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What Do Hillary’s Women Want? A Psychologist on the Clinton Campaign’s Women’s Club Strategy

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Recently, Hillary Clinton’s campaign implemented a new strategy taken from the pages of the patriarchal playbook Clinton and her fellow women’s rights advocates worked so hard to rewrite in the 70s. It has been giving the message that if you’re a woman who endorses Sanders and if don’t tow the Clinton-for-president line you’re not being a loyal, good woman, just as you weren’t a loyal, good woman if you didn’t tow the patriarchal line. Essentially, you’re a traitor.

To wit: There’s Madeleine “500,000 dead Iraqi children was worth it” Albright’s comment while introducing Clinton at a New Hampshire rally: “And just remember,” Albright warned, “there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other,” meaning women who don’t vote for Clinton. It may just be me, but justifying and minimizing the preventable deaths of thousand and thousands and thousands of blameless Iraqi girls and young women doesn’t seem like it helped out women all that much.

And then there’s Gloria Steinem, the matriarch of the late 60s and 70s women’s movement (except if you were a woman of color, then not so much), who, while on Bill Maher’s show, shamed and devalued a young woman’s choice not to support Clinton saying, “When you’re young, you’re thinking: ‘Where are the boys? The boys are with Bernie.”

There’s so much to unpack in both of those statements, it’s hard to know where to begin. It infantilizes and pathologizes young women. Check. It distrusts young women. Check. It renders them powerless under the spell of “boys” to make an educated political decision. Check. It refers to voting age young men as “boys.” Check. It creates a hugely divisive “Men’s Club” vs. “Women’s Club” mindset. Check. It makes women who don’t vote for Clinton traitors to their fellow women, and threatens to damn them for not doing so. Check. It makes both Steinem and Albright sound outdated and out of touch with today’s young women. Check. It left both scrambling to backtrack after huge criticism. Check.

Saying, basically, to be a good woman I have to vote for a woman just because she’s a woman echoes the old patriarchal dictum that said the only way to be a good woman was to be a wife and mother, and the only way to be a good wife and mother was to be unquestioningly loyal to the self-serving patriarchal view. Any feminist or woman’s line that dictates to me what I should do to be a loyal woman is similarly oppressive and belittling and self-serving, whether it means to be or not. The depth of that irony is cavernous. (Or, perhaps it’s a case of the oppressed becoming the oppressor, writ small.)

I can’t possibly pretend to know for sure, but my hunch is Clinton, the Old Guard Women’s Movement Member, doesn’t believe all that. My guess is that Clinton, Presidential Hopeful, is using it as a, “Holy crap, Sanders is closer than we’d ever imagined he could possibly be. We must divide and conquer ASAP with a guilt-inducing, ‘you owe us one’” strategy. Or perhaps it’s a bit of both.

Regardless, I imagine Clinton is “triggered.” (That’s an especially overused therapy word that I will use here, nonetheless.) She’s probably freaking out because she sees a lot of young women (and women of all ages) endorsing Sanders, and she and her campaign dug up an old-school storyline to try to guilt new-school women. It’s a mismatch that isn’t working so far.

I get it, though. Many of us are a bit freaked out right now in one way or another. (More on that in a moment.) In fact, reading this piece may even be a bit triggering if you assume I’m coming from “The Bernie Camp” on this particular issue. I’m not. And, I ask you to consider a more nuanced read. One that understands a person can critique someone’s tactic or strategy without, by definition, taking sides. Sanders isn’t perfect. Clinton isn’t perfect. No president is going to be the idealized parent so many of us unconsciously long for. If the Sanders campaign had said, “A man endorsing Clinton is anti-male,” or something similarly offensive, I’d be no less earnestly writing a piece confronting that.

I say without any condescension that some of our reactive, black or white thinking during this long campaign season (“My candidate is Pure Goodness and I can hear nothing that threatens to blemish that estimation, and yours is Awfulness Incarnate.”) is, from a developmental psychology standpoint, in many ways quite young. The rational thinking part of our brains (the prefrontal cortex, or PC) hasn’t developed fully enough in young children to consider the gray areas of things. Black and white thinking puts people and concepts and ideas into tidy little boxes that can be categorized, which gives us the illusion that we can predict what will happen. It’s an attempt to feel safe, be it emotionally or physically. From an evolutionary standpoint, I imagine part of its purpose kept young children of a tribe or clan from wandering off to other tribes or clans. (“My clan is good, must stay with them.”)

Presumably though, adults have a more engaged and fully formed PC and can parse these grey areas more readily. But, many of us find ourselves, to a greater or lesser extent, in “black and white thinking mode” more than we realize. Often it’s when we’re frightened or upset.

When our rational prefrontal cortex is online, humming along during times of relative calm, we’re able to think through and be planful about our decisions and responses, what we say to each other and ourselves, etc. But when we feel threatened, again be it psychologically or physically, our PC takes a back seat to the more primitive “fight or flight” parts of our brain. We don’t think and reason things out well because there’s no time to sit and plan. (“Hmm. Look at that. There’s a car speeding out of control, coming directly toward me. Let me just find a pen to make a pros and cons list of what would be the best action to take to survive.”) We just react because that’s exactly what we need to do. We jump out of the way of the oncoming car “before we know it.” That is, before our thinking PC catches up with our survival reflex.

In threatened mode, our black and white thinking sifts all sorts of things into safe and unsafe categories: tribes, strangers on the street, schoolmates, countries, races, families, cultures, political parties, presidential candidates. Even sports teams. This is an evolutionary origin of xenophobia. We then flee from or fight what we deem as unsafe and cling for dear life to what is safe. (Or we can comply or freeze if fighting or fleeing isn’t working.) When avoiding the out of control car, this survival system activation works fabulously. Let’s all be thankful it’s there. During something like an election, not as helpful.

Right now, our figurative and literal survival is threatened in a way many of us have never experienced before. We have the means to poison and destroy and diminish life into oblivion like never before. And this election elicits, for some, hopes to find a president who will work for our survival. It sounds a bit dramatic, but that’s what it boils down to.

Some lives that are literally at risk are the folks in Flint, who are drinking poisoned water as Nestle is using it all up; the folks Black Lives Matter are championing; and then there’s climate change threatens every one of us. On and on it goes.

Those whose lives are figuratively at risk are folks like the Koch brothers who are spending hundreds upon hundreds of millions of dollars hoping to keep their hold on politics and their way of life alive. Same with Clinton who is working hard to keep her hopes of being the first female president alive, along with woman who also have that hope. Poor and middle class folks are finding it almost impossible to hang on financially, with no real prospects for the future. And, it bears repeating that in these figurative instances, survival instincts are triggered sometimes just the same as the literal ones. There’s no greater drive than our drive for survival. We do all kinds of things we’d never imagine ourselves doing to stay alive.

I’ve spoken with some of the women who are championing the “good women vote for Clinton” notion. And, I think I might understand it, in part. While younger women may not have this awareness, I’m absolutely mindful of how intensely so many women fought for women’s rights back in the early 60s and 70s. I was just a little kid, but folks who were in the thick of it have told me how immensely empowering and life-changing it was for them to participate. (As I touched on earlier, this was primarily white women. The women of color I spoke with had a decidedly less empowering experience within that movement. That deserves its own article.)

For those who were empowered, I can imagine how a possible Clinton presidency would be enormous validation of their hard and enlivening work. When we identify so strongly with a cause, it can become a part of who we are. And if a part of who we are becomes threatened – via women voting for Sanders instead of the potentially first female president in history, in this instance – all of us is threatened. And it triggers those intense survival instincts and reactions. (And lest ye judge: this is something we all have potential to do, and probably have many times.)

I know well that have options to live my life mostly as I see fit because of the efforts of the elders in the women’s movement. And, though women still have quite a ways to go as far as equality (I’m looking at you, Congress, and your recent voting down of equal pay for women yet again, and the still unadopted Equal Rights Amendment), I am deeply and truly grateful. Thank you to all the women who worked so hard and sacrificed so much. But, I don’t believe you worked for me and other women so that we’d tow some high-handed line, even if it’s yours.

I trust each woman will find her own truth. If you support Clinton because you are educated about and resonate with her policies, voting history, and choices in and out of office, and that represents your values, vote for her. Brava for making an informed choice. And if you vote for her just because she’s a woman or Sanders just because he’s a man, I have to genuinely honor that choice, too, even though I disagree, or I’m a huge hypocrite.

Regardless, an empowered woman isn’t fooled by manipulation or mandates of loyalty to those women whose shoulders she may well stand on, even as she appreciates their past efforts. She knows the best way to honor them and to be a good woman is to be loyal to herself, first and foremost. She knows her sisters won’t damn her for all eternity if she doesn’t define “helping” them as guiltily following some outdated narrative. She knows a leader who truly has her best interests at heart would never demand such things, and would respect and applaud and be proud of her for knowing her own mind, even when that mind blazes a trail that leader has never walked. A good woman defines herself however the hell she wants. And she votes for whomever she damn well pleases.

Carol Norris is a psychotherapist, freelance writer, and longtime political activist.

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