Hillary Clinton: The Candidate for Women?
IF HILLARY Clinton should thank anyone for her victory in the New Hampshire primary, after her trouncing in Iowa, it's women voters.
Some 57 percent of the record primary turnout were women, and 47 percent of them cast their ballots for Clinton, more than reversing her narrow loss of women's support to Barack Obama in Iowa five days before.
Analyses of the voting and exit polls show that Clinton is winning support especially among older women--like Ruth Smith, an 87-year-old who drove 160 miles to Des Moines from Buffalo Center, Iowa, to go to Clinton's first rally in Iowa.
“I told her that my grandmother was the first person in town to vote, and my mother was the second,” Smith told the New York Times. “And I told her I was born before women could vote, and I want to live long enough to see a woman in the White House.”
In speeches, Clinton invokes her candidacy as great step for women, as she confronts “the highest and hardest glass ceiling” in America.
This image of Clinton as the “candidate for women” has become more prominent in her campaign in the last week--an example being a prominent opinion article in the New York Times by feminist writer Gloria Steinem.
On the day of the New Hampshire primary, Steinem advocated a vote for Clinton because “[t]his country can no longer afford to choose our leaders from a talent pool limited by sex, race, money, powerful fathers and paper degrees. It's time to take equal pride in breaking all the barriers. We have to be able to say: 'I'm supporting her because she'll be a great president and because she's a woman.'”
Clinton also has the backing of the establishment liberal women's organization, the National Organization for Women, whose political action committee launched a “Make History with Hillary” campaign in March 2007.
But the question remains: Will a Hillary Clinton presidency really stand up for women and the issues that effect their lives?
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IF THERE was any question that sexism still permeates U.S. society, the treatment of Clinton and her campaign for president certainly shows the answer. Sexism does exist.
Take the South Carolina campaign event for John McCain, where a woman asked McCain, “How do we beat the bitch?” to wild laughter. Or the Clinton campaign stop in Salem, N.H., where hecklers yelled, “Iron my shirt!” at her. Or the conservative Web sites that feature the sexist, anti-Clinton T-shirt “Life's a bitch, so don't vote for one.”
Then there's the patronizing tone adopted toward Clinton by the media establishment after her defeat in Iowa--symbolized by nonstop replay of video from the moment in New Hampshire when her eyes filled with tears in response to a question about the difficulties of her campaign.
Clinton's main opponents didn't speak up against any of this. Obama made no comment on the media's ridiculous double standards in judging Clinton's “likeability”--and Edwards chose the moment after Clinton's supposed “breakdown” to emphasize that he thought a commander-in-chief needed to be strong.
All this underlines the fact that few men face the same type of scrutiny regularly paid to Clinton--about her clothing, her makeup, her weight, whether she cries or not, whether she prefers diamonds or pearls, whether she is soft and tough.
No matter how few expectations there may be that Clinton will be a force for real change, there is no denying that it is a social sea change to see a woman as a presidential frontrunner. And while the Clinton campaign denies that it's trying to make gender an issue in the campaign, it has. As Clinton recently joked, “If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. And I'm very much at home in the kitchen.”
At the same time, it should be said that Clinton and her supporters have also used issues of oppression in a backward way. Steinem's op-ed article, for example, plays at ranking forms of discrimination--Clinton's gender versus Obama's race, with women trumping African Americans in Steinem's eyes.
“[T]he Iowa primary was following our historical pattern of making change,” Steinem argued. “Black men were given the vote a half-century before women of any race were allowed to mark a ballot, and generally have ascended to positions of power, from the military to the boardroom, before any women (with the possible exception of obedient family members in the latter).”
If the candidate, Steinem continued, “had been just as charismatic but named, say, Achola Obama instead of Barack Obama, her goose would have been cooked long ago.”
This is a cynical attempt to play on divisions in society, to the benefit of her preferred candidate--and the Clinton campaign itself has been implicated. In mid-December, the chair of Clinton's New Hampshire campaign, Bill Shaheen, publicly speculated about whether Obama had ever been a drug dealer.
Clinton herself didn't help matters last week when she suggested that Martin Luther Kings Jr.--like Obama, in her implied analogy--was mere bluff and bluster, and it took a Southern Dixiecrat to finish the job that the civil rights movement started.
“I would point to the fact,” she said in an interview with Fox News, “that Dr. King's dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964--when he was able to get through Congress something that President Kennedy was hopeful to do...[I]t took a president to get it done.”
Not only does Clinton relegate King's historic role to that of a “dreamer,” but she also belittles the role of thousands of Blacks whose sit-ins and other organizing forced the government to do something about Jim Crow segregation. Clinton would rather identify herself with Johnson, a Southern politician who was unrelentingly hostile to the civil rights movement as he came to power.
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IN CONTRAST to the cynical maneuverings of Clinton supporters like Steinem, however, many women who support Hillary Clinton do so in the hopes that issues which affect their day-to-day lives will actually be addressed. But what is Clinton's actual stance on these issues?
Her campaign is hardly frontloading the issues ordinarily associated with improving conditions for women, such as reproductive rights. The word “abortion” does not actually appear in her “A Champion of Women” page in the “Issues” section of her Web site.
So while Clinton supports women's right to choose, she is not going to make it a prominent part of her platform--because this might alienate conservative voters.
Clinton is notorious in arguing for the need to find “common ground” with the right wing on the question of women's reproductive rights. In 2006, she joined forces with anti-choice Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to promote the “Prevention First Act.” While the measure included some good provisions that make contraception easier for women to obtain, by and large, the focus of the bill was downplaying the importance of women's access to abortion.
Clinton's stance is that abortion is a “sad, even tragic choice”--as she told an audience of New York state abortion providers in 2005--for women, not a fundamental right that only the woman should have a say in deciding. “Yes, we do have deeply held differences of opinion about the issue of abortion,” she said. “I, for one, respect those who believe with all their hearts and conscience that there are no circumstances under which any abortion should ever be available.”
If women are going to put their hopes in a new Clinton White House to defend the dwindling right to choose, they might want to look at the last time a Clinton occupied the Oval Office.
Hillary Clinton certainly wants you to. At the 2004 pro-choice “March for Women's Lives” in Washington, Clinton touted the record of her husband's administration. “We didn't have to march for 12 long years,” she bragged, “because we had a government that respected the rights of women.”
The truth of the matter, though, is that more restrictions on abortion rights were put into effect during Clinton's eight years than the 12 years of Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr.
Clinton emphasizes the idea of furthering women's advances into positions of power--more women holding government office and sitting on the boards of corporations. Meanwhile, the issues that affect working-class and poor women are left in the dust.
From 1986 to 1992, Clinton sat on the board of directors of Wal-Mart--she was the first women to do so. During all that time, however, Clinton never lifted a finger to defend the rights of women workers at Wal-Mart, a viciously anti-union company with a history of discriminating against its female employees.
Hillary Clinton supported her husband's Welfare Reform Act of 1996, which “ended welfare as we know it,” effectively destroying the social safety net and throwing millions of poor people to fend for themselves. In 2002, she joined Republicans like Orrin Hatch to support a bill that increased already punitive work requirements imposed on welfare recipients.
Clinton makes a priority of “fiscal responsibility.” She said in a December debate, “We don't have to go back very far in our history, in fact just to the 1990s, to see what happens when we do have a fiscally responsible budget that does use rules of discipline to make sure that we're not cutting taxes or spending more than we can afford. I will institute those very same approaches.”
Translation: deep cuts in social spending in the name of a responsible, balanced budget policy--and workers and the poor will pay the price for a bloated military budget.
One face that's been seen flanking Clinton on the campaign trail is Madeleine Albright--one of those women Clinton talks so much about, who carved out a place for herself among the seats of power.
During her tenure as secretary of state, Albright oversaw some of the bloodiest military campaigns of the Clinton-Gore administration, including sanctions and air strikes against Iraq.
The support of this “great woman leader” tells you a lot about what will be in store for the people of Iraq--women and men alike--if Hillary Clinton makes it into the White House. Clinton is an unapologetic hawk who voted to give Bush the go-ahead for war on Iraq, and then later Iran.
Having Hillary Clinton in the White House won't be better for women--or anyone who is concerned with these issues. She, like the other leaders of the Democratic Party, is committed to preserving the status quo.
The key to winning real change isn't relying on politicians like Hillary Clinton, but organizing at the grassroots to give concrete expressions to the hopes that so many people have for change in Washington.