Show Hide image

What does Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign tell us about gender equality today?

If inequality is about disparities in wealth and income, what is gender equality about?

Writing in the Guardian last week, Dan Roberts and Lauren Gambino argued that Bernie Sanders’ “decisive win” over Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire raises questions about Clinton’s appeal among younger voters and women. For me, Sanders’ win raises even more fundamental questions about how young women experience and perceive the relationship between gender and inequality.  His popularity implies that younger voters, including women, see economic inequality as more important than gender inequality. If that’s the case, what is gender equality about? And what do young women think it is about?

While mulling over these questions, I had the opportunity to hear an icon of French feminist theory – Christine Delphy – speak at LSE’s Gender Institute. Active since the 1970s, Delphy was a founding member of the French women’s liberation movement. With Simone de Beauvoir, she co-founded the still active journal Nouvelles questions féministe and her key message that evening was what it has been since the 1970s: that the primary enemy of women – what keeps us unequal to men -- is the system of gender itself.

For Delphy, gender is a patriarchal system that, in subordinating women to men actually creates the unequal social categories of "men" and "women". It is a hard thing to get your head around.  Despite de Beauvoir’s infamous insight that "one is not born but rather becomes a woman", most of us take our existence as men or women for granted. 

But the French materialist feminists – with Delphy at the forefront – introduced the notion of gender by defining men and women as “classes” of people whose individual existences are constituted through their economic relation within the family. 

The French word “femme” means both “woman” and “wife”.  “Homme” means man.  Men have a different word, “le mari,” for “husband.”  Men have an identity outside of the family; women do not.  Women’s economic exploitation within the family is structurally and thus completely embedded in women's identities. 

Feminists in the 1960s and 1970s were well aware that the social construction of gender produces women’s oppression.  But these ideas are nowhere in the news today. 

Instead, The New York Times this weekend reports that Hillary Clinton, with the help of Madeleine Albright and Gloria Steinem, have “killed feminism” because they failed to realise that the young women supporting Sanders “are living the feminist dream, where gender no longer restricts and defines your choices, where girls grow up knowing they can be anything they want.”

I don’t think so. Watch Hillary Clinton. 

Hear the man argue.

See the woman. Hear the man. 

See the woman smile. 

The requirement that “we smile and be cheerful” is, Marilyn French reminds, a ubiquitous features of the world as experienced by oppressed people:

We acquiesce in being made invisible, in our occupying no space. We participate in our own erasure. On the other hand, anything but the sunniest countenance exposes us to being perceived as mean, bitter, angry or dangerous. This means, at the least, that we may be found “difficult” or unpleasant to work with, which is enough to cost one one’s livelihood; at worst, being seen as mean, bitter, angry or dangerous has been known to result in rape, arrest, beating, and murder.”

In The Aftermath of Feminism (2009), Goldsmith’s Angela McRobbie notes that, since the 1970s and primarily in the West, a new sexual contract – what Jean-Luc Nancy calls “the pretence of equality” -- has been offered to young women.  In exchange for what a “reinvented feminist politics might have offered,” young women are offered “work-life balance” and "a notional form of equality, concretised in education and employment, and through participation in consumer culture and civil society.”

 “Making oneself a woman” today thus requires, in the words of Canadian sociologist Jennifer Carlson, that young women "engage in both masculine- and feminine-marked realms.” Contemporary femininity is defined, therefore, not as a feminist space of resistance or as modeling a range of alternatives but in terms of "having it all".

We see this new sexual contract “concretised” in young women’s reactions to Hillary Clinton. Their belief that “they can be anything they want” requires them to act as though “gender no longer restricts.”  That Hillary Clinton has the same chance as Bernie Sanders. That feminism is a thing of the past.

Over the last four years, through my work at the Rhodes Project, I’ve spoken with dozens of women who, like Hillary Clinton, and despite their economic privilege, have been affected by a system of gender that they expected would no longer matter.  These women can still be classified as a “group” defined by their relation to men.     

During a single week of interviews in New York and Toronto in 2012, for example, three of the seven women I spoke with broke down as they told me about their lives. 

A young investment banker wept as she admitted that she and her husband were beginning marriage counseling the next morning because he felt “emasculated” by the fact that she made more than twelve times as much money as he did. 

A young lawyer was distraught by her sense that, despite having been made partner, two maternity leaves had made it impossible for her to contribute to her firm in the way that she wished.   

A young physician with a small child lamented the lack of opportunity for professional development, now that she found it impossible to travel to conferences. She noted that this was not a problem for any of her male colleagues with children.

Maureen Dowd, in The New York Times, claims that young women have rejected Hillary Clinton because they don’t relate to her.

I’d suggest the opposite.  They reject Hillary Clinton because they think they are just like her but that she was born too soon.  They think that what’s happening to her will not happen to them.  They think they will be like Bill Clinton, not Hillary.  They think they will be president one day.

Like Bill Clinton, the women interviewed by the Rhodes Project are Rhodes Scholars. The “best and the brightest,” they are members of an elite network that no doubt has access to the corridors of power.  But what are they able to do when they get into those corridors?

While some women achieve high leadership positions, they do so by following traditional “male” pattern careers:  they outsource domestic work and childcare.  Most women Rhodes Scholars are more moderate achievers:  to have the long-term relationships and families that their partners (many of whom are also Rhodes Scholars) take for granted, they pull back on their own career expectations. (Blackmon and Rudy, 2014.)

During the discussion period at the LSE event, Delphy was asked for her views on Gloria Steinem’s claim that young women were supporting Sanders over Clinton “because of the boys.”  Delphy admitted that although she hadn’t heard about this, she wasn’t surprised.  We have a “very, very long road” had ahead of us, she said, because the structures that oppress us also shape our desires.

Delphy’s appearance at the LSE last week included the screening of a 2015 film made with and about her life as a feminist entitled Je suis ne pas féministe, mais.” The film opens with the following conversation between Delphy and the filmmaker, sociologist Sylvie Tissot:

Tissot:  Do you think being a feminist makes you happier?

Delphy:  I'd have to have a non-feminist life to compare it to. […] I never thought it'd change my life.  It gave my life meaning but didn't make me happy.  I don't exactly know what being happy means.  It's more a feeling of impatience. If you consider the work still needed and what is still accepted. [...] Being angry is not very pleasant.

Tissot:  If you can express it, it can be!

Delphy: I think we need to be angry and women aren't angry enough.


The very assumption that “woman” means “wife” will have to be rejected before we see any radical change in society.  And in the case of “Mrs Clinton” that meaning, far from being rejected, is front and centre.

Susan Rudy is Executive Director of the Rhodes Project, a London-based charity and research centre that collects data about women who have held Rhodes Scholarships. She is also a Visiting Scholar at Said Business School, University of Oxford.  

Show Hide image

The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.