Did Clinton lose because she’s a woman?

June 13, 2008

Michele Bollinger looks at one explanation being put forward for Hillary Clinton's defeat in the Democratic primaries--that she was the victim of sexism.

BY THE time Hillary Rodham Clinton finally conceded the Democratic Party presidential nomination to Barack Obama, she had undergone a mind-boggling transformation.

The Clinton campaign--with the help of an unquestioning corporate media--had repackaged her from a supporter of war worth $109 million and perched comfortably atop the American political establishment to something in the way of a working-class "fighter" and scrappy "heroine" to all women.

Before and since she dropped out, the notion central to that rewrite has been that Clinton lost because, in her words, "I am a woman...[L]ike millions of women, I know there are still barriers and biases out there, often unconscious, and I want to build an America that respects and embraces the potential of every last one of us."

Many liberal and progressive commentators reinforced the claim that sexism was to blame for Clinton's defeat--and in so doing, participated in painting with progressive colors a campaign laced with saber-rattling, cynicism and racism.

Hillary Clinton gives a victory speech following the Super Tuesday primaries in early February (Angela Radulescu)

Thus, 1960s activist and current Nation columnist Tom Hayden wrote, "Hers was not the surrender pose traditionally expected of 'losers,' but a redefinition of what winning ultimately means. It suggested that she will be treated as a full partner in the process, and it was a victory speech for the power of social movements." And Hayden supports Obama!

Needless to say, Hillary Clinton doesn't deserve any association with the "power of social movements." She, as much as any leading figure in American politics, represents the Democratic Party's shift to the right. Having served over seven years in the Senate and spent eight more as First Lady during Bill Clinton's administration, Hillary Clinton has sat atop the Democratic Party establishment for decades.

She spent most of her time in the Senate beefing up her national security credentials in the hopes of molding herself into the presidential candidate who was best able to advance the interests of the U.S. ruling class. In 2002, she voted to authorize the war in Iraq, an action that, to this day, she refuses to say was a mistake. As the battle for the nomination went on, Clinton was given an inane hypothetical situation in which Iran attacked Israel, and she told Good Morning America that she would "totally obliterate" Iran.

So much for the women of the Middle East--or the female U.S. soldiers--who would be casualties in Clinton's wars.

Hillary Clinton has had nothing to do with social movements, except when she moves to denounce or disarm them. At the 2004 March for Women's Lives, she told the crowd of more than 1 million abortion rights supporters that during Bill Clinton's presidency, "We didn't have to march for 12 long years because we had a government that respected the rights of women.''

This was the same administration that destroyed welfare and pushed millions of women deeper into poverty, incarcerated disproportionately poor women and women of color at an unprecedented rate, abandoned its promise of a Freedom of Choice Act to protect reproductive rights, and sat by while the right to choose abortion was attacked in state after state.

IN FACT, Hillary Clinton didn't raise the question of women's rights at any point in the campaign--until it became politically expedient to do so. Clinton began the race as the clear frontrunner, but the sense of inevitability and entitlement that accompanied that position was ultimately part of her undoing.

When Obama took the lead in the primaries, Clinton adopted several cynical strategies. One was an appeal to racism. Another was to tap into the rightful anger over the corporate media's sexist treatment of her in the hopes of breathing new life into her campaign.

Thus, when Clinton supporters like Geraldine "Whites-are-the-real-victims-of-racism" Ferraro and Gloria "Black-men-have-it-easier-than-women" Steinem began speaking out, it wasn't to advance a discussion about the status of women in U.S. society, but to draw a line in the sand around the defense of Clinton's decision to stay in the race.

Some of the arguments for Clinton and against Obama were appalling. The 1960s radical feminist Robin Morgan, for example, condemned young women who supported Obama as "eager to win male approval by showing they're not feminists (at least not the kind who actually threaten the status quo), who can't identify with a woman candidate because she is unafraid of eeueweeeu yucky power, who fear their boyfriends might look at them funny if they say something good about her."

Of course, the exact opposite is the case. Many young women eager to assert women's rights enthusiastically supported Obama, the first African American with a realistic chance to win the presidency, over the Washington insider Clinton as a way to stand against discrimination and bigotry of all kinds, not just against women.

The bitter and cynical attitude struck by figures like Steinem and Morgan underlines the political trajectory of mainstream feminism and organizations like the National Organization for Women--toward a primary focus on securing the right of individual women to advance unfettered up the ladders of power. Such aspirations are possible for only a small group of upper- and middle-class women in society.

Electing a woman president would signal a huge breakthrough in a society where women have long been excluded from positions of power and have had to struggle even for the right to vote.

But it must be said that Hillary Clinton's success in rising through the U.S. political establishment depended on the struggles of the past for women's equality--yet at the same time, she has championed policies and political positions that don't benefit the majority of women.

WHAT ROLE did sexism play during Clinton's campaign for the nomination?

Clinton's run for president certainly shattered the myth that we live in a "post-feminist" society where women embrace stereotypes, and sexism is latent and doesn't need to be fought.

Throughout the campaign, one derogatory epithet after another was thrown Clinton's way. Members of the media prattled on for months--in contrast, naturally, to their treatment of the male candidates--about Clinton's style of dress, her haircut, her physical appearance, whether she was too "hard" or too "soft." Clinton's "mood swings" became a topic for cable news speculation.

On right-wing Fox News, blowhard Marc Rudov grunted: "When Barack Obama speaks, men hear 'take off for the future.' And when Hillary Clinton speaks, men hear, 'take out the garbage.'" Magician-turned-idiot Penn Jillette declared, "Obama did great in February, and that's because that was Black History Month. And now Hillary's doing much better, 'cause it's White Bitch Month, right?"

Then, there was Chris Matthews, of MSNBC's Hardball, who characterized Clinton as "witchy" and a "she devil." "The reason she's a U.S. Senator, the reason she's a candidate for president...is that her husband messed around," Matthews declared. "We keep forgetting, she didn't win New York on her own merit."

Republican twits showed up at Hillary Clinton rallies in New Hampshire with signs reading, "Iron my shirt." When a supporter in South Carolina asked Republican presidential nominee John McCain, "How do we beat the bitch?" McCain laughed and followed up with, "Excellent question."

This was a glimpse of McCain's ugly misogyny, which has been on display throughout his decades-long career in politics.

McCain is rabidly anti-choice and repeatedly voted against social welfare and women's health programs. He once called his own spouse, Cindy McCain, a sickening sexist expletive in public and "joked" at a late 1990s Republican fundraiser, "Why is Chelsea Clinton so ugly? Because her father is Janet Reno."

So McCain's recent praise of Hillary Clinton shouldn't be seen as anything other than a play for the votes of some of the 17.5 million people who chose Clinton in the Democratic primaries.

In contrast to this cynicism was the genuine excitement that Clinton's campaign did spark among groups of women and men. Obama's campaign generated more enthusiasm, among younger voters especially, but Clinton was propelled by support from many people who viewed her candidacy as an important challenge in a society with a history of consigning women to second-class citizenship.

The U.S. is shamefully behind scores of other countries when it comes to the number of women elected to public office. According to the Brookings Institution, 84 percent of members of Congress are male. That makes the U.S. 68th among the world's countries in the number of women in the national legislature--behind Afghanistan, China, Iraq, Mexico and Sudan.

Women make up just 18 percent of state governors and 10 percent of the mayors of the 100 largest U.S. cities. And while the American presidency has been out of reach for women, literally dozens of countries have had women heads of state.

That Clinton came as close as she did to the nomination and potentially winning the presidency is the result of the social movements of the 1960s and '70s. The women's liberation movement produced profound changes in women's lives, from reproductive rights to the opening up of previously male-dominated areas of life, including politics.

The struggles of the 1960s and '70s also radically changed consciousness in U.S. society about a woman President. In 2007, a Gallup poll reported that 88 percent of people said they would vote for a well-qualified woman for president, an increase from the late 1960s, when the figure was 53 percent.

Those who say that Clinton was defeated because of sexism are ignoring the other side of the question--the enthusiastic support she got because she went further than anyone else in breaking down this historic barrier.

And they fail to recognize that what inspired support for Obama wasn't a backlash against a strong woman candidate, but that he was perceived as representing a fresh alternative, while Clinton was the candidate among the Democrats most associated with business as usual--the status quo of mainstream politics in the U.S.

Further Reading

From the archives