After the Democratic National Convention selected President Barrack Obama as the Democratic candidate for the 2008 presidential elections, his competitor Hillary Clinton conceded to her supporters that, “Although we weren’t able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you, it’s got about 18 million cracks in it.”
Clinton’s concession was an immensely powerful one. She looked at the presidency as the final, ultimate step in women’s empowerment. Since a woman was within grasp of a title oft referred to as “the most powerful man in the world,” Hillary recognized that her political vitality was immensely important to advocates of women’s rights in the country.
Though, Clinton’s own past and political career reflect a different narrative. Rather than representing the feminist champion that progressives want her to be, Clinton more accurately reflects the world of her husband’s career: cajoling to massive democratic political action committees.
Make no mistake; Clinton can clearly articulate the unique set of challenges for women in politics, especially when running for higher offices like the senate and the presidency. In an interview with The Guardian in 2014, Clinton discussed the different observations that were made about her in the media. Rather than focus on her policy goals and values, the conversation often focused on her marriage, her facial expressions, her likability and even how much cleavage she exposed during debates with other candidates.
In The Washington Post article, “Hillary Clinton’s Tentative Dip Into New Neckline Territory,” written in 2007, it was said “with Clinton, there was the sense that you were catching a surreptitious glimpse at something private. You were intruding—being a voyeur. Showing cleavage is a request to be engaged in a particular way. It doesn’t necessarily mean that a woman is asking to be objectified, but it does suggest a certain confidence and physical ease. It means that a woman is content being perceived as a sexual person in addition to being seen as someone who is intelligent, authoritative, witty and whatever else might define her personality.”
Excerpts like these are awkward, rude and even creepy. Most importantly though, they shift the conversation away from her merits as a politician towards her merits as a woman, which made it all the more difficult for her to beat Obama for the Democratic candidacy.
However, simply being a woman does not mean that she is running on a feminist platform. Many people—myself and many Lawrentians included—would love for Clinton to directly engage her opponents on issues associated with feminism. That’s not to say she isn’t one. She discusses at length that she is indeed a feminist in her new book “Hard Choices.”
Still, there’s a difference between being a feminist herself and making feminism an essential pillar of her political career. While some consider feminism the belief that women should simply be equal to men, “feminist”—with quotations, hinting at the way it gets thrown around in the media—immediately changes the way Hillary is viewed in the national spotlight.
Rather than focus on her own personal set of policy goals, the media and her opponents will begin to focus on “feminism,” automatically assuming she aligns with specific stances on issues associated with feminism. That means immediately alienating herself from moderate Democrats and Republicans who might feel that “feminism” is too far left of center for them.
This early in the race, running on a feminist platform may not be a wise option, even though many of us would like to see her adopt stronger stances on issues like abortion, equal pay and sexual assault in the military during her campaign. Still, she can address these issues as a sort of “just Democratic” candidate and avoid the potentially dangerous connotations of feminism that she’ll face later on.
In her first campaign video, she says, “Every day Americans need a champion, and I want to be that champion.” Whether or not this means that she’ll begin taking a stronger stance on issues associated with feminism is unclear. Her campaign video was masterfully pluralistic with actors representing a broad range of sexual orientations, races and languages, which gives progressives a tinge of hope that feminism is on her back burner.
Still, Clinton is an attractive name for large, Democratic super-PACs, and she’s poised to run unopposed for the Democratic candidacy. Her achievements speak for themselves. To her, being a senator and a secretary of state may simply outshine being a feminist. Being a damn good politician—whether you agree with her choices or not—may simply be enough.
Serious feminists may want to consider looking elsewhere, because Hillary Clinton may simply have too much to juggle to seriously incorporate feminism into her platform. Elizabeth Warren has alluded to running for president, so there is still the potential of a female president if Clinton is not elected. Her policy preferences fall far to the left of Clinton’s and have often included strong flavors of social justice in her rhetoric. Given her strong liberal policy preferences, Warren may more readily take up arms as America’s feminist champion.
If the American electorate reacts well to hints of feminism in Clinton’s rhetoric over the next year, she may come to play the part with enthusiasm rather than caution. For many of us, that hope relies on American voters being mature enough to understand feminism in its different forms beyond “feminism” in the way that it’s defined by some media outlets and outspoken voices in the country. America seems ready for our first female president, but perhaps not our first feminist president.