Hillary Clinton, The Vote, and Contemporary Feminism’s Class Blindness

The recent electoral victory of Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton has led to a massive spewing of theatrics on social media whereby public “mourning” which verges on the sycophantic has given rise to a larger public momentum of mass neoliberal outrage as the surrogate for political activity.  Even within feminist circles are the myriad Facebook groups devoted to discussing how Clinton was the arch-victim of misogyny, no mention of class politics or Clinton’s having turned her back on the mere mention of class.  Now with the recent movement to utilise safety pins as a means to “indicate that the person wearing the pin is a safe person for those who might feel in danger, whether that’s due to their religion, nationality or other status,” we have fully entered into the age of absurdist politics whereby “safety” is demarcated through cheap political gimmickry and the real analysis of political failure is fobbed off by feminists as the inability of people to recognise the necessity of women’s political self-determination—or whatever that has come to mean nowadays.

Sarah Ditum in her recent piece, “Donald Trump has grabbed America by the pussy, and it’s women who will suffer,” writes, “Women do not “vote with our vaginas”, as a rule. Maybe it’s time we looked into that.” Likewise, Cosmopolitan has announced that the election result “is such a deeply felt insult to women across the United States,” and numerous other publications have insinuated the same: that Clinton’s loss somehow represents an “erasure” of women, with zero analysis as to how Clinton’s campaign failed to address class issues or, more poignantly, how class is directly related to issues of sex.  Indeed, one must wonder if Ditum et al have even considered for a moment how women in Honduras, Haiti, Libya, Syria, Afghanistan, and Ukraine have been affected by her policies which lead to the murder and rapes of women throughout these regions after political instability was ensured by Clinton’s actions.  Not negligible in this timeline is how Clinton utilised false claims of rape to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi or how Clinton refuses to address the coup in Honduras, instead naming it a “crisis” while assisting in the deposition of former Honduran President, Manuel Zelaya, which resulted in myriad documented rapes throughout the country.

If women must “vote with our vaginas” then, it would seem that the choice between two candidates where one grabs pussies while the other leaves them exposed to poverty, death, and rape, resulted in what would appear to be the least overtly violent figure. That is if you are not a white woman living outside the neoliberal dream of 401k or hedge fund accounts.  To think that Trump could possibly have been the more class-conscious and feminist choice of the two might seem surreal to many, but the Realpolitik of this election demonstrates that Hillary Clinton was unable to mobilise support from the working class or women.  As Lorna Garano notes:  “One problem with the Bernie Bro myth: He had massive support from women. That’s because things like healthcare, education, and a liveable wage are women’s issues. You can’t eat symbolism.”  Certainly, if the choice is down to women being targeted because of their vaginas and the assumption that they are unable to think beyond their anatomical parts, then women are truly, in all senses of the word, fucked.  What seems to be missing from recent “feminist” analyses of political power is how class issues are most definitely women’s issues and it would seem that American women know this far better than liberal pundits.  The larger question is how feminist analysis today might learn from this election rather than refract pussy politics onto all those “mindless, blondes” who voted for Trump.

Yet in spite of her extensive political record, not to mention her repeated choice to stand by Bill in the face of sexual assault allegations, Hillary Rodham Clinton was constructed by a vocal subset of liberal feminists as a quasi-divine figure incapable of (serious) wrongdoing, whose election as President would in an instant vindicate the struggles of our mothers and grandmothers, delegitimize all misogynist representations, liberate women from the lack of confidence we have accumulated over the course of our lives, and, to top it off, would smash the ultimate glass ceiling. A woman, leading the free world!

If this iteration of the culturally-overplayed narrative of fulfilling every girl’s dream of a female president seems too good to be true, it probably is. But dreams themselves are ultimately anchored to material situations – those who allocute the needs of females via mainstream media outlets are often blindsided by their own history, socialisation, and material wealth, universalising their particular interests in projecting them onto all women. Not coincidentally, the persistence, enunciated by many feminists today, that Clinton represents the best interests of females is driven by a uniquely Western perspective whereby these interests adopt a myopic aperture, relegating all that is important to female lives as restricted within a very narrow set of political and economic paradigms.  Namely the needs of a neoliberal class of women for whom pussy politics is a luxury because money has allowed this brand of feminism to advance in an eerily similar trajectory to the Clintonian mandate whereby class is elided in favour of a happy feminism where those pesky, depressing issues of paying rent, bus fare, and groceries need not be on the table.  Glass ceilings sound far more appealing and empowering by comparison.

But what would a Clinton presidency concretely offer women? This question was answered with the supercilious assumption that the “benefits” to women – whatever they were – would trickle down to the most vulnerable and disadvantaged, in a fashion reminiscent of Ronald Reagan’s economic plan for the masses. That if we let the privileged women at the top chase money and power, they, grateful for the opportunity, would commence giving a hand up to all women below. Given the US’s position as imperialist superpower, this was imagined to take place on a global scale. Aside from being dangerously close to essentialism, this assumption relies on a notion of there existing an organic feminist consciousness arising crudely and simply out of the fact of being a woman, able to manifest itself irrespective of pre-existing political commitments, policies or party lines. It ultimately condescends to all women by downplaying their intelligence and political acumen whilst inviting them to participate in a political arena curtailed by a predetermined narrative and naked class interests, telling them that the only way they could make a real impact on the world is, in fact, by voting with their vagina.

This sort of feminist politics is not new and is reminiscent of an earlier moralisation where the feminist movement was largely composed of middle and lower-class women who coalesced their power within the temperance movement, seeking political gains at the ends of moralist and pragmatic interventions.  Where these first wave feminists advocated the development of moral integrity and exemplarity, Clinton’s politics represent anything but.

Feminist history, in particular the suffragist movement of the first wave and the image of hunger-striking suffragettes sacrificing for future generations of women, was cleverly utilised by the Clinton campaign to coalesce sentiment around the idea that Hillary was a direct successor of this tradition and that her presidency would represent an achievement of the same nature, a sort of capstone on the suffragist achievement. And the vote our foremothers gave us would have made it all possible. The campaign’s manifest ignorance of the political history of the first wave, in advancing a warmonger as representative of a staunch anti-war tradition, is embarrassing at best. First wave feminists emphasised the cultivation of female responsibility and the importance of moral character development via engagement with the wider world denied them, in opposition to the prevailing Victorian cultural worship of the “angel in the house” curtailed by her inferior feminine, childlike capacities, foreclosed from the ethical and political dimensions of truly-human experience and left to exercise her feminine wiles to procure anything she needed. How Clinton herself signified continuity with this tradition remains a mystery; if one is to go about the business of idealising a human figure, one would think that this process would first of all entail that they, at the very least, embody some noteworthy ethical characteristics or political principles. The cognitive dissonance in deifying a war criminal did not seem to diminish but further strengthened the desperate exhortation to women to simply believe (in Her). The Hillary campaign’s conviction that the suffragists’ work, ceaselessly campaigning throughout three generations for voting rights and just barely scraping forth that achievement for themselves, was ultimately carried out in order to execute a neoliberal program entirely antithetical to their values and aims, displays a deep hubris which verges on betrayal.

Alternatively, if those first wave principles so happen to trouble you by obstructing Hillary worship, you can reassure yourself in shooting the whole thing down. Sarah Churchwell devotes space in a recent Guardian article to the cultural examination of the female-president fantasy, in which she writes off the fundamental values of the first wave as a naive belief that “idealised women should cleanse American politics with their purity.” Purity, in the first wave lexicon, didn’t signify what we now come to know as moral puritanism, let alone the sexist double standard. A simple assessment of the meaning of the colours of the suffragist flag tells us the following: white symbolised “purity in public as well as private life, purple for dignity and self-respect and green for hope and new life”. A crucial conceptual distinction is made here that severs dignity and sexual “honour” from female ethical conduct in such a fashion that posits women, for the first time in history, as political beings to be judged by their principles. As for the crusade to clean up politics with the mop of feminine values, it is useful to remember that in campaigning for their en masse entry into political life by winning the vote, women had to put forth a pressing reason why their political contribution would be valuable, and strategically made use of the reasons for their exclusion – pacifism, maternal qualities – by transforming them into arguments for inclusion. You can only fight with what you’ve got, after all. It is similarly mistaken to directly equate negative representations of a female president in American literature with antipathy toward the idea as such; judging by the passages Churchwell has quoted it is apparent that a female presidency was used as a narrative device to make a general statement about women. Tales of women leaving the presidency behind for (grand)motherhood, displaying the monstrous, “masculine” characteristics of a human subject while in office, or admitting they fundamentally need men under the guise of mating with the last man alive, reflect misogynist male anxieties toward women in general. Churchwell nevertheless maintains that it is Americans’ deeply seated cultural fear of a female president that pushed a Trump victory. But if this line of argument fails to convince as to why Hillary Clinton was cheated out of the presidency she deserved, you can always cry conspiracy.

The amount of feminist energies poured into the Clinton campaign raises further questions on what the vote still means today for feminism. The idea that the vote empowered American women to definitively “choose” their liberation, as if an either-or dilemma, at the ballot box in 2016 seems fatuous. The narrative upheld by Hillary supporters with regard to the vote’s place as the lever that would lift her into the presidency, is surrounded by the politics of affect and the vote’s importance to feminism has been elevated to such an extreme level that it may not ultimately deserve. Again they neglect to take feminist history into account. The late Shulamith Firestone, author of The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution (1970) and founding figure of second wave Anglo-American feminism, evaluated the trajectory of the first wave as a foundation upon which to rebuild a movement for women’s liberation. She was not prone to nostalgic idealism about the vote, which she saw as a political failure, not a victory, in the long run. In The Dialectic of Sex she writes:

The granting of the vote to the suffrage movement killed the W.R.M. [Women’s Rights Movement]. Though the anti-feminist forces appeared to give in, they did so in name only. They never lost. By the time the vote was granted, the long channeling of feminist energies into the limited goal of suffrage – seen initially as only one step to political power – had thoroughly depleted the W.R.M. The monster Ballot had swallowed everything else … The women who later joined the feminist movement to work for the single issue of the vote had never had time to develop a broader consciousness: by then they had forgotten what the vote was for. The opposition had had its way (22).

And in Notes from the First Year, published by New York Radical Women in 1969:

For what is the vote worth finally if the voter is manipulated? Every husband knows he’s not losing a vote, but gaining one. Today, some 50 years later, women still vote as wives, just as they govern as wives.

Despite the major flaw in her feminist analysis, of adducing women’s oppression solely on the basis of a fundamental biological capacity for childbirth, Firestone came from a strong left tradition which informed her feminism. Unlike her more liberal contemporaries such as Kate Millett, economic class was woven into the very fabric of her radical feminist analysis. In the chapter of The Dialectic of Sex on childhood, Firestone notes that bourgeois women and children possessed an economic patronage which partially offset their oppression. Theirs was a “privileged slavery”. This is a far cry from contemporary intersectional analyses which displace class not only as a separate axis from other oppressions (which suddenly becomes relevant when we have poor people to feel sorry for), but as a concept itself that would inform theoretical understandings of oppression and remove the need for a problem-solving legal theory concerned with the topography of the individual.

What intersectional feminism does for the bourgeois female subject today, Reaganomics did for the economic elite of the 1980s who were made to believe that by paying virtually no taxes, they were helping the poor.  And such tactics work as long as everyone is complicit in keeping the fantasy alive.  The recent Twitter storms and Facebook debates rage on as alleged feminists have, over the past week, made the claim that by disagreeing with Clinton’s policies one is necessarily giving a tacit nod to Trump, or that in critiquing the use of safety pins as meaningful political resistance one is “mock[ing] people who are scared.”  The reality on the ground is that all Trump’s victory has accomplished, thus far, is that white liberals—both male and female—are living out a theatre of “fright” which speaks more to their own inability to read public sentiment about the economy and the reality of pre-existing and current racial politics in the United States.  Meanwhile, the most cogent critique of both the Trump victory and white neoliberal reactions to the election was beautifully presented by David Chappelle and Chris Rock on Saturday Night Live as they made fun of this demographic’s shock over their “nightmare scenario,” Clinton’s “power grab” of three electoral votes in Vermont, and finally, the enunciation which causes both men to burst out into laughter:  “This is the most shameful thing America has ever done!”

So, when the likes of J.K. Rowling can boast so gleefully about their social position and wealth, it is clear that feminism is heading towards an impasse where its own aversion to class politics will be its own undoing. Just as many feminists have bravely fought against the onslaught of identity politics demanding a historical materialist analysis of of the political landscape, feminism risks forming a new niche of identity politics given its inability to recognise class as central to contemporary life and its concomitant nexus to race and sex.

The 2016 presidential election has indeed been historic. If all the Hillary campaign was capable of offering the masses at the end of the day was symbolic value, it was therefore necessary to reconfigure the election as a contest of symbols, each candidate representing a set of values. Yet these values were anchored in identity divorced from political economy, which turned the Hillary campaign’s omission into the Trump campaign’s relevance. The discourse of this election demonstrates that, under late capitalism, representative democracy is in crisis: when “politics” is administrative assent to a neoliberal end-of-history consensus, identity becomes the primary ground of contestation, substantially transforming the previous meaning of political representation.

Ultimately, the election result has demonstrated that the majority of women have found the liberal feminist program of self-empowerment wanting. Lesser-evilism won the day, not positive support. We were sold a fabricated choice: between the Clinton campaign’s individualist ethos and false political narrative that warned of the horror show of trauma that would befall women if they didn’t vote for her, and the Trump campaign that catalysed the masses through misogynist and racist rhetoric—while also paying some attention to working class concerns. Criticism is forbidden. Left-liberal rhetoric instead implores us to trust the science of intersections stating that the white female establishment politician knows best and any opposition are just unenlightened pussy-grabbing fascists. The feminist fight for liberation has been sidelined into pussy politics.

Julian Vigo is a scholar, film-maker and human rights consultant. She can be reached at: julian.vigo@gmail.com.  Jasmine Curcio is a materialist feminist writer and activist living in Melbourne, Australia. 

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