Girlboss Politics Won’t Beat the Right

Facing a close race in New York’s gubernatorial contest, Democrats are doubling down on elite feminism. But at a time when many voters feel beleaguered by crime and inflation, you-go-girl pep rallies won’t stem the rightward trend.

Kamala Harris, Kathy Hochul, and Hillary Clinton stand on stage during a "Get Out the Vote" rally at Manhattan's Barnard College in New York City on November 3, 2022. (Timothy A. Clary / AFP via Getty Images)

Facing an alarmingly close race in blue New York state, Democratic governor Kathy Hochul is going full on “I’m with her.” An all-star centrist lineup at a rally at Barnard College last Thursday included Hillary Clinton and Kamala Harris as well as the governor herself, all of them standing against a backdrop with the eminently forgettable slogan, “New York Women Vote.”

Hillary Clinton, to her credit, gave a more rousing speech than I would have expected. She talked about Roe v. Wade but also much more: Democrats’ record on job creation, as well as Republicans’ plans to cut Social Security and Medicare, give big tax breaks to the rich, and reject raises to the minimum wage. Republicans want to turn the clock back on women’s rights and gay rights, she said, as well as “put more guns on our streets, more pollution in our air and water” and give “more power to the rich and less for everyone else.”

Clinton also talked about how the Republicans run ads on crime but have no solutions: “They don’t want to keep you safe, they want to keep you scared,” she said. That’s true, but the former Democratic presidential nominee didn’t propose any solutions to the crime problem either, probably because, among other things, addressing it — with permanent and safe housing and non-punitive drug treatment for all who need it, as well as reversing the current New York City Democrat policy of austerity for education, among a few big social investments — would not please the party’s big donors (many of whom do not want to pay more taxes and in any case have drivers, no reason to ride the subway, and little reason to worry about public safety).

Then, Clinton introduced Hochul, as Alicia Keys’s 2012 hit, “This Girl Is on Fire,” played anthemically. The governor had less than Clinton to say about issues other than gender. Hers was much more of a straight “girlboss” appeal. She said a lot about “making history” and how there was “no one tougher” than Hillary Clinton. Affectionate tales of centrist old girl networks were greeted with enthusiastic cheers from the uptown crowd. “I have a simple message,” Hochul said. “To all of you, but particularly to the women of New York: this is our moment.”

She evoked “the ghosts of the past” — an unfortunate and almost certainly unintentional death trip for a party facing so much likely defeat next week — of Seneca Falls, the upstate New York birthplace of the women’s suffrage movement. I enjoy history — and even New York State jingoism — as much as the next person but shades and phantasms may not be our most inspiring role models right now. The speech was a rousing call to protect the right to abortion by reelecting Hochul. Reason enough in my opinion — but polls show most New Yorkers are not worried about losing the right to abortion.

Vice President Kamala Harris also went heavy on the girlboss themes. “A whole lot of firsts,” on this platform, noted Harris, whose public-speaking chops are lamentably deficient compared to both Hochul and Clinton. “And we are committed to not being the last.” She boasted about the Democrats’ appointment of the first black woman on Supreme Court. Harris boasted — also rightly, and probably more relevantly to most people — of the Democrats’ achievements on infrastructure, prescription drug costs, and student debt. But in doing so, she also used the gauchest political metaphor I’ve heard in a long time, stating that by voting, “you put in your order,” as if democracy were an Arby’s.

Last week in centrist elite-lady feminism has felt like a cringe flashback to 2016, the last time far-right politics enjoyed a big win in the United States. The rally encapsulated so much that is wrong with this sort of feminism. Why is Barnard College, an elite, private, Seven Sisters liberal arts institution in New York City, even a stop on this campaign trail, let alone the site of such a huge event and high-profile speakers? Most graduates of fancy women’s colleges don’t need to be told to vote for women or pro-choice Democrats. And the one point of interest to working-class people about this institution might be that Barnard was recently the site of a significant union win, where adjuncts secured the best contract of its kind in the higher ed industry, one which part-time professors elsewhere are pursuing as a model.

Yet Barnard’s worker and big labor victory went unmentioned on the podium Thursday, not surprisingly. Hochul has also been visiting with union workers and going to black churches, as is the custom for Democrats seeking votes, but holding such a significant event at an exclusive college, at a time of such major political division between the college educated and the rest, seemed tone-deaf at best.

The ruling class persists in the delusion that elite feminism has some kind of “you-go-girl” mass appeal. Even with abortion under attack and a worldwide right-wing movement deeply rooted in masculinism, that’s not the case. Most voters are not listing women’s rights as their top priority and don’t care about the gender of the candidate.

Elite Democrats seem to assume that threats to abortion rights could mobilize women. But in much of the country, including New York, abortion is still available and women voters have other issues on their minds. It was disturbing that while the privileged ladyfest emphasized threats to abortion, Republican gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin has been talking nonstop about crime, which is, unfortunately for any left or even centrist agenda, far more salient to voters right now.

While Democratic discourse tends to distinguish between “gender issues” and “the economy,” the fact is that women are particularly affected by economic troubles. Women earn less and are much more likely to live paycheck to paycheck, and to head single-parent households. Yet even with Clinton’s focus on economic issues, she didn’t utter the one word that people are most concerned about: inflation. Neither did Harris or Hochul.

Only Harris mentioned the pandemic disruptions to schooling, a major issue moving many women voters to the Right. She was also the only one to talk about the child tax credit, but she did not address how the Democrats will support parents now that it has expired, even though research shows it, too, is a huge factor in parents’ drift to the Right this year.

To be fair, while the Democrats are likely to lose big on Tuesday, Hochul probably will win in New York. But it never should have come this close, and now is not the time for superficial pop appeals to female solidarity.

Gender appeals work wonders for the Right. Appeals to men — and to voters with reactionary gender politics — have been working well for right-wing politicians all over the world.

Recently, in an interview with CBS reporter Ali Vitali for a new book on women in politics, Electable, Clinton herself said she wouldn’t be surprised if a right-wing candidate became the first woman president of the United States. That’s because, Clinton explained, even anti-feminist voters understand that right-wing women not only won’t disrupt the patriarchy but may even be better able than men to keep it intact. Far-right women excite right-wing men and women who want to return to a traditional gender regime: opposing reproductive choice, same-sex marriage, and rights for trans people.

Right-wing gender politics supports the conservative economic agenda by shoring up a cruel and punitive world. To fight that vision, the Left, too, needs a gender politics that supports our liberatory vision of an economy that supports care, freedom, and flourishing for the working class. Cozy lovefests among the girlboss class just aren’t going to cut it.