Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Feminists Write About Hillary Clinton's Feminism. I Add My Comments.

An interesting exchange in the New York Times.  Feminist activists and/or writers tell us what they think of Hillary Clinton as a feminist candidate.  I especially liked Jamia's and Katha's contributions, but all are worth reading.

The intended theme of the debate, in a partially hidden form, seems to be the differences between generations of feminists, the so-called generational wars.  The term itself is a misnomer, because the battles are not between different generations of women (say, between grandmothers and granddaughters if we compare the second wave of feminism to today), but between the real or imaginary leaders of the second wave and many, many younger women of today.

Older women in general and their problems seem to me to be largely ignored in much of feminist activity, even in intersectional feminism where age rarely crops up as one of the intersections.  It's the older leaders that provoke comment and debate, and it's not those older leaders today which provoke these debates but the assumptions about how they may have acted when they were young feminists.

So the battle is about who gets to define feminism.  Judith's comments struck a bell in that respect:

In a political landscape where real progress on women’s issues long ago slowed to a crawl, questions of who owns feminism — who brands it, and speaks it, and tweets it and “does” it take on enormous significance — because “doing feminism,” in the absence of making progress, is what we’ve got.

She exaggerates a bit, of course.  But I think she has a point.  In labor markets, for example, women's progress has almost come to a halt (and appears to have reversed in the UK).  Lower-income jobs for women tend to be insecure, poorly paid and often impossible to schedule.  Unionization is about as feasible as instant world peace.  Maternity leaves, I was recently told, are "special perks" for women which men don't get, so the idea of paid federal maternity leave is something to dream about for one's granddaughters.  Women are not entering the STEM fields in much greater numbers, women are not changing their occupational choices towards the better-paid ones, childcare is still deemed the mother's sole responsibility and so on.

And when it comes to reproductive choice the battle has been utterly defensive for a long time, and currently looks to be a losing one.

So yes, it's much more fun to think about how Hillary Clinton fails in so many different ways.  And she does, of course.  There's much about her politics and her career that I don't love.  Still, before we debate the worth of Hillary Clinton by pinning her to the dartboard and then by starting a game of darts about all the ways in which she fails feminism we should do the same to all the umpteen older white male candidates the Republicans have running.  Or at least wonder if this particular dart game is part and parcel of the problems women in American politics face?

Are they held to higher standards than male politicians?  Are their flaws less forgivable?  And if so, what is the reason? 

The other subterraneous theme is the question whether a female president matters at all for feminists.  After reading all the opinions my impression is that some argue it doesn't matter because Hillary Clinton is white, straight, rich and privileged.  But being white, straight, rich and privileged is almost the definition of American politicians.  At least Clinton cannot append the adjective "male" to the list.

So would that small difference matter?  I think it does, but not for the obvious reasons, those reasons which were demonstrated to us when the US team won the Women's World Cup in soccer.  Those reasons are about creating role models and changing the society by doing so. 

That could happen with the first female president, too, and I used to be a firm believer in that.  Now I'm not so sure, because countries seem to completely capable of worshiping goddesses and having female leaders (at least if they are the widows or daughters of powerful male politicians) while at the same time failing on most indicators of gender equality.

Now I believe it matters more in the other direction.  What do we learn about a country which has never had a female leader, even if it shows up well in the international measures of gender equality?  What does the system do to enable that outcome?  And what do those obstacles tell us about the lives of ordinary women in that country, if anything?

Some of the American obstacles which particularly serve to keep women and minorities out of power have to do with the two-party-winner-takes-all-system.  Others are more general.  For instance, the lack of proper childcare and paid maternity leaves, together with the demand that one must stay in the game for a long time before rising in the ranks leaves us only a handful of possible female candidates for the US presidency, and I don't see this changing any time soon.  The double standard about who is judged to be responsible for the care of small children means that a male politician with lots of offspring probably gets bonus points from the voters, a female politician negative points if she is running before the last child is in college.

Those general concerns would apply to any woman with children seeking a promotion or a job with traveling, by the way.  In that sense what happens to Hillary Clinton reflects what might happen to many other women.

Matters are not as dire as they once were.  But I doubt we have arrived at the time when Hillary Clinton's gender wouldn't matter, not only for those who want a female president in their lifetimes, but also for those who don't want one or who would like to have one if only a perfect woman could be found.

None of this is about Hillary Clinton's politics or about her candidacy when we view her as an individual.  It's about the wider ramifications of this and other similar debates.  Next week I want to read in NYT what feminists think about Chris Christie.