific fatal beating of a young woman by a mob showed last year.
In the aftermath of the Taliban’s fall in 2001, women in Washington often spoke about rebuilding the country in a way that ensured that “women had a seat at the table.” Indeed, this language has become so ubiquitous that it is now shorthand for women’s equality and human rights. The image of a large diplomatic roundtable bringing together all the “stakeholders” (another favored term)—armed warlords and Taliban as well as “women” (any women will do)—conjures up an idealistic vision of democracy and peace. It is a vision that has proved to be empty.
As Afghanistan demonstrated, any woman that the country’s myriad fundamentalist armed commanders (most of whom have at some point been beneficiaries of U.S. largesse) would accept would be a woman who would not challenge their power. Clinton (along with Laura Bush) upheld such intellectually bankrupt notions of women’s rights through her work with the U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council. Educated and well-placed liberal Afghan women were trained to speak with the media and thrust into positions of power as placeholders to demonstrate that women’s rights had been achieved. Yet it turns out that most Afghan women in the country’s new parliament are “sisters and wives of warlords or tribal leaders chosen merely to fill the required quota of women.”
One notable exception was Malalai Joya, the fiery young feminist activist who was legitimately elected to parliament by her community and who spoke out forcefully for women’s rights and against domestic warlords and foreign occupiers. But Afghanistan’s parliament wasn’t designed for women like Joya. It was designed (by the U.S.) to achieve a superficial victory for democracy by showcasing the mere presence of women. Any feminist members of parliament who attempted to exercise their rights in the interests of all women—and ordinary Afghans in general—were excoriated, and Joya was eventually kicked out by her nemeses. You cannot simply seat women at a table full of armed woman-haters and magically produce democracy and justice.
The same sort of women in Washington, D.C.—including Clinton and Albright—want us to believe that placing a woman, specifically a woman who will not rock the boat, in the White House, is a panacea for women’s rights. Ordinary American women are expected to celebrate this as a victory, whether it impacts their lives in a positive and practical manner or not.
This is the type of identity politics that has long been favored by the U.S. liberal establishment precisely because it distracts us from the political demands of progressive and independent voters.
Eight years ago, we saw a similar dynamic play out in the election of Barack Obama. A majority of Americans voted for him, first and foremost, because he wasn’t George W. Bush, but also because he was the ideal demographic alternative to Bush—a blank slate upon whom we could write our hopes and dreams. He could be anything to anybody, just about. The fact that he would be the first black president was the best part of it.
But Obama was never the progressive candidate we imagined him to be, no matter how much we wanted it. Campaign adviser Anita Dunn, in a recent interview with Ezra Klein, said, “Obama had significant establishment support in his campaign, including from the traditional Democratic donor base.” She added, “Obama promised change, not a revolution.” Obama’s former chief strategist David Axelrod told Klein, “Obama’s was not really an ideological campaign. There was a big difference on the war, but Obama was not the candidate of the left.” Obama’s nearly two full terms as president reveal exactly how moderate and pragmatic his approach has been.
Clinton is banking on voters seeing her through a similar lens—as a candidate whose female gender will be enough to quell desires for change and distract the electorate from her Wall Street campaign donations, large personal wealth, foreign policy disasters and former board membership at Walmart.
Clinton wants voters to see her as a successful woman who has broken through the political glass ceiling and earned her credentials to be commander-in-chief. Indeed, through the Clinton Foundation, the former secretary of state initiated a program called No Ceilings: The Full Participation Project, aimed at the “full and equal participation of women in political, civil, economic, social and cultural life.” Such a program reflects a standard liberal feminist approach to women’s rights that ignores the fact that all women need to have the floor raised in order to break through any ceilings. The full rights of women to food, water, shelter, education, employment and health care are subservient to tokenism in political arenas that often keep people who are at the bottom, well, at the bottom.
No one doubts that Clinton and Albright are incredibly smart, tough and experienced women and that they probably have been overqualified for their jobs compared to their male counterparts. But none of that means anything to voters who are tired of prevailing conditions if their political values tend toward preserving the status quo. Feminism cannot be defined solely by helping the highest-achieving women get a “seat at the table.”
While the problems that American women face are far smaller echoes of what Afghan women face, as Afghanistan’s continued misogyny has shown, putting establishment women into positions of power only ensures one thing—that the establishment view will prevail. That is just as true in the U.S. as it is in Afghanistan.