“There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women”. When veteran Democrat Madeleine Albright repeated her longstanding mantra at a Hillary Clinton rally earlier this month, it drew accusations of condescension, and not only from women themselves. In an election where one of the candidates may well end up being Donald Trump, some observers have apparently managed to find these the most offensive comments of the campaign so far.
Albright’s words made more sense in their original setting: the many talks she has given over the years on the importance of women supporting each other in the workplace, where the other option is to help only yourself. They were not ideally suited to a contest between two candidates standing as progressives, both with women among their enthusiastic fanbases. But even before Albright spoke, women backing Clinton’s rival Bernie Sanders were loudly insisting on the irrelevance of gender in their voting decisions – with actress Susan Sarandon declaring “I don’t vote with my vagina”.
It’s an individual’s prerogative to decide what is and isn’t relevant to them among a candidate’s various attributes. But the suggestion that feminist interests may be served by choosing a woman over a man is not in itself irrational or stupid; that it isn’t mandatory doesn’t make it wrong. It’s also wearying to see claims of condescension themselves be couched in terms that reduce women who disagree to their reproductive organs, when both cases can in fact be made the conventional way, using only our brains.
Clinton is, of course, not just any woman, and especially not for many feminists of a certain vintage. If the history of women’s equality had ever become a core subject in academia, there would barely be a politics student who could not quote from her 1995 speech to the UN Conference on Women: “Human rights are women’s rights. And women’s rights are human rights – once and for all.” While a feminist critique of Clinton’s subsequent record is more than possible, it’s hardly surprising that many will be supporting her on this basis, hoping for an even better sequel.
But aside from her record on women’s rights, the symbolism also matters: electing the first female POTUS is, by definition, a radical thing to do. This does not mean it’s the overriding consideration, or that women who believe this would be an important moment haven’t thought beyond it. Opponents of positive action, in any sphere, like to give the impression that it will lead to women being hauled off the street and forced to become CEOs, rather than used as a helpful distinguishing factor between equally qualified candidates. It still seems remarkably easy, even in progressive circles, to believe that women are fundamentally dim and shallow, and that feminism is concerned with little more than jobs-for-the-girls special pleading.
In this field, however, Clinton is easily the most experienced on either side of the political fence by dint of her turn as a secretary of state. There can be no credible suggestion that her gender is being privileged above her capabilities – which is refreshing.
Wider political outlook is another matter. While some analyses suggest that differences between Clinton and Sanders are exaggerated, there is enough to base a preference on. And some may root their choice less in policy substance than the image: the designation of Clinton as “the establishment candidate” may be hackneyed, but it’s hardly unjustified – except in relation to her gender – and equally, Sanders may seem like just too much of an electoral risk for many.
But if none of the above applies to a particular voter, and that voter also cares about the political under-representation of women, then why shouldn’t the potential of one candidate to disrupt a centuries-old power imbalance, simply by belonging to that under-represented group, put her over the top? Was this idea denounced when the historic election of the first black president was so widely celebrated eight years ago?
Perhaps what’s at the heart of this discomfort is simply denial of the ways in which women’s rights remain a live issue in American politics. This should be especially noticeable to British eyes in the extraordinary focus on abortion during the primary debates themselves, where Republican candidates actually vied with each other to be the most anti-abortion candidate. Meanwhile, nearly 30 states have “trigger laws” that will have the effect of instantly criminalising all or some abortion if the Supreme Court overturns its 1973 ruling that a ban would be unconstitutional. The recent death of conservative justice Antonin Scalia has significantly raised the stakes on this issue; a liberal replacement could secure a woman’s right to choose for a generation.
Bernie Sanders may have a solid pro-choice voting record, but is it really so unreasonable that, men having made these decisions over what happens in a woman’s body throughout living memory, some might want to see a woman be the one to lead that fightback?
With a week to go until Super Tuesday, these questions may be about to become moot anyway. Her existing lead among superdelegates means that Clinton has the potential to put enough distance between herself and Sanders to make the rest a formality, if she wins big enough. I don’t have a vote in this process, and don’t have to pick a candidate to put my faith in other than as an intellectual exercise. As long as a Democrat wins, and the frankly terrifying assortment of Republican hopefuls is kept out of the White House, that’s a good result for me. Nevertheless, if Hillary Clinton is effectively the nominee in just a few days’ time, I will be celebrating – and yes, I mean because I’m a woman, and because I’m a feminist.