To date, debates about whether a vote for Hillary Clinton and against Bernie Sanders is a feminist vote have centred around policy differences between the two candidates and have compared the two candidates’ platforms and records, and Sanders’ record is clearly superior when it comes to the issues. Left uncontested until now, however, is the idea that electing Clinton would be a victory for feminism at the level of symbolic discourse, that the election of a woman over a man would, at least symbolically, strike a blow for feminism and against patriarchy. This was a view that I myself held. But now I am not so sure.
In 1986, Ann Richards was elected governor of Texas. A feminist, pro-choice Democrat, Richards faced all the usual character attacks one might expect and then some. That was because she was a divorced, recovering alcoholic who refused, on dozens of occasions, to deny second- and third-hand claims that her past drinking had been matched by an equally prodigious cocaine habit. In this way, she challenged, in every way, the double standards of respectability women face on a host of questions concerning personal and familial morality and lifestyle. Four years before William Jefferson Clinton was nominated to run for president, Richards had given the keynote address to the Democratic convention that nominated Michael Dukakis.
When asked about being the first female governor of Texas, Richards was quick to correct her interlocutors and remind them that she was not, in fact, the state’s first governor due to a long-standing tradition in hyper-patriarchal Dixie. Ma Ferguson, wife of former governor James Ferguson, had been elected Texas governor sixty years previously. That is because the culture of the former Confederate States of America is not only highly conservative with respect to racial issues; this extends to class and gender politics as well. And that is why, as soon as women gained the right to vote in the South, the region’s planter aristocracy began dodging term limits and corruption charges by using their wives as electoral proxies through whom they could hold onto power, skirting the spirit of the law.
Such arrangements were public and blatant. Speaking to audiences of Klansmen and religious conservatives, disqualified male politicians could travel from town to town, proudly proclaiming that if their wives were elected, their regimes would continue without the slightest interruption. To such audiences, these claims seemed reasonable because, in a highly patriarchal society, it is inconceivable that a good wife or daughter would be anything other than a simple extension of her man’s will. This was the campaign of legendary segregationist governor George Wallace for his wife Lurleen in 1966. While she stayed home, her husband went back to the hustings to remind voters that she would rule in name only; he would be calling all the shots. And true to his word, upon “her” victory, he did just that.
And this sort of thing is not unique to Dixie. In 1970, social conservatives in India turned out to elect Indira Gandhi at Prime Minister precisely because they understood her personhood to be wholly subsumed in the greatness of her late father, Jawaharlal Nehru who had ruled the nation from 1945 to 1964. Next door, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s daughter Benazir succeeded him in a similar fashion in 1993. What we have often missed, watching such elections from the Northern US or from Canada, is that periodic election of a great man’s daughter or widow, functions to reinforce the greatness of a patriarchal lineage, showing that a man’s greatness is such that he can rule through a minor proxy from a sickbed, prison cell or even beyond the grave. However autonomous these individuals are, once elected, their election campaigns rely not just on exploiting but reinforcing popular beliefs about the inferior and subordinate character of women’s agency in religious, conservative, traditionalist societies.
For all the legitimate criticism Margaret Thatcher might face for her policies, her election in 1979 showed women in modern democracies that effacing of their own agency and deliberately campaigning in the shadow of a man was not the only route to national leadership. Thatcher helped blaze a trail for governor Richards, as well as for tough, independent national leaders of the right and the left, like Angela Merkel and Julia Gillard.
More than that of any other self-styled progressive in the industrialized world, Hillary Clinton’s so-called feminism is based on a retrograde political understanding of the meaning of gender in the public square. As I first observed in 2008, Bill Clinton, as any good campaign surrogate should, tailors his message to his audience when speaking for this wife. And, the more conservative and Southern the state, the more he speaks not of “she” but “we,” when it comes to the next Clinton White House. It is actually this phenomenon that has given rise to claims by analysis that the Clinton campaign has an African American “firewall.” Whereas the overwhelming majority of white voters in the South who identify as conservative and evangelical are diehard Republicans, the same is not true of black conservative evangelicals, who remain a major constituency for the Democrats. It is that demographic phenomenon that is conferring Hillary Clinton’s lead in South Carolina: a bloc of conservative evangelicals are, once again, hearing from her husband about how a victory for her is really a victory for him.
Clinton, herself, relies on this kind of thinking, as she has since beginning her first presidential run in 2006, by emphasizing how her “experience” distinguishes her from other candidates. Yet, curiously, the record, the experience she most frequently references—and the record and experience her adversaries are most likely to attack—are initiatives associated with her husband’s presidency. Holding no office other than “First Lady,” a royal consort equivalent office that reminds us that the US has not conducted an overhaul of its constitution since the 1780s, she claims credit for any major law passed in the US by dint of her husband’s signature appearing on it.
The move that Clinton is making here is not some clever feminist tactic to stick it to the man; it is an affirmation of the ancient English legal doctrine of “couverture” in which a man’s legal personhood wholly subsumes the personhood of his female dependents, his wife and daughters, who only cease to be part of his legal body through his death or their marriage to another man. Her claims of an ontology coterminous with her husband’s from 1993-2000 should be enough to sicken, never mind discourage, the deeper thinkers in modern feminism.
Compare this to her reluctance to take credit for the policies of the cabinet in which she served from 2009-12, her indifference to the accomplishments of Senate Democrat majority in which she served with Bernie Sanders from 2006-08, and the bizarre patriarchal traditionalism of her campaign is thrown into sharper relief. Ultimately, Clinton is claiming that her experience as a part of her husband is actually more real than her experience as an autonomous political actor.
In this light, we must ask whether, even in a symbolic universe of rhetoric, position, titles and ceremony, a Clinton victory will be a step forward, sideways or backwards for women in America and throughout the democratic world.