The Faux Feminism of Hillary Clinton

In “False Choices,” feminist writers dissect the Clinton candidacy. We speak to three of the contributors.

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Hillary Clinton’s presidential nomination has widely been seen as a historic milestone for women. But a number of feminists are not so sure that Clinton’s campaign is entirely good news for the cause. False Choices: The Faux Feminism of Hillary Rodham Clinton (Verso, 192pp., $14.95) brings together a number of essays by feminist writers, exploring different aspects of Clinton’s policies and career, and making the case that a serious feminist politics requires a more critical stance on Clinton. Current Affairs recently spoke to The Nation’s Liza Featherstone, who edited the book, along with Yasmin Nair and Margaret Corvid, who each contributed to it. Speaking on the day after Clinton’s nomination in Philadelphia, we asked why they don’t think of Clinton as a feminist hero, and what kind of feminism they do believe in. 

CA: We’re here on the day after the nomination of the first female candidate for a major party and my question is… isn’t this an exciting historic moment?

LF: That’s your question?! Ok. No, it isn’t very exciting to me. I guess the first female anything is always a bit of a milestone. But in the case of Hillary we’ve been hearing about her inevitability for so long, and her long established anointment as a part of the political elite. We’ve seen this in other countries where a female political figure rises to prominence from her family connections, and it’s really nothing new or interesting. We haven’t seen in those countries that it leads to a great breaking of barriers for other women. And I don’t think that British women who lost their council housing saw Maggie Thatcher’s presence at the top of the political structure as extremely empowering or exciting. Similarly, I think we’re going to see this as a major non-event for American women.

MC: I’m actually a little bit critical and disappointed in all of the coverage denoting this a historic moment. In my own circles I have a lot of liberal friends, people who are saying to vote for Hillary and are extremely excited about this—representation is important to them. But I think the focus on representation is even worse than nothing at all because it closes out opportunities for us to say that feminism is about something more than representation. It’s about systemic structural change that gives women from all areas, races, classes and nationalities more opportunities to be safe, more opportunities to have a good life and have their human rights respected. And so you can talk about Hillary being the first woman as a major nominee, but besides her gender, nearly everything else is against women. That includes her support for neo-liberalism and imperialism. It includes nominating a Vice Presidential candidate who’s soft on choice and is a very big hawk for free trade. You could just keep going down the list. It’s all very disappointing.

YN: I remember the years of Margaret Thatcher and I’m glad Liza brought her up. Thatcher is responsible for the decline of the central welfare state as we know it. She was a woman who was profoundly anti-family, anti-women, anti-union, you name it. But also I remember growing up under Indira Gandhi and other women leaders in the region of what is now known as South Asia. All of whom came out of powerful families. And Indira Gandhi had terrible policies, which included forced sterilization, particularly of lower income men. The dynastic aspect makes an interesting parallel. She came out of a very powerful family and birthed a party that remains more or less now within the purview of one family. After Ranjiv there was Sanjay and so on. And Hillary Clinton is establishing something similar. She’s also an ex-president and she has a daughter who is being given the Clinton Foundation to run. What I see is exactly what we saw with the Gandhis. There’s an ongoing accumulation of cultural and financial capital across generations. And everyone ignores the dynastic element. We had two Bushes, we could have more. We have the great possibility of two Clintons, perhaps even more, because Chelsea Clinton is very young, she’ll have more children, and then I’m sure she’ll enter politics, followed by the children. So for people who talk about this as a historic achievement, there’s a terrible precedent for this kind of historic achievement.

LF: I’m glad you’re talking about the dynastic aspects. After Michelle Obama spoke at the convention, it was really striking how many people said “Oh, she should be president.” Are people just craving these dynasties? What did we have an American revolution for? The one accomplishment of our bourgeois revolution was that we overthrew the idea of monarchy here. Yet people just seem to be pathologically creating and recreating it.

CA: Speaking of the Clintons as a family, to what extent does it make sense to talk about “Clintonism” as a unified philosophy? Every time you associate Hillary with the misdeeds or destructive legacy of Bill there’s a lot of pushback. People say, quite reasonably, that you can’t blame a woman for the crimes of her husband. Yet at the same time there is a massive effort on the part of the Clinton campaign to take credit for the first Clinton Administration’s economic gains. So should we be talking about Hillary as part of something larger called “Clintonism” or not?

LF: It absolutely makes sense to talk about Clintonism. It’s absurd when people say it’s unfair to associate Hilary with the crimes of Bill. After all, it’s not as though she was folding the laundry while all of this was going on. They’ve been a team the entire time, even back in Arkansas they were known as “Billary” and they were sold as a twofer. When Bill was first elected, sometimes you’d get some condescending Republican saying “Oh, ha ha, she’s the one who should be president.” Well, obviously there’s sexism there. But they were always a partnership. And when you look at some of Bill’s most reactionary policies, that’s particularly where you see Hillary being a prominent intellectual partner in crafting the policy as well as a prominent political partner in drumming up support and pushing for it. We see her right there all along the way. So I think it is ridiculous to think she is some sort of waiflike Alice James figure in the back while the men are doing things. It’s a strange sort of victim feminism there.

MC:  Two points. First, the Hillary campaign really tries to have it both ways. In one sense, Hillary is trying to set up some political space for herself as a distinct individual. In another, she is running her campaign based on the record of the first Clinton Administration. But you can’t have both, even though the media would like to think that we have the capacity to believe this confusing set of self-contradictory things. Next, the Clintons are not only consistent in a neoliberal political ideology that you could call “Clintonism,” they are also consistent in the way that they do politics. One thing that both Bill and Hillary have is this kind of changeability in their political perspectives. They’ll believe one thing, say about criminal justice reform decades ago, and now they believe something else. And they both seem to think that they can just give lip service to an issue and then go on and legislate policy however they want.

YN: We have statements to prove that they saw themselves as a team. I remember Hillary Clinton’s famous quote, “I’m not staying home baking cookies.” Then the Republicans said she was insulting housewives and she had to walk it back by bringing in a sheet of cookies and doing a photo op with them. But we have documented evidence that they operated as a team. They said it. “Eight years of Bill, eight years of Hill,” that was their slogan. In my chapter, I write about Hillary showing up at the Beijing women’s conference and making a speech about how women’s rights are human rights. And even though we’ve forgotten, that was a pivotal moment in the history of UN, NGO, human rights discourse. Hillary Clinton wasn’t there as “the wife,” she was there as “first feminist.”

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CA: The book frequently makes the point that not only does the rise of Hillary Clinton not represent an advance for women, but it actually hurts them. You go through multiple specific realms, Margaret talking about the criminalization of sex work and Yasmin talking about carceral feminism, and argue  not just that the symbolism is empty, but that actual women who are marginalized and poor are affirmatively hurt by Clinton’s policies.

MC: The point about the symbols not being empty is really important. If the symbols were empty, we could say “Yeah, actually Hillary is not so great, but go ahead and vote for her and here’s some other ideas.” But her symbolic politics actually crowds out actual liberatory politics. Sex work and human trafficking is actually a really good example. There was a speech last night at the DNC by a woman named Ima Matul who is a campaigner against what they call trafficking or modern slavery. And when they were billing the speakers, they talked about Ima Matul as a sex trafficking survivor. But she wasn’t actually a sex trafficking survivor. She experienced forced domestic labor. But the fact that they characterized her as a “sex trafficking” survivor really shows how the DNC and Hillary use the notion of trafficking as a tool to give themselves some feminist credibility. Hillary Clinton has long been an opponent of the full decriminalization of sex work, which sex workers are actually advocating for. When she was Secretary of State she actually used international aid and development money as a tool against it. They wouldn’t give money to countries unless they signed onto a pledge that they would illegalize sex work in their countries and crack down on it. So she’s trying to look like a really good feminist and say look we’re going liberate women who are enslaved. But if Hillary wanted to actually deal with issues of bad working conditions for people who migrate for work in any industry, she would advocate full amnesty for all undocumented immigrants. She would loosen border controls and make sure that people who are migrating for work don’t feel criminalized and that they can go to authorities if there’s a problem.

CA: In your piece, you are very critical of the idea of rescuing women from sex trafficking. But to a lot of people that seems like the most unobjectionable idea in the world. Why are you so critical of something that is so universally embraced?

MC: Because they’re being really sneaky about it. There’s something called the rescue industry, Laura Augustine and Melissa Gira Grant have written about it. There’s a multimillion dollar international industry based on “rescuing” victims of trafficking. And it’s a real good instant feel-good idea for people. But what it’s really doing is reifying, strengthening, concepts of us and them. Consider the fishing industry. People who are in fishing are in an incredibly dangerous industry, there’s lots of bad working conditions there’s lots of risk of injury and death. But nobody is going around talking about making fishing boats illegal. Nobody is doing that. From a socialist perspective, we say that these people need workers’ rights. They need to organize and bargain over their working conditions and have control over their working life. But this idea of “rescuing” people ignores the fact that every job is a negotiated network of subtle consents and coercions. We all have to work for a living. But people talk about migrated sex work as automatically being trafficking, even though they don’t talk that way about other types of work. And instead of improving their working conditions you’re going to “save” them from their work without actually giving them an alternative. Instead, the answer is to lock people up to jail and deport people. But if they actually wanted to fix exploitation, they wouldn’t place new power in the hands of a carceral, criminological state. Instead, the agency would be given to the women themselves, those people who are traveling for all kinds of work.

CA: Perhaps that’s a good transition to Yasmin’s piece on “carceral feminism.” Could you tell us what you mean by that term, Yasmin, and why you think it’s important?

YN: Well, to give a very broad definition, “carceral feminism” is simply the form of feminism that thinks that the apparatus of the state is the best way to end women’s oppression and enable women’s freedom. The underlying logic is that those who oppress women are guilty of criminal acts, and must be put in jail in larger numbers. So that logic has no problem expanding what we call the “prison industrial complex,” if it’s being done for the sake of women. As Margaret indicates, in the example of sex trafficking, you have mostly white liberal feminists demanding that traffickers must be put in jail. But what they ignore is that the system is set up in such a way that it is often the women themselves who end up in prison and are then deported back to the horrendous conditions they may have fled. So, for example, under sex trafficking laws, if a woman who is caught up in the dragnet of sex trafficking raids does not point to someone as her trafficker and label them a criminal, she will frequently be deported. Yet in many cases, those who they are compelled to point to as “traffickers” are in fact community members or people who have even tried to harbor or help them. So, for instance, if I were to give housing or shelter to a woman who is an immigrant and a sex worker, I could be considered a “sex trafficker” under the current law.

So “carceral feminism” takes feminist principles and then ends up increasing criminalization, sees the prison industrial complex as a solution to social problems. Now, there’s a history here, and a reason why feminists turned to this approach. The fight against rape has had little support, and marital rape only became illegal in all 50 states in 1993. So using the law is in some ways understandable. But you end up seeing prison as a cure-all solution, even though prison is just another problem.

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In terms of the Clintons, Hillary Clinton has recently been talking about her opposition to mass incarceration. We have to call bullshit on that. First, obviously, in the 1990s she lent public support to the crime control efforts that grew the prison population more than any other administration. Second, it was the first Clinton Administration that introduced the ten-year ban on undocumented immigrants, which means that if you have been the country without papers and you leave the U.S. and try to re-enter, you are subjected to a ten-year ban from entering. And that ban made people terrified to leave the U.S., their lives are criminalized.

LF: These are perfect examples of how Hillary Clinton is not just an empty symbol as a woman and feminist, but her femaleness and her status as a prominent feminist are actually something that can be used to pursue oppressive policies. That is incredibly important.

CA: If Hillary’s type of feminism is oppressive, then, what type of feminism do you advocate? False Choices seems to be about more than just Hillary Clinton, in that it’s trying to forge a different approach in how to think about feminist issues. It seems to not just be about criticizing her, but advocating a new type of critical, socialist-inspired feminism. And that it wants to get rid of something we might call, I hate using the word “bourgeois,” but bourgeois feminism.

LF: We do kind of sound like old Marxists when we use the term bourgeois. But it’s an important descriptor of a politics that’s about the elite and protecting elite interests. This is exactly why we did this book, we do want to advance a type of left feminism that is not Hillaryism. And we see left feminist writers and thinkers who are so smart, so committed to the way feminism and the material world are actually deeply intertwined. And we want to advance that way of thinking. We aren’t simply haters who hate Hillary Clinton, although… good Lord. The feminism I would like to see replacing Hillaryism in the long run would be one that is deeply committed to the advancement of all women, not just the 1%, or in Hillary’s case, one woman. I’d like to see a feminism that is deeply committed to redistribution of wealth. It’s been amply demonstrated that that is the only thing that actually helps women advance toward anything like parity to men: universal programs like socialized medicine, socialized day care, quality public schools, free higher education. These are the kinds of things that actually do help women. And when we see feminism and socialism coming together that’s a lot more promising for both agendas.

YN: I often speak about the problems with “white liberal feminism.” But you can be a “white liberal feminist” and not actually be white. I have no doubt that under the regime of Hillary Clinton we will get a diverse bunch of capitalists. First the women are allowed in, then the black people then the brown people, so I’m sure the board rooms will be very diverse. But the class structure remains in place. This type of feminism really doesn’t think about an alternative to capitalism but instead thinks about ways to make capitalism more palatable and more diverse and more woman-friendly. So let’s put changing tables in all the bathrooms and that will solve all of our problems. Not that diaper changing tables aren’t important. But they don’t address the fundamental issues facing poor women, like brutal employment conditions.

The class element is implicated in abortion too, which Hillary Clinton supposedly cares about. We had that case of Purvi Patel in Indiana, who was given 10 years sentence for inducing an abortion. These are always poor women, wealthy women are not sent to jail for feticide, because of the class structure. But even though Democrats want us to worry about Donald Trump and what might happen to the Supreme Court, Clinton has as her Vice Presidential nominee a man who has a record of being very anti-abortion. That worries me far more than Donald Trump, who if he gets elected would resign in 3 weeks taking the best china with him, and just wants to turn the White House into some kind of glitzy Trumpian fount of wealth. Until you are unwaveringly in favor of abortion rights, you are never against inequality. Until women can control their bodies, there is no ending inequality, because what prevents women from moving forward in any realm is their inability to control contraception and control whether they want to have children or not.

LF: The recent developments on the abortion issue are really particularly flabbergasting to me. Mo Tkacik writes really well in False Choices about how abortion has become the Democratic Party’s sole selling point to women. But as Yasmin just pointed out, it’s a pretty good one, since abortion rights are foundational to women’s autonomy. What’s amazing, though, is how weak Hillary is on that issue alone. She’s spent a lot of time talking about overturning the Hyde Amendment, but then she picked Tim Kaine, a man who describes himself as a long term supporter of the Hyde Amendment. It’s an amazing slap in the face to all of those women’s organizations who have been, the unkind way to say it is shilling for her, but have been supporting her. It’s really telling to see how superficial her support is for something that most liberal feminists actually regard as an absolute cornerstone of women’s rights.

MC: That’s why we can’t wait for feminist policies to be bestowed upon us from above by a white knight like Hillary Clinton, who is really just mouthing these words to get people to vote for her. In order to force through really feminist and socialist policy in the US we need a movement of women, led by women, particularly women of color, who actually disrupt the social order to get people to sit up and pay attention. The feminists who really inspire me are in groups like Black Lives Matter, which is pretty much mostly lead by black queer women. They are in leadership, they are at the head of the table. But it’s not a boardroom table or an oval office table, it’s a table where they’re plotting how to shut down highways to protest the killings of black men and women by police. So my hope for the future of feminism is in movements like this. Not in political parties or Hillary Clinton.