Given the recent controversy following the recorded footage of Donald Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women, mixed with Hillary Clintons image as an ardent defender of women’s rights, it is fair to argue that this presidential election has been based in part on identity politics ideas about women and gender equality. Let’s begin by stating the facts. Is Donald Trump a misogynist? Absolutely. Since sexual assault accusations were first made against him, as many as ten women have come out to say that the millionaire businessman has sexually assaulted them. Trump has also previously stated that women who get abortions should be punished and referred to women as ‘dogs’. So what does the alternative represent? To many on the centre left Hillary Clinton’s campaign represents a chance to break out of the cycle of men running the United States and allow the country to have its first female president. This however, is reflective of a profound crisis of western liberal feminism, which has focussed specifically on elevating the successes of rich white women while ignoring the rights of the millions of downtrodden women around the world. This blog post will point to the failings in both Trumps and Clinton’s campaign, to stand up for these rights in any meaningful way.
Clinton’s Narrow Feminism
How does Clintons image as a defender of feminism hold up when looking at her record on issues relating to women’s and LGBT rights, control over ones reproductive system and freedom from discrimination and sexual violence? Perhaps the best that can be said is that can be said is that, unlike her rival, Clinton does not espouse the medieval view of female bodily autonomy and does not actively encourage homophobia and transphobia. She has consistently said that abortion should remain legal and that birth control should be widely available. Indeed, when in office Clinton has generally acted in accord with these views. She has recently voiced support for gay marriage rights. These positions are worth something even if they are mainly a reflection of pressure from below.
However, Clinton’s record on these rights does not merit glowing praise. In addition to partly capitulating to the far right anti-choice agenda in congress, with disproportionate harm to low income parents, Clinton and other democrats have also directly undermined these rights. Her narrow definition of reproductive rights – as abortion and contraception only – does not allow much in the way of material support for parents or young children. She insists that abortion must remain rare, but has also actively worked to deprive poor expecting parents of the financial support they would need to raise a child. This can be clearly seen through her support for fiscal austerity for social programmes, which have become the bipartisan consensus in Washington. Meanwhile, Clinton’s repetition of the Democratic slogan that abortion should be ‘safe, legal and rare’ unhelpfully reinforces stigmatisation of those who choose that option. Regarding non-discrimination, Clinton’s record is worse than her campaign suggests. Her old company, Walmart, widely accused of discriminating against female employees, was recently praised by the Clinton foundation for its ‘efforts to empower girls and women’. Clinton has also given very little indication that she opposes discrimination against LGBT individuals in the workplace – something that is still legal in the majority of US states. Her very recent reversal of her opposition to same sex marriage came only after support for the idea has become politically beneficial and perhaps necceary for Democrats. At best, Clinton has been a trailblazer for progressive causes, not a full supporter of them.
Clinton’s foreign policy record is even more at odds with her image as a champion of the rights of women and those in the LGBT community. Her policy of support for the 2009 coup in Honduras has been disastrous for both groups. Violent crimes against LGBT people in the country have skyrocketed. Indeed, in 2014, leading gay rights activist Nelson Arambu reported 176 murders of LGBT individuals since 2009. The US government must not take no responsibility for this. Not only did the US fund militarization efforts but also Clinton has actively praised the post-coup governments actions of shutting down organisations aimed at protecting the rights of minorities. Anyone looking for further evidence of Clintons abusive human rights record can look to the US backed occupation of Western Sahara by the monarchy in Morocco. Two weeks after Clinton publicly praised the dictatorship for having ‘protected and expanded’ women’s rights, a teenage girl named Amina Filali committed suicide by taking rat poison. The girl had been raped at age fifteen and then forced to marry her rapist. Although Clinton supporters are likely to brush of such details by saying that ‘at least she is better than a republican’ it is very possible that her actions have harmed the feminist movement not just in the US but worldwide.
We all know that Donald Trump is a Misogynist, but that is not the end of the story. Trump uses women in a very calculated way in order to promote his business empire and his political image. Throughout his books, Trump goes into detail regarding some of his various sexual exploits, constantly portraying women as deceptive, arguing that while that means women can play a key role in convincing people to buy a product or vote for a candidate, they must be kept in a subservient position to the man. It is this, amongst other things that defines his distaste of feminism and his portrayal of Hillary Clinton as manipulative.
Trump is not alone in feeling this way however. For years, the capitalist political establishment has been prepared to exploit and oppress women for their own personal gain. Young girls are often routinely bombarded with unobtainable standards of beauty in the media while those who do not conform to these standards risk being socially excluded. On a less close to home note, many turn a blind eye to the sexual violence enacted in detention centres such as Yarl’s wood against migrant women. Even recently, the death of young Black women, Sarah Reed in Holloway prison was initially omitted from the news, until public outcry forced the issue on to the agenda. Indeed, the fact that many are still prepared to see Trump as an opportunity to ‘make America Great Again’, while others are prepared to endorse Hillary Clinton while turning a blind eye to the oppression that has occurred at her hand smacks of the deeply ingrained sexist attitude in society. While many republicans and Democrats gleefully lined up to condemn Trump’s appalling rhetoric regarding women after a video tape emerged of him bragging about his sexual exploits, the criticism occurred in a vacuum of condemning the rhetoric of an individual, while ignoring the wider problem.
The irony here is that when we see other cultures committing acts of sexual violence we are more than happy to condemn those actions as the result of a backward and aggressive culture. 2016 started with a moral panic about the sexual delinquency of migrants in Europe following the cologne attacks – a narrative spun from the incitement to hatred constituted by the current refugee crises. How does this compare with the controversy incited by Trumps comments bragging about sexual assault? Most news outlets have portrayed the story of the ‘spike in sexual assault’ by migrants across Europe as proof that the culture of the refugees is vastly detached from our own. Meanwhile, Trump is portrayed a loner within the US political establishment, and his growing community of followers is certainly not seen as an ugly indictment of the ugly sexism of our culture. This not so thinly veiled racism permeates every facet of our society, legitimising sexual assault under our noses. American rapper Tyler the creator was quietly banned from the UK for lyrics he wrote five years ago, but it took a whole parliamentary debate to decide if it is better to greet the notorious misogynist and racist Donald Trump with ‘ridicule’. Is it because banning white, straight, rich men looks bad? Not only does this discrepancy in our attitude towards race and gender highlight how deeply entrenched Trump’s rampant misogynistic values are in society, it shows our not so well veiled racism: our refusal to care about sexual violence unless it conforms to narratives that uphold heteropatriarchal norms and white, straight, male privilege.
To everyone fighting against Trump in a meaningful way I applaud you, but it should not be a fight limited to Trump. It is society’s sexism and racism that created Trump and that continues to help fuel his campaign.
Real Feminists not invited
Liberal Feminists supporting Clinton and condemning Trump on an individual basis reflects a narrowness of analysis. In the western world, feminism is mainly understood as the right of wealthy white women to share in the spoils of capitalism and hierarchical power. By not confronting the exclusion of non-whites, foreigners, working class people and other groups, liberal feminists are missing an opportunity to create a more inclusive and powerful movement.
Alternative currents within the feminist movement, both in the US and globally, have long rejected this impoverished understanding of feminism. For them, feminism means confronting patriarchy but also capitalism, imperialism, nationalism and all other forms of oppression that may conspire to enforce patriarchy. To them, feminism means fighting to replace a system in which the rights of people are subordinated to the profit motive. It means fighting so that all people – everywhere on the gender, sex and body spectrum – can enjoy basic rights like health care and education. This more radical feminist vision is visible all around the world, including in places like Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran, whose oppression has been constantly used by US leaders to justify war and occupation.
The courageous Pakistani teenager Malala Yousafzai, awarded the Nobel peace prize for her feminist advocacy, has also criticised US drone strikes for killing civilians and aiding the Taliban. Malala’s opposition to the Taliban won her adoring western media coverage and an invitation to the White House, but her criticism of US foreign policy has gone unmentioned in the media. So to have her comments about socialism which she says is the ‘the only answer to free us from the chains of bigotry and exploitation’. Similarly, The Revolutionary Association of the women of Afghanistan (RAWA) has equally opposed the Taliban; US backed fundamentalist forces and the US occupation, arguing that the US has ‘merely replaced one fundamentalist regime with another’. The logic is simple: The US prefer the authoritarian rule of Afagnistan by fundamentalist warlords, to a pro-democracy, pro-equal rights government that might jeopardize its interests in the region. RAWA emphasise that only the people of Afghanistan can achieve Women’s Liberation and that it can only be brought about through the creation of a democratic government. Needless to say, the next president will not be inviting them to Washington.
A group of Iranian feminists, the Raha Iranian Feminist Collective, takes a similar position in relation to their own country. In 2011, they bitterly condemned the Ahmadinjad government’s list of human rights abuses, also criticising all forms of US intervention, including the sanctions that Clinton is so proud of implementing. In Latin America too, many working class feminists fight for gender and sexual liberation while also condemning the US government’s historic military interference in the region. This kind of radical feminism is not only based abroad either. In New York, the women of the Young Lords Party pushed their organisation to denounce forced sterilizations of women of colour, and to demand decent reproductive rights. Also, in recent years the US LGBT movement has condemned the state, from prisons to the military, as the biggest perpetrator of violence against women and minorities. This type of feminism rejects the logic that casts the US as tolerant while characterising people from occupied territories, from US to Palestinian Ghettos, as inherently homophobic and sexist. They condemn all forms of authoritarianism and oppression.
A more robust version of feminism does not mean that we should not defend women like Hillary Clinton against sexist attacks and ignore Trump’s Misogyny: we should. However, it does mean that we must listen to the voices of the most marginalized women and gender and sexual minorities, many of whom are extremely critical of liberal feminism, and act in solidarity with movements that seek equality for all people.