Hillary Clinton Isn’t Particularly Good for Feminism

by Benjamin Studebaker

In reply to my post from the other day about the differences in economic ideology between Bernie Sanders (the Keynesian egalitarian) and Hillary Clinton (the neoliberal), some are replying that Hillary is still worth supporting because a Hillary presidency would be an important victory for feminism. Indeed, there are prominent women accusing female Bernie supporters of being traitors to feminism. Madeleine Albright says that women who don’t support Hillary are “going to hell”. Gloria Steinem says that female Bernie supporters are doing it to chase boys (she has since apologized for that remark). Yet in some places, Bernie continues to enjoy the support of the majority of women under 45–winning as much as 64% of that demographic. These women are making the right choice. Hillary’s feminist credentials are much weaker than is popularly believed, and if elected there are strong reasons to think that she would do little for the feminist political cause.

To evaluate whether Hillary Clinton will accomplish something for feminism, we need to know what it is that feminism is or ought to be trying to accomplish in the first place. Feminist theory doesn’t have one exclusive answer to this question, but I’d like to offer an aim for feminism that I think will be broadly appealing to most people who identify themselves with feminist theory.

On my view, feminism is or should be about reducing the influence of gender norms. Gender norms are behavioral expectations we have for people based on whether they are male or female. Feminism recognizes that these expectations limit people’s freedom by boxing them into gender roles that they do not choose for themselves. Gender norms are almost always the basis for gender discrimination. Women who are paid less or denied opportunities to fight in combat roles or discouraged from asserting themselves are treated this way because people have internalized expectations that women are meant to be less capable, weaker, or more emotionally sensitive. Many feminists refer to this system that puts social pressure on men and women to conform to gender roles through the propagation of gender norms as “patriarchy”, but if you’re a man and that term makes you uncomfortable because it feels like you are being personally blamed for a system of norms you also oppose or find constraining, you can just call it “the system of gender norms”. After all, this system limits men too–men are expected to be stoic, unemotional, less nurturing, physically strong, and so on, and many men find this role uncomfortable for them as well. As Emma Watson likes to emphasize, everyone potentially benefits from feminism. That said, the system of gender norms tend to limit women more than men, because the female gender role has often denied women political, social, and economic power. This legacy of sexist oppression continues to influence modern societies, and contemporary feminists are right to be vigilant about sexism.

If you largely agree with the conception of feminism I’ve laid out above, it should be clear to you that it is not feminist to praise women for being good listeners or more cooperative than men–this only serves to reinforce the traditional gender norms that women are more emotional and interpersonal while men are stoic individualists. It is not feminist merely to reverse which traditional gender norms are praised. From a feminist standpoint, praising women for conforming to traditional female gender norms is no better than condemning women for conforming to traditional female gender norms. The goal of feminism is not to change our attitude toward specific norms, but to challenge, subvert, and eliminate the system of norms altogether, so every person is free from social pressure to conform to any gender role. This does not mean that men can never be stoic and women can never be empathetic, but it does mean that these behaviors should not be the result of gender-based social pressure to conform to these behaviors as norms.

So with all of this in mind, I found it really disturbing when Hillary Clinton said this:

I just think women in general are better listeners, are more collegial, more open to new ideas and how to make things work in a way that looks for win-win outcomes.

By essentializing women in this way, Clinton is propagating female gender norms. She is underlining and supporting traditional beliefs about what women are good at and what they are not so good at. This reinforces the patriarchy. If it’s unclear what’s so anti-feminist about this remark, imagine if instead Clinton said this:

I just think men in general are better at math, are more assertive, more competent at implementing new ideas and making things work in a way that looks for efficient outcomes.

That’s clearly really sexist, isn’t it? This is the same kind of remark as the first remark. It says that men are better because of the ways in which men conform to male gender roles. The first remark says that women are better because of the ways in which women conform to female gender roles. Both of these remarks support the patriarchy.

This is not the first time that Clinton has said things that reinforce traditional gender norms. Some feminists consider themselves “sex positive”–they take the view that one of the best ways to undermine the system of gender norms is to undermine norms about female sexual behavior, i.e. that women should be abstinent, chaste, submissive, and heterosexual, and that women who deviate from these norms are sluts, while men are permitted to be sexually promiscuous, more assertive about sex, and so on. Hillary Clinton has consistently taken the view that teens should be encouraged to remain totally abstinent.

In a book published in 2007, Hillary Clinton is quoted blaming young women for failing to exercise sexual self-control:

The first lady of Arkansas launched a public education campaign to highlight problems faced by modern teens. She singled out sexual content, stating that society was “bombarding kids with sexual messages on TV, in music, everywhere they turn.” In a throwback to the Park Ridge of the 1950s, she said that both parents and churches were failing teenagers in not doing enough to help them just say no to sex. “Adults are not fulfilling their responsibility to talk to young people about the future, about how they should view their lives, about self-discipline and other values they should have.” She stated, “It’s not birth control, but self-control.”

In 1996, she said:

After many years of working with and listening to American adolescents, I don’t believe they are ready for sex or its potential consequences–parenthood, abortion, sexually transmitted diseases–and I think we need to do everything in our power to discourage sexual activity and encourage abstinence.

In 2005, she expressed support for abstinence again:

Research shows that teenage girls abstain because of their religious and moral values. We should embrace this and support programs that reinforce the idea that abstinence at a young age is not just the smart thing to do, it is the right thing to do.

Worldwide, the countries with the lowest rates of teenage pregnancy are places like the Netherlands, where sexuality education begins at age four and abstinence is not encouraged:

By normalizing sex and removing the stigmas surrounding it, European sex ed programs not only help young people have safer sex, they help erode traditional gender norms. Another way to erode those norms is by allowing people to sexually express themselves through a diverse array of identities and orientations. Yet Hillary Clinton consistently and explicitly opposed gay marriage until 2013, and she supported the Defense of Marriage Act. She said:

Marriage has historic, religious, and moral content that goes back to the beginning of time, and I think a marriage is as a marriage has always been, between a man and a woman.

On many occasions Hillary Clinton has made statements that sound like they came from Mike Huckabee:

When pressed on the point in interviews more recently, Clinton gives poor rationalizations that do not withstand sustained scrutiny.

Another way to challenge gender sexual norms is to refuse to stigmatize abortion. Yet Clinton has consistently spoken of the choice to abort as sad and regrettable. This puts her more in step with the mainstream, but it hardly reinforces her feminist credentials. Here are a couple examples of that:

We can all recognize that abortion in many ways represents a sad, even tragic choice to many, many women.

I have said many times that I can support a ban on late-term abortions, including partial-birth abortions, so long as the health and life of the mother is protected.

Clinton did vote against the ban on late term abortions except in cases where the health or life of the mother was in danger, but her willingness to pander on the issue publicly damages the choice cause in the long-run. Clinton does not seem to be much of a feminist. She doesn’t undermine gender norms as a system, preferring merely to change which norms are praised and which are not. She comes across as sexually quite traditional.

But perhaps the biggest stain on Clinton’s record when it comes to feminism is her support for welfare reform, which crippled poor families and left more mothers at the mercy of abusive or absentee fathers. Here are just a few of the horrible consequences for poor families:

  • Mortality rates among welfare recipients likely rose by at least 16%.
  • By keeping single parents in work and away from their children, welfare reform adversely affected the development of adolescents, particularly those who were pushed to care for younger siblings, significantly decreasing academic performance.
  • The percentage of poor children receiving food stamps fell from 88% to 70%, and the number receiving cash assistance fell from 57% to 40%.
  • By making payments contingent on seeking employment, it reduced the probability that women will go back to school by 20-25%.
  • The percent of deeply poor households with children who report having insufficient funds to cover essential expenses rose from 37% in 1995 to 48% in 2005.

Welfare reform also substantially increased the number of children living in extreme poverty:

Clinton continues to defend this policy:

Welfare should have been a temporary way station for people who needed immediate assistance. It should not be considered an anti-poverty program. It simply did not work.

This policy continues to force single mothers from poor communities to work multiple low wage jobs, robbing their children of the parental attention they so critically need and making it more difficult for these families to climb out of poverty.

Now, none of this makes her worse on feminist policy than the likely republican candidates by any means. But is she worse than Bernie? Absolutely. Bernie was consistently against banning late term abortions. In 1997, Bernie was opposing homophobia:

It is vitally important to the future of this country and our state that we defeat the Republican agenda, and that we prevent the republicans from recapturing the Congress and taking the White House. That is enormously important. But it is even more important that we as progressives and as Vermonters hold on to that special vision that has propelled us forward for so many years.

A vision which says that we judge people not by their color, their gender, their sexual orientation, their nation of birth– but by the quality of their character, and that we will never accept sexism, racism, or homophobia.

Bernie voted against DOMA in 1996 and against “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” in 1993, both policies Clinton supported. Dubiously, the Human Rights Campaign endorsed Clinton even though she has never enjoyed a rating higher than 89% from them, while Bernie rates 100%. Bernie voted against welfare reform and his support for a higher minimum wage will help many mothers living in poverty achieve economic security. Bernie has sponsored legislation on gender pay equity and has tried to reintroduce the Equal Rights Amendment. As mayor, Bernie supported his city’s first pride parade in 1983.

There is no policy basis for thinking that Hillary Clinton is a stronger opponent of gender norms than Bernie Sanders. The only basis for preferring Clinton on feminist grounds is that Hillary Clinton is a woman, and the first female president has representational value. But it’s not at all clear that this representational value is worth the cost if the candidate doesn’t deliver on the rhetoric and on the policy–no self-respecting feminist could possibly support Carly Fiorina.

There will also be a political cost for feminism associated with the first female president. Consider Barack Obama–Obama is the first black president, but while that is inspiring and has representational value, it is also used as an excuse by the right for opposing policies that would reduce the many large inequalities that remain between blacks and whites. The right argues that if a black man can be president, society must be equal and any black person who is unable to succeed has no one to blame but themselves. This is a false and manipulative excuse for institutionalized racism, but it is a very effective attack line that people on the right use against Black Lives Matter and other anti-racist organizations and policies. The first female president will be used in the same way, to silence and exclude legitimate female grievances. So she had better be a much stronger advocate for feminism than Obama has been for anti-racism. After the 2008 economic crisis, white median family wealth began recovering while black and Hispanic median family wealth continue to decline:

The fact that the president is black only makes it easier for the right to rationalize the continued growth of this disgusting disparity. It does not stop or reverse this repugnant trend. It may mean a lot to affluent pundits, but it means nothing to poor families on the ground.

The UN ranks countries by gender equality based on maternal mortality rate, teen birth rate, share of seats in parliament, equality in level of education among the genders, and equality in the labor force participation rate. Sweden, which has never had a female head of state or head of government, ranks 6th. Britain, which was led for 11 years by Margaret Thatcher and has been ruled by a queen for decades, ranks 39th (the US ranks 55th–we have a long way to go). A female president will not by itself substantively diminish the legacy of female oppression. It will only hand reactionaries another tool with which to marginalize feminism from the public discourse.

We should choose a female head of state some day, but that female head of state should be chosen not just because she’s a woman but because she is the person who will most actively and robustly oppose the system of gender norms at every level. Hopefully she’ll also stand up for other marginalized groups too. Hillary Clinton has shown time and again that she doesn’t really understand gender norms in a systematic, feminist way. She is too often more than happy to reinforce traditional norms, and her willingness to use traditional norms to disparage men for short-term political gain only feeds a false reactionary narrative that feminists are reverse sexists who wish not to eliminate gender norms but to make them benefit women at the expense of men. Feminists are not reverse sexists–but Hillary Clinton is not really much of a feminist.