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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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How conspiracy theories about the Salisbury attack tap into antisemitic tropes

Rather than blame Russia for the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, some are questioning the intentions of Labour MPs. 

Shortly after the poisoning of former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, guests on the BBC’s Newsnight programme discussed the reaction of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. The Twitterati went into meltdown. Was the image of the Labour leader amid a Kremlin skyline part of a mainstream media plot to depict Jeremy as a “Soviet stooge”? Was the hat he was wearing “doctored” to look more Russian?

Much of the conspiracy material circulating online recently – and indeed the story on Newsnight about Corbyn – flowed from the shocking attack that has left Skripal and his daughter in hospital and affected many others. The government, and now EU leaders, have blamed Russia for the attack. Yet among some sections of the online left, there seemed a reluctance to point fingers. But if Russia didn’t do it, how could the matter be explained to fit a pre-existing worldview? Jews such as myself wondered how long it would be before the finger pointed at us. It wasn’t even a week before political space had been created which emboldened some to pursue the notion that not Russia but gangsters, Britain’s own research lab or yes, Israel were more reasonably the brains behind the poisoning.

One of the voices that gained traction in relation to the spy attack story belongs to former British diplomat Craig Murray, who took exception to the speed with which Russia was declared responsible. Picking up on the government line that the toxin was “of a type developed by Russia” he penned a blog entitled: “Of a type developed by liars” building on his previous piece “Russian to judgement” which contained numerous allegations, including that “Israel has a clear motivation for damaging the Russian reputation so grievously”. Murray’s work was picked up by left-wing news outlet The Canary and Evolve Politics, among others. The latter also quoted Annie Machon, a former MI5 agent who has previously supported 9/11 conspiracy theories.

Murray’s view soon entered the mainstream, with the Guardian referencing it and one Labour MP sharing a Murray tweet declaring: “Wow, if this is true Theresa May has some very serious questions to answer”. The spotlight on Murray’s theories was a worrying development given that not long before, Murray, had been speculating about another matter.

After the Labour MP John Woodcock introduced to Parliament an Early Day Motion that unequivocally accepts the Russian state’s culpability for the poisoning, Murray tweeted: “Remarkable correlation between Labour MPs who attacked Corbyn in EDM wanting no investigation into Salisbury before firmly attributing blame, and parliamentary Labour friends of Israel, I wonder why?” One can read into this statement what one wants, but to me it seemed to imply that rushing to judgement on Moscow might benefit MPs supportive of Israel, which in conspiracy world are in its pay. Certainly that’s what a number of online hounds sniffed. But rather than one type of conspiracy, Murray was apparently pointing to another. “A conspiracy to attack the leadership of Jeremy Cobyn, perhaps. If you think I was accusing them of being part of a conspiracy to kill Skripal, you are daft,” he tweeted. In short, he seems to be saying, whilst there was not a conspiracy of MPs to be a part of any plot to kill the double agent, the EDM “perhaps” represented a conspiracy to attack the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. 

Others were bolder. One Labour activist, writing about the aforementioned EDM, declared it was “worth noting one of the people sponsoring this motion is a named CIA asset”. Though unspecified, the asset referred to was believed by some to be Ruth Smeeth MP. This seemingly centres on Smeeth being named in a single diplomatic cable from 2009, released by Wikileaks, in reference to her views, when a parliamentary candidate, about an early election being called by Gordon Brown. 

Entirely unrelated to these particular tweets or Murray’s writing, Smeeth also happens to be an MP who has spoken out about antisemitism, and was forced to accept police protection following antisemitic abuse she has received online. She and another MP, John Mann, have both received antisemitic death threats. I stood next to Mann at Labour party conference as a delegate berated him, calling him a CIA agent for taking on this “antisemitism nonsense”. For me, this interaction underlined the causality between some conspiracy theories and antisemitic activity (Mann is not Jewish, but has been a prominent opponent of antisemitism in the party). 

Though it is difficult to reduce to a simple guide, allegations of Israeli conduct that draw on classic antisemitic tropes should be avoided. In recent years this has included suggestions of “organ harvesting” which draw on the antisemitic blood libel, or those that speculate about political control, such as suggestions that “the Israeli tail wags the US dog.”

Certainly, the centrality of Israel to conspiracy theory has a long history. In Mein Kampf, Hitler alleged: “All they want is a central organisation for their international world swindler, endowed with its own sovereign rights and removed from the intervention of other states.” Of course, this type of global antisemitic conspiracy theory predates Hitler. The antisemitic hoax, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, is decades older. Russian in origin, it purported to reveal a meeting of Jews seeking to manipulate governments, foment war and subvert the morals of society. Today, we see a similar sentiment. Indeed, Russian president Vladimir Putin suggested that Jews, or other ethnic minorities, might be behind electoral interference in America. A US lawmaker recently blamed a Jewish elite for controlling the weather and closer to home, one of the Twitter accounts that popularised the Corbyn hat conspiracy, has also shared antisemitic conspiracy theories.

With conspiracy theories transposing from the far right to the extreme left online, it is unsurprising that before long Rothschild conspiracy (secret Jewish plot) memes were posted on Labour party supporter and other forums in relation to the Salisbury poisoning. Indeed, antisemitism itself tends to attract the acrid smell of conspiracy theory. When such an act is alleged, cries of “smears” and “witch hunt” follow. Only recently, The Times reported on an MIT study which revealed that a false-news tweet is 70 per cent more likely to be retweeted than a true story. Maybe this is why allegations of Mossad collaboration with Nazis or Hitler’s support for Zionism have been so widespread.

People cannot necessarily be held responsible for falling for conspiracy theories. Trust in government is at an all-time low. Spin, scandal and economic sorrow have left people looking for alternative heroes and whomever is deemed most reliable on social media timelines will do. Conspiracy theories play into prejudices. They empower and embolden people to feel a step ahead, they provide a scapegoat and a self-satisfying rebuttal loop. Those that do know better meanwhile are perhaps worried to tackle others for fear of attack, hope for better times ahead or most worryingly, see populist conspiracy as a Trumpian route to power.

Last week, we helped organise the first ever one man show in parliament: Marlon Solomon, who will return to Edinburgh with his show “Conspiracy Theory: A Lizard’s Tale” this year. As he reminded us this week, it wasn’t so long ago that a Labour MP was stabbed to death by someone with a warped view of reality. Obsessive and distorted hatred of Israel and Jews has an effect. Conspiracy theories matter. They have real-life consequences for people. It is incumbent upon leaders across the political spectrum not to normalise or sanitise conspiracy theories, or conspiratorial antisemitism, nor to allow us to think we can “trust no one”. But then, as the conspiracists will tell you, I would say that, wouldn’t I?

Danny Stone MBE is the director of the Antisemitism Policy Trust.