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Why some feminists are conflicted about Hillary Clinton's historic candidacy

Hillary Clinton Meets With Law Enforcement Leaders In New York City Getty Images

For many feminists, Hillary Clinton’s candidacy is incredibly exciting. It’s not just a chance to break a historical barrier by electing America’s first woman president. It’s also the chance to elect this particular woman: a vocal feminist, a lifelong advocate for women’s and children’s issues, and a highly qualified public servant who has weathered decades of sexist scrutiny in the public spotlight.

"I'm moved that we actually got here in my lifetime, and I'm glad that it's her," said Sady Doyle, author of the upcoming book Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear ... and Why. "This woman, of all women, has had to fight to earn her place at the table. She deserves this."

But for many other feminists — especially younger women and women of color — the prospect of a Hillary Clinton presidency is more complicated, and less obviously worth celebrating. It’s not that these feminists would actually vote for the infamously misogynistic Donald Trump over Clinton. Very few of them would say it means nothing to elect the first woman president. But nor does it mean everything; not even close.

"I recognize the momentousness of the moment, and yet I don't feel a whole lot," said Imani Gandy, senior legal analyst at Rewire and co-host of the This Week in Blackness Prime podcast. "The election of a white woman to the highest office doesn't say a whole lot about my feminism. I’m far more moved about what Michelle Obama's tenure as first lady says about feminism — about black feminism — her raising black daughters, as she so poignantly pointed out during her convention speech, in a house that was built by slaves."

Electing a woman president was supposed to be a hallmark moment for the feminist movement, and it still is for many. But some feminists have complicated feelings about Clinton as a feminist figure — and about the idea that electing a woman president would really represent some pinnacle of achievement.

To understand this ambivalence, it helps to understand where Clinton’s feminism started, and where American feminism has gone since then.

Hillary Clinton has become a symbol for second-wave liberal feminism

Press Conference about the Equal Pay Act Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

The most common critique of Clinton from the left is that she’s too much of an institutionalist, too closely tied to a broken system. But the second-wave liberal feminism that shaped Clinton in the 1960s and ’70s was all about getting more women into those traditionally male institutions of power, said Erin O’Brien, the chair of political science at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

All-women’s schools like Wellesley College, which Clinton attended, were "the foundational spaces for a liberal feminism," O’Brien said — focused on proving that women could do just as well as men, and empowering individual women to succeed in public life.

And succeed Clinton did. "Her résumé is as long and expansive as it could be," O’Brien said. "She's had the advantages of that education and liberal feminist outlook."

But those advantages also went disproportionately to white women. That’s one reason many black women in particular have ambivalent feelings about Clinton. As Vox’s Victoria Massie explained, Clinton represents, and directly benefited from, a mainstream feminist movement that has pushed women of color to the side time and again.

"Hillary Clinton has definitely become a convenient symbol for all of the arguments against liberal feminism, and all of the anxieties that liberal feminism has brought forth," O’Brien said.

Despite its failures of inclusion, Clinton’s feminism was radical for its day. That’s where the "anxieties" O’Brien mentions come in; mainstream American society just wasn’t prepared for women who flouted traditional gender roles and sought entrance into male-dominated positions of power.

Clinton would experience that firsthand over and over again, especially as her husband Bill Clinton grew as a public figure: giving up her maiden name in an attempt to please Arkansas voters, making an offhand remark about cookies and tea that sparked major controversy, receiving endless skeptical questions from television interviewers about whether America was really ready for an "opinionated" first lady.

And it got a lot worse than sexist condescension. "There’s always been a major, pretty awful conspiracy surrounding her for 30 or 40 years," O’Brien said, most of which have been totally baseless — from Vince Foster to Benghazi. "I think the willingness to go for such consistent, not empirically informed, crazy theories has to do, in part, with her gender."

After all, O’Brien said, it’s not new for the progressive reform efforts of feminism to inspire vicious, over-the-top, deeply personal backlash. Just look at the propaganda cartoons of suffragettes depicted as ugly, sexless man haters who would cheerfully abandon a crying infant just to go to the polls — and how depressingly similar the imagery of modern sexist stereotypes can be.

That’s one reason that older feminists, baby boomers in particular, are such strong Hillary supporters: Many of them can personally identify with the types of sexism she has experienced, and they’ve seen her spend 40 years getting disparaged for her gender and succeeding in spite of it. They want future generations to have better role models and higher expectations.

"My fondest hope is that not only will girls know that they can grow up to be president, but boys will know they can be followers of women leaders," said Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women.

Today’s feminists are fighting different battles

May Day Rally Held in Los Angeles

While the feminism that Clinton came up in was once radical, it seems downright mainstream, and even a little conservative, to many feminists these days.

"When I was younger, I thought feminism was solely and exclusively about ‘women’s rights’ and breaking the glass ceiling," said Kim Tran, a feminist writer and doctoral candidate at UC Berkeley. "And while both of those things remain important, the person I am now knows feminism to be so much more than the ascension of a white woman to the highest position of power in the world."

Tran is an intersectional feminist, someone who takes into account all the different ways that factors like class, race, sexual orientation, gender identity, and physical or mental ability intersect with gender to produce unique challenges for different groups of people — challenges that often get overlooked by politicians and members of the public who don’t share them.

This kind of feminism considers the institutional access model of liberal "white feminism" to be sorely lacking. Some marginalized women still face as many barriers to elite institutions as white women used to. Plus, not all women can or want to live their lives pursuing mainstream institutional success — but they should still be able to live lives of basic stability and dignity. Instead of "having it all," too many women worry about not having enough to get by.

"Hillary Clinton is threading a difficult needle," O’Brien said. "Women who are not feminists, and many men, of her era find her crazy and radical and threatening and all of those things. But then when she's with younger feminists who take the intersectionality critique much more seriously, they find her hopelessly moderate."

Many intersectional feminists do care deeply about women’s representation in politics. But for women of color in particular, that representation can get complicated.

"It’s a sticky wicket when you're a black woman," Gandy said. "I almost feel better represented by Obama than by Hillary, even though when it comes to my main issue — reproductive rights and justice — Hillary is already campaigning to the left of where Obama campaigned in 2008. I just don't feel the connection to Hillary that I feel to the Obamas, although I know there are some black women who do."

"Young people, people of color, immigrants, and women all have something in common: We've never seen real representation of our communities or our priorities in our government," said Destiny Lopez, co-director of the All Above All Action Fund. "But representation is not enough. We need the voices, vision, and values of our communities to be reflected in the policies that shape the future of this country as well."

It’s worth noting that electing a woman president would likely be far more than a symbolic victory. Political science research shows that women really do govern differently than men, and push harder for policies that specifically affect women. Other research shows that when more women are elected to office, it inspires more women to run for office — and having a woman in the highest office in the land could inspire many, many more women to run.

But for some feminists, especially socialist feminists who focus more on class and economic issues, representation isn’t just "not enough." It’s barely relevant — at least compared with the actual policies that women in government might push for or the oppressive systems that they will (or won’t) work to change.

"Universal social programs (free college, socialized health care, child care) — those are the things that really help women achieve something closer to parity with men," said Liza Featherstone, editor of False Choices: The Faux Feminism of Hillary Rodham Clinton. "Just ask the poor British women who lost their council housing under Margaret Thatcher — I bet they didn’t feel particularly empowered."

"Hillary Clinton's true feminist legacy remains to be seen," said Kathleen Geier, a contributor to False Choices. "In any case, it will have little to do with whether she succeeds in shattering the glass ceiling of the presidency. Instead, it will rest on whether she enacts the kinds of feminist public policies that could be game changers for working women."

Clinton’s feminism has evolved, too

Hillary Clinton Address Trayvon Martin Foundation Conference
Clinton sits with Trayvon Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton.
Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign is very different from her 2008 campaign. Then, she dramatically downplayed her gender, her feminism, and the potentially historic nature of her candidacy. Now she openly embraces all of those things, and it seems to be working well for her.

But Clinton’s 2016 campaign isn’t just vocally feminist — it’s also vocally intersectional. Clinton uses that term often, and in ways that seem on point. She talks about how the gender wage gap is worse for women of color. She’s in favor of allowing federal funds to cover abortion services, because low-income women and women of color are more likely to be insured through public programs like Medicaid and thus have a harder time paying for an abortion. She talks about how the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, isn’t just a public health crisis but a crisis of poverty and racism.

"Many feminists of color think Clinton is late to the game," O’Brien said. "But she is at the game now. Her feminism wasn’t born of [intersectionality], but she’s a learner."

Clinton has improved in addressing issues related to social class and race, O’Brien said. Still, the relative recency of her conversion, and the many years she’s spent presenting and governing like a more conventional white liberal feminist, make some younger feminists wary. Does she really care about these issues, or does she want to win?

The answer may be both. Clinton is a savvy politician who can probably tell which way the cultural winds are blowing on these issues with her base. But there was an intersectional flavor to Clinton’s early feminism, too, like the work she did to bust up illegal school segregation and help disabled children get equal access to education.

Either way, America seems to have evolved on feminism to a certain extent along with Clinton.

"A lot of people assumed that the first female president would have to be conservative and anti-woman in order to offset her gender and win an election — the Margaret Thatcher model, or, if you prefer, the Palin option," Doyle said. "It's a very real sign of progress that we got a liberal Democrat, with a stated record of supporting feminism specifically, into such a powerful position."

That may not seem remarkable to us now, Doyle said, but "the thing about huge social sea changes is that by the time they actually pay off, the world has changed to accommodate them."

Still, the world has only changed so much. Toxic misogyny is still a serious problem, and Donald Trump’s campaign is a potent symbol of that. And feminists of all kinds are going to have to figure out how to deal with it as the campaign continues.

"The misogyny is going to intensify over the course of this campaign, perhaps over the course of her presidency — just as the racism aimed at Barack Obama only intensified over the course of his presidency — and we're obligated to find a way to defuse and defeat it," Doyle said. "But we also have an obligation to hold her to account, just as we do with all other politicians."

"Regardless of your politics, it’s clear that a woman in a position of great power is still very threatening to American society," Tran said. "That’s a thing white liberal feminists and I can agree on."