Supporting a Feminism for the 99%

Hillary Clinton’s failed candidacy exposed the limits of corporate feminism. We need something better.

Hillary Clinton waves to the crowd at a rally in Cincinnati, OH on October 31, 2016. scottagun / Flickr

Mired in the recurrent nightmare that is Donald Trump, it is hard to look back and take stock of what happened last week, let alone three months ago. Yet in looking back at Hillary Clinton’s defeat, one can not only see the rising tide of Trump, but also the tragic fate of American liberalism. Nowhere is this clearer than in the contradictions of Clinton’s deeply personal but nonetheless strained relationship to feminism.

Clinton’s feminism was intensely individual: one could never stop hearing a silent “it’s my turn” in every public speech. Deeply neoliberal, her feminism was hopelessly attached to a political world that recedes ever more into the past: the America of Ronald Reagan and the New Democrats.

All political environments develop and change over time, making positions like corporate feminism entirely capable of mass success at one moment, while deeply alienating at others. Clinton’s corporate feminism grew out of the Democratic Party’s struggle to reform itself into a winning coalition after the collective disaster of Reagan. This variant of feminism didn’t so much fail to achieve broad support as succeed in its aim as a rearguard action at a time when capitalist enterprise was increasing its pull on an already failing Democratic Party. As the feminism of the party became increasingly hollowed out by their corporate sponsors, it increasingly relied on the faces and language of former struggles, while offering far less to both oppressed people of color and the alienated “white working class.”

In short, Clinton was committed to a liberal feminism that could only permit her ascendance when it was already too late. In its tragic lateness, we can now see the limits of a feminism that fully embraced neoliberal common sense and even made it its trademark, nearly corporatizing itself beyond recognition as any kind of feminism.

After Obama and particularly Trump, the transition away from the form of neoliberal politics we have grown accustomed to will be complete. Clinton’s role in it will have been to expose its limits and the necessity of leaving behind a world and a feminism that even at its most progressive, leaves so many promises unfulfilled. In this sense, Clinton and Trump are not contemporaries.

This is confusing because Clinton and Trump share so much else, especially in class terms. But Trump recognized the need to offer an alternative. Trump broke in significant (if somewhat symbolic) ways with the post-Reagan Republican Party; Clinton, waiting for her turn, could not promise that a different world was possible.

Trump was savvy enough to take advantage of the shift that boxed Clinton in: the fundamental misogyny he embodied was emboldened by the increasingly empty or moralistic feminism that insisted on “going high” rather than mounting forceful challenges. Even though Clinton won the popular contest by 2.7 million votes, a different candidate with a more robust strategy would likely have prevailed in a true landslide.

No one disagrees that if she had been a man, Clinton’s career would have been much different. Perhaps, her candidacy for president would have come much earlier and she would not have had to live in the terrible shadow of Bill Clinton. But for this reason, the tragedy is also inescapably attached to her person: by all accounts, her campaign ought to have known the strategic risks it was taking. It should have known better than to tie Clinton-the-perpetual-candidate to a form of feminism that came out of a very different context, which for all intents and purposes may be called obsolete.

Clinton offered a distinctly conservative, corporate mentality made popular by contemporary “lean-in,” you-can-have-it-all, ability-, race-, and class-blind feminism. This approach appealed to the presumed aspirations of middle-class women and the pocketbooks of the wealthy, while increasingly alienating the working class. To forestall a downward spiral into double-speak, it played up prior, deeper commitments to women’s liberation and adopted the language of intersectionality.

But within such a framework, individual choice took center stage and the actual needs of most women, trans and cis alike, went unaddressed. This was evident in the campaign’s slogan, which linked gender with personal avowals of support, rather than with clear commitments to progressive social policy goals. Even though doing so was politically limiting, this feminism became the centerpiece of Clinton’s campaign. Worse, it took an odd pride in disparaging any concern for the economic as class reductionism and conjured up Bernie-supporting saboteurs around every corner.

What was a side feature for previous candidates became, for Clinton, a telltale sign that she could not reverse the Democratic Party’s rightward turn post-Reagan. It thus tied her down when she needed the most flexibility to negotiate rapidly shifting social grounds.

To her credit, Clinton did — in contrast to Barack Obama — voice a robust defense of abortion rights during the campaign. But when individualism becomes the guiding force for feminism, abstract notions of choice inevitably supplant more robust commitments to women’s freedom from social domination. The result is that women wait for their turn, which all too often never arrives, and, if it does, comes when social conditions make “choice” all but moot. Thus, the tragedy of Clinton’s candidacy: her turn came when it was too late for what she chose to put on stage.

By declining to confront our anti-egalitarian social structure at its roots, an individualistic, corporate feminism will never transform society. It can only offer a select few the entirely insufficient hope of catching up; of taking their turn; of being represented. The patience of the oppressed is rapidly transformed into a strategy of their oppressor.

It may well have been Clinton’s turn, but the false virtue of patience is rarely justly rewarded, and in the meantime the game was already up. The arrival of Hillary Clinton as a president-in-waiting, who merely had to avoid tarnishing the glory of her inevitable coronation, was only possible once the energies and possibilities of the liberal order, and the liberal feminism it produced, had exhausted their popular appeal. This was clear to the millions who, even if at times only in inchoate or quiet forms, rejected Clintonite liberalism by staying home, voting for Sanders (and later Stein), or in some instances, supporting Trump as an “outsider.”

Hillary warrants no sympathy as a figure, but the tragedy of her failure is illuminating. It reveals the historical limits we have reached, as well as the social and theoretical limits of the “feminism” that Clinton embodied and which got us here.

Clinton’s failure also produced a pathos that should not be underestimated. The senses of loss, devastation, melancholia, and the palpable injustices of the present, in which so much harm is being threatened upon so many, must be taken very seriously.

The energy generated by Clinton’s electoral loss can now go into clawing one’s eyes out and refusing to see reality for what it is, as so much of the Democratic Party establishment has been doing since its defeat. Or this energy can be used to fuel an alternative, more radical feminism — one that actually speaks to the present moment. Only a feminism committed to the 99 percent can resist without compromise our increasingly chauvinistic social order.

Fortunately, every attack dished out by Trump seems to be spurring more resistance, galvanizing diverse movements and establishing lines of communication and solidarity where none previously existed.

At the same time, the nature and limits of corporate feminism are now not only being openly recognized, but transcended. Events such as the upcoming International Women’s Strike, called for by a large contingent of prominent left-wing and black feminists, will be crucial for pushing beyond those limits.

We are living through an upsurge in women’s activism; events such as the Women’s March have made as much clear. Within this renewed movement, there is a clear path towards a feminism defined by human liberation, rather than corporate profit. The paths of socialism and feminism are not only converging: it is clearer every day that within both, internal developments lead to the other.

Socialism finds itself empty without the concerns and problematics of a feminism of the 99 percent. Feminism, in its corporate form, is unable to act as a strong theoretical and social force against individualism, capitalism, environmental destruction, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and imperialism.

In the end, it will be women themselves who show the world what form their struggle will take, what theories will ground their claims to equality, justice, and emancipation. We cannot afford to again ignore the millions of women organizing for such a future.