Tokens of Equality: Why Hillary Clinton Won’t Beat Sexism At The Ballot-Box
On November 8, the United States of America is likely to elect Hillary Clinton as President. This will put a woman at the head of their political table for the first time in history.
For those of us following the US election – something akin to watching a car crash in slow motion where Donald Trump is concerned – people are asking the question: What impact will Clinton’s election have for women?
I am wary of the way this question conflates American women with All Women Everywhere, but in doing so it reveals how deeply gender inequality still runs in the political systems of both our countries. The reverse question, “What impact will Trump’s election have for men?” seems ridiculous. We don’t expect the election of one man to reflect the interests of Men.
This is the dynamic of underrepresentation. A marginalised group is forced to identify with an individual, regardless of their differences in lived experiences, political priorities and values, all because of one underrepresented identifier that binds them. American women, many of whom will oppose or feel unrepresented by Clinton’s policies, are automatically lumped together in the equation of ‘woman’ + ‘politics’ = ‘equality’.
The truth is, as Australians this shouldn’t be the first time we find ourselves asking questions about the relationship between the visibility of women in politics and gender equality. *Cough* Julia Gillard (recap: Prime Minister of Australia from 2010-2013).
It’s near impossible to quantify the positive impact Gillard’s presence had, or is still having, on women in Australia, let alone to speak for American women or All Women Everywhere. Materially though, there is no evidence to suggest a correlation between Gillard’s time in office with improvements for women in rates of sexual harassment, domestic violence, workplace discrimination or the pay-gap. Yep, even a woman Prime Minister couldn’t wave the magic sexism-elimination wand.
Imagining that electing a minority member will be enough to vanquish the structures of oppression that limit that minority, is naïve at best and dangerous at worst.
In 2012, towards the end of Barack Obama’s first full-term in office, the Black Lives Matter movement began gaining momentum. It was borne out of a response to the ongoing and systemic crisis of police brutality faced by people of colour – in particular black people – in the US. Since the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin that year, there have been more than twelve high-profile instances of black people killed at the hands of police, in situations where they were either unarmed or already in police custody. The fact that Obama was President during this time, did not halt the deeply entrenched nature of white supremacy, racial discrimination and material disadvantage faced by people of colour in the US. How could it? To expect Obama’s presence in the White House to do that work, alone, is delusional.
I don’t discount the symbolic power of Obama’s leadership for black Americans. The political success of someone from a marginalised group can shift a nation’s understanding of itself and expand the realm of possibilities for those minorities in question, at least in theory. But it does not do the work of dismantling the structures that continue to oppress them.
As a society, I think that we often mistake visibility for genuine representation, and we mistake representation for genuine equality. In 2013, when only one woman made it into Tony Abbott’s cabinet, we were assured by the Liberal Party that they were still capable of representing the voice of women; as if one (white) voice could possibly carry the diversity of half our country’s population.
This is why I am hesitant to overstretch the significance of Clinton’s impact by virtue of her election. Her treatment once in office, will be an important litmus test for where America actually is when it comes to supporting the place of women in politics and public space. If Gillard’s example is anything to go by, Clinton will not evade the incessant sexist analysis of everything from her voice, to her soft-skills and yes, even in 2016, her appearance. (Apparently we have a long way to go before we can conceive of a woman’s physical appearance having absolutely no relevance to her contribution to public life).
Many Australians begrudged Gillard for playing a ‘gender card’ when she (in)famously called out the hostile environment of misogyny that was only intensifying during her time in office. Kristina Keneally points out,
“Weirdly, though, Clinton might be less likely to face Gillard’s fate, because of Donald Trump. Trump’s public comments, tweets and recorded private conversations are so egregiously disrespecting of women that almost no one can overlook them. […] Clinton will inherit an electorate incredibly alive to sexism. She will also have Republican opponents who will find it politically necessary between now and the congressional mid-terms to convince voters, women and men alike, that they aren’t all misogynistic thugs.”
Malcolm Gladwell sees it differently. He suggests that, not only might it be ineffective, but the election of a female President may end up being counterproductive to tackling sexism, if Americans let it. Electing Clinton may unknowingly give rise to what Gladwell calls “The Token” phenomenon; whereby the success of the ‘token’ outsider perpetuates discrimination rather than alleviating it. In such a scenario, there is a risk of emboldening American sexists and misogynists because they can now claim that their society couldn’t possibly be sexist or misogynistic if a woman is President. This moral guise can deceive the rest of us too, if we let it.
Despite my scepticism about Clinton being a champion for All Women Everywhere this US election, there are definitely some positives:
- Women are registering to vote in unprecedented numbers, which means they will have the power to alter the election outcome significantly. This is likely in part a response to the misogynistic nightmare that is Trump, but nevertheless, the by-product of this is a rise in women’s engagement with US politics more broadly.
- The concept of a woman being US President will no longer be relegated to the realm of science-fiction. A woman in the top-job won’t just have to signify we are in the year 2070. The future is now! Grab your lightsabers!
- In the future, when young American women say they want to be the President when they grow up, (hopefully) the amused cooing of adults edges from glazey-eyed amusement into shared imaginings of that child’s potential to actively participate in the world around her.
Just like I don’t underestimate the symbolic power of Obama being in office, nor do I for that of a woman being US President. But I am also aware that there is a long way to go before we can begin analysing a US Presidential candidate based on their politics rather than their identity as a person of colour or their non-male gender.
Clinton will never have the luxury of being judged according to the merits of her political legacy alone. Her legacy and time in office will be inextricably linked to her identity as a woman. The mark of meaningful progress will be when the fact of her gender is wholly unremarkable.
I’m not an American-politics expert and I don’t know what kind of US President Hillary Clinton will make. I can’t tell you if she will unite the divided political system she will inherit, or get substantial and urgently needed reform through. But I do look forward to the day when I can judge a female politician according to her political track-record, rather than be lumped into identifying with her from a place where women are still globally underrepresented in politics.
Don’t get me wrong, seeing more women in positions of political power warms my insides and momentarily softens my feminist hackles. But sexism can never be defeated at the ballot-box alone. It takes consistent and deeper work than that, and requires those who benefit from a patriarchal system to become part of the effort to dismantle it.
If Clinton can’t triumph over sexism, then at the very least she can do us all a favour by turning the page on Trump and his flagrant denigration and abuse of women. Just don’t mistake this for the vanquishing of sexism, or a justification for our complacency.