We Need a Smarter Conversation About Feminism in Politics

Photo: Erik Voake/Getty Images for Hulu

Hillary Clinton is an American Moses, announced Time magazine in 2016. Her narrow loss to Donald Trump made her “an imperfect prophet, leading women to the edge of the Promised Land.” The comparison, maybe borrowed from a common metaphor about the civil rights “Moses generation” and the Obama-led “Joshua generation” that followed it, is somewhat apt. Clinton beheld a promised land without ever being able to enter it, and an optimist might think she had ushered in a smarter and more robust conversation about feminism. That would be an achievement worthy of the Moses comparison. Then again, Moses didn’t stick around for years to come, complaining about his fellow prophets.

The reasons for Clinton’s loss in 2016 are by now familiar ground: Her campaign made regrettable tactical decisions. Her rhetoric was uninspirational; her policies, tentative; her public image marred by her embrace of the country’s elite. There were other factors, too, and they didn’t all originate with Clinton. We know that Trump’s racism appealed to many, and probably so did his open disdain for women. But of all the explanations for Clinton’s inability to enter the Promised Land, it’s the last — misogyny — that she most prefers.

Since 2016, she’s blamed sexist double standards, a dynamic she often associates with Bernie Sanders for running against her in the Democratic primary. The Vermont senator’s democratic socialism forced her into “the unenviable role of schoolmarm,” she wrote in her 2017 book, What Happened. She did not say, exactly, that Sanders is sexist, but the subtext isn’t subtle. Sanders, she believes, made her look like a punitive lady boss, an archetype that perpetually haunts the chances of a woman being president. She repeats herself, and so do the debates she generates; the cycle is almost as predictable as a family curse. If the conversation about sexism and Clinton’s campaign feels stuck in a rut, it’s in part because the former candidate herself won’t think outside it.

Clinton’s thinking hasn’t changed much over the last several years. In a Tuesday morning interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Clinton wouldn’t commit to endorsing Sanders if he became the nominee, critiquing instead the “culture around him.”

“It’s his leadership team,” she said. “It’s his prominent supporters. It’s his online Bernie Bros and their relentless attacks on lots of his competitors, particularly the women.” Clinton stopped short, again, of calling Sanders himself a sexist, but this act of restraint is so small it’s almost worthless. Clinton wants people to believe that Sanders draws sexists to him, that they find something about him appealing, that prejudice is part of a divisive culture he helps stoke. It’s an inflammatory suggestion, as Clinton, an intelligent person, likely understands. Her remarks are proof that she still doesn’t know why she will never enter Zion, but they’re also an abuse of her platform. The Democratic Party’s first female nominee for president could amplify the needs and work of women far less powerful than she. Instead, she’d rather talk about herself.

Clinton is a celebrity now, her power felt less in the halls of Washington, D.C., than in the frantic arena of news cycles and content generation. Within hours of publication, her interview with The Hollywood Reporter was viral. Twitter spread her remarks with bruising speed. The Hollywood Reporter set the trap and Clinton baited it. The public is hardly to blame for giving into temptation. Nor can anyone who covers politics for a living pretend that Clinton’s remarks simply don’t matter. The division Clinton sets up in her comment — Sanders versus the women — certainly shows us how she explains her loss to herself, and to the public. But the idea that Sanders has a woman problem has cachet beyond Clinton’s inner circle or her online fanbase.

It’s an opportune moment for a smarter conversation about feminism in politics, as a more adept political thinker might have understood. The prospect of a second Trump term presents unique dangers for women. Abortion rights have never been robust, but they are even more fragile than usual right now, with the might of the Supreme Court arrayed firmly against them. The American working class is half female. Women, especially women of color, are more likely than men to live in poverty. The Trump administration’s attacks on union rights harm women, who are over-represented in the public workforce and for whom the labor movement has helped bridge historic gender gaps in pay and professional advancement. Misogyny, in other words, doesn’t look like a primary challenge from the left. It has nothing in common with proposals to create universal health care or make childcare affordable for all. Misogyny keeps women poor and it keeps them quiet. It is a tangible threat, a baseball bat, a gun.

Clinton could talk about that threat. She could focus on women who do not share her advantages, bring them with her into the limelight. Instead, her comments feed what can only be understood as a conversation about feminism in politics in the glibbest sense. For several long weeks serious people have wondered whether something Sanders may or may not have said to Elizabeth Warren about the sexism of the American voter is proof that he, individually, is prejudiced. Warren is not the second coming of Clinton, but the coverage of her years-old conversation with Sanders felt altogether too familiar; it was Sanders versus the women, again. At its dumbest, the controversy invoked the worst of the 2016 dogfights. The Vermont senator’s legislative record, which is unimpeachably pro-choice, didn’t matter; neither did his endorsements of women, or all his campaigning for Clinton back when most of us thought she would still defeat Trump. On Twitter — which matters even though it shouldn’t because the press and the president and Congress and leading activists all use it far more than do most Americans — the idea that Sanders has a problem with women still travels. Clinton herself has helped keep it alive.

But Clinton is ill-positioned to take us into the promised land. In the same Hollywood Reporter interview, Clinton insisted she knew nothing of Harvey Weinstein’s abuse of women. “How could we have known? He raised money for me, for the Obamas, for Democrats in general. And that at the time was something that everybody thought made sense. And of course, if all of us had known what we know now, it would have affected our behavior,” she said. But it’s possible that she did know, as Lena Dunham revealed in 2017. Dunham said she warned Kristina Schake, Clinton’s deputy campaign manager, that Weinstein was a “rapist.” Schake said she’d tell Clinton strategist Robby Mook, who’s denied hearing any such information about Weinstein. Tina Brown, the famous magazine editor, said she informed the Clinton camp about Weinstein rumors in 2008. Maybe Clinton’s staff conspired to keep her ignorant, but people around her did know, and kept Weinstein close by anyway. On Monica Lewinsky, Clinton was similarly defensive. Asked if she had changed the way she thought of her husband’s relationship in the wake of Me Too, the former secretary of State said no. “I do think the culture has changed, and mostly for the good, but I also think you still have to look at every situation on its own facts and merits to make a decision,” she continued. So much for the feminist candidate.

Clinton’s latest broadside ought to cement her status as a cautionary tale for the ages. We should choose our feminist prophets with more caution. They reveal themselves by their grasp of the stakes women face. Feminism isn’t a brand, or a shield to deflect the blame for losing to Trump. The purpose of feminism is liberation, and it is urgent.

Feminism Isn’t a Shield