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What’s a Feminist to Do? Clinton’s Run Surfaces Issues of Race, Gender and Class

Linda Martín Alcoff Oct 8

Hillary Rodham Clinton is running hard for president. After 227 years of men filling this position — men who ranged from good to bad to incompetent to criminal —  she just might win. So, what’s a feminist to do?

Since Clinton entered the national political scene as First Lady in 1992, she has been cast as our unofficial feminist head of state. From the beginning, she established herself as a political operative with a focus on women’s issues, and after Bill left office, she followed up with an eight-year term in the U.S. Senate and four-year tenure as Secretary of State. Clinton is the most serious female contender for the presidency in U.S. history, and, unlike Carly Fiorina, at least she’s a Democrat.

This summer she made an effort to bolster her reputation as a progressive. She has made substantive statements about race and policing, as well as the need to raise the minimum wage. Yet of course, Clinton’s credentials as a social progressive are as fake as a teenager’s ID. She helped decimate the paltry U.S. welfare state and stood by while her husband expanded the prison industrial complex. She made use of racist dog whistles in her 2008 campaign against Obama and abandoned the Palestinian people to the Israeli right wing. In the midst of war fever, Clinton voted for the war against Iraq. And she still wants to nail Edward Snowden even while she has been protecting the privacy of her own emails. These issues — from war to welfare to racism to the security state — are women’s issues just as much as reproductive rights and gender violence.

One might imagine that the right wing would welcome a Clinton run given this track record. Yet they are in hysterics. And Hillary haters also abound in liberal and left public venues, throwing around mean-spirited caricatures and sexist imagery — Saturday Night Live’s regular portrayal of her shouting with bared teeth is a prime example. The male-dominated left seems to think such jokes are fair game given her neoliberal politics.

Clinton’s feminist supporters, meanwhile, say that “it’s her turn.” Despite the inadequacy of her record, they are suggesting that we need to make a priority of integrating the boys club.

A Troubled History

The idea that it is “her” turn, or “our” collective female turn, invokes a troubled history that should give every feminist pause. After the Civil War, when an expansion beyond white male suffrage was on the table, the coalition that had fought against slavery fell into a civil war of its own. At first, abolitionists and supporters of women’s rights continued the alliance they had built since 1840 and demanded the vote for all former slaves and all women.

Leading allies, however, balked at this proposal. They included Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, who called women’s suffrage too “revolutionary.” He held that public sentiment would not support such a “radical” transformation in “social and domestic life.” Frederick Douglass also opposed universal suffrage, arguing that until women are “dragged from their houses and hung upon lamp posts” their claim to the ballot did not have the same urgency as that of black men. In the ensuing split, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton put the vote for women first, while Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell advocated for a staged fight starting with black male suffrage.  

In truth, this was not a competition of gender against race, but of white women against black men, with women of color left hanging. Anthony unashamedly began to make explicitly racist, elitist and xenophobic arguments, casting white women over former slaves, workers and new immigrants. She wrote that without female suffrage, “fifteen million white women” will have been “cast under the heel of the lowest orders of manhood.”

Today, such a move epitomizes what has come to be called white feminism. As in, Jim Crow feminism, racist feminism. And it’s a clear contradiction in terms if feminism is supposed to be for all women.

The Importance of Identity

How should we think about the intersecting issues of gender alongside race and class in Clinton’s candidacy? We seem to have a divide between her feminist supporters, who want gender prioritized, and her progressive detractors, who minimize the gender stakes in her campaign.

While liberals like Maureen Dowd join in the gender policing of Hillary’s dress and mannerisms, the left — male and female — castigates the identity politics of her supporters, as if her gender makes no legitimate difference. Laura Flanders said on Melissa Harris-Perry’s show that women should not get bamboozled by the playing of gender in this race. Paul Krugman editorialized that the problems facing white women and African-Americans can be summarized in one word: poverty.

They are not totally wrong, of course, but the misuse of identity doesn’t mean it has no use whatever. Radicals and liberals make a big mistake to slam gender and race as side issues and the identity of candidates as nothing but a smokescreen. Allow me to differ.

First, Hillary is getting an inexcusable amount of sexism from all sides. She has been called “emotional” (CNN), “feisty” (Atlanta Journal Constitution), “cackling” (Bill Maher), not to mention ambitious, maniacal and demonic in spirit. Her face has been put on a tap-dancing doll and sold at airports. Sexism still dominates the public domain of discourse without sufficient response from the left. We need women candidates of all races to reconfigure the social imaginary, including that of the left.

Second, women, even some women of color, identify with Hillary, and this is not just about being duped. She has been cheated on, smeared by innuendo and taunted for the size of her thighs. Her commitment to feminism has earned her some formidable enemies. And still she keeps coming back, speaking out, standing up. It’s no wonder that some teenage girl bloggers declare their passion for her campaign.  

Third, Hillary’s feminism is not actually white feminism, it’s corporate feminism. Her track record on economic issues has not helped white women, not to mention African-American women or Latinas. White women’s mortality rate is increasing sharply, and no wonder: their median income is $722 a week, before taxes, meaning that half of them take home less than that. The occupational fields they dominate — educational and health services, wholesale and retail, and leisure and hospitality — remain seriously underpaid. No wonder the 1% has garnered 58 percent of all new income since 2008. Clinton’s campaign, meanwhile, is mum on tax increases for the rich, on austerity measures in Europe and on the desperate need to fight for the right to organize workers.

Fourth, both gender and race are central political struggles that cannot be sidelined in a generic approach to economic struggles. The struggle around class has to include an understanding of how poverty, unemployment and exploitation are calibrated via social identities.

Competing Claims

Let’s return to 1866 for a moment. While Anthony’s racism and elitism was exposed in this fight, Douglass’s call for black male suffrage on the grounds of the serious violence black men suffered ignored the serious violence in women’s lives, across racial communities, from being raped and beaten in their own homes to being raped on the job as the price of employment. Race and gender issues have long been set in competition and put forward in contorted versions that shouldn’t brook support for either side. Racist feminism or an anti-racism that ignores gender? No, thank you.

Clinton’s political record has followed neatly in this tradition. Her voting record is solidly liberal, which is to say, inadequate. She’s voted right on health care, immigration, gun control and reproductive rights while also getting high marks from government contractors and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. She speaks constantly on women’s rights but has only supported a weak $12 minimum wage. Worst of all is her late, politically expedient apology for supporting the Iraq War: When it was safe, and to her advantage, she expressed regret for an imperial war that murdered tens of thousands of people, decimated the U.S. economy and turned the poor into cannon fodder.

I’m voting for Bernie Sanders, the white guy. His economic agenda makes him a better candidate for the majority of women than Clinton. And he opposed the war consistently from the beginning. But we have to stop approaching issues such as class as distinct from gender, race, sexuality and other identity-based forms of hierarchy. Sanders is the best candidate not because his “class” agenda trumps all else, but because he offers the most on these interrelated fronts. Meanwhile, as long as the left feels justified in ignoring the sexist comedy parade against women candidates, and dismisses identity issues as so much dross obscuring our vision, they deserve to lose ardent teenage girl support. Clinton’s upfront feminism and the sexism she faces daily don’t justify our votes, but they do justify paying serious attention to the multiple and complicated identity issues that beset the political field of play.

Linda Martín Alcoff is a professor of philosophy at the City University of New York. Her latest book, The Future of Whiteness, was just published by Polity Press.