Hillary Clinton is finished, and contrary to the insistence of many of her supporters, sexism has had virtually nothing to do with it.
Gloria Steinem was wrong in her now infamous New York Times op-ed a few months back. Clinton’s problem was not that she was a woman and that ‘women are never front-runners’ (indeed, just a few weeks prior to Steinem writing those words, Hillary had been just that, not that facts matter, I guess). Her problem was that she exuded, as did her husband even more than she, a sense of entitlement, a sense of being owed the Presidency, a sense that–as I’ve heard so many white women say these past few months–‘it’s our turn,’ as if philogynous voting behavior were the moral duty of women everywhere.
Please understand, when I say that sexism has had nothing to do with Clinton’s electoral demise, I don’t mean to suggest that there were no men out there who voted against her because of sexist, even misogynist views. I have no doubt there were. And it is certainly true that Clinton faced repeated denigration by male media pundits who played upon gender stereotypes and sexist imagery in their criticisms of her. All of that happened, to be sure, and it is indefensible (Interestingly, the worst example of misogyny probably came from Clinton supporter James Carville who suggested that Hillary has more balls than Obama, and ya’ know, balls are just what the world needs more of).
But the media’s sexism, and even the sexism that resides to some extent in all men in this culture–not because of some inherent evil, but because of the conditioning to which we’ve been subjected and to which we’ve usually capitulated–had almost no effect on the overall vote totals in the Democratic primaries. In most states, Clinton received roughly half the male vote: about what you’d expect in any primary where you have two candidates whose policies are so similar, and where the ideological differences between them are so small. And in almost every state, Clinton won more than half of the white male vote, often much more. Though she failed to win very many black men to her side, it’s hard to chalk this up to sexism, given the presence of a black candidate in the race, whose chance at victory naturally has excited folks in the African American community, just as Clinton’s chances logically fired up millions of white women.
To believe that her defeats were due to sexism–as if to say, but for sexist male voters, she’d have won–would require one to believe that in the absence of such a pernicious bias, she could have expected to win, say, 6 in 10 male voters: a result unlikely in any primary season, where voters are choosing between two pretty equally liberal candidates. Although sexism may well have helped defeat Clinton in the general election, had she made it that far (since, at that point, many men would have sadly been attracted to the hyper-militaristic candidacy of John McCain), given the choice between Clinton and Obama in the primaries, there is simply no evidence to suggest that gender played a significant role in tipping the balance of votes in his favor and against her.
Indeed, in several states (like Pennsylvania, for instance), among men who said that gender mattered to their votes, most actually voted for Clinton. In other words, there were at least as many if not more men who liked the thought of electing the nation’s first woman president, as there were those who repelled from the concept. Although this would likely not have been true in November, the presence of enough liberal white men in the Democratic primaries made gender a net wash for Clinton, if not a net benefit.
Of course, many Clinton supporters will say that the rest of the men lied. Some will insist that most of the men who said gender didn’t matter to them were phonies, maybe even a bunch of Neanderthals, who probably gave all their buddies high-fives at the strip club later that night, joking about how they’d fooled the exit pollsters. Whatever. Hey, it could be, and probably was a dishonest answer for some. But again, once you look at the actual vote totals it becomes obvious–however surprising it may be for some–that the numbers of persons whose votes were cast against Clinton for sexist reasons couldn’t have been that large: after all, no male candidate in a race between two men, where both were similar in terms of their policy ideas, and where both had similar voting records, could have expected to do much better than half the male vote, which is essentially how she did in this race. For sexism to have been the dispositive factor, it would have to be shown that Clinton lost the votes of men that she otherwise would have received, but for her gender–an utterly impossible task, because it simply isn’t true.
In fact, here’s the biggest irony of all: what Clinton’s acolytes ignore is that had her final opponent this year been a white man, she would likely have received fewer votes from white men than she has received against Obama. Meaning that, if anything, Clinton has benefited more from white racism in her quest for the nomination than she was ever harmed by male chauvinism and misogyny.
Indeed, racism–the force that Steinem and other white second-wave feminists insisted would be less of a problem for Obama than “sociopathic woman-hating” would be for Clinton (to quote writer and feminist icon Robin Morgan)–almost did make the difference in the primaries. Although that racism has been insufficient thus far to derail Obama’s success, it has indisputably been a more potent force in terms of dictating voting behavior among whites, than sexism has been for determining the votes of men.
To wit, exit poll results from several states, including California, Arizona, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana, all of which indicate that the margin of Clinton’s victories in all of these was either equal to or smaller than the numbers of white voters who admitted that race was relevant to their vote, and then cast their votes for Clinton. In California, for example, Clinton beat Obama by 416,000 votes, but based on the percentages from the exit polls, there were 442,000 for whom race was important to their decision and who voted for Clinton. In Indiana, Clinton’s margin of victory was only 19,000, but based on the exit poll there, nearly 100,000 whites voted for Hillary, because of race. In Ohio, Clinton won by 220,000 votes, but based on the exit polls, there were 246,000 whites who voted for Clinton at least in part for reasons of race.
In other words, but for the votes of whites who were willing to admit that their votes were at least in part cast for racist reasons, she may well have lost all of those races, and the nomination battle would have been over far sooner. There is simply no way to interpret the vote of a white person who says “race matters to my vote” and then votes against the black candidate, other than as an act of racism, just as there is no way to interpret the vote of a man who says “gender matters to my vote” and then votes against the woman, other than as an act of sexism. When you consider the likelihood that far more whites voted against Obama for racial reasons than would be willing to admit it–a proposition bolstered by decades of research indicating that whites typically downplay their racial biases to pollsters–the relative importance of racism compared to sexism in this race becomes readily apparent.
If we assume that two similar candidates would, in typical circumstances (that is to say, yet another race in which two men were vying for the nomination), roughly split the vote among white voters, as they would among men, then we can see quite clearly the effects of racism on Obama. Although he managed to win roughly half the white votes in a few states, in most places he received only about a third, and sometimes quite a bit less. In state after state, this racial gap amounted to tens of thousands (often hundreds of thousands) of votes, totaling more than enough in several cases to cost him victories in those places. Even if we allow that every white woman who voted for Clinton had understandable, non-racist reasons for voting for her, rather than Obama–and indeed, most would have voted for her had her opponent been a white man, just as they did here–the numbers of white men whose votes were cast for racial reasons would have, in at least some states, been sufficient to alter the outcomes of the elections. And for certain, even in those states where the racist votes would have been insufficient to change the final outcome, there is no question that they diminished the size of his wins and made larger his defeats, in ways that have allowed the primary season to drag on month after month.
None of this is to say that racism is a more important social problem than sexism: both are entrenched and pernicious impediments to equal opportunity, and both relate to one another in any number of ways. This, it should be noted, is especially true for women of color, whose status as equal partners in womanhood (and whose unique experience as women in a racist society), is often ignored by white feminists. In fact, in this election, the call from various feminist quarters for women to stick together on the basis of sisterhood (and the anger often aimed at women of color for not doing so) took for granted that black and brown women experience the society only or mostly as women, rather than equally as folks who can’t qualify for the perks of whiteness: a taking for granted that, in and of itself reinforces both patriarchy and white supremacy, by erasing women of color from consideration altogether.
Perhaps the defeat of Hillary Clinton will expose for all the underlying racial supremacy at the heart of much white feminist analysis. Perhaps it will allow the development of a more complete and thorough analysis of patriarchy and the way it interrelates with white supremacy to divide and conquer groups that often have common interests. Maybe it will force white women like Hillary Clinton to confront their privileged mindset, their sense of entitlement (which flows uninterrupted and almost effortlessly from the fount of whiteness to which white women have had access, in spite of patriarchy). Or then again, maybe it will just lead white women to become pissed at black folks, who they’ll be encouraged to view as having “stolen” the Presidency from them.
It wouldn’t be the first time that a group of white liberals had missed the point, after all.
TIM WISE is the author of: White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son (Soft Skull Press, 2005), and Affirmative Action: Racial Preference in Black and White (Routledge: 2005). He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
This essay originally appeared in Lip.