What Happens to a Feminist Dream Deferred?

What Happens to a Feminist Dream Deferred?

What Happens to a Feminist Dream Deferred?

Three writers consider what the 2016 election reveals about the state of feminism today.


It had seemed so appropriate, back in October, that the first woman president would be elected by triumphing over a misogynist ogre recorded boasting to a near-stranger about his precise tactics for forcing himself on subordinate women. That only made it more devastating when she lost the election to him—“lost,” that is, by winning nearly 3 million votes more than him. May the best man win! Or, at any rate, the man.

We have had two months to weep. There will undoubtedly be more of that to come. But now it’s time to think about solutions—for feminism, women, all of us. We asked three writers to reflect on what the 2016 presidential election revealed about the state of feminism today, what might come next, and, most importantly, what should.

—Richard Kreitner

* * *

Melissa Murray

A Feminism of Perseverence

Most mornings it takes 30 minutes and much cajoling to get my daughter out of bed. Not so on November 8, 2016. All I had to do was whisper, “Let’s go make history,” and she was up like a shot and ready to head to the polls. I will never forget the feeling of her hand in mine as I marked my ballot for a female presidential candidate. Nor will I forget her voice later that night when she turned to me, tremulous and incredulous, asking, “She didn’t win?”

What happens to a feminist dream deferred? Is there any chance that, even as a Trump presidency has dealt feminism and feminists a crushing blow, it might help us cultivate a more potent feminist agenda and a new generation of activists and leaders? In the bitter soil of this defeat, might we sow the seeds for a future gender revolution?

Even as we grapple with this defeat, progressives should also celebrate our victories. And there were victories on November 8. We elected the first Latina senator, the first Indian-American senator (who also happens to be California’s first African-American senator), the first disabled female senator, and the first Somali-American Muslim woman to serve as a legislator. These are extraordinary gains for women and a more inclusive vision of America.

We should also remember that Hillary Clinton ran on the most unabashedly feminist platform ever. She promised to advance workplace equity and equal pay—not just for women but also for LGBTQ persons and people of color. She vowed to preserve Roe v. Wade, and, just as importantly, she insisted on the repeal of the Hyde and Helms Amendments, which prohibit the use of federal funds for abortion and foreign family-planning programs, respectively. Finally, her campaign did more than pay lip service to the virtues of the American family; she promised to strengthen families by raising the federal minimum wage and securing paid family leave.

We should honor the progress represented by the fact that a mainstream candidate would run on such a pro-woman, pro-family platform, and that by doing so she could win the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes. That speaks volumes for the future of feminism in the United States. Clinton may have been an imperfect bearer of this message, but perhaps her defeat can serve as the catalyst for achieving these policy aims, and a bolder, more inclusive conception of American feminism to underwrite them. This type of feminism would be different from the kind with which Clinton has been associated. It does not simply reiterate the priorities of elite, privileged women but takes seriously the intersectional concerns of their poorer, darker-hued sisters, such as safer communities, access to employment, fair workplaces, and reproductive justice. It is a brand of feminism that does not ignore the impediments that men face in their efforts to combine work and family, but instead recognizes the importance of enlisting men as allies in the struggle for a more equal society. It is a feminism of hope and perseverance, even when such virtues seem to be in short supply.

So what happens to a feminist dream deferred? Does it wither and die? Or does it explode in indignation—moving beyond the existing paradigm to become a bolder, more progressive version of itself? The answer is obvious. It has to be—for our daughters and for ourselves.

Kathleen Geier

Beyond Recognition

The 2016 election was a body blow to American feminism. Hillary Clinton’s “glass ceiling” feminism did not resonate broadly among women voters. Though Hillary carried the women’s vote overall, her share was smaller than Obama’s in 2012. The election results revealed a growing class divide among women voters. Among white women, the class gap—34 points—was cavernous, with 62 percent of white women without college degrees opting for Trump. And though women of color overwhelmingly supported Clinton, voter turnout and enthusiasm in working-class communities of color was low.

Feminists, myself included, were shocked by Hillary’s loss, but in hindsight we can see that the writing on the wall throughout the campaign. Clinton’s own focus groups found that, while “electing a woman president is a very strong motivating factor among Hillary Clinton’s most committed supporters,” overall it was “the least effective positive case” they tested. Voters were most interested in electing the person who would “make their own lives better.” Clinton, unfortunately, failed to make that case. Though her platform offered proposals for paid family leave and other women’s economic issues, she never made them central to her messaging. And the media, including feminist media, rarely covered her policies in any depth.

Clinton, whose triangulating strategy involved making a play for college-educated Republican voters rather than mobilizing the Democratic base, chose to downplay economics. By contrast, Trump’s ads were almost four times more likely than hers were to focus on jobs and the economy. Clinton’s abandonment of economic issues to Trump was a tragic miscalculation. Pollster Stanley Greenberg found that a tough economic message performed “dramatically better” for Clinton in winning over key voter groups, including working-class white women.

Trump’s election is an unmitigated disaster for American women, but the way forward for feminism is clear. It requires jettisoning the corporate feminism of elites and replacing it with a feminism for the 99 percent—the kind of feminism that Clinton, with her history of support for neoliberal economic policies, could not credibly represent. During the campaign, Clinton cynically asked, “If we broke up the big banks tomorrow…would that end sexism?” But her distinction between economic issues on the one hand and gender issues on the other is a false dichotomy. Wall Street’s relentless financialization of the economy has been a major driver of the economic inequality that, in recent decades, has dramatically slowed women’s advancement. Soaring economic inequality is implicated in the stubborn persistence of the gender pay gap and in women’s declining levels of labor force participation. The domination of the rich in our political process is why we get austerity policies that entrench our society’s dependence on women’s unpaid caring labor.

Nancy Fraser has noted that in recent decades mainstream feminism has almost exclusively emphasized issues of “recognition”—addressing the cultural harms done to women—while marginalizing those of redistribution. But in order to reignite our stalled gender revolution, we must make the fight for economic justice central to feminism once again. Feminism cannot allow itself to be bought off with a superficial layer of gender diversity at the top that leaves the female masses behind and the oppressive structures and institutions of our society unchanged. Nor should feminists shrink from demanding the bold, radical changes that we need for women to thrive, including universal-childcare and basic-income programs, aggressive equal-pay laws, and more.

To make these changes happen, the mass mobilization of women is essential. Feminism’s vibrant presence on the internet is welcome, but it’s no substitute for bodies on the ground. This year, all over the world, we’ve witnessed inspiring examples of triumphant mass actions, from the Dakota Access Pipeline protests here in the United States, to the women’s strike in Poland, which shut down the passage of a draconian anti-abortion law.

In 2016, feminism is everywhere; thrillingly, it has insinuated itself into practically every nook and cranny of American life. But we no longer have an actual women’s movement. It’s time to channel those feminist passions into political action—and to get the women’s movement moving again, at last.

Catherine Powell

How Women Can Save the World

The week after Hillary Clinton failed to shatter that “highest and hardest glass ceiling,” I attended a conference honoring feminist theorist Catharine MacKinnon, who pointedly noted that the American presidential election is one in which “when a woman wins, she doesn’t really win, because of a system she had no voice in designing.” Only a month earlier, United Nations representatives passed over women candidates in favor of a man, António Guterres, to be the next secretary general—by all accounts, a strong choice—despite a global campaign for a woman to be named UN chief.

There are many reasons to lament these recent setbacks for women leaders, but an overlooked one is that more women in positions of global leadership could strengthen peace and prosperity for us all. That’s not necessarily because women are inherently more peaceful or thrifty—after all, there are numerous counter-examples like Margaret Thatcher—but because the experience of sex discrimination provides women with distinct social roles and perspectives. Experiential differences prompt individuals—regardless of their gender—to bring new sources of information to decision-making that might otherwise be missed. It’s critical to include representatives of groups that have been historically excluded from power, not only as a matter of human dignity but also to improve decision-making processes, the resulting decisions, and the legitimacy of the system as a whole.

In matters of war and peace, for example, research suggests women’s participation in peace negotiations is correlated with more durable armistices. Traditionally, negotiations are dominated by prior combatants in conflicts—usually, that means men. Because women in most countries are barred from combat (including in the United States, until Obama lifted the ban), women often experience war differently. Civilian women bring different perspectives to the table than combatant men. Rather than focus exclusively on the traditional “negative” conception of peace (merely ending armed conflict), women tend to also be concerned with “positive” peace (establishing institutional structures that affirmatively promote peace). This prompts women to bring forward social-justice concerns, which help sustain peace over the long run.

In economic matters as well, World Bank research demonstrates that empowering women strengthens economic growth, enhances health and educational outcomes for children, and creates more inclusive institutions that pave the way for better economic development. While careful to avoid stereotyping, other experts also observe that women are often better at social perception, based on enhanced ability to read nonverbal cues, and are thus more able to take turns—instead of dominating group discussions—which reduces the likelihood of “groupthink.” In institutions where subordinates are supported and cultivated, where credit is shared, and where conflict is handled through open and honest communication—social skills commonly seen in womeneveryone tends to thrive.

Occasionally when women step into positions of power, they feel pressed to present themselves as “functionally male” (i.e., more domineering, less willing to take on a primary care-taker role) in order to succeed in a man’s world. Instead, women and men should transform what it means to be a good leader. In contrast to Trump’s macho-style of bravado and bullying, Clinton pioneered a different leadership style in the State Department, promoting “smart power,” inclusion, and civil-society outreach. Not surprisingly, the most disadvantaged Americans—black and Latina women—voted disproportionately for Clinton. Referring to the fact that a majority of white women voted for Trump (particularly those without college degrees), Catharine MacKinnon observed tartly, “Women of color are the hardest to fool.” She noted, “It apparently takes white women four years of college to even begin to learn what women of color—regardless of their educational level—already know.”

Someday, when a woman finally does become president, the Oval Office could be a platform for advancing the type of leadership that facilitates greater peace and prosperity. Hasten the day!

Thank you for reading The Nation!

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read, just one of the many incisive, deeply reported articles we publish daily. Now more than ever, we need fearless journalism that moves the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media.

Donate right now and help us hold the powerful accountable, shine a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug, and build a more just and equitable future.

For nearly 160 years, The Nation has stood for truth, justice, and moral clarity. As a reader-supported publication, we are not beholden to the whims of advertisers or a corporate owner. But it does take financial resources to report on stories that may take weeks or months to investigate, thoroughly edit and fact-check articles, and get our stories to readers like you.

Donate today and stand with us for a better future. Thank you for being a supporter of independent journalism.

Thank you for your generosity.

Ad Policy