AS OF June 7th’s presidential primaries, Hillary Clinton is now actually the inevitable Democratic presidential nominee. That this is historic is not debatable; she’s the first woman to be the nominee of a major party. But feminists are debating over how much this historic feat represents a victory for feminism.
The debate mainly surrounds Clinton’s rather anomalous situation as a white, wealthy, and highly-connected woman, and whether her policies would help lift up women of color and women in poverty, or just serve upper-class white women.
There is one way in which I think Clinton’s historic candidacy could be helpful for all women, especially if she wins the presidency. Sexism in politics is rampant, as I discussed elsewhere, and it’s not all rooted in men’s perception of women. Women ourselves have had to grapple with misogynistic ideas about ourselves, what we are capable of, and what we should steer away from. And some of these messages keep us from viewing ourselves as possible political leaders. In one survey, 31% of women agreed that men are better-suited emotionally for politics, the same percentage as men who agreed, for example.
Even if Clinton’s rise to such a position of power was facilitated at least partly by anomalous overlappings of privileges, having a woman as the Democratic nominee, and possibly the president, could defy the sense that women are inherently indisposed for leadership positions.
There’s a bit of evidence that female representation in politics increases when a woman takes a position of power. One researcher found that, when states elect a female Attorney General, Governor, and Senator, representation of women in state legislatures increases between 2 and 3%. We have no precedent to determine the possible impacts of a female presidential nominee or president on women’s representation in various levels of politics, but it stands to reason that it could rise across the board.
And that would be fantastic, since women’s representation in U.S. politics is abysmal. The Center for American Women in Politics reports that women comprise only 20% of Congress, 25% of state legislatures, and 19% of mayors.
However, many women are feeling like they can’t identify with Clinton enough to associate her success with a feminist victory. Among young feminists in particular who lean strongly intersectional, Clinton failed to inspire widespread support. Instead, the Millennial generation flocked to Sen. Bernie Sanders, who they saw as the real champion of people in poverty, people of color, and the LGBT community.
Anoa Changa, a feminist and volunteer with Women for Bernie Sanders, told The Guardian: “Access to opportunity in politics is often limited to people who are white or upper middle class. When we look at issues as gender only, it overshadows so many other ways that women are shut out of the process.” This view frames Clinton’s historic achievement as more a victory for wealthy white women than for women who fall outside that category.
The intersectional lens turns our focus to how not all women are subjected to the same oppressive forces, and how not just women, but other demographics, are subjected to such forces. Though Clinton began using the term “intersectional” late in her campaign, and has spent a considerable amount of time in debates and tweets and speeches attesting to the needs of people who are struggling in various ways, this was not sufficient to convince many intersectional feminists that her commitment to their cause is solid.
The ambivalence of many of today’s young women was poignant on June 8 after Clinton’s nomination became inevitable and #GirlIGuessImWithHer began trending on Twitter. The hashtag was shared mostly by black women who are reluctant to vote for Clinton in November.
Aside from difficulties some feminists are having identifying Clinton’s success with their own, some are bringing up their concerns that Clinton’s policies will not help a broad range of women. Activist and author Naomi Klein said in an interview following the June 7 primaries:
I would love to feel elated at this historic moment, but I know too much about her policies, and who funds her, and the legacy of the last Clinton administration to buy this idea that this is creating opportunity for everybody because… the real-world effects of these policies is structural inequality that blocks out huge numbers of people … The “anybody can do it” rhetoric rings really hollow for me and exposes the hollowness of that brand of feminism…
Glass ceilings come at different heights for different people. That Clinton is breaking one is worthy of acknowledgment, but we must also acknowledge the fact that the ceiling is higher for many women, and ask whether Clinton will do anything to change that, before declaring her nomination a victory for feminism broadly.