With the launch of Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid last Sunday, Estelle Cooch argues that Hillary’s “feminist family values” will not lead to a breakthrough for the vast majority of women.
Standing on a pavement in a generic looking suburb of America, Hillary Clinton launched her candidacy for the 2016 US presidency. “Americans have fought their way back from tough economic times, but the deck is still stacked in favour of those at the top”, she announced. The deck certainly is still stacked in favour of the infamous 1 percent, but with Clinton’s own personal wealth lying somewhere between 5 million and 25 million dollars it is hard to take her seriously.
In the past year issues of race have dominated the American political arena. The series of shootings of unarmed black men have put paid to the myth of a post-racial America with Barack Obama at its helm. But with the announcement of Clinton’s bid, the spotlight is about to shine on another murky aspect of American society – gender.
Clinton’s espousal of her “feminist family values” looks likely to be a key part of her campaign, but here are five reasons why president Clinton may not lead to the breakthrough some expect:
1- Equal pay
Much has been made of Clinton’s apparent disgust at the ongoing wage gap in America. She chaired numerous hearings on equal pay in the senate and her campaign has been consciously launched two days before National Equal Pay Day.
But one of Clinton’s first high-profile positions was on the board of America’s biggest retailer, Walmart, between 1986 and 1992. During this time Walmart embarked on a vicious anti-union campaign, firing union supporters and spying on employees that continues to this day. Clinton remained silent on this and in 2011 a sex-discrimination lawsuit brought the claims of 1.5 million current and former female employees of Walmart to the Supreme Court.
The court case highlighted the company’s policy of paying women less than men in every job category and promoting women less. Despite the Supreme Court ruling that Walmart would not have to face a collective lawsuit, they look set to face these cases individually for years. In 2013 Clinton received a donation of $25,000 from Alice Walton for the “Ready for Hillary” campaign. Two thirds of Walmart employees are women. While Clinton may feel she is smashing the glass ceiling she seems little interested in those left on the floor.
2- Foreign Policy
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realise why Hillary Clinton’s hawkish foreign policy might be a problem when it comes to women’s rights. Unless you believe that the lives of women elsewhere don’t matter, or that the president of the USA doesn’t affect them, if Clinton wins the next election her foreign policy will affect millions around the globe. Clinton has been one of the most warmongering US politicians of recent times and is proud about her record.
Her support for the Iraq war was a key factor in alienating liberal democrats from supporting her candidacy in 2007. Her lack of remorse for this decision remains solid. In the State Department she has always preferred bellicose language to negotiation. On at least three crucial issues – Afghanistan, Libya, and the bin Laden raid – Clinton took a more aggressive line than Robert Gates, a Bush-appointed Republican.
When it came to discussions with her husband about the NATO assault on Yugoslavia in 1999 she boasts “I urged him to bomb.” After the 2014 attack on Gaza Clinton issued a staunch defence of Netanyahu sounding incredulous that “We see this enormous international reaction against Israel. This reaction is uncalled for and unfair”, leading Ha’aretz to describe her as “Israel’s new lawyer”.
Under the Obama administration she has presided over the expansion of illegal drone attacks killing hundreds of women while bolstering US alliances with various dictatorships. She remains a keen proponent of sanctions on Iran and says the US is wrong to call for a halt on Israeli settlement building. Call me cynical, but it is difficult to marry women’s rights at home, while blowing them up abroad.
3- Reproductive rights
Like equal pay and support for same-sex marriage, it seems Hillary Clinton’s rebranding of herself as socially liberal will be a key part of her campaign. Since 2011 efforts to limit access to abortion in America have been gradually gaining steam, particularly in the south. In 2011-13 state politicians enacted over 200 restrictions (more than in the entire previous decade) in an attempt to hollow out Roe vs Wade – the Supreme Court judgement giving women the right to abortion.
Meanwhile Hillary Clinton continues to promote her now oft-repeated mantra that abortions should be “safe, legal and rare” – what Obama has reiterated as “the right formulation”. Many US feminists suggest that in the midst of such limits to abortion Clinton’s support for it should be enough, but there is a problem here.Use of the word “rare” suggests that abortion is happening more than it should, separating the decision into “good abortions” and “bad abortions” and ultimately downgrading a woman’s right to choose.
This implies that abortion is somehow different from other parts of the healthcare system. When was the last time a politician announced their support for “safe, legal and rare” kidney transplants?
Furthermore if Clinton was actually intent on cutting the number of abortions while keeping them “safe” and “legal” surely she would attack the astronomic fees charged for maternity healthcare in the US. Having skyrocketted in recent years, the average price for a vaginal delivery is now $30,000. If you happen to need a caesarean this jumps to a jaw-dropping $50,000. While Obamacare has now made it compulsory for employers to at least include maternity care in their health insurance (they didn’t have to previously) it does not specify which maternity services ought to be covered.
Last, but certainly not least, Clinton has a very narrow view of reproductive health – including only abortion and contraception. For migrant women and poor women in the US they face other problems – being put in detention camps while pregnant or having no paid maternity leave. America is the only developed country to still guarantee no paid leave for workers.
If Clinton was really serious about reproductive rights she would take on the health insurance industry, and an American president doing that, really is “rare”.
4- Cuts to welfare
It’s been a hard life for Hillary. On leaving the White House in 2001 she says the Clinton family were not only “dead broke, but in debt” (can you imagine?!). To avoid the imminent prospect of a Dickensian lifestyle of poverty and destitution she was forced to give speeches for only $200,000 a time and accept a book deal of only $8 million. But without complaint, Hillary got on with it. She didn’t apply for benefits or food stamps. She worked hard, and look at her now.
Seriously though, it’s a good job she didn’t apply for welfare, because after the demolition of much of the federal welfare system under Bill’s presidency there wasn’t much left.
In 1996 government payments to poor families amounted to $15.8 billion. By 2011 this was $5.2 billion. In other words the first Clinton administration put in motion a series of cuts that have led to $10 billion being cut to welfare budgets. Some welfare cheques also became linked to “good parenting”, ardently supported by Hillary herself. On the one hand the Clintons wanted to stop what they called a “dependency culture” , instead forcing parents to go to work. On the other hand if they missed a parent’s evening due to working two, three or more, different jobs the welfare payment they required to top up their low wage was withheld.
By 2014, according to a major study, one in three American women (42 million) either live in poverty or are right on the brink of it. Two thirds of American women are either the primary or co-breadwinner in their families. Hillary’s commitment to raise the minimum wage which stands at ($2.13 per hour for tipped workers) will not be enough to support those struggling to make ends meet. Infact she boasts in her book Living History that “by the time Bill and I had left the White House, welfare rolls had dropped 60 percent”.
The attacks on welfare that Hillary pioneered throughout the 1990s also helped to stigmatise women who do accept welfare. In analyses of the 1990s media, the use of “welfare queen” as a pejorative (and often racist) term increased dramatically.
There are some women in America who survive purely because others are forced to go to work, but these tend to be the Alice Walton’s of the world, born into a $38 billion fortune rather than those queuing for food stamps.
5 – Racism and migration
Although Clinton is making much of her support for Obama’s immigration reforms that have given amnesty to some undocumented migrants, it seems she will continue the traditional Democrat stance of promising more tolerant policies on asylum on the one hand, while massively increasing border enforcement on the other. Twenty one million immigrant women currently reside in the US, and half of undocumented migrants are now women aswell – this number has risen considerably in recent years.
In a shocking report released last year, it was found 80 percent of women crossing through Mexico to the US border experienced rape or sexual assault. This is a huge increase on Amnesty International’s 2013 study that found 60 percent of women were raped on their way to the border. Many of these women, on reaching the border will not even manage to get in to the US, or should they be able to, may be deported at a later date.
Since 2004, 6,000 migrants have died at the US-Mexico border and 40,000 have died at other borders trying to get to the US. But we will not hear Clinton speak about this. Increasing militarisation at the Mexico border and preventing migrant women from entering the US will be, as in 2008, a key election pledge.
Should migrant women get into the US they are likely to face a life of extreme poverty and racism. Women continue to be at the forefront of campaigns for justice for Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner, but Clinton has been (bar some comments on Ferguson) largely silent.
Clinton’s two minute campaign video, which was launched on Sunday 12th April could not have been more different to her bid of 2007. The video was posted on twitter and other social media, quickly ratchetting up well over a million views, but not even sent out to her supporters until much later on in the day.
In the 2007 bid we saw Clinton sitting in her opulent living room adorned with flowers and photos of her family. By 2015 we don’t even see Clinton until 90 seconds in after cameos by half a dozen people – including black, Hispanic and same sex couples. In 2007 while addressing the camera for the whole two minutes she used the word “I” thirty one times. In 2015, it is all about “we” and “I” is heard only four times.
The video closes with her talking from a pavement in suburban America. Of course, this could well be outside the lavish front room she sat within in 2007, but visually the message has changed. Clinton is claiming, not to be isolated in her mansion, but instead part of a neighbourhood.
Clinton is a clever and astute member of the American ruling class. She has watched the Obama campaign and learnt from it. The slogan of “Yes We Can” is yet to be rivalled in its ingenuity and ability to harness the feeling that true change must be collective.
She will almost certainly face numerous sexist attacks during the campaign that is to come. But on this question, the last word should go to Young and Becerra in Jacobin:
“A more robust vision of feminism doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t defend women like Hillary Clinton against sexist attacks: we should, just as we defend Barack Obama against racist ones. But it does mean that we must listen to the voices of the most marginalized women and gender and sexual minorities – many of whom are extremely critical of Clintonite feminism – and act in solidarity with movements that seek equity in all realms of life and for all people. These are the feminists not invited to the Hillary Clinton party, except perhaps to serve and clean up.”
For more on feminism and gender from rs21 see: