By Elizabeth Evans (University of Bristol)
Hillary Clinton has finally launched her much anticipated bid for the Democratic nomination; a move never really in doubt. Like most people who care about women’s political representation, I am pleased that she is running for the world’s most visible role in politics, although arguably no longer the most powerful role. For feminists in particular, her decision to run is also something to be celebrated; given her association with women’s rights in the US and around the world. The symbolism of having a woman in the White House (and not just as First Lady) is not to be underestimated given that it potentially has the power to inspire other women to seek elected office. Likewise, we should guard against overestimating the impact of Clinton’s bid for the Presidency.
The highly gendered critiques of Clinton’s 2008 bid for the Democratic nomination were blindingly obvious and we should be alert to any sexist coverage of her current campaign. However, it doesn’t help those seeking to champion her cause (or perhaps more accurately the cause of having a woman in the White House) to write off all criticisms of Clinton as sexist. It is, for instance, hard to ignore the dynastic dimension at work in this race. Of course the fact that she is Bill Clinton’s wife should not preclude her from running for the Presidency, although it is hard not to view it as a sign of the elitist nature of US politics. Likewise, arguments that Clinton deserves the nomination because it’s her turn are hardly compelling, even whilst she may be the most qualified candidate for the job it still smacks of entitlement. There is also her record in office to defend, a record which some view as being more about championing corporate interests than women’s rights, particularly those women from the poorest economic backgrounds.
We know from our own experience in Britain that having a woman Prime Minister does not necessarily result in the advancement of women’s rights. And whilst Clinton identifies as a feminist, which might make her more likely to pursue a policy agenda that will benefit women, this does not mean that her politics speaks to all women or all feminists. The pluralism of feminist interests is just one reason why many on the left, especially those who want a woman President, want Elizabeth Warren, a Senator from Massachusetts, to run; not least because she is an outspoken critic of Wall Street.
Clinton’s gender is a central part of her campaign: and it is something she frequently refers to. Reflecting on her failed bid in 2008, Clinton wrote in her memoir that she felt she had let down the ‘women and girls who had invested their dreams in me’ (p.6); explicitly claiming the symbolic role of women’s rights champion. Clinton has also sought to highlight her gender by emphasising her role as a mother and grandmother, a move designed, one can’t help but suspect, to appeal to ‘normal’ voters. For some, this emphasis on identity politics is part of a de-politicisation of the left in the US and is symptomatic of a lack of substance. In short, identity politics that permeate electoral politics do not always advance group interests at the policy level.
Anyone who keeps even a cursory eye on US politics will know that despite the presence of a black President in the White House, race and racism continue to play an ugly and violent role in American society. There have been a slew of recent shootings of African American men. Wealth inequality continues along racial and ethnic lines. There is a disproportionate number of black men in prison. And recent voting reform procedures only exacerbate the difficulty with which ethnic minorities cast their vote. Such is the ongoing pervasiveness of racism in the USA, that many question what Obama has achieved for black Americans. Whilst Obama has been reluctant to deal with the ‘race issue’ for fear of alienating white voters, Clinton seeks to emphasise her gender. This difference between the two in terms of approaches to identity politics is important not least when we consider her potential willingness to advance a women’s rights agenda. Indeed, many will be keen to hear exactly how Clinton plans to address gender inequality in the US.
Despite the legitimate criticisms surrounding a second Clinton bid for the White House, it is hard not to be excited at the prospect of a Madam President. And yet the title she gave her memoir, Hard Choices, seems apt when we consider the uncritical support that a Clinton bid elicits from those keen to see a woman in the White House. Yes she’s a woman and a feminist to boot but she also carries with her political baggage that reinforce the sense of elitism in US politics and a policy background that has not always served some of the poorest women in society. The value in her bid for office surely lies in its potential to encourage and inspire other women to run for election; an outcome in and of itself which is not insignificant when we consider women’s under-representation in US politics. Whilst there are many who wish to see a woman hold the highest office in US politics, uncritical support for a Clinton bid is problematic; particularly for those who wish to see a more equal and less elitist bias in US politics.
This piece was originally posted on the PSA Blog.
Image: Keith Kissel CC BY