Joseph Sohm /


Joseph Sohm /

Can Hillary Clinton Kill Feminism Wholesale?

According to Maureen Dowd's irksome op-ed, the answer is yes.

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Whether Hillary Rodham Clinton is or isn’t a feminist is a question that has been on the minds of voters and political commentators alike since the mid-aughts. The question was apparently answered, with gusto, on February 13, the day of the latest GOP debate, the day Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died, the day before Hallmark-happy Valentine’s Day, and two days before President’s Day. Best-selling author and regular New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd published an op-ed that has been noted by few. Its click-baity, inflammatory title “When Hillary Clinton Killed Feminism” would have received more attention, surely, if not for other headlines burying it. Dowd joined a long line of writers on this hashtag-trending subject of Clinton’s feminism, and like those before her has continued to approach the topic with little nuance, instead taking the BS pop feminism route: oversimplified and misunderstood. 

Dowd claims that “Hillary’s coronation was predicted on a conviction that has just gone up in smoke,” referring to Clinton’s apparent assumption that the women who had “deserted” her now “owed her.” According to the polls, it’s true that a majority of young women are voting for Bernie Sanders while a majority of older women are voting for Clinton. It’s true also that Madeleine Albright claimed that it there was a “special place in hell” for women who don’t vote for Hillary (and has since apologized) and that Gloria Steinem spoke of how “young women were flocking to Bernie to be where the boys are.” But neither Albright nor Steinem is Clinton. They are Clinton supporters. Maybe Dowd’s column should have been titled “When Famous Feminists Said Unwise Things and How They Affected Hillary Clinton.” A little unwieldy, sure, but it would have come a little closer to what the column was actually about, which was assumptions about Clinton’s campaign expectations.

Despite the polls majority/minority, it’s not as if no women under the age of 45 are voting for Clinton (I’ll give this to pollsters—they, and Dowd, consider women under 45 to be young, and good for them). There are many people, people, not only women, who are planning on voting for Clinton because having a woman in the White House will be as symbolic as having a black President. Many of those people are also, if not mostly, voting for Clinton because of her policies. She’s been accused of being shady, of trying to hide things, and—maybe worst of all—of being an actual politician. But as a woman in this political sphere, Clinton can’t afford to be a pure ideologue. She has to play the game of politics, because otherwise, how would she get to where she is in the cis-white-man’s world of government? Has her campaign done some really icky stuff (Clinton is like your abuela etc.)? Yes. But is she really assuming that all women will vote for her? Well, maybe, maybe not, but there is still a difference between a candidate and her campaign strategists. 

Taking the stance that Clinton is to be blamed for killing a movement that has been around for close to a century and a half is simply ridiculous. Saying that Clinton has done so also discounts the many strains of feminism out there—feminism doesn’t mean one single thing anymore, if it ever did. Feminism with a capital F is often still seen as a rich white woman’s privileged movement; feminism without the capitalization is often referred to when discussing the broader ideas of equal rights, reproductive choice etc. And then there are the many other feminist movements: Black, Womanist, Liberal, Radical, Marxist, Socialist, Cultural, Eco-, New Age, and more. And for those of us who don’t fit neatly into one of these, there is a constant attempt to make feminism intersectional, bringing in not only race and gender (historically fraught topics), but also sexual orientation, ability, and other forms of identity. Clinton definitely didn’t kill all this off. 

Something Dowd seems to forget—or maybe she’s just not tapped into the social media where many of the young women she’s referring to are expressing their opinions—is how many are railing against the idea that they shouldn’t vote for Clinton “just because” she’s a woman. The implication that women will vote for Hillary Clinton because she has a vagina is just as preposterous as the notion that they shouldn’t vote for Clinton because she has a vagina. This whole issue of vaginas being involved in our voting decisions (especially as not all women have them) would never get brought up if both leading Democratic candidates had penises. By politicizing Clinton’s gender to the extent that she does—while under the guise of knocking Clinton’s apparent opinion that she’s owed something—Dowd is actually negating many feminist ideas herself. Dowd refers to Hillary Clinton as “the Clintons,” as in: “the Clintons assumed…” or “The Clintons seem to have conveniently forgotten…” As even the commenters on the article pointed out, here is Clinton again being held to standards that no male candidate has ever been held to. While we may refer to the Obamas fondly, we weren’t discussing “the Obamas’” policies when Barack was running for office. Similarly, we’re not looking to the Sanders, the Trumps, or even the Fiorinas (before Carly dropped out of the race). By lumping the Clintons together, as if Hillary couldn’t possibly have gotten to where she is without him—and whatever you think about her role as a First Lady, the fact is that she’s been an independent politician for years—Dowd is making an extremely unfeminist presumption that is “killing feminism” more than anything she accuses Clinton ad her supporters of.

Dowd writes that “young women supporting Sanders are living the feminist dream, where gender no longer restricts and defines your choices, where girls grow up knowing they can be anything they want. The aspirations of ’70s feminism are now baked into the culture.” Dowd is referring to a very specific group of educated, privileged women here; the aspirations of the ’70s feminists are baked into small pockets of culture, not into the United States body politic. One need look no further than Trump and Cruz to see that. Even closer to home: one’s own Instagram and Twitter feeds where women are being harassed because of their opinions no matter what they are.

And on the subject of harassment, there is a very disturbing correlation that Dowd draws in her op ed—that again brings Mr. Bill into the fold of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, as if she is incapable of existing without her husband. Dowd compares Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and President Bill Clinton and their separate sex-scandal cases. But she doesn’t emphasize the correct point here: the former was accused of sexual assault. The latter was not. Whether Bill Clinton is a philanderer or not really shouldn’t matter to Hillary Clinton’s campaign; why is Dowd fixated on what, for all we know, may be an open marriage of some kind? Hillary and Bill are undoubtedly a power-couple, and in public they quite clearly have a marriage of the minds. How often and with whom they have sex is really none of our business. Bill lying about an affair has nothing to do with Clinton’s feminist ideals. 

Who is saying feminism is dead, anyway? Dowd’s piece doesn’t even answer this, despite her (or her editor’s?) headline. What is this bizarre assumption that voting for a cis-man or a cis-woman is an expression of one’s feminist ideals? Feminism isn’t dead—feminism is alive and kicking: kicking because it’s still fighting, still trying to be seen in a less tawdry light, still trying to shake the stigma around it, still trying to define itself and redefine itself because of the various historical connotations that follow it around, rightfully so, and cast a shadow over it. This isn’t Clinton’s fault. But by accusing Clinton of taking the women’s vote for granted, she may as well also imply that Sanders is seeing the Jewish vote as a given. But the fact is that it really doesn’t matter what either candidate expects: Just like Sanders can’t destroy Judaism, a millennia-old religion, by assuming Jews will vote for him, Clinton can’t destroy the decades-old feminism, no matter how many NYT headlines claim that she has. 


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