Keep Speaking Out: Why Hillary Clinton's Voice is Critical to the Feminist Movement
Hillary Clinton is back in the news with her new book, What Happened, and some liberals couldn't be more uneasy. They wish she would shut up and go away, so the Democratic Party and the progressive movement could move on with picking what they dub the 'next generation' of leadership. Comically, many of their choice for this 'next generation' is white, male, and within striking distance of 80.
Nevertheless, I have had the chance to listen to some of Clinton's interviews, and it has only crystallized my view that Hillary Clinton needs to keep talking. She does not need to shut up and go away. Her detractors do.
Hillary Clinton has announced that she is done with electoral pursuit, and no one can blame her, though America is irreparably worse off for it. But among other factors that made her the winner of the national popular vote on election day and yet narrowly lost her the electoral college - including the then-FBI Director James Comey's interference into the presidential campaign to announce nothingburgers about Clinton's emails while remaining deadly silent on the then-ongoing investigations into Trump and Russia, rank racism and Trump's cult - she defined a key flaw of American politics and of American culture: sexism. She pointed out a form of sexism that is dangerous and pervasive precisely because of its seemingly 'benign' nature in our culture.
Clinton pointed not just to her campaign but the uphill battles faced by female executives, directors, and leaders in top positions across American culture, society and industry as palpable proof of this particular form of sexism. As a society, America (and America is certainly not alone in this) still views the natural role of women as supporters and advocates who serve the cause of others, while it views the natural role of men as leaders and directors who should seek to serve their own interests. As a corollary, when men seek high positions of power and influence, they are applauded for doing so. When women do the same, they are seen as selfish, an affront to 'traditional' values.
This is not because selfishness is in and of itself seen as a negative in America, but because culturally and institutionally, only one gender is given the 'right' to be selfish. This is imprinted into the American psyche everywhere: from coming of age culture to corporate boardrooms to halls of power. Multiple sexual encounters for males, starting in their teen years, are seen as 'conquest', but the same for a female would earn her the title of 'slut.'
When women seek positions of power in the corporate world, they are described as greedy and questioned how they could possibly juggle family and a high pressure corporate job, while men are applauded for putting their careers before family. In fact, men are not just encouraged to do so, they are expected to.
Hillary Clinton points out that in both the corporate world and politics, men are seen as more likable as they become more successful, while women are seen as less likable the more successful they become. Women are far more approved of in their roles as supporters, advocates, and nurturers: as wives who 'stand by their man', as moms who protect their children and organize to demand change to benefit families and childre, as team players who help someone else's vision succeed.
Of course, the roles of supporters, advocates and nurturers are some of the most critical - at levels personal and professional - and the best leaders rise from these roles. Martin Luther King took a bullet advocating for the rights of the great many. Dolores Huerta stood up for the rights of fieldworkers. Barack Obama began his adult career as a community organizer. Hillary Clinton sacrificed a promising career in law to advocate for women and children at the Children's Defense Fund, and to register Black and Latino voters in the South.
But instead of demanding that men too prove themselves as genuine advocates for others and servants to causes bigger than themselves before seeking high office, as a culture we view the qualities needed to advocate and those desired to lead as conflicting ones. We view the qualities needed to serve and those required to direct as contradictory.
This particularly sickening form of sexism - the cultural and social approval of women when they are serving or advocating for others and the applauding of men when they are engaged in self interest - can be directly linked to the media-peddled 'dislike' of Hillary Clinton. As Clinton pointed out, she enjoyed great approval as First Lady, as an advocate, as a Senator and even as President Obama's Secretary of State - in large part because she was seen as serving the interests and cause of others rather than herself. The script was flipped when she ran for president, and she was then viewed as working for herself - to earn herself a higher position. Although immensely qualified for the job she was seeking, the mere fact that she was seeking the top job made her 'less likable'.
The view of the presidency as a corporate CEO rather than the top public servant whose only concern - forsaking all else, including personal ambition, dogma, and ideology - should be the people they are elected to serve is also a key problem in the American psyche, but that's another essay.
While women are the ultimate victims of rank sexism of this form, its effects are not limited to women. Our society still snickers about male nurses, receptionists, secretaries. Part of the story about paygap for women is the devaluation of the work in female dominated professions, even when one particular position in such a profession is held by a man. Make no mistake, the reason Republicans got a kick out of berating Barack Obama as a community organizer is because a community organizer is the essence of advocacy, support and service for others, a 'feminine' quality'.
Although I have given a great deal of thought to sexism over the years, Clinton's clarity showed me new light. I have always accepted this as fact, until hearing Clinton's explanation, I had neglected to think about this as a key factor in our electoral politics. And that is likely because I am a cisgendered male, and because I never personally thought of politics in that way. Hillary Clinton has given me a new way to think about the scourge of institutionalized sexism.
Every liberal, every progressive, every Democrat - and most of all, every feminist - should applaud Clinton for sparking this conversation, for being a thought leader of our time. We should follow her lead. Not just because it is part of the story that helps explain Trump's rise to power - despite (and in many ways because of) his misogyny - but because it bares present-day America. Not just because Hillary Clinton is trying to explain her electoral college loss but because she is pointing a way forward. We cannot call ourselves progressives, liberals or feminists if we choose to ignore this warning and not to demand change to root out this sexism at every level of our lives. Not because Hillary Clinton wrote a book about what happened, but in it is the reality of what is happening and a choice about what will happen.
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