Friday, 15 April 2016

Hillary Clinton Killed Feminism? Gender, Politics and the New Hampshire Primary by Dr Matt Hurley

Source: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

That’s it then. Over. Done. Where many ‘men’s rights’activists have failed, she has triumphed. Feminism is dead and Hillary Clinton killed it; well, at least according to a New York Times Op-Ed by Maureen Dowd. Hillary Clinton’s landslide defeat to Bernie Sanders in the New Hampshire primary – and in particular the popularity of Sanders amongst young women – prompted a flurry of media coverage concerning a ‘crisis’ for Clinton and a ‘generational divide’ between women Democrat voters. Somewhat unsurprisingly, given the click-bait headline, Dowd’s article generated attention.


Hillary Clinton’s sense of ‘entitlement’ to women as a bloc vote – according to Dowd – has been undermined by young women ‘living the feminist dream’, where ‘gender no longer restricts your choices’ and ‘girls grow up knowing they can be anything they want’. Dowd highlights a generational divide where (older) Clinton surrogates - including former Secretary of State Madeline Albright - seek to ‘shame’ young women who did not vote for her. Albright’s comment that ‘there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women dominated several news cycles. However, Dowd’s argument is deeply flawed. Leaving aside that Albright’s comments were more complex than the soundbite suggested, and how Dowd would know precisely whom Clinton feels ‘entitled to’, women’s political preferences and voting patterns have always been complex and intersect with factors such as, age, socio-economic background, and ethnicity in multiple ways – just like the voting patterns of men. To conceive of women voters as a homogenised ‘bloc’ is too simplistic; yet, whilst Clinton has underperformed with young women (aged 17-29) generally, she won a majority of women’s votes overall in the Iowa caucuses (53% to 42%) and following her defeat in New Hampshire, went on to win a majority of women’s votes in Nevada (57%-41%) and South Carolina (79%-21%). On Super Tuesday Clinton’s share of women’s votes was: Alabama (80%-17%), Arkansas (76%-23%), Georgia (76%-23%), Massachusetts (57%-42%),  Oklahoma (48%-46%), Tennessee (70%-29%),  Texas (70%-28%), and Virginia (70%-30%). How Clinton’s success in the primary process so far – despite the popularity of Sanders - represents the death of feminism is very unclear. What Dowd’s article - and the responses it generated - does highlight however, is the continued proliferation of claims made by others regarding Clinton’s gender. 

Of course, arguments and opinion pieces regarding Hillary Clinton and gender are nothing new. For as long as Clinton has been in the public eye, articles and political commentary that centre on her femininity have abounded. Dowd herself is a prolific writer on Clinton; a Media Matters for America Study identified 212 articles written by Dowd on Clinton between 1993 and 2016, 75% they deemed negative, 17% of which accuse Clinton of betraying feminism. Dowd has accused Clinton of being ‘too masculine’ whilst also urging her to ‘run as a man’. From controversies surrounding baking cookies in the 1990s to ‘playing the gender card’ (#Grandmotherknowsbest #Dealmein) in her presidential runs, Clinton is made to account for her gender in ways that male politician’s simply aren’t. The New Hampshire primary in particular provides an interesting example. Media reactions to her 2008 win in the state and her loss in 2016 expose some of the reductive ways in which Clinton - and her gender - is represented.

In 2008, Clinton won the New Hampshire primary, beating then-Senator Obama (39%-36%). Her success came after an unexpected third place finish in Iowa. In the days preceding the vote, at a campaign stop in a diner, Clinton was asked what motivated her to run for president. Clinton’s response hit the headlines, not because of what she said but that ‘the icy control queen of the Democratic party, welled up with emotion’ when responding. A ream of articles were published that centred on the argument that it was Clinton showing her softer, ‘more feminine’ side which turned the tide and secured her win, particularly among women. Fast forward eight years and Clinton’s loss to Sanders was framed as a rejection by women, due to a ‘cold, calculating entitlement and ambition’. In both cases Clinton’s success and failure were framed by a reductive conceptualisation of the femininity of a woman seeking political power. 

Deborah Tannen, Professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, identifies this as Clinton’s ‘double-bind’. As Tannen states, the double-bind is particularly acute for women in, or seeking, positions of authority and power:

“Women running for office, as with all women in authority, are subject to these two demands: Be a good leader! Be a good woman! While the qualities expected of a good leader (be forceful, confident and, at times, angry) are similar to those we expect of a good man, they are the opposite of what we expect of a good woman (be gentle, self-deprecating and emotional, but not angry). Hence the double bind: If a candidate — or manager — talks or acts in ways expected of women, she risks being seen as under confident or even incompetent. But if she talks or acts in ways expected of leaders, she is likely to be seen as too aggressive and will be subject to innumerable other negative judgments — and epithets — that apply only to women”. (Washington Post, 19/02/2016)

Clinton’s assertiveness, her confidence and ambition are framed by cultural expectations (and media representations) that, despite decades of feminist advances, continue to fall back into simplistic gender binaries, wherein those characteristics – assertiveness, confidence, ambition – are valorised and seen as natural in men, yet somehow ‘unfeminine’ when displayed by a woman seeking high office. These binaries are not confined to national domestic politics. Katrin E. Sjursen argues in a piece for The Atlantic that Clinton’s success in the primary process has prompted a new round of ‘gender-based speculations about female candidates’ inherent pacifism versus their over-compensating hawkishness’ in foreign affairs. It would seem some things have remained very much the same in the eighteen years since Francis Fukuyama’s much contested article ‘Women and the Evolution of World Politics’ was published.   Sjursen’s article throws into sharp focus the simplistic binaries that continue to frame understandings of contemporary female leadership.

As of writing, Bernie Sanders’ undoubted and enthusiastic popularity among young women (and men) continues. Yet Hillary Clinton has established a substantial lead in delegates needed to secure the nomination for President of the United States – a historic achievement. As the race moves towards the general election, Hillary Clinton’s double-bind looks set to continue. Her speech following victories in Florida, Ohio and North Carolina was met with pundits suggesting Clinton ‘smile more’ and ‘stop shouting’. Did Hillary Clinton kill feminism? Of course not. Articles such as Dowd’s show just how much work feminism still has to do.

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