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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.  

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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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