Is Hillary Clinton’s loss a blow to feminism?

A feminist perspective on Hillary Clinton could take many twists in turns in the wake of the 2016 presidential election results: a critique on deplorably misogynistic talk about her physical appearance (“she looks like death“), an analysis of whether her campaign was too left or not left enough and the relationship between her and young female voters are topics of note (that have also been analyzed to death).

The idea that her loss is a blow to feminism is one of the most common topics now in the opinions sections of newspapers, blogs and social media. Older female Clinton supporters mourn their contemporary. These women grew up during the women’s liberation movement of the 70s. To see a woman weather the sexism they have weathered to come out victorious is a vicarious accomplishment, a testament to the hard work and struggle of American women.

Gloria Steinem argues the point here that Clinton’s loss was a loss for women everywhere. Author Lynn Povich argues here that a marker of full equality for women in a society is both the ability and practice of a woman being able to achieve any position or status she so desires.

And yet, a single woman achieving power within the confines of the current system means nothing to many feminists. Put simply, the branch of feminism known as radical feminism denounces the idea that change can be made by working within the current social, political and economic system.

A very good analysis of this concept can be found from an article by Daniel Denvir at Slate. While not a perfect piece, there are a few points that stuck out to me as being worthy of note. (Bear in mind this is not an endorsement of the piece, just that some things stuck out to me upon reading it.)

Denvir’s piece focuses on the concept of identity politics, and overall argues that Clinton’s campaign chose certain elements of societal oppression to discuss in their campaign, all while strategically ignoring other critical ones. Denvir makes the case that Clinton lacked (or deliberately ignored) focus on class relations.

In making her case this way, says John Hopkins political scientist Lester Spence, Clinton is trying to tap into a strain of black political thought dating back to “the early 20th century,” which elevates race as the primary and shared concern of all black people regardless of their station in life. In doing so, she is insinuating that class struggle, despite the disproportionately high number of poor people who are black, is a luxury for whites.

To put it bluntly, Clinton and her campaign as a whole worked within the current political, social and economic system to attempt to achieve power. Critics may argue the campaign ignored issues of intersectionality and the relationship between race and class.

For liberal feminists, Clinton is an icon. Her career has been built on rising through the ranks of an academic and political establishment, using her means to improve and expand upon existing foundations.

For radical feminists, Clinton is a representation of working with an elite establishment, who was either to be begrudgingly tolerated or outspokenly criticized. Regardless of her middle class upbringing, to radical feminists Clinton’s lack of radical activism and accumulation of wealth discredits her as being seen as a force for true feminist good.

It is difficult to find a topic upon which most branches of feminism can wholly agree. Even if certain ends are agreed upon, the means to get there are forever contended, and often can be found on opposite ends of the spectrum.

Clinton’s loss means different things to different feminists. The response to her loss is indicative of views that are rooted deeply in ideas regarding oppression, class and social structures.


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