The Ironic Absence of Hillary Clinton from America’s Newest Brand of Feminism

By Caitlin Logan

There is no doubt about it.  Hillary Clinton is polarizing.  You either love her or you hate her.  Or you are part of the third, and seemingly expanding group of American voters who are not crazy about her, but recognize that with Donald Trump at the top of the Republican ticket, you are left with few other options than to vote for Clinton, polarizing as she may be.  One of the most fascinating phenomena that I have watched unfold during this 2016 campaign season is the stark divide that Hillary seems to garner among women.  Not all women support her.   There is the expected separation between supporters of the two major political parties, but the issue of her support among women is decidedly deeper than the usual divide of party politics.  Even women who are registered Democrats or at the very least identify as liberal are not blindly devoted to Hillary as a voting block.  They are not filled with endless pride regarding the role Clinton plays in the continued writing of women’s history in America.  Actually, the reaction has been quite the opposite.  Many young women who would identify as liberal did not support Clinton off the bat and in many cases, harbor just as much resentment toward her status as a career “establishment” politician as the most passionate Donald Trump supporter.  I would venture to guess that on election day Hillary Clinton will in fact gain the votes of these younger women that she so desperately tried to win during the primary and general election campaigns, but that has much more to do with the pressing realization facing all Americans about the potentially horrifying effect of electing her opponent, than a newly realized love for Hillary.  Hillary is divisive, even among a voting block that many would have logically assumed would automatically fall to her.  The question that needs examining is: why?

There is a undeniable difference in the age of the women who are staunch Hillary supporters.  Older women tend to support her and not only support her, but fervently so.  They are empowered by her toughness, her ability to succeed despite the undeniable handicap that automatically comes with her gender, her overall symbolism in seemingly never ending fight for women’s rights in America.  Younger women do not feel this way.  Since many of them have not experienced the same fight for basic opportunities within American society as women of previous generations, they are not as struck with the propensity of the accomplishment that Clinton is the first women to be the presidential nominee for a major political party.  As a group, they seem to not be as concerned with that accomplishment as they are with her conduct as a politician and her ability to create the change that they deem necessary for America.  Beyond a simple difference in policy positions, I believe much of the perceived disdain for Hillary Clinton among younger Democratic voters can be linked to a difference in how feminism is defined by women of different generations and the changing rhetoric around what it means to be a feminist in our modern age. 

Feminist ideology has evolved tremendously throughout the years.  Historically, it is based in two primary arguments, the fight for justice and the fight for expediency.  Early feminists primarily argued for rights using the fight for expediency.  They argued that as mothers they were responsible for the education of their young sons, and in order to provide them with adequate education, they too had to be educated.  It was a tempered argument, non threatening and logically based in something that men would consider valuable, but it was still fighting for a form of progress, a quiet form.  The rise of the fight for justice stood in direct conflict with the fight for expediency.  Women wanted to be treated as the equals of men, equally qualified and capable to undertake any task a man did, the fight for women’s suffrage being the most visible of the movement’s goals.  The fight for justice remained the driving feminist ideology through the resurgence of the feminist movement of the 1960s, the time period in which Hillary Clinton was coming of age, graduating from college and developing into a political being.  There is no doubt that the feminist ideology and rhetoric of the 1960s shaped Hillary Clinton’s feminist philosophy.  She spent her younger life trying to break through gender barriers at a time where this effort was met with a lot of resistance.  Clinton was at the forefront of the fight for justice.  She wanted to have the same access to opportunity that men did in our country.  Her own actions demonstrated that fact.  Women from this generation identify with this struggle for equality.  For better or for worse, this fight shaped their lives and their identities.  The desire and necessity to remain diligent, drawing constant attention to the assumed inadequacies of gender and debunking them one by one never leaves the forefront of their minds.  Women of this generation are very much tied to the symbolic nature of Hillary Clinton’s candidacy.  It represents an achievement that many feel personally invested in.  A woman, for the first time in United State’s history is in real contention for the highest office in the country, a fact to not only be proud of but to rally behind.  However, the rallying cry that many expected never came.  Women did not flock to Hillary simply because she was a woman, which leaves us with a series of potentially difficult questions.  Is one of the consequences of engaging solely in the fight for justice, placing an assumed value on the principles dictated by masculinity and a dominant patriarchy?  By internalizing masculine traits and trying to “do what men do” are women who prescribe to this brand of feminism simply confirming the merit of masculinity and masculine traits as more desirable than feminine ones?  Is this brand of feminism at the root of why Hillary’s personality rhetorical style and message does not seem to automatically click with younger voters today, and if so, how do these women define feminism and how does it differ with the definition used by previous generations?

Younger voters, like myself, have the luxury of reaping the rewards of the hard fought battles of previous generations.   We by no means live in a world where feminism is no longer a necessary social structure, but significant progress has been made over the years.  Sexism is not as overt as it used to be, although it still very much exists, another thing that this 2016 presidential election has so kindly confirmed for us.  That being said, women today have access to opportunity and are not pigeonholed as the once were into a life of domesticity.   Younger women are removed from the harshness of the fight for equality, which all in all, is a positive thing.  It has allowed younger women to redefine feminism and what it needs to look like in our modern society.  Feminism today is not defined by a females ability to be masculine.  In fact, the concept of gender has become much more fluid.  In a way, women in the past were forced to distance themselves from traditionally “feminine” traits in order to earn the respect of a male dominated society and culture. Feminists today however, are now making the argument that there is value to be found in the woman’s perspective, not when it is tailored to fit into the dominant patriarchy, but simply as it is.  Whether this perspective reveals itself in a “feminine” way is besides the point.  The focus of modern feminism is becoming more and more about society adjusting to women and learning to value the female perspective, not about women tailoring themselves to adapt more masculine values and traits in order to fit society, which is a decidedly separate conception than the fight for expediency or the fight for justice.  It is feminist ideology that sees the female as an equal part and player in this world, who’s opinion should be valued, accounted for and acted upon, not tailored, altered and justified.  Here in lies the disconnect between Hillary Clinton and the women of this new wave of feminism.

As citizens, we hear over and over again in the media about Hillary Clinton’s cold, rigid demeanor.  She is often referred to as calculative, part of the establishment, untrustworthy, a liar.  These are all categorizations that could possibly be linked to her actions, but on a deeper more subconscious level, they can also be linked to her gender and the perceived falsity many voters seem to perceive between the kind, caring and determined woman Hillary Clinton seems to feel she is, and who the public perceives.  Clinton, herself admitted in a piece for Humans of New York that experiences in her life have forced her to become, in a way, emotionally disconnected. She openly cites an incident when she was sitting for the law school admissions test at Harvard where many of the men present began harassing her for being there and stated that it would be her fault if they lost their spot in law school and were sent to Vietnam to die.  Clinton describes this experience at “intense.”  She clearly believes it is one of what we can assume were many instances of her gender playing a very pointed role in her ability to accomplish her goals.  Clinton states, “I know that I can be perceived as aloof or cold or unemotional. But I had to learn as a young woman to control my emotions. And that’s a hard path to walk. Because you need to protect yourself, you need to keep steady, but at the same time you don’t want to seem ‘walled off.’”  The irony is that in order to cope with the hyper masculine, dominant patriarchy of 1960s America, Clinton detached herself from her femininity and in essence, became more masculine.  In order to combat male criticism she joined the ranks, walled off her emotions and became more and more traditionally “masculine” as her societal and political exposure increased, which is reflected most clearly in her rhetorical style.  Clinton channels strength and unemotional view of the issues she champions.  She is based in facts, realistic goals, data and she delivers these facts to the American public in a matter of fact tone that many Americans do not gravitate to.  She rarely shares personal anecdotes or family stories.  If the canons of rhetoric stopped at invention, Hillary Clinton would win the presidential election in a land slide, but she seems to loose a significant portion of her would be voters in the canons of style and delivery, a fact that strongly reflects on her gender, how people perceive her through a gendered lens and also, how she has come to perceive herself through that same lens, simply by way of living in American society.  When people state that Hillary Clinton is a political insider or a member or the establishment, they are referring to more than just her 30 plus years as a political figure.  But there is also an unspoken and largely unthought notion that she also chose to succumb to the patriarchy rather than to stand in stark contrast to it, that she operates inside of it instead of refusing to change who she is in the patriarchal gaze of American society, a notion that I believe is particularly damning to her appeal in the eyes of young feminists, even if it is not entirely a conscious critique.   

Truth be told, Hillary Clinton is a product of her time.  She is a reflection of a more than likely unavoidable part of the evolution of the feminist movement in America and if we were all to be truthful, she as probably been unfairly vilified at times for this fact.  The current wave of the feminist movement is an enormously positive display of progress.  Women are at the cusp of a moment in America that is beginning to allow them to demand a place in society as they are, and not how society tells them to be.  This is an ideology that could be the start of a real and lasting change in American society.  It is something to be proud of, clung to and fought for.  However, the feminists of past generations, Hillary Clinton included are also something to be proud of.  They paved the way, dealt with explicit sexism and a society who blatantly told them they were unwanted, they hardened themselves emotionally, became a man’s version of “tough” and they did they all because they believed that women’s rights were something worth fighting for.  There is a difference between Hillary Clinton’s brand of feminism and my own, but the very fact that this can be a reality in our modern day is worthy of gratitude and indicative of a political climate that maybe, just maybe, could present the conditions for a conceptualization of women as women and not as they should be through the eyes of America’s patriarchal system.  And like her or not, Hillary Clinton and her presence in the political sphere played and continues to play an important role in this burgeoning reality.