Hillary Clinton’s loss in the presidential election to America’s most famous sexist instantly plunged the feminist cause into crisis. In the Nation, Joan Walsh wrote, “I apologize for thinking that the country was ready to elect a woman president.” New York magazine’s Rebecca Traister stated, “The heartbreak of this election for Clinton supporters is … the loss of the idea that this country was so very close to being better, more inclusive, more just, and more representative.” Amanda Marcotte called it “the misogyny apocalypse.” The glass ceiling, many writers lamented, remained thick and unbroken.
There’s no denying that Donald Trump’s victory was a setback for women’s rights. It certainly doesn’t speak well of a country that it elected a man who has repeatedly humiliated women in public and has been accused multiple times of harassment and assault. But that doesn’t mean that the election was a referendum on whether women could be trusted to hold power, or that women as a whole were rejected. In fact, while sexism was clearly a major factor in the election, it was only a referendum on one woman, who practiced one type of feminist politics. It marked the end of Clinton’s brand of feminism—call it trickle-down feminism—and the introduction, hopefully, of a more egalitarian feminist politics to the mainstream.
Clinton has been the face of second-wave feminism for nearly her entire career. She is a Baby Boomer who came up through the American university system and fought her way—as a lawyer, senator, and secretary of state—to the top of one male-dominated career after another. Clinton has embodied, as Namara Smith put it in an essay in n+1, the ideal of “women’s liberation from traditional forms of authority through participation in the paid workforce.” She is a pathbreaker whose accomplishments and accolades were supposed to clear the way for others to follow.
The problem with this kind of feminism is that it focused too strongly on putting women in positions of power—on elevating them to the elite, which would then redound to the benefit of all women down the economic ladder. Every female law firm partner, every woman CEO, was a victory for the cause. Ironically, in these anti-elitist times, Clinton was damned for following the very steps that were deemed necessary for a woman to put herself in a position to run for president, as Traister noted in her essay. But in its gaudiest form, this animating principle only made Clinton seem out of touch on the campaign trail: a millionaire hanging out with other rich and famous women like Lena Dunham and Katy Perry. It was not entirely clear whether Clinton breaking the glass ceiling would break it for all of us. Even her campaign slogan—I’m With Her—suggested it was all about the triumph of one person.
On a macro level, the dividends of market-based, lean-in feminism have not been distributed equally. Take, for example, the narrowing of the wage gap between women and men over the last few decades. From 1980 to 2015, white women reduced the wage gap by 22 cents, earning 82 cents in 2015 for every dollar earned by a white man. However, black women only narrowed the gap by 9 cents (to 65 cents) and Hispanic women by a mere 5 cents (to 58 cents). Too often, shattering glass ceilings has only offered shards to the women down below.
While symbolism matters, substance matters more. And many have argued that Clinton’s policies were substantive when it came to poor and working-class women. Clinton’s child care and family leave plans were especially robust, and she came out strongly for reproductive rights when railing against the Hyde amendment. But, when it came to policies like the $15 minimum wage, Clinton initially faltered, backing a $12 wage instead. The Clinton team also denounced Bernie Sanders’s Medicare-for-all plan, and inaccurately implied that it would dismantle existing health care programs and leave people uninsured. These are integral issues to the feminist agenda: Nearly two-thirds of minimum wage workers are women, and women are more likely to have their health insurance covered as dependents, putting them at a greater risk if they become widowed or divorced.
There is also the question of framing. Clinton’s feminist push never quite deviated from the idea that benefits should only be doled out to those who work. This is an especially damaging notion for women, many of whom shoulder an outsized amount of informal labor—child care, household chores, elder care—that is often not recognized as “work” in the eyes of the market. Take, for example, Clinton’s original college plan, which required students to work ten hours a week—to have “skin in the game”—to receive benefits.
She also struggled with the legacy of her husband’s welfare reform bill, which, possibly more than any other piece of legislation, codified a division between “deserving” and “undeserving” poor women. During the campaign, Clinton could only muster a milquetoast rejection of the bill, stating that “we need to take a hard look at it again.” Sanders himself failed to offer a sufficient replacement, which suggests that welfare—which feminist activist Johnnie Tillmon termed over 40 years ago “a women’s issue”—remains an area that still is in desperate need of revitalization within the progressive political imagination.
In the same essay, Tillmon wrote, “For a lot of middle-class women in this country, Women’s Liberation is a matter of concern. For women on welfare it’s a matter of survival.” The question has never been about whether Clinton is a feminist, but rather whether her type of feminism is doing enough. Without pushing for a feminism that was based firmly within a full-throated bottom-up agenda, it was doubtful that Clinton was ever going to create a meaningful coalition of women.
The results speak for themselves. The Clinton campaign failed to capture many of the female voters they were counting on. A month before the election, the campaign said they were “mobilizing women disgusted by Trump to organize their communities and get out the vote for Clinton.” But the moderate conservative female voter who was supposed to gravitate to Clinton because of Trump’s “grab them by the pussy” tapes failed to appear, with Trump winning a majority of white and Republican women. And, while Clinton won nearly every other category of women, she won black, Latina, and unmarried women by smaller margins than President Barack Obama in 2012.
In many ways, the energy on the left seems to be moving in this direction. In the Democratic primary, young female voters were some of Bernie Sanders’s biggest supporters. But, as Smith noted at n+1, Sanders’s flaws became most apparent when he spoke to a “phantom of the old white male industrial working class rather than to the black, brown, and female service workers who make up the majority of the working class today.” This failure is, in large part, why Sanders lost the primary.
As the Democratic Party starts the hard work of preparing to take on Trump in 2020, lamenting the election as an indictment of women, or as evidence of America’s pathological backwardness, will perpetuate an incomplete idea of what Clinton and her campaign represented. It will turn Clinton into a kind of martyr who fell on behalf of all women. But it’s important to remember that women didn’t lose to Trump; Clinton did.