In the first time in its 240 year history, the United States has a female nominee for President in one of its major political parties. Hillary Clinton’s nomination is clearly a landmark moment in American history. It represents a public blow to a traditionally male dominated political system and possibly beyond.
This inspiring victory, however, is also quite unsettling. It links feminism to a candidate with a troubling legacy of militarism, economic elitism and social Conservatism. Even more worrying, is the popular use of feminism to justify this record – as it is argued that for Clinton to be successful she had to be willing to “compromise” her values.
Clinton’s victory reflects competing and both justifiable sentiments. It is sexist and unacceptable to dismiss how inspiring and empowering it has been for women as well as men. Yet its explicit and implicit legitimization of the negative impact she has had on people—including women—in the US and globally as a corporate lawyer and public official perpetuates a troubling brand of contemporary feminism.
An Inspiring Victory
Following an intensely contested primary, Hillary Clinton has officially accepted the Democratic nomination for President. Her victory prompted a wave of popular reflection on the significance of this victory. It highlights the potential for progress in America—as the beginning of the 21st century has witnessed the election of the country’s first non-white President and nomination of its first female candidate.
Yet it also reveals just how unexceptional America is when it comes to combatting sexism and gender discrimination. Globally, female leaders have not only broken through the glass ceiling but increasingly become the political norm. Only this month, Theresa May became the second women Prime Minister in British history. The German Angela Merkel remains one of the world’s most prominent and powerful leaders. In fact females have currently assumed power in countries as wide ranging as Liberia to Croatia, Jamaica to Poland, Bangladesh to Kosovo.
Critics rightfully point to Clinton’s vast racial and class privilege. She may be a woman but she is an exceedingly rich white woman. These are not advantages that can or should be easily overlooked. However, from a different perspective it is precisely this privilege that makes her nomination so extraordinary. It shows in stark detail just how patriarchal modern America remains—even for women at the very top of the social order.
Regardless of any other political differences, Hillary Clinton’s victory has been inspiring. It is also setting a profoundly dangerous example for contemporary feminism and female empowerment.
A Dangerous Role Model
A key reason her nomination is so celebrated is that it displays to women—especially young women—that they can achieve anything. It reveals that no job, office or opportunity is closed to them due to their sex. Clinton has broken through one of the world’s highest and thickest glass ceilings—creating a space for a new generation of female leaders to follow in her footsteps.
Yet it must also be asked what type of political and moral role model is she? Throughout her career she has shown a willingness to forsake seemingly any and all progressive principles for personal advantage. Whether as a member of Walmart’s anti-union corporate board as first lady of Arkansas, or promoting racially charged legislation to reduce social welfare and increase mass incarceration as first lady of the United States, or championing a disastrous invasion of Iraq as a Senator or backing anti-democratic coups and dictators across the world as Secretary of State.
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At the very least this is an indictment of the US system. It implies that for a woman to succeed she must be willing to embrace elitism at home and imperialism abroad. There is a certain “clear eyed” Liberal feminism that accepts and even embraces such a “Machiavellianism.” Nevertheless, this realism is at direct odds with the broader tenor of Clinton’s own campaign and its incessant conviction that “America is already great”.
There is a worrying lesson underpinning this triumphalism, one that reflects the hyper-capitalism of the current times. In particular, it reinforces the idea that personal achievement trumps public accomplishment—that getting the job and having it on your CV is vastly more important than doing it well or using it to makes things better. It is almost besides the point that as a Senator Clinton had little legislative accomplishments—progressive or otherwise—or that as Secretary of State she authorized a record amount of arms sales while spreading the use of fracking internationally.
There is an underlying amorality to Clinton’s upwardly mobile version of feminism. It is that unlike men supposedly women simply can’t afford to have principles. Moreover, that having the courage of your convictions is incompatible with female success. In an era of growing inequality and authoritarianism, this makes Clinton a potentially dangerous female role model indeed.
A Troubling Feminism
The critiques of Clinton’s politics should not, of course, dismiss the empowerment women and men all across the country are feeling over her nomination. It is perhaps especially difficult to remember that an event can be both justifiably inspiring and troubling when cable news and social media bombard citizens daily with facile narratives, passionately partisan perspectives and sound bites instead of deeper critical analysis. Instead of merely feting or demonizing Clinton, it is dramatically more significant to use her success as an opportunity to collectively reflect on the progress feminism has made and the struggles that still confront it.
Notably, it must be investigated which female voices are being silenced by this feminist victory. Specifically, many women of color have expressed ambivalence in relation to this event as they attempt to navigate the conflict of rejoicing in a fellow women’s success while also recognizing the white privilege that enabled to Clinton while often continuing to bar their own advancement. This ambiguity is captured in the popular hashtag #IguessImwithher.
Just as importantly, have been the silencing of genuinely progressive female voices. They are legitimately concerned that women have actually practiced not just preached values of economic and social equality are being made invisible. As socialist councilwoman Kshama Sawant recently stated:
A lot of people think that, well, it’s a woman leader, and this is going to be important. But, look, she was on the board of Wal-Mart for six years. Wal-Mart is the world’s biggest purveyor of poverty wages. And who do you think it affects? It affects women at the very bottom. You heard from the woman, the poignant story of the woman—I saw her last night at the protest—who said that because welfare was destroyed under Bill Clinton, she—her mother had to become a sex worker. Hillary Clinton was not an innocent bystander when welfare was dismantled. She actually played an active political role alongside Bill Clinton and the new Democrats. Now, as a feminist, I would have loved for her to have played an active role to shore up welfare, to make sure that women’s living standards could have been improved. Unfortunately for us, she’s playing a very active role as a woman, but as a defender of Wall Street.
Fundamentally, Clinton’s triumph critically raises new questions for American feminism. Is it possible to create a politics of gender equality that also challenges the capitalism and modern day colonialism that is so destructive to the life of women in the United States and globally? Must motivated women accept the need for having “dirty hands” in a corrupt system or can they use their power to fight for a less “dirty” feminism and world?
Undeniably the nomination of Hillary Clinton is a historic and landmark event for the country. The hope is that the next female nominee for President is less politically and morally troubling.