Recently, there has been a lot of mud-slinging in feminist circles regarding support for either Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton. So, in the interest of full disclosure, I think both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are highly qualified candidates for the presidency, especially if we look at the lackluster group of candidates from the Republican party. Both Clinton and Sanders have records in support of women, equality, and social justice. Honestly, I am perfectly happy if either candidate is the nominee for the Democratic party, and the sudden attempts to pit younger and older women against each other actually speak to the problems of our media saturated culture more so than actual controversy within the Democratic party.
So, let’s start with Hillary Clinton. Here is a woman who is a feminist, who has broken through the glass ceiling of politics, and as has already been rightly pointed out, who does not have the privilege of completely saying “Fuck you” to the whole system in the way that either Sanders or Donald Trump might. She is a living example of what it meant to be a feminist in the 1970s, at the height of activism, when women could only gain access to better conditions by playing along with the dominant rules of a man’s political, economic, and social system. In essence, she had to be better than a man to gain the same respect that is automatically granted to men and especially, white men in our culture. And, her work opened the doors for women to be in politics and made visible the achievements that women could accomplish despite constant interference from patriarchal power structures.
With all of that, Clinton also carries much of the problems of the second wave feminist movement, especially its emphasis on white feminism. For instance, feminist icon, Gloria Steinem has been critiqued for being the face white feminism, and while her most recent book, My Life on the Road, attempts to fill in those gaps, to me, it reads as a book that tries too hard to exhibit how much second wave feminism depended on the intersection of race. While yes, she did in fact work with and learn from women of color, one can’t ignore the fact that she obtained iconic feminist status in mainstream society while figures like Audre Lorde, Angela Davis, and Wilma Mankiller would only be recognizable to women and men who already care about issues of race and gender. Whether she likes it or not, Steinem was and is the face of a particular feminist movement.
Clinton carries many of these same issues with her as well. She represents a white, privileged form of feminism that is hard to ignore. And, to be clear, I am a white, middle-class feminist who is positioned right on the cusp of the millennial generation. But, I am also a feminist scholar who knows the history of feminism and understands its implications in terms of race. I fully support Madeline Albright’s general tagline that “There is a special place in hell for women who do not support other women,” despite its recent appearance in the media as a soundbite taken out of context. Women should support other women, and Steinem’s recent, and again out of context, sound bite about young women who support Sanders as being there for the boys is not only a reductive point about young women’s priorities but also assumes a heterosexual standard. Steinem and Albright’s positions regarding Clinton highlight an essentialist strain in feminism based on sex that might be problematic for young women who are educated in a post-Judith Butler feminism that emphasizes gender as performance.
What emerges in feminist debates about Clinton and Sanders is not only different attitudes toward feminism but also two drastically different ways of thinking about gender and feminism. Clinton represents second wave feminism with its essentialism and white privilege while Sanders appeals to a generation raised on an educational shift that highlighted the ways not just gender, but sexuality, race, and class are all performative. What appears in a post-Foucault and post-Butler world is the power of discourse and social ideology to construct social norms that keep marginalized subjects disempowered. Democratic millennials have been educated on the ways that ideology is constructed, the ways that it fails, and the ways that it entraps us, whether in terms of gender, race, sexuality, or class. This might be why these strange debates about feminism are cropping up in the Sanders/Clinton competition.
But, let me offer another perspective about why Sanders might be just as good for feminism, even if it is accidentally so. Sanders’s platform has mostly focused on critiquing class inequalities and attacking corporations, especially large banks, companies, the healthcare system, universities, etc… His brand of socialist democracy speaks to evening the playing field and changing economic systems that have reinforced class inequalities in a post-Ronald Reagan world. Many of the discussions about differences between Sanders and Clinton are focused on shifts in the political system since the early twentieth century. Sanders’s insistence on aligning himself with Franklin Delano Roosevelt is of course what makes those ideological analyses possible.
I would, though, like to draw attention to a longer history that might make Sanders’s emphasis on class inequality important for pragmatic progress for marginalized peoples, especially women and people of color. Historically, the eighteenth century is noted as the pivotal time period for the development of modern capitalism and social structures that still exist today. It is not a coincidence that as capitalism emerges so does colonialism (with its constructions of race and civilizations), the increasing need for the slave trade, the rise of the middle class (with its possibility of social mobility), the appearance of homosexuality as a “deviant” identity, and increasingly restrictive gender expectations for women located in the home. The destructive social ideologies and discourses that we associate with gender, race, class, and sexuality materialize directly after capitalism and industrialization join forces and reach their most restrictive forms by the nineteenth century.
As the twentieth century approaches along with rapid developments in technology, the corporate model of capitalism that we know today materializes. The corporate model is the direct descendent of the oppression of women and people of color, the exploitations of non-Western nations, and the imperatives of heteronormative society. Capitalism does not work without an exploited workforce. It does not work without ways to gain resources for production cheaply. It does not work unless women are confined to the home, ensuring that basic needs of food and shelter are attended to. It does not work without a heteronormative society that continues the reproduction of children as fodder for the capitalist and economic system.
So, this brings me to my point. While ideologically, Clinton situates herself as a feminist first and foremost, does her gaining the White House actually represent social progress for women? Does a woman being president actually address systemic inequalities in our social system? Does a woman who will have to continue to play in a man’s system have enough power to pragmatically change the lives of marginalized subjects? And honestly, the answer is that I do not know. I hope that it would, but my experiences of everyday sexism and the pervasiveness of patriarchal power suggest that Clinton will be treated in much the same way as President Obama.
So, what I ask you is: would Sanders’s attack on capitalism and corporatization actually produce real change—if he is able to pull it off? Is Sanders actually trying to dismantle the root cause of all of these other social problems? If we think about the history and emergence of capitalism in relation to gendered, sexualized, and racialized identity discourses, might Sanders actually be working to dismantle the very systemic cause that gave them so much strength in the first place? In attacking capitalism, does Sanders have a better chance of changing the lives of marginalized subjects—women, people of color, the poor, those of non-normative sexualities and genders? Maybe, just by accident, Sanders might be really good for feminism.