“To all the little girls watching. . . never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world.”
Watching Hillary Clinton say this in her concession speech felt like being punched repeatedly in the stomach. It was the composure and dignity with which this intelligent, eminently qualified woman delivered these words, having lost an election to an ignorant buffoon with no credentials to speak of, that made watching it such an emotional experience. The waste of potential was starkly apparent. I felt with acute horror an alternative bright future dissolve before my eyes. Though not perfect — what politician is? — it was horribly clear that she would have made a damn fine president.
Instead, less than a week after the results, a new future has cracked open before our eyes. And that future speaks of the erosion of women’s hard-won rights to control their own bodies. Donald Trump, who is pro-life and has already said that women who choose abortion should face punishment, had already suggested that he would appoint a pro-life supreme court justice who might remove the right to abortion that is upheld by Roe v Wade. Furthermore, Steve Bannon, former executive chairman of Breitbart news, has been appointed Trump’s chief strategist. This is a man who once oversaw the publication of an article entitled, “Would you rather your child had feminism or cancer?”
In the days since Trump became president-elect, I have spoken to women on both sides of the Atlantic who have described their reactions to the election’s outcome as intensely physical. How can they not, when so much of this election has been about women’s bodies? From the space they are entitled (or not) to take up – such as the Oval Office – to the men attempting to legislate them, women’s bodies, their bleeding, tempting, gropeable, unsuitable-for-high-office bodies, have been central to this campaign. Not least because a powerful billionaire has boasted of his unfettered access to them, been repeatedly accused of sexual assault and yet still, mind-bogglingly, was preferable as a candidate for the highest office than a woman who used a private email server. Think about that next time someone tells you that a rape accusation ruins a man’s career.
There’s a line in the Handmaid’s Tale that sums it up:
“Maybe none of this is about control. Maybe it really isn’t about who can own whom, who can do what to whom and get away with it, even as far as death. Maybe it isn’t about who can sit and who has to kneel or stand or lie down, legs spread open. Maybe it’s about who can do what to whom and be forgiven for it.”
There has been much feminist commentary about this election, but this point about women’s bodies warrants restating. Just as racial minorities in America might respond viscerally to the racism of the Trump campaign and the explicit, articulated desires of their fellow-citizens to physically remove their bodies from what they consider to be “their” country, many women will understandably feel a corporeal revulsion at the prospect of their own rights being similarly stripped away. This, after the widely-publicised sexual assault allegations which for many threw up memories of their own assaults, of their own bodies being violated by men who believed themselves immune from any reprisal.
Of course the reaction is physical, just as the contempt for women displayed by misogynists is so inextricably intertwined with the reality of our bodies. If you were sick after the results of the election, if you cried, had trouble breathing, or your heart almost beat out of your chest, then it is understandable. Why wouldn’t your body react to what to many of us feels like a denial of our humanity?
Yet not all women will have reacted this way to Trump’s victory. We have heard much about the white women who voted for Trump (the majority of white women who opted for Hillary were those with a college education). That women can be sexist too will come as no surprise to feminists. The depth of contempt that some men have for women hurts, inevitably, but the depth of contempt that some women have their own kind is agony.
There are some who will tell you that this is not about gender. The left-wing sexist jerks are at it already. It wasn’t that America wasn’t ready for a woman in the White House, they will say, it was that this woman was the wrong candidate. She was too establishment (how ironic that you should spend years working your ass off for respect and recognition, only to have that used against you), too corrupt, too robotic. . . the list goes on. Bernie would have done it, they insist, as though America would have welcomed a Jewish socialist from Vermont with open arms. Do not buy their bullshit.
This is about gender, just as it is about race, just as it is about the frustrations of the white middle American working class, reality television, neoliberalism, and a hundred other considerations besides. Zooming in on one issue does not preclude another. But, as Trump becomes politically normalised and his “desperate” supporters are patiently listened to, we risk losing sight of the gender aspect.
The fact is, many Americans — male and female — did not want a woman president. Let’s not forget how patriarchal fundamental Christianity is, how evangelical much of the country is. Followers of these religions — whether male or female — believe that women should be wives and mothers, they should defer to men, their bodies are for bearing children, whether they want to carry to term or not. “They’re as unlikely to elect a female president as any Middle Eastern country is,” a friend said, last night. She was right. Hillary was, to many of them, a devil bitch. How could we have forgotten, even for a moment, the Religion Thing? How foolish we were to hope.
Just as heartbreaking is the knowledge that the men in my life, though I love them deeply, will never really understand the pain of this. How could they? They have lived their lives from childhood surrounded by photographs of prime ministers, presidents and other authority figures who look exactly like them. How can they understand the hope that the day that someone who looks like you might take the lead might be coming very soon? I want the men in my life to understand that this feels personal.
Many people have been worrying what messages this election sends to little girls. That even if you work really, really hard at something, your abuser will still end up winning. That sticking your head above the parapet and attempting to claim power means facing more vitriol, more abuse, more threatening language, than your male opponent could ever imagine. That the patriarchy kicks back with ferocity if you try to undermine it. That most women would have given up, and that Hillary didn’t, and she still lost.
These are not the messages any of us want little girls to hear. I’d much rather they listened to Hillary’s instead. But I’m not sure most people share her optimism, and that’s what really hurts.