The Sunday Times: Wrong kind of feminist, right kind of candidate
Some revolutions happen in an explosion of blood and violence; these are the ones that people remember. Others take place with a stroke of a pen, the pull of a lever, a collective shout of “Aye”; these are the ones that work.
By becoming the presumptive Democratic nominee for president last week, Hillary Clinton once again proved it is the quiet revolutions that matter most. She has gone further than any other American woman before her, and she did it by using rather than abusing the democratic process.
Clinton is writing a new chapter of US history. Whatever happens in the election — and I am absolutely confident she will win against Donald Trump — America has entered a new era of gender equality. The “highest and hardest” glass ceiling — the one with 18m cracks in 2008 — has at last been shattered.
So why are millions of women not taking to the streets to celebrate her victory? The answer is as simple as it is ironic: Clinton is a victim of her own success.
Two days after she clinched California, dashing the last hope of the Bernie Sanders camp before the Democratic convention in July, President Barack Obama endorsed her candidacy with the words: “I don’t think there’s ever been someone so qualified to hold this office.”
If that is the case — and I think it is — it is hardly to be wondered so many voters refuse to see her victory as the result of a David v Goliath campaign for women’s rights. Plucky little Davids are outsiders who destroy the mighty with a single shot.
They do not spend 20 years at the heart of the establishment: eight as first lady, another eight as the senator for New York, and the final four as secretary of state.
David was poor and friendless. Hillary and Bill Clinton have made $230m since leaving the White House. Their not-for-profit organisation, the Clinton Foundation, is a formidable global empire worth nearly $2bn, whose chief activity seems to be holding rather fabulous events where the well-intentioned hang out with the well-connected and the well-heeled.
Whatever else Clinton is today, she certainly is not the underdog fighting the impossible fight against an array of implacable forces.
But Clinton’s newly acquired wealth and insider status is not the main reason why her achievement is failing to resonate as it should. Even more damaging than her CV is the same problem that plagued Margaret Thatcher: her brand of feminism is out of sync with the zeitgeist.
By the time Thatcher achieved power in 1979, she had come to despise the feminist movement as a motley collection of man-hating, communism-loving losers. Her idea of feminism was demonstrating a woman can fight on equal terms against any man in the room. Thatcher had no time for quotas, exemptions, or restitutions.
“I owe nothing to women’s lib,” she once snapped at a journalist, who asked about her debt to feminism. “Some of us were making it long before women’s lib was ever thought of.”
Thatcher had never tried to downplay her feminine side, telling an audience in 1975: “I’ve got a woman’s ability to stick to a job and get on with it when everyone else walks off and leaves it.”
But the lack of solidarity between Thatcher’s conservative politics and the avowedly left-wing causes of the British feminist movement meant neither side ever supported the other’s aims.
Not once during Thatcher’s time as education secretary in Edward Heath’s government did any leading British feminist denounce the raging misogyny of MPs who chanted “ditch the bitch” whenever she entered the Commons.
The divisions between Thatcher and the British feminist movement never healed. There is no reason, at the moment, to suppose that Clinton is heading for a similar kind of exile.
For one thing, she still has the support of most second-wave feminists, from the veteran campaigner Gloria Steinem to the former secretary of state Madeleine Albright. She has the backing of some younger feminists too, most notably the actress Lena Dunham and the pop star Katy Perry. But for the past few months every opinion poll has shown the majority of today’s Millennial generation — which will make up 36% of voters in November — prefer Sanders over her.
In February, when Sanders won 80% of the Millennial vote in the New Hampshire and Iowa democratic primaries, the Clinton campaign realised it had a serious problem on its hands — particularly among young female voters.
We are now in June and Clinton has still not managed to overcome the lack of enthusiasm for her among Millennials. An analysis of 27 states by CNN revealed that she trailed Sanders among women under 30 by an average of 37 percentage points. That was reversed among women over 40.
It is not that Clinton is accused of being an anti-feminist, as Thatcher was, but that she is perceived to be the wrong kind of feminist. She is not the slightest bit interested in the causes electrifying university campuses. She does not support trigger warnings — the idea that students should be shielded from or allowed to excuse themselves from studying difficult social topics. She has no time for such publicity-driven campaigns as “slut walks” or the “Free the Nipple” movement. She has never called for the censorship or “no-platforming” of individuals, feminist, chauvinist or otherwise. Nor does she appear to have any sympathy for those who want public discourse to become a designated “safe space” where personal comfort trumps all other rights.
In terms of American feminism, Clinton belongs to an honourable tradition of campaigning first ladies that stretches from Eleanor Roosevelt in the 1940s to Florence Harding in the 1920s and to Abigail Adams, wife of the second US president, John Adams. Shortly after the Declaration of Independence in 1776, Abigail urged her husband to uphold the ideals of the new republic: “Remember the ladies,” she wrote. “Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember all men would be tyrants if they could.”
Clinton’s feminism has always been rooted in her background as a lawyer. After becoming first lady she ensured Abigail’s admonition to John echoed not just through Washington but around the world.
One of her greatest achievements was the repositioning of women’s rights from a fringe concern to a front-and-centre issue. At the UN Fourth World Congress on Women in Beijing in 1995 — in defiance of State Department concerns and pressure from the Chinese government — she gave a speech that included the line: “Human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights, once and for all.” The line has since become the defining global message for gender equality.
Clinton has since turned this into a challenge for herself and those around her. The issues she worked on were hardly glamorous or eye-catching, such as the right for women to buy emergency contraception over the counter, or the development of a mobile justice unit in the Democratic Republic of Congo to help women who have been the victims of sexual violence. But they mattered deeply to those with no voice or representative to fight for them.
In 2014 Clinton gave an updated rendition of her “human rights” speech to the UN, this time asserting that “when women succeed, the world succeeds”. As she has said in countless speeches over the past five years: “Give women equal rights and entire nations are more stable and secure. Deny women equal rights and the instability of nations is almost certain.”
No other statesman in the world has a record on women’s issues that matches hers for longevity and dedication. Unlike Thatcher, when Hillary Clinton becomes president we can expect an administration that will not shy away from singling out gender equality as a primary focus.
It has been 144 years since the suffragist Victoria Woodhull ran a quixotic campaign for president — and was arrested for her efforts. It has been 96 years since women won the vote in America; and it has been a week since the first woman showed that sex will never again be a barrier to leading a major party all the way to the White House.