Hillary Rodham Clinton May Be The First Feminist President
Sisterhood of the Traveling Pantsuit
It has taken me a few days to figure out why Hillary Rodham Clinton makes me a little giddy. I have always enjoyed watching her run for office. She is the smart girl who does her homework. She aims to get the job by earning it. She is tireless and unflappable. Her consistent insistence on discussing policy is earnest, even transparent. But what has me excited is something else.
First, we are having a national conversation about sexism, and second, we are focusing on women’s issues specifically. It is the second phenomenon, the unexpected return to the concerns of second-wave feminism that grabs me. As we have become fluent and sophisticated in our discussion of gender, our focus on issues unique to women has all but disappeared.
The issues of the feminism of the 1960s and 1970s — sisterhood, traditional marriage, patriarchy, reproductive rights, and childcare — are the soil from which feminist consciousness grew. Although feminism has been largely dormant, appearing only here and there over the past thirty or so years, the issues that captivated feminists are, thanks at least in part to Clinton, back on the table. Yes, the issues are mundane, humdrum next to mind-bending stuff like gender fluidity, but they are the foundation of progress for women. Moreover, I believe that Hillary Rodham Clinton, whose feminist consciousness was formed in the 1960s and 1970s, holds these issues close to her heart. She will work with us to awaken the issues from their slumber.
I have been a feminist since college. Since then, unfortunately, feminism has become a four-letter word. Only 18% of US women identify as feminist. Yet, many women have the expectations of a feminist without the awareness of what a feminist is. When women brush off the label of feminist, they rob themselves of one of feminism’s strongest contributions: sisterhood. They neither see nor experience the camaraderie of solidarity of our shared experience as women.
Sisterhood developed as a response to the tendency to divide women and pit them against each other. Instead of competing against each other for men and for jobs and as mothers and colleagues, sisterhood puts women, all women, on the same side and suggests that we work together to understand our common experiences with men, in the work force, and as mothers. Sisterhood makes the personal political and offers women comfort and companionship.
Will sisterhood return? That remains unclear. Yet, it would be welcome to hear women discuss and thereby undermine some of the rituals of dating that hold us in place as passive objects or prey, for us to come together in the work force and amplify each other’s ideas as do the women in President Obama’s cabinet, and for us to back each other up as mothers.
Mothers can politicize their roles by recognizing, as feminism does, that a mother’s work is undervalued. So undervalued, in fact, that it is considered free labor. Should a woman working to raise a child want to reenter the paid workforce, she cannot use motherhood as job experience. Some women talk of feeling isolated and unfulfilled at home, but then are double burdened if they also work outside the home. While women continue to do the majority of housework, they also often feel like they come up short as mothers.
I sense an incipient sisterhood when I talk to other women around my age or older about Clinton. She is tough and qualified. She has moxie; she has game. She has done so much for us. These women are not all Democrats, and few would identify as feminist. Heck, even Barbara Bush came out for Clinton when she asked how any woman could vote for Donald Trump.
With that short rhetorical question, Bush appealed to women’s shared experiences. These experiences can erase other distinctions. Although I don’t share the political views or ideals of Fox News Channel’s Megyn Kelly, I do share her gender and her gendered experience. So, in solidarity, I was outraged by Trump’s comments about Kelly .
Clinton came of age during the women’s movement that defined second-wave feminism. These feminists pushed for access to professions long closed off to women. However, the movement’s objective was not limited to moving women into positions of power. In opening up such spheres to women, feminists furthered the more radical aim of the movement — to facilitate an internal critique of dominant patriarchy.
While that critique continues, ideas such as job sharing, communal management, and worksite childcare also persist, but remain unrealized. The Equal Rights Amendment, though passed by Congress in 1972, remains unratified by the states. And despite their increased numbers, women occupying powerful positions often struggle alone, seeing their plight as individual and not based on societal expectations.
As we know, Clinton studied law at Yale and went on to a promising career. Eventually she followed her heart and moved to Arkansas. But she continued to work as a lawyer, and she worked alongside — not for — her husband. The young Hillary wore coke-bottle glasses and baggy clothes and refused to shave her legs; she was visibly feminist. Back then, we went without makeup and bras, and we rejected rituals of beauty because we felt that they held us back and played into patriarchal notions of womanhood.
Initially, Hillary did not take Bill’s name. Feminism taught us is that if a woman takes a man’s name when she marries, she symbolically forfeits her own identity. Take the linguistic construction “Mr. and Mrs. William Clinton” and the point is staggeringly clear. The woman, as wife, is elided. “Mrs. Clinton” is defined and confined in relation to her husband. What is more, she exists only in relation to her marital status. It is not the same for a man, whose marital status remains unknown with “Mr.” Feminists introduced the neutral term “Ms” to untether women from their marital status.
Interestingly, when I fill out forms, I am often required to check a box, either divorced or single. I am both, but the correct answer ties me to my marital status negatively or unambiguously. Some progress has been made. Fewer and fewer women change their names when they marry. But this progress varies from community to community, and to return to the point of departure, Hillary came under virile attack for keeping her name: Hillary Rodham.
When Bill was up for reelection in Arkansas, Hillary’s look and her name came under fire. Topping the list of complaints aimed at Bill was Hillary’s last name. So she changed it to Hillary Rodham Clinton. Was this a move away from her feminist ideals? Yes. Did she make the sacrifice so Bill could get elected and they could both continue their work in public service? Yes. What we see here is not so much a move away from feminism as an accommodation of mainstream political reality, or a savvied politics wherein Hillary gives up her maiden name so she can continue her political career. I liken this move to Rachael Maddow’s agreement to wear makeup when she hosts her incisive news show. I doubt it was her idea, but I also doubt it costs her much, even if her preference is to go without makeup.
Hillary vacillated on her name. It again resurfaced as a subject of criticism when Bill ran for president. Today, the issue has not lost the significance of its political force. Think only of the first debate when a moderator addressed Hillary as “Mrs. Clinton.” No, it is Secretary Clinton.
Women’s reproductive rights are also central to the feminist movement. We have the right to birth control and the right to abortion. Roe v. Wade became federal law in 1973, but conservatives continue relentlessly to rail against it. When they realized they were highly unlikely to overturn it, they circumvented federal law and took the fight to the states. Now many states have all but defunded Planned Parenthood, and others have made it illegal for young women below eighteen to get an abortion without parental consent. This leaves young women, many of whom cannot vote, crossing state lines in a solitary search for a doctor willing to perform an abortion. Or, they are forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy.
Remember Gloria Steinem’s story. At twenty-two she became pregnant. She had to fly to London on her way to India, where she would start her life’s work, to get an abortion. Hillary is a lifetime champion of reproductive rights and would fight hard to work with people at the state level to ensure that women have access to abortion, contraception, and proper health care. Then, conservatives will be out of soft targets and left to pick on someone their own size.
We are getting closer with equal pay for equal work, thanks to the passing of the Fair Pay Act in 2009 under President Obama. But in 1971, Richard Nixon killed the move toward paid maternity leave, and women still don’t have adequate childcare choices. Women often labor for less, get fired for taking too much maternity leave, and when we return to the workforce, affordable childcare is difficult to find. To put it in perspective, a nanny costs approximately $700 per week or $36,400 per year. If you consider that a middle-class family of four lives on approximately $150,000 per year, the lunacy of solving the childcare issue with private nannies is obvious.
I have heard repeatedly that having women in power is not necessarily good for women in general and that having a woman as president will not translate into structural change for women, nor will it address women’s issues. Whether this is true, it is also a function of people thinking inside the current web we have woven, where women are left to fight for themselves, where we too often see our plight as personal and individual instead of social and economic. Hillary Rodham Clinton certainly understands that the predicament of women does not exist solely on the level of the individual. She knows that society and culture need to shift and change and be rearranged to accommodate the needs and realities of women.
Ultimately, my enthusiasm is not just about the probability of having a woman as President of the United States; I am bathing in the prospect of having a feminist president, and that is a heady prospect indeed.