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Why Feminists Shouldn’t Trust Hillary Clinton

Pro-Hillary cheerleading will not advance social justice for women. But keeping the pressure on might do the trick.

Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

If you searched for a single headline that distilled what has been so depressing about feminist commentary on the 2016 election, you could do worse than pick this one, from The Guardian’s Lindy West, a writer I usually admire: “Hating Trump isn’t enough—we need to talk about why Clinton rules.” On the one hand, there’s the fixation on Trump’s awfulness, which is hardly a secret. On the other, there is the relentless cheerleading for Clinton, which sounds suspiciously like the desperate overselling of an underwhelming product. The piece accompanying the headline shares the defects common to the feminist pro-Clinton op-ed genre. In one short article, there are two long paragraphs about the sexism Clinton has suffered, but no attempt to probe into the policies she is proposing, or to grapple honestly with her actual feminist record.

Of course, most feminists—albeit with some notable exceptions—support Clinton in the presidential race. But though you’d never guess it from West’s piece and others like it, there’s a viable alternative both to outright opposition to Hillary and the happy talk of her feminist fans—one that is at once more intellectually honest and more politically constructive. Political theorist Nancy Fraser has dubbed it “critical support”: a vote for Clinton, combined with “vociferous criticism of her policies and explicit campaigning for Sanders-type alternatives.” Critical support, says Fraser, is “a strategy that looks beyond November to the ongoing struggle to build a new American left.”

But that, alas, has been the road not taken. While Clinton’s candidacy could have been an occasion for feminists to shine a spotlight on the broader, more structural forces that perpetuate women’s inequality, few Clinton supporters have chosen to do so—some because they worried that criticizing her would somehow boost Trump’s prospects. But now, as the campaign dwindles down to its final days, it is long past time for feminists to start thinking not only about the election, but also about what should happen afterward. If Hillary triumphs in November, how can feminists realize the potential of an historic opportunity to achieve social justice for women? More specifically, how can we pressure Clinton to make good on her feminist campaign promises, while at the same time fight for a bolder, more expansive vision for American feminism?

Let’s be clear about what is at stake. In the last century, major progressive change at the federal level—most notably the New Deal of the 1930s and the civil rights and Great Society legislation of the 1960s—has occurred only in narrow windows, when the Democratic Party controlled the presidency and at least one house of Congress. This year, not only are the Democrats strong favorites to win the White House, they are also favored to regain control of the Senate, and they even have an outside shot of taking back the House. Democratic victory in November, combined with a GOP in delightful post-Trump meltdown mode, would create the most auspicious political climate in decades for advancing women’s rights. Feminists would be granted the chance of a lifetime to bring U.S. work, family, and reproductive rights policies into the twenty-first century.

But absent organized pressure, Hillary Clinton is unlikely to avail herself of this opportunity. Aside from its anti-Trumpism, Clinton’s general-election campaign lacked a strong theme, which will make it difficult for her to claim a mandate for any particular set of policies or political vision. As New Republic columnist David Dayen has noted, “Democrats are at their most inspiring when they run on actual policies.” You’ve probably heard the (perhaps apocryphal) story about FDR, who, when asked by activists to support one of their causes, allegedly told them, “I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.”

Elected officials, even the most progressive ones, are unlikely to take bold action unless they are pushed. That lesson goes double for Hillary Clinton. She is a deeply cautious politician whose record is marred by some ugly anti-feminist blots. Among them: her endorsement of one of the most anti-woman policies in recent American history, welfare “reform” (even as a senator, she was calling for more punitive welfare policies than her Democratic colleagues); her tendency to use stigmatizing language when discussing abortion rights; her failure, while serving on the board of Walmart, to speak out on behalf of the women who launched a sex discrimination lawsuit against the retail giant; and her approval of foreign policies like the Iraq War and the coup in Honduras, which left women in those countries far worse off. (There’s a strong feminist tradition that opposes those kinds of imperialist adventures.)

On the other hand, throughout her 2016 campaign, Hillary has stressed surprisingly strong feminist themes. Her reproductive rights proposals include the abolition of the Hyde and Helms amendments (which, respectively, ban federal funding for abortion and prohibit foreign aid from being used for abortion “as a method of family planning”). Prodded by Bernie Sanders and his supporters, Clinton has also called for feminist economic policies that include paid family leave, a major boost in the minimum wage (women are nearly two-thirds of minimum wage earners), and significantly expanded child care.

But though Clinton is running on the most ambitious feminist platform of any major-party presidential nominee in history, it’s unclear how meaningful that will turn out to be. Visit Clinton’s web page and you will find a dizzying laundry list of 38 policy proposals, of which the feminist ones are a relatively small part. She has given little indication as to where feminist concerns stand in relation to the rest of her political priorities. If she’s elected president, which Hillary will we see: the corporate-friendly centrist of the 1980s through the 2000s, or the born-again feminist of the 2016 presidential campaign?

That remains an open question, and Clinton’s first major act as her party’s presidential candidate was hardly reassuring. For her running mate, she chose Senator Tim Kaine, a man who not only is not very progressive, but also has one of the worst records on reproductive rights of any major figure in the Democratic Party. As governor of Virginia, he advocated parental notification and other abortion restrictions and enacted a law that allowed funds to go to bogus “crisis pregnancy” centers—anti-choice propaganda outfits which bombard vulnerable women with guilt trips and dangerous misinformation. Some Kaine backers argue that his abortion views have “evolved”; nevertheless, he continues to support the Hyde amendment.

Yet bizarrely, the heads of NOW, Planned Parenthood, EMILY’s List, and other major women’s organizations greeted the Kaine pick with encomiums, praising him as an “ally” and “an excellent choice.” When they touted his “100 percent” rating from the likes of NARAL and Planned Parenthood, you could practically smell the bad faith. What kind of rating system would leave out such a pro-choice issue as vital as the Hyde amendment? (Candidate scorecards from NARAL and Planned Parenthood omit Hyde and other key reproductive rights issues.)

To their credit, feminist Clinton supporters like Nation columnist Katha Pollitt expressed dismay at the Kaine selection. But at the same time, Pollitt argued Hillary will likely steer the right course on choice issues, because Clinton “is too closely embedded with Planned Parenthood, and with the larger pro-choice community” to do otherwise.

There’s a large grain of truth to this view, which is the predominant one among Clinton’s feminist supporters. But can we really trust Hillary to do the right thing? Granted, we should hardly expect Hillary to morph into an ardent fetus-fancier; she has zero political incentive to do so. But the bigger question is where reproductive rights, not to mention feminist issues generally, stand in terms of Clinton’s political priorities, and how much political capital she’s willing to spend to protect and enhance them. After all, the last two Democratic presidents, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, pledged strong support for abortion rights yet presided over the erosion of women’s right to choose. Neither of them lifted a finger to abolish the Hyde or Helms amendments (though a simple executive order would greatly restrict the scope of the latter). And Obama supported the Stupak amendment (what is it with these awful men and their terrible amendments?), a provision that allows states to weasel out of health care coverage for abortion, which has led to more women paying out of pocket for abortion. With her selection of Kaine, it certainly looked as though Clinton made the calculation that she, like her Democratic predecessors, can take pro-choice voters for granted.

Unfortunately, many of Clinton’s feminist supporters have made it easy for Democrats to take them for granted. In the 1960s and 1970s, feminist activists and intellectuals maintained a critical distance from the Democratic Party; they supported many Democratic candidates but remained focused on independent activism. This, arguably, gave the feminist movement a more sweeping, visionary approach that was focused on the structural, economically rooted barriers to women’s equality. Even mainstream feminist groups poured resources into campaigns for universal child care, welfare rights, and aggressive pay equity proposals such as comparable worth.

But in recent decades, the distance between mainstream feminism and the Democratic Party has almost totally evaporated. We saw the culmination of this process in the 2016 primaries, when every major women’s group and practically every mainstream feminist pundit supported Clinton over Bernie Sanders, many of them sounding more like campaign surrogates than independent journalists and activists. Feminist pundits have argued that Clinton, by virtue of her power as a positive role model, will uplift all women. But this trickle-down feminist perspective confuses the narrow personal interests of Hillary Clinton with the broader interests of women as a class. The result is that feminists have spent far more energy celebrating Clinton’s shattering of the “ultimate glass ceiling” and shielding her from criticisms (including fair ones, like those about her ties to Wall Street) than to sweating the details on her record and policies.

Take, for instance, Clinton’s child-care plan. Clinton supporters frequently characterize the program as “universal.” Rebecca Traister of New York magazine stopped short of making that claim, but she did say that Clinton’s proposals “would have been understood not long ago as something out of a ’70s feminist fever dream.” Well, if that’s true, the folks characterizing it that way would have had a poor grasp of policy—and of history. The signature child-care initiative of second-wave feminists was the Comprehensive Child Development Act of 1971, a bill that would have established a national network of federally funded child care centers. (Nixon, to his eternal discredit, vetoed it.) Now that would have been the start of a truly universal system.

It’s not that Hillary’s child-care proposals aren’t a step in the right direction. Her plans—which include moving toward universal pre-K, increasing funding for Head Start, and limiting child care costs to 10 percent of family income—would be a major improvement over the status quo. But here’s what her proposal does not do: Unlike the 1971 child-care bill, it would not actually provide child care. Yet the underprovision of child care, and the the shortage of licensed, quality care in particular, is one of the key failings of the American child care system. The increased spending that Clinton calls for is laudable, but it still would not bring us anywhere near the goal of accessible, affordable, high-quality care for all.

This points to a larger problem: Women will never achieve equality in our society absent major economic redistribution. The main force keeping women down is our society’s dependence on women’s unpaid caring labor, which profoundly disadvantages women in the labor force and within the family. Feminist progress requires an advanced welfare system that transfers wealth and resources to women and families. Universal child care would be a central component of such a structural transformation, but it would be only the beginning. Clinton, however, has pledged not to raise taxes on the middle class, which effectively rules out any major expansion of the welfare state. Unfortunately, her skittishness about raising taxes is echoed by many other leading Democrats (and their Wall Street backers), and it has dramatically narrowed feminism’s horizons. For women to advance, feminists need to fight Clinton-style, austerity-lite, anti-tax politics, a moldy artifact from a far more conservative era.

In addition to pushing Hillary toward more redistributionist labor and social welfare policies, feminists need to keep the pressure on in other ways. First and foremost, we need to support feminist organizing—by door-to-door canvassing, lobbying elected officials, participating in rallies and mass protests, and more. Let’s not forget that, more than any other single force, it’s the state and local campaigns across America for paid family and sick leave, domestic workers’ rights, and the $15 minimum wage which have created the political space for Clinton’s feminist policy initiatives. The success of the recent national strike of Polish women to protest a restrictive new abortion law is an inspiring example of just how potent feminist mass action can be.

Feminists should also keep close tabs on Clinton’s presidential transition process, which is already well underway; since personnel is policy, we should demand that key appointments be filled with the most progressive, most pro-feminist candidates available. In addition, since we know that Republican members of Congress will do their utmost to thwart progressive legislative initiatives, it’s important to figure out which feminist policies could be implemented by executive order instead—and hold Hillary’s feet to the fire until she signs off on them. Promising candidates for executive action include measures to strengthen pay transparency and weaken the Hyde amendment, but that is only the beginning. An especially urgent feminist project is to identify and advocate for policies that currently are not on the political map, but desperately need to become political priorities. First up should be rehauling our broken welfare system, but there are plenty more items to be added to the list.

And what if Clinton still shows signs of returning to her old neoliberal self? Feminists and other progressives would need to start planning for a serious 2020 primary challenge. As the Sanders example showed, primary challenges are one of the most powerful tools activists have to shape the direction of the party—and, potentially, a presidency.

Feminists can’t afford to be complacent, because there’s one thing we know for sure about Hillary Clinton: In the face of political failure, her deepest instincts are to move to the right. Hillary biographers such as Carl Bernstein report that after Bill Clinton’s failure to be re-elected governor in 1980 and the GOP takeover of the House in the 1994 midterms, she was a major advocate of politics of retreat and triangulation. And today, her triangulating tendencies are alive and kicking. Clinton has actively courted the endorsements of prominent Republicans who have made it clear that they expect to get something in return for their support. The recently leaked Wall Street speeches, which show Clinton praising the Social Security–cutting Bowles Simpson plan and openly admitting that elected officials “need both a public and a private [political] position,” raise serious questions about the depth of Clinton’s commitment to her progressive campaign promises.

We know from history that opportunities to make lasting change at the national level are rare and fleeting. When these moments come, activists must be poised to make the most of them. We can’t afford to forget that, as Frederick Douglass famously argued, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” Feminists, let’s make Hillary do it.