Views / Opinion

We need to address the sexism that contributed to Hillary Clinton's defeat: Westwood

Here is the worry: If we do not use feminism to understand this election, there will never be a woman president of the United States.

Former U.S. Secretary of State and 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton laughs while speaking during BookExpo 2017 at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, June 1, 2017 in New York City. Clinton will release her latest memoir in October via publisher Simon & Schuster.

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Former U.S. Secretary of State and 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton laughs while speaking during BookExpo 2017 at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, June 1, 2017 in New York City. Clinton will release her latest memoir in October via publisher Simon & Schuster.

Perhaps the most shocking part is how happy she looks.

Giving the commencement address at her alma mater, Wellesley College, last week, or on stage at the tech conference Code on Wednesday, Hillary Clinton is beaming. Is capable of a carefree smile. Is, to use her own words, “unbowed and unbroken.”

It’s a remarkable sight.

Indeed, there may just be a poise and elegance to her posture that is new.

“Hillary Clinton is out of f*cks,” read a Mother Jones headline. “She’s okay,” announced this month’s deep-access cover story in New York Magazine, over an image of a serene Clinton. “How about you?”

Oh, us? We’re traumatized. Thanks for asking. And thanks, Rebecca Traister (the magazine’s reporter who tirelessly covered Clinton’s campaign with a clear-eyed gender analysis), for bringing us this journey into Clintonland. For exploring the nuanced ways that being a woman made Clinton, to use one of Trump’s favourite words, “a loser.”

It’s so hard to come by. Gender, an ongoing, frustrating, maddening aspect of the 2016 election which was routinely under-reported and glossed over and viewed as irrelevant finally gets its due. Was the media responsible for Trump? we’ve all wondered, while the think-pieces from Trumpland continue to pile on. Sure, in part. But the sexism implied in media coverage of Clinton was equally outrageous and consequential. And the sexism and misogyny laced through our culture created not just a double-standard for what a leader can look like, but a completely blank slate. Clinton, as the first woman, might as well have been a lizard.

As Traister writes, sexism and misogyny aren't single explanations for what happened, but they are a crucial component: “A competent woman losing a job to an incompetent man is not an anomalous Election Day surprise; it is Tuesday in America.”

“The more successful a man is, the more likable he is. The more successful a woman is, the less likable she is,” Clinton says in Traister’s article. Her staff unpacks just how confused they were about the impact being a woman would have on Clinton’s strategy. Could she get angry, like Trump and Sanders did? Could she show emotion at all? The fact that one key media critique of Clinton was her untrustworthiness (a thread of sexism as old as the Bible) seems laughable now. And what of the endless pieces about who were Trump and Sanders voters, replicated in Clinton’s case by endless pieces on a generational catfight that clouded the truth: Clinton had as many die-hard fans, perhaps more, than the rest of them.

Much of the conversation in America these days — including Clinton’s own commencement address — has been about how to keep the door open in a country so torn at its political seams that the divide feel like a crack plunging to the core of the earth.

But to anyone still — STILL — unwilling to wonder, question, investigate and illuminate the impact of gender on this election, on this entire country, on the world for God’s sake: I have nothing to say to you.

Except, here is the company in which you belong: Donald Trump. Fox News and alt-right media. The Twittersphere. Even Vox news seemed poised at the edge of their seats, perpetually read to jump down Clinton’s throat. And in the wake of her recent criticisms — of James Comey, of Russian interference, of a right wing media devoted to electing Republicans, of fake news and mainstream media’s willingness to make hay with Wikileaks — they did just that. The take-away for so many was that Clinton blamed everyone but herself for losing an election (which she actually won by three million votes), despite the fact that she has repeatedly said this, as she did yet again in the New York magazine feature: “I take absolute personal responsibility.”

“Oh, dear,” one woman remarked on Twitter. “It appears Hillary Clinton gave YET ANOTHER interview that was not just her smearing herself with excrement. When will she learn.”

Indeed. When will women learn that we can’t win, and we better not blame gender when we lose.

For women I know, Clinton’s return to the public sphere, her cutting and unflinching critique of her loss, has been cathartic. Some cried while reading Traister’s piece. Others swore. The pain for these women (they’re mostly women, just as Clinton’s campaign donations came from a majority of women, another historical achievement) is real.

And here is the worry: If we do not use feminism to understand this election, there will never be a woman president of the United States. If we do not unbind the ties of sexism and racism, if we don’t examine the full-throated support Clinton enjoyed from some, compared to a shocking level of vitriol from others, if we don’t understand what Donald Trump represents in light of his win over a woman like Clinton, what hope is there for the next woman who runs for president?

Of course, as always, women aren’t waiting around. Statistics show Democratic women in particular are the most politically fired up after Clinton’s defeat, starting activist groups and running for office in record numbers. There is a fire burning that some worry may peter out, but that is an a-historical concern. Women’s advancement is unrelenting, and it responds to setbacks by digging in, and digging deeper.

This is about gender, sexism, and equality. And it is personal. It is about refusing to meet the symbolism of Hillary Clinton’s defeat with anything but defiance. This week, Clinton told a crowd that she was going to keep fighting from “the frontlines of the resistance.” Which are pink.

So, you still don’t think Clinton lost in part because she’s a woman? You still think talking about gender and sexism and misogyny are mere excuses for being such a bad, bad candidate?

Well, tell that to the hundreds of millions of women who shut down cities across the U.S. and internationally in January. What the hell do you think we were marching for?

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