Hillary Clinton, Respectability Politics, and the Crisis of Modern Feminism

The results of the 2016 U.S. Presidential election represented a failure on many fronts. It was a failure of the American commitment to diversity, openness, and refuge. It was a failure as a check on corporate greed, wealthy interests, and predators of the poor and vulnerable. It signified a societal sickness— with our obsession with celebrity culture and worshipping of money as status. It displayed a majoritarian callousness to the calls for equal dignity by marginalized groups – by racial and ethnic minorities, the transgender community, immigrants, religious minorities, the gay and lesbian community, the disabled community, and women – as well as the host of other groups who were insulted and alienated by the Trump campaign’s rhetoric and policy proposals. 

While Trump’s upsetting electoral victory is appalling for a number of reasons, I decided to hone in from the perspective of the women’s movement. We must recognize that, hauntingly, overwhelming numbers of white women voted for Trump. Almost half (45%) of college-educated white women and the majority (64%) of non-college educated white women gave him their vote. Yet a great deal of opposition to Trump characterizes his positions as anti-women. The day after his inauguration, the series of Trump protests that turned out millions across the world as an act of resistance was called the Women’s March.

Perhaps some of women’s confusion about Trump (assuming that the support he garners among women despite his positions contrary to women’s collective interests is, in fact, a result of confusion) may be attributed to the changing manifestations of the continued dominance of the patriarchy. Trump, in his statements and public persona, represents a modern version of misogyny, distinct from the traditional sexism that still resounds paradigmatically in our conscious imaginations. In other words, we haven't updated our conceptions of discrimination, sexism, and misogyny to encompass more modern behaviors and mindsets. We don't recognize sexism as sexism.

In terms of U.S. historical attitudes towards women, the Trump model of misogyny is relatively recent. As women excel in higher education and their presence is less questioned in the professional context, the prevailing vision of a "sphere of domesticity" that was prevalent in the 1950s commands less influence today. The sexual revolution in the 1960s liberalized ideas about the morality of premarital sex, hastened by the proliferation of dating apps and technologies that facilitated the occurrence of casual sex. True, misogyny and the subjugation of women are social tendencies that are subject to revolutions in thought and technology. But instead of denying the continued existence of sexism (and making the complacent assertion that we have entered a post-sex or post-gender world), we should instead identify their modern incarnation.

The new model of misogyny posits women as sexual objects-- more specifically, as recipients and receptacles to satisfy male desires and sexuality. Simultaneously, this model measures masculine value by their ability to exert dominance over women, construing sexual "conquests" as a sign of strength and virility. This model gives rise to a culture that demands access to women's bodies as it simultaneously slut-shames them. Little girls have unrealistic standards of beauty ideals, and develop eating disorders and skewed body images as a result.  

When we dismiss Trump's gloating admissions of sexual assaults and grabbing women by the pussy as "locker room talk," we internalize the power structure that normalizes the eternal shackles of the patriarchy—degrading women, devaluing them as inherently inferior, and casually dismissing the violence we do unto their bodies as individuals and as a society. Even the women close to Trump bear the burden of his misogyny. This is in regards to the same man who was accused of raping his wife and longingly referenced a desire to date his own daughter.

So sexist women chose to help elect Donald Trump, eschewing the opportunity to support and elect the first woman president in American history. As a movement for social change, feminism has lacked the focus to congeal itself into a coherent constituency with a transformative policy agenda. The push for more reproductive rights splinters along religious lines and personal views on abortion.  Unequal pay and shifting the burdens of parenting get dismissed as “first world problems.”

There has been growing attention (at least by social change theorists) to the concept of intersectionality, i.e. the idea that systems of oppression are interrelated, and that marginalized social identities (of race, gender, class, etc.) can overlap in unique ways. But at what point does the admirable goal of complicating and adding nuance to the discussion start to deflate the momentum of the social movement’s progress?

In 1969, Hillary Rodham was the student commencement speaker at her own graduation from Wellesley College. She was the first student commencement speaker at the school - ever - and she spoke with a young idealism, calling for the transformation of thought and ideas into action. She even had critical words for current (even presently attending!) politicians and their complacency with the status quo, contrasting with the remarks of Senator Edward Brooke (R-MA) who spoke right before, promoting incremental change and discouraging “coercive protest.”  She said, “Part of the problem with just empathy with professed goals is that empathy doesn't do us anything. We've had lots of empathy; we've had lots of sympathy, but we feel that for too long our leaders have viewed politics as the art of the possible.”

Contrast that impassioned and visionary youth to the guarded and purportedly “cold” persona she commanded as a presidential candidate. Decades of harsh scrutiny under the public spotlight, defending against unfair criticisms and sexist accusations, had cautioned Hillary Rodham Clinton against her more progressive instincts. She was pressured to change her last name after marriage as a result of rigidly patriarchal tradition. As First Lady, and again as Democratic presidential nominee, she was blamed for her husband’s affairs and infidelities. She received blowback from a comment about cookies during her husband’s first presidential campaign that would seem innocuous today: “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession.”

Of course Hillary would not have graduated from Yale Law School and started a career in public service even before her marriage to Bill Clinton if she had not intended to be a career woman. But, illustrative of Hillary's inability to capture the leftist millennial voters, even purported progressive feminists today may scoff at Clinton’s cookie comment because it highlights her privilege and disconnect from less wealthy women who lack the luxury to lounge as stay-at-home wives and mothers. Yet why should we demand that Hillary decontextualize herself to represent women’s interests, when we, as intersectional feminists, place great emphasis on the multiple facets of our own identities? Those on the left that declined to support Clinton this past election because she was “not progressive enough” or didn’t represent “our brand of feminism” have fallen prey to a flawed progressive critique of “respectable” representatives.

“Respectability politics” is a sociological term that refers to the attempts by marginalized groups to dictate to their own members how to cater to the mainstream views and values and thus appear “respectable.” Its purpose is to obtain respect and dignity from the majoritarian group. It was employed since centuries ago by black people as a racial progress strategy. In the words of Brando Simeo Starkey, author of In Defense of Uncle Tom: “It instructs blacks to disprove, through their personal behavior, some whites’ notions that racial inequality persists because of blacks’ biological or cultural inferiority. Devotees of respectability politics preach their gospel for two reasons: First, they hope whites will notice when blacks have reached respectability and, consequently, treat black people better; and second, to further black folks’ own interests, regardless of white approval.”

The objectionable aspect of respectability politics is its driving motivation to win favors in a system of white supremacy, and confirm to the racial stereotypes of white supremacists. Starkey sharply rebukes those who accused President Barack Obama for practicing respectability politics, when his strategy is much more accurately characterized as promoting “racial uplift.” The perpetuation of respectability politics and its analogous myths in other communities (among Asian-Americans, it’s called the “Model Minority Myth”) distract the public from the systemic barriers facing entire marginalized groups, and implicit (and sometimes explicit) biases go unaddressed and unrectified.  

Respectability politics dictated that the problems plaguing the black community is due to a collective black failure to meet respectable standards, not a culture of white supremacy that is bred into the tax, school funding, local zoning, policing, criminal justice, and other policies. The Model Minority Myth also prevents Asians and other stereotypically “high-achieving” minorities to politicize and realize their group interests. These narratives are designed to monopolize power for those who already wield it. So if you, dear reader, are someone who scorns respectability politics, yet shrugs off Clinton as a lukewarm and moderate politician, perhaps a self-examination for hypocrisy is in order.

In this past election, we, the American people, delivered the most jarring rejection imaginable to a patriotic public servant who has dedicated her life to this country. We spurned her candidacy in favor of a candidate with no public service experience, unprecedented in our nation’s history – a man who openly incited violence at his rallies, bragged about sexually assaulting women, scammed contractors and Trump University students, manipulated tax and bankruptcy laws to enrich himself, and mocked and undermined the most vulnerable and marginalized groups in our society.

In the face of such opposition, the women’s movement, along with the Democratic Party, will need to do some soul-searching to account for this setback. And to prevent further harm, feminists and allies will need to prepare to fight and vindicate our rights. Because, to quote a proud feminist, “Fighting for what’s right is worth it” (from Hillary Clinton’s concession speech).

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