Hillary and the “politics of female excellence”

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“Far & Near” column published in the Hindustan Times (4 October, 2016)

By some counts, Donald Trump interrupted Hillary Clinton 55 times during the first presidential debate. Clinton endured his rude interventions with an unbending smile. Her bemused civility helped her win September’s bout. It will be interesting to see if Trump behaves as boorishly in the second debate this coming Sunday.

The contrast in their behaviour was also a parody of gender relations in modern America. Trump played the role of the bellicose, entitled and inept man, while Clinton was the competent and long-suffering woman, buffeted by a bullying male ego. A viral tweet from the Washington Post columnist Alexandra Petri summed up the farce: “Finally the whole country will watch as a woman stands politely listening to a loud man’s bad ideas about the field she spent her life in.”

Petri’s tweet tapped disquiet in American society about gender inequality in the workplace. According to a New York Times poll, 74% of women believe they are paid less than men for similar work. While nearly half of men polled saw themselves in leadership positions in the future, 68% of women did not.

One of the pillars of Clinton’s campaign is her appeal to professional women frustrated by the “glass ceiling” blocking their advancement relative to men. Were Clinton to become the first female president, her victory would no doubt inspire many women around the country, much in the same way that Barack Obama’s election inspired African Americans.

Clinton is fortunate that her opponent is a snarling cartoon of a man. Trump’s long record of misogyny — from the treatment of his wives to his routine, helplessly sexist comments — plays directly into her hands. Over half of American women believe that Trump does not respect them. His latest graceless spat with a former Miss Universe, whom he viciously maligned, only confirms him as a loutish chauvinist in the minds of many Americans.

But before facing Trump, Clinton struggled to convince voters that she was, in fact, the best feminist choice. In the primary contest with Bernie Sanders, her campaign was surprised that younger women were flocking to vote not for her, but for an old white socialist man. Baffled, Madeleine Albright (the first female secretary of state) excoriated them, claiming that “there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.”

What was exposed then and in Clinton’s unsuccessful 2008 bid for president — and what is masked now by Clinton’s battle with Trump — was a competition over the meaning of feminism. Eight years ago, Eve Ensler, the playwright and author of “The Vagina Monologues”, chose Obama over Clinton. Ensler bridled at the suggestion that a feminist must vote for the female candidate, seeing that compulsion as a dull feminism, which “like patriotism, is the all-encompassing prism that eliminates discussion, doubt and difference about whom to vote for and why.”

Ensler voted for Obama mostly because of Clinton’s hawkish record on foreign policy, including her support for the disastrous invasion of Iraq. Other feminists have attacked Clinton for backing education reforms that weakened unions and punished teachers (the vast majority women); for supporting welfare reforms under her husband Bill Clinton’s tenure that further immiserated single mothers, many of them black and Hispanic; for refusing (until recently) to support Sanders’ position on free college tuition that would allow many women to graduate unencumbered by debt; and for her interventionism in Honduras, Iraq, Libya and elsewhere that has led to chaos and countless deaths. “Her career has been dedicated to austerity, militarism and repression,” writes journalist Liza Featherstone, “all of which are horrible for women.”

Clinton supporters invoke a different kind of feminism, one that focuses on the potential of the individual woman, the need to “lean in” in a world of hostile and privileged men, and the ultimate goal of shattering the glass ceiling. A talented, industrious, resilient and ambitious woman, Clinton has become the emblem of what the writer Clare Coffey critiques as “the politics of female excellence”. This brand of feminism turns the analytical lens away from political structures and society towards the individual. It seeks to empower upwardly mobile women while obscuring those “ordinary women whose ordinary lives are senselessly blown to bits by US bombs or US companies.”

Thankfully for Clinton, the choice between her and Trump is so stark that this critique won’t trouble her in the coming months. But whether she wins or loses, her feminist legacy will be questioned. Younger feminists are less taken with the “politics of female excellence” than older generations. “I thought feminism was solely and exclusively about ‘women’s rights’ and breaking the glass ceiling,” the writer Kim Tran told Vox Media. “The person I am now knows feminism to be so much more than the ascension of a white woman to the highest position of power in the world.”

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