“What Kind of White Woman is Hillary Clinton?” – The Nation Reports on The Race to the Bottom

by Latoya Peterson

The Nation recently published a very interesting article by Betsy Reed, titled “The Race to the Bottom.” The crux of the piece can be summarized in this paragraph:

The sexist attacks on Clinton are outrageous and deplorable, but there’s reason to be concerned about her becoming the vehicle for a feminist reawakening. For one thing, feminist sympathy for her has begotten an “oppression sweepstakes” in which a number of her prominent supporters, dismayed at her upstaging by Obama, have declared a contest between racial and gender bias and named sexism the greater scourge. This maneuver is not only unhelpful for coalition-building but obstructs understanding of how sexism and racism have played out in this election in different (and interrelated) ways.

Dead on, Betsy. As I wrote in the Does Feminism Have to Address Race post one of the unique positions I happen to find myself in more and more is having to challenge the sexism that Hillary Clinton (and Chelsea Clinton) are subject to from progressive men, but feeling hesitant to do so – after all, I do not want to give the impression that I am giving Hillary Clinton a pass on the race baiting that has come from her camp. I have yet to hear her reject and denounce Bob Johnson or Geraldine Ferraro. So, it becomes difficult.

The article notes that some of Clinton’s hardass behavior may in fact come from the tightrope she has to walk in order to be perceived as strong enough for the job, but not strong enough to be unlikeable:

For Hillary Clinton, the gendered terrain of post-9/11 national security politics has been treacherous indeed. As Elizabeth Drew observed in The New York Review of Books, Clinton took steps in the Senate, like joining the Armed Services Committee, “to protect herself from the sexist notion that a woman might be soft on national security.” As a 2002 study by the White House Project, a women’s leadership group, found, “Women candidates start out with a serious disadvantage–voters tend to view women as less effective and tough. Recent events of war, terrorism, and recession have only…increased the salience of these dimensions.” Clinton has been quite successful in allaying these concerns, although she faces a Catch-22: her reputed toughness and ruthlessness have helped ratchet up her high negatives. The White House Project study found that a woman candidate faces a unique tension between the need to show herself “in a light that is personally appealing, while also showing that she has the kind of strength needed for the job she is seeking.”

Still, the attacks leveled at Obama from the Clinton camp has been tinged with all kinds of sentiments, including racism and xenophobia. When discussing how the candidates respond to race or gender based attacks, Reed notes:

Clinton has, to be sure, faced a raw misogyny that has been more out in the open than the racial attacks on Obama have been. But while sexism may be more casually accepted, racism, which is often coded, is more insidious and trickier to confront. Clinton’s response to “Iron my shirt” was immediate and straightforward: “Oh, the remnants of sexism, alive and well.” Says Kimberlé Crenshaw, law professor at Columbia and UCLA and executive director of the African American Policy Forum, “While sexism can be denounced more directly, that doesn’t mean it’s worse. Things that are racist have yet to be labeled and understood as such.”

Obama has never directly raised an allegation about racism from the media and from Clinton’s campaign. Not once. And he cannot – not as long as he wants to still be considered a viable candidate for the presidency. He has to act like everything is fine. He has to pretend these things don’t get to him. He has to do what so many African-Americans are forced to do in their daily lives – swallow the slights and keep working toward the larger goal.

Reed continues:

Among the black feminists interviewed for this article, reactions to the declarations of sexism’s greater toll by Clinton supporters–and their demand that all women back their candidate out of gender solidarity, regardless of the broader politics of the campaign–ran the gamut from astonishment to dismay to fury. Patricia Hill Collins, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland and author of Black Feminist Thought, recalls how, before they were reduced to their race or gender, the candidates were not seen solely through the prism of identity, and many Democrats were thrilled with the choices before them. But of the present, she says, “It is such a distressing, ugly period. Clinton has manipulated ideas about race, but Obama has not manipulated similar ideas about gender.” This has exacerbated longstanding racial tensions within the women’s movement, Collins notes, and is likely to alienate young black women who might otherwise have been receptive to feminism. “We had made progress in getting younger black women to see that gender does matter in their lives. Now they are going to ask, What kind of white woman is Hillary Clinton?”

I already came to a conclusion on that front.

Reed also points out how old-guard feminists aren’t exactly pleased with recent developments either:

The sense of progress unraveling is profound. “What happened to the perspective that the failures of feminism lay in pandering to racism, to everyone nodding that these were fatal mistakes–how is it that all that could be jettisoned?” asks Crenshaw, who co-wrote a piece with Eve Ensler on the Huffington Post called “Feminist Ultimatums: Not in Our Name.” Crenshaw says that, appalled as she is by the sexism toward Clinton, she found herself stunned by some of the arguments pro-Hillary feminists were making. “There is a myopic focus on the aspiration of having a woman in the White House–perhaps not any woman, but it seems to be pretty much enough that she be a Democratic woman.” This stance, says Crenshaw, “is really a betrayal.”

The piece then illustrates the complicated balance that young women (particularly young feminist women) find themselves in as illustrated against the backdrop of the national election:

The implications of all this for the future of feminism depend significantly on the outcome of the primary, says Kissling. “If Clinton wins, the older-line women’s movement will continue; it will be a continuation of power for them. If she doesn’t win, it will be a death knell for those people. And that may be a good thing–that a younger generation will start to take over.”

Many younger women, indeed, have responded to the admonishments of their pro-Hillary second-wave elders by articulating a sophisticated political orientation that includes feminism but is not confined to it. They may support Obama, but they still abhor the sexism Clinton has faced. And they detect–and reject–a tinge of sexism among male peers who have developed man-crushes on the dashing senator from Illinois.

Near the end of the piece, Kimberlé Crenshaw provides a quote that provides a laser insight into the current issues surrounding feminism:

In some sense, this is a clarifying moment as well as a wrenching one. For so many years, feminists have been engaged in a pushback against the right that has obscured some of the real and important differences among them. “Today you see things you might not have seen. It’s clearer now about where the lines are between corporate feminism and more grassroots, global feminism,” says Crenshaw. Women who identify with the latter movement are saying, as she puts it, “‘Wait a minute, that’s not the banner we are marching under!'”

That is the question, isn’t it? What kind of banner are we marching under?

(Thanks to reader Jessica for sending this in!)

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