Clinton’s corporate feminism falls flat

February 9, 2016

The Clinton campaign has a new line of attack against voters who won't get in line behind their candidate: They're caving to sexism. Elizabeth Schulte begs to differ.

WHY WOULD any woman not vote for the first woman president of the United States? Obviously, they must be boy crazy.

At least that's what Gloria Steinem seems to think. Appearing on HBO's Real Time with Bill Maher, the feminist icon explained why Bernie Sanders was winning a voting base among young women. Steinem declared that women "get more activist as they grow older. And when you're younger, you think: 'Where are the boys? The boys are with Bernie.'"

Wow. Really?

Steinem had to step back from her remarks later, but the fact that the idea even crossed her mind says a lot about what she--along with the brand of feminism with narrowed concerns around the interests of a minority of women in upper-class positions--think about other women they collectively claim to speak for.

And with Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign pushing essentially the same line, Steinem's comment speaks volumes about its cynical attitude as well.

Faced with the popularity of Sanders and his campaign message that focuses on the long-ignored grievances of working-class women and men alike, Clinton's friends in high places are out in force these days to lecture women about who should get their vote.

Madeleine Albright and Hillary Clinton
Madeleine Albright and Hillary Clinton

"There's a special place in hell for women who don't help each other!" former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told a crowd in New Hampshire last week.

Albright should know all about hell. She helped create it for the people of Iraq who endured the decade of deadly sanctions engineered by the U.S. government under George Bush Sr. and Bill Clinton.

IN THE lead-up to the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday, Clinton supporters like Albright are using a toxic combination of smears and deception to try to get women voters in line behind their candidate. Women who support Sanders are accused of being "too young to understand." The cruder line is to imply--or state outright--that critics of Clinton are simply sexist.

Hillary Clinton does face ugly expressions of sexism, and has throughout her political career. In particular, the mainstream media has treated her appearance in a completely different way than they do male candidates. And the Republican right seems to have an especially fanatical hatred of Clinton because she represents something that is contrary to their reactionary values: a woman who has achieved a measure of political power.

But it is the height of cynicism for the Clinton campaign to mobilize legitimate outrage at sexist behavior toward Clinton and direct it at women and men who have a critique of Clinton's conventional Democratic Party politics--including on women's issues like reproductive rights, where Clinton and Albright have led the way in giving ground to the right wing with their triangulating rhetoric about making abortion "safe, legal and rare."

In defending Albright's "you're all going to hell" warning last week, Clinton explained, "I think what she was trying to do--what she's done in every setting I've ever seen her in going back 20-plus years--was to remind young women particularly that, you know, this struggle, which many of us have been part of, is not over," Clinton said.

In other words, if you're a woman and don't support her, then you aren't taking sexism seriously.

The New York Times quoted the response of Zoe Trimboli, a 23-year-old supporter of Sanders who describes herself as a feminist, on Facebook: "Shame on Gloria Steinem and Madeleine Albright for implying that we as women should be voting for a candidate based solely on gender. I can tell you that shaming me and essentially calling me misinformed and stupid is NOT the way to win my vote."

The Clinton campaign has also been adopting a media characterization of Sanders supporters as "Bernie bros."

Sanders went on record last weekend to condemn any sexism on the part of those who say they back him, after reports of misogynistic comments and foul language on social media came to his attention. "Anybody who is supporting me that is doing the sexist things--we don't want them," Sanders told CNN.

Sanders was right to make this statement. If those who back him expect to build the kind of campaign that truly stands for a break with the status quo, they must take on and defeat ideas that will take that movement backward, like sexism.

By the same token, maybe someone should tell Steinem that describing young women's political convictions as the result of being "boy crazy" is both dismissive and sexist, as well.

Leaving that aside, though, the bigger point is that the act of disagreeing with Hillary Clinton or opposing her policies can't be considered sexist in and of itself. Bill Clinton has been playing at this in the campaign's frenzied run-up to New Hampshire, decrying the "smear" that Clinton is part of the "establishment."

It's neither sexist nor a smear to call Hillary Clinton part of the Washington political establishment. It's a statement of fact.

IT'S SHAMEFUL that in the "world's greatest democracy," no woman has ever been elected to the highest office of government--in contrast to dozens of countries around the world over many decades. This fact speaks to the deep systemic roots of sexism in U.S. society. Women in the U.S. face inequality by almost any measuring stick--from housing to pay, from health care access to job opportunities, and also representation in Corporate America and high political offices.

But claiming that you're the obvious candidate for women simply because you're a women--no matter what your record is or what your opponent stands for--isn't exactly taking women's rights seriously.

Referring to the Sanders campaign's call for a "political revolution," Albright said, "People are talking about revolution. What kind of a revolution would it be to have the first woman president of the United States?"

Hard as it may be to imagine Albright as a "revolutionary," it's obviously a Clinton campaign talking point. The candidate herself made the same claim at the MSNBC Democratic debate on February 4, interrupting Sanders, who was commenting on Clinton's numerous ties to Corporate America, the Washington political establishment and the status quo. "Sen. Sanders is the only person I think would characterize me--a woman running to be the first woman president--as exemplifying the establishment," Clinton declared.

But judging from the surge of support for Sanders' campaign and away from Clinton's, he isn't the only person. Young voters in particular--women included--supported Sanders in the Iowa caucuses by a lopsided 6-to-1 margin, according to entrance polls. Voter surveys before the New Hampshire primary give the Vermont senator and self-declared socialist a double-digit lead.

The Clinton campaign's doubling down on her so-called feminist credentials doesn't seem to be playing in New Hampshire. According to a CNN/WMUR survey, for example, Sanders will easily outpoll Clinton among women voters--a significant swing from Iowa, where women caucus-goers supported Clinton by 11 percentage points.

THE TRUTH is that Hillary Clinton does represent women's interests--but only some women.

Women like Madeleine Albright, who reached one of the most powerful rungs in the U.S. government by helping to engineer starvation and destitution for the women and children of Iraq. Women like Facebook CEO and Lean In guru Sheryl Sandberg, who claims that the only thing standing in way of women winning equal pay is asking for it. Or women like Gloria Steinem, who began her career exposing the rampant sexism in U.S. society, only to conclude that personal economic enrichment was the key to equality.

Then there are the women who Hillary Clinton doesn't represent. They make up a much longer and less "distinguished" list: The women in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia killed by drones while Secretary of State Clinton was helping to carry out the Obama administration's "war on terror." The tens of thousands U.S. women caught in the snare of the criminal justice system that was made massively more repressive by Bill Clinton's crime bills, which Hillary Clinton shilled for. The millions of women who struggle to get by in jobs that pay less than a living wage while Clinton opposes an increase in the federal minimum to $15 an hour.

Fundamentally, Hillary Clinton is a candidate of the 1 Percent--men and women both.

But it's not just the women in the corporate boardrooms and Washington war rooms who are defending Clinton. Months ago, the debate about supporting Clinton had already begun on the left.

The Nation's Katha Pollitt voiced her enthusiastic support in a June 2015 column titled "Why I'm Ready--and Excited--for Hillary." But along with Pollitt's enthusiasm at having a supposed feminist in the White House came a warning that we're going to see more and more in the coming months:

On the crucial issue of the Supreme Court, where Scalia and Kennedy are close to 80 and Ginsburg is 82, the next president will make choices that shape the nation in fundamental ways for the next 20 or 30 years. Who do you want making those nominations: Hillary, or the Republican who beats Bernie Sanders?

These comments in support of the supposedly most viable Democratic candidate are hardly unique in an election year. But they are disappointing coming from Pollitt, considering the important and little-heeded message of her 2013 book Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights. In it, she explains how the complacency and defensiveness of the pro-choice movement that "sold itself too cheaply to the Democratic Party" has led to the whittling away of abortion rights we see today.

Now, just a few years later, Pollitt is backing Clinton, who led the Democratic Party's retreat on reproductive rights and who often spoke about her willingness to find common ground with the right wing on the issue of abortion. Clinton is one of prime reasons why Pollitt is right that abortion rights have to be reclaimed. So why is she enthusiastic about Clinton the candidate?

The Democratic Party political establishment--which counts Hillary Clinton among its leaders--would like to take for granted the support of women and men who are concerned about reproductive rights and other issues connected to women's oppression. But right now, they're having to work for that support--and so the knives have come out.

This isn't the first time. In 2008, in the race for the Democratic nomination against Barack Obama, the Clinton campaign portrayed their candidate as a woman standing up to sexism. Clinton did face sexism, as she does now. But her campaign tried to rally support among people who opposed those attacks while avoiding the real problem--Clinton didn't measure up on the issues that Democratic Party voters cared about.

This is just round one in an ongoing battle to chastise the people who demand something better to get in line behind the "realistic" candidate against the greater evil of the Republicans. The main tool to pressure people won't be the promise of something better, but the threat of worse to come if the Republicans win.

What Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party leadership don't understand is that people think their vote counts for something--and many of them want to cast a ballot for Bernie Sanders because he is expressing a radical message that speaks to their own beliefs. Even women.

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