Barring a miracle, Hillary Clinton will be elected president in less than two weeks. And this will be in no small part because Donald Trump is a foul and strutting misogynist whom a lot of women can’t stand. Still, Clinton’s victory will be no victory for feminism. In fact, it would have been far better for the movement if she had lost to a good man rather than won against a bad one.
Ever since the Access Hollywood tapes surfaced, showing the Republican nominee boasting about sexually assaulting women, every time he opens his mouth, a new victim comes forward and Clinton’s lead with women widens by several points.
Clinton claimed during the final debate that he demeans and belittles women – and as if to prove her right, Trump called her “what a nasty woman.” And a CBS poll earlier in the week suggests that women agree, with seven out of 10 saying that they feel that Trump does not respect them. The same poll gave Clinton a 19-point lead among women. But even worse for Trump, in key swing sates, Clinton’s gender gap has widened from 5 to 15 points. Even evangelical women and military wives are utterly disgusted by Trump and flocking to Clinton.
All of this makes Clinton a shoo-in for the Oval Office, which wouldn’t be a problem if she were a genuinely good or even decent candidate. But she’s not. And brushing her flaws under the rug, whatever the political exigency now, won’t be good for the feminist movement in the long run.
One does not have to be a Clinton basher to point out there is something screwy about her whole posture toward women. She now insists that all victims of sexual assault deserve to be taken seriously and chastised Trump for not apologizing to the women he’s insulted and allegedly assaulted. But at the Wednesday debate, when asked about her own husband’s sexual misdeeds, she pretended like she didn’t hear the question. And she herself hasn’t been exactly easy on her husband’s victims. Indeed, there is no denying that one reason Trump is getting away with his sexual misconduct is because her husband, whom she enabled, got away with his.
Nor did she play fair to get a plea deal for a 42-year-old who raped a 12-year-old girl in 1975. Granted, she took the case only very reluctantly. However, after she did, she resorted to every trick in the book — including suggesting that the girl fantasized about older men — to get her client off the hook. This would be fine if she believed that accused rapists deserve strong due process protections. Or that it is the duty of lawyers to defend their clients in the most aggressive way possible. Or if she at least explained that her position has evolved and she has come to understand that the victims of sexual assault bear a special burden and therefore deserve special protections (debatable though that is).
But she has done none of that and feminists have not pushed her to clarify.
The conundrum for feminists is that if they ask Clinton to reconcile her actions and positions, they risk exposing her hypocrisy and making her vulnerable in the face of an intolerable alternative. But if they don’t, they end up undermining their own credibility and effectiveness. They can’t even acknowledge that Clinton cannot use the bully pulpit to make sexual assault a big issue of her presidency. Most men would have been able to do more if they chose.
Symbols and icons are important mostly when a movement is still trying to propel itself. But for all of Clinton’s talk of breaking the highest glass ceiling in the world, the fact of the matter is that the notion that women are as capable as men of occupying high office is now firmly entrenched in the zeitgeist. A female U.S. president was a question of when not if.
Hence, absent Trump, there would have been no harm if the movement had waited a bit longer for a more worthy female candidate and fully confronted the flaws of the present one. Trump is a walking, talking scandal of a type the country has never seen. But Clinton is no slouch either. The latest WikiLeaks revelations show that her controversial use of a private email server for classified communication as secretary of state was just the tip of the iceberg. The leaks confirm suspicions that her staffers destroyed emails after Congress issued a subpoena for them, something that would have gotten mere mortals criminally indicted for obstruction of justice. And then there are accusations of pay-to-play — that the friends of the Clinton Foundation received preferential treatment from the State Department when applying for government contracts for the post-earthquake reconstruction of Haiti.
It would have been good for feminism if it had taken a pass on Clinton’s candidacy in light of all this. Instead, it now gives the impression, in the immortal words of Lena Dunham, that women simply “vote their uterus.” It is fashionable these days in lefty circles to insist that identity is not something you are born with, it is something that is imposed on you. To think otherwise is to be guilty of essentialism and confuse category for identity, a cardinal sin.
Yet feminists uncritically flocking to Clinton risk giving the impression that they are, like The Nation’s Liza Featherstone, voting for her simply to elect the “first woman president of the United States.” They are acting more like “vulgar” feminists — rather than mature ones whose concerns as women are part of a more capacious identity based on a whole range of interests from foreign policy to national security to the economy.
After the first Clinton-Trump debate, Michelle Vitali mused: “Imagine a woman who showed up unprepared, sniffling like a coke addict and interrupting her opponent 70 times. Let’s further imagine that she had five kids by three men, was a repeated adulterer, had multiple bankruptcies, paid zero federal taxes, and rooted for the housing crisis in which many thousands of families lost their homes. Wait… there’s more: She has never held any elected office in her life.”
It was a brilliant observation that instantly went viral not only because it captured Trump’s “yuck” factor but the sexist double standard that working women face in America: namely, that women not only have to be better than men to get to the top but they also have to play by the rules.
But the low bar that Clinton had to cross with Trump as her opponent is a breach of standards in its own right. So feminists should take their victory, but taking joy in it is another matter.
A version of this column originally appeared in The Week