Dear Susan Bordo,
Your recent Guardian op-ed, “The destruction of Hillary Clinton: sexism, Sanders and the millennial feminists,” based on your new book The Destruction of Hillary Clinton, seeks to explain “how the most qualified candidate ever to run for president lost the seemingly unlosable election.”
Your findings are clear: my generation of millennial feminists who supported Sanders lost Clinton the election. As a feminist, philosopher, and professor of women’s and gender studies, you ground your analysis in theory and your experience teaching millennial women. I would like to offer commentary that could help you learn more about what we millennial feminists think—to indict us more effectively or exonerate us for destroying candidate Clinton and creating President Trump.
The most puzzling part of your piece was how it contradicts its own thesis, which is that sexism, Sanders and millennial feminists were responsible for Trump’s election. “These people,” you write, referring to your “younger feminist colleagues (and other left leaners)” played a “big role” in Trump’s election. Because . . .
While Trump supporters hooted and cheered for their candidate, forgiving him every lie, every crime, every bit of disgusting behaviour, too many young Democrats made it very clear (in newspaper and internet interviews, in polls, and in the mainstream media) that they were only voting for Hillary Clinton as the lesser of two evils, “holding their noses”, tears still streaming down their faces over the primary defeat of the person they felt truly deserved their votes. Some didn’t vote at all.
You blame Sanders for smearing Clinton as more establishment and less progressive than he is:
Bernie Sanders splintered and ultimately sabotaged the Democratic party—not because he chose to run against Hillary Clinton, but because of how he ran against her… [T]aking advantage of justified frustration with politics as usual… Sanders was taking Hillary down in a different way: as an establishment tool and creature of Wall Street. “I think, frankly,” he said in January, campaigning in New Hampshire, “it’s hard to be a real progressive and to take on the establishment in a way that I think [it] has to be taken on, when you come as dependent as she has through her super PAC and in other ways on Wall Street and drug-company money.”
What makes Sanders’ criticism of Clinton especially unfair, you argue, is that it’s simply not true. The two politicians, you claim are equally progressive and politically comparable:
When Sanders denied that [progressive] badge of honour to Clinton he wasn’t distinguishing his agenda from hers (their positions on most issues were, in reality, pretty similar), he was excluding her from the company of the good and pure….
And yet, in this same piece you cite and agree with a journalist who wrote in a Huffington Post article that Sanders is not only more progressive than Clinton, but more progressive than all Democrats:
As Jonathan Cohn wrote, in May: “If Sanders is the standard by which you’re going to decide whether a politician is a progressive, then almost nobody from the Democratic party would qualify. Take Sanders out of the equation, and suddenly Clinton looks an awful lot like a mainstream progressive.”
You and Cohn agree that Sanders is uniquely principled and progressive. I would agree. But that undermines your entire argument which is based on how similar the candidates were. If Sanders is so much more progressive than Clinton, the enthusiasm gap between him and Clinton isn’t a mystery. It doesn’t require a conspiracy between sexism (which was undeniably present) and Sanders. It’s perfectly logical.
But you don’t seem interested in logic or the facts. If you were, you would have done what Cohn did in his piece, called “Hillary Clinton Is A Progressive Democrat, Despite What You May Have Heard.” You would have made the case for Clinton without distorting the truth. In a part of the article you didn’t cite, Cohn writes,
The ideological gulf between Sanders and Clinton is real, and it’s easy to spot. Sanders thinks everybody should get health insurance from the government and be able to attend public universities for free. He thinks taxes must go up to pay for these programs, mostly on the rich but also on the middle class. Clinton has rejected those ideas as impractical, as policy or politics — or simply ill-conceived. Their histories are different too. Over the years, Sanders staked out a position so far to the political left that, until this year, he didn’t even formally identify as a member of the Democratic Party — and preferred to call himself simply a “democratic socialist.” He was an original critic of the North American Free Trade Agreement. He gets his campaign funding almost exclusively from small donors, and has basically no ties to corporate America.
It’s not just that honesty is a standard in journalism and academics. It also happens to be much more persuasive if you want to reach readers who don’t already agree with you. I know that I take Cohn’s argument much more seriously because he is willing to engage the facts and respect the reader.
Unfortunately, your piece does neither. Impressions and feelings and memories are your primary data. You present yourself as the wise, rational professor with access to knowledge and history and an understanding of Hillary Clinton your students lack.
But this isn’t about history or knowledge or even the election or Hillary Clinton. It’s about how much you identify with her. It isn’t about Bernie Sanders. It’s about how much you associate him with men of the left from your past. Your piece sets out to blame millennial feminists and show us what we did wrong in supporting Sanders, but it winds up illuminating your own failings, sadly not uncommon among certain Clinton supporters, especially those who chose to blame everyone and everything but Clinton for her loss:
- An over-identification with Clinton and her biography that eclipses appreciation of young women’s lives and hardships and the political differences
- Basing an argument solely on personal impressions, vague remembrances, mental and emotional associations
- A condescending tone with occasional unconvincing gestures of respect and understanding for your younger sisters
- Misleading statements, omissions, falsehoods or indisputable error, here related to Clinton’s statements on superpredators and warranting an immediate editorial correction
It is indisputable that Clinton has always and will always face sexism, misogyny and double standards. But as a feminist philosopher, you are well-positioned to see that attributing Clinton’s so-called destruction to sexism alone infantilizes her, casts her as a mere victim and denies her of agency. It ignores the (hard) choices she made as a rational actor in the realm of policy and politics, the words she chose, the people she surrounded herself with, the states she chose to visit or not visit.
While the personal is, of course, political, it is worth considering how much your own personal identification with Clinton and your shared experiences prevent you from seeing her for what she was and is: a former senator, Secretary of State, primary candidate, presidential nominee and human being. Is it possible the feminists who weren’t and aren’t as enmeshed in the journey of Hillary Clinton might have a clearer, more rational and less self-centered view of her and her policies, political activity and campaign?
I would like to honor your feelings while at the same time being true to my own. Though I cannot speak on behalf of all my fellow millennials who supported Sanders during the primary, I know that when you find us responsible for Trump’s presidency, it makes me feel like you actually don’t see us as “no less feminist” than you. This in turn makes me feel like you are not being sincere or honest. It had always been my understanding that sisterhood requires open communication, honesty, and trust.
Few of [the young women who support Sanders]—as I know from decades of teaching courses on feminism, gender issues, and the social movements of the 60s—were aware of the “living history” (to borrow Hillary’s phrase) that shaped the woman herself.
Could these young women have based their preference for Sanders on their own realities and living histories? Does it not make sense for women facing stagnant wages, crushing debt, curtailed opportunity, to support the candidate who called for free higher education and a federal minimum wage of $15 an hour over the candidate who preferred a $12 minimum wage and had to be pushed to support the higher one?
Sanders made Clinton more electable by moving her towards more popular positions. If her supporters didn’t like seeing Sanders push her towards better policies, they needed to push Clinton themselves.
I had assumed, perhaps falsely, that every feminist to the left of Sarah Palin sees a living wage as a feminist issue, given that two-thirds of minimum wage workers are women. But you didn’t even address this significant difference. It’s your prerogative to focus more on the gender dynamics and micro-aggressions that you perceive to be at play between Clinton and Sanders than a policy that will improve the lives of millions of people, the majority of whom are women. But that’s a very entitled feminism.
As the daughter of a second-wave boomer feminist, I have a deep appreciation of the subjugation that my mother and Hillary and their whole generation suffered and the advances they won for my generation. And, as often happens, people who benefit from sacrifices made and struggles won before them take these gains for granted.
But your discussion of sexism and of the generational divide flatten women into a demographic pancake. Women, like men, have different political outlooks and ideologies. In fact, my mother and many of her friends, who include pioneering feminists in many fields, supported Sanders, not Clinton, in the primary. Female professors, writers, lawyers, organizers, scientists and doctors of a certain age—they, of course, identified with Clinton’s struggles against sexism and applauded her bravery. But in 2016, their views were shaped by more than biography and demography: their own, Clinton’s or Sanders’. They looked at what Sanders and Clinton were doing and offering and saying, not just at who they related to. They saw Sanders as more progressive in terms of policy impacting women’s lives. Had the two candidates been equal in their political orientations and agendas, they, and I, would surely have supported the one who could be our first female president. But recognizing the diminished resources and security my generation, and their own aging generation, faced from decades of unbridled greed by banks and mega corporations, they chose the candidate who called it like they saw it.
But back to your distortions of Hillary Clinton’s record.
These young women weren’t around when the GOP… began a series of witch-hunts that have never ended. They didn’t witness the complicated story of how the 1994 crime bill came to be passed or the origins of the “super-predator” label (not coined by Hillary and not referring to black youth, but rather to powerful, older drug dealers).
Here are Clinton’s exact words:
“They are not just gangs of kids anymore. They are often the kinds of kids that are called ‘super-predators.’ No conscience, no empathy. We can talk about why they ended up that way, but first we have to bring them to heel’.”
My plan here was to gently urge you to rethink your interpretation of Clinton’s words by pointing to scholar and The New Jim Crow author Michelle Alexander, who, in a piece for The Nation, describes Clinton’s language as “racially coded rhetoric to cast black children as animals.”
But as I reread Alexander’s piece, I encountered, once again, the famous super-predator quote in its context. It turns out I don’t need to gracefully unpack your argument because you completely misrepresented what Clinton said! She was undoubtedly talking about kids! Forgive the exclamation points! I’m writing with such urgency because I know that an established scholar, writer and professor such as yourself would be mortified to have made this mistake and would want to know as soon as possible! Sarah Jones, another millennial feminist, also caught this error. So, you will want to fix this before more people point it out.
Back to your living history.
As I watched Sanders enchant the crowds, it was something of a deja vu experience to see a charismatic male politician on stage telling women which issues are and aren’t progressive.
So, something about the dynamic between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders resonates with your personal living history with men on the left. And because of that, those who see Sanders as a progressive politician, rather than as a stand-in for problematic men, are the bad feminists, who mean well but just don’t get it?
More living history:
In many ways the [1960s] decade was more male-centric than the 50s; it just privileged a different sort of male. Those men loved having us as uninhibited sexual partners and helpers in their political protests, but they never let us forget who was in charge of creating the platforms or who belonged in the political spotlight.
That sounds unfair. I’m also not sure we can pin that on Sanders. But not for lack of effort, on your part:
Sanders was the perfect vehicle to revive political passion both among the older left, revitalised by being on the side of “the revolution” again, and a younger generation . . . Here was this guy who had lived through it all, who looked like a grandfather but spoke like a union organiser . . .
I just feel the need to interject, as the granddaughter of a union organizer, that those two categories are not actually mutually exclusive.
For weeks during the early months of the primary, I listened to 19-year-olds and media pundits alike lavish praise on Bernie Sanders for his bold, revolutionary message, and scorn Hillary for being a part of the establishment.
Which of Clinton’s bold, revolutionary messages might help to debunk these youngsters’ fibs?
He was the champion of the working class (conveniently ignoring that black and white women were members, and that their issues were also working class issues) . . .
Why would you assume that “working class” means white and male to Sanders and his supporters? If you conflate “working class” with “white working class,” that’s on you.
. . . but her longstanding commitments to universal health care, child care, paid sick leave, racial justice, the repeal of the Hyde amendment, and narrowing the wage gap between working men and women apparently evaporated because she’d accepted well-paid invitations to speak at Goldman Sachs.
Do you really want to bring up the Hyde Amendment? Given that Clinton chose Tim Kaine as her running mate, even though he said he would not repeal the anti-choice Hyde Amendment?
At the end of the piece, you indict the media for what you see is a double standard towards the two candidates’ civil rights records.
They posted pictures of him being arrested at a protest against the University of Chicago’s real estate investments, while making no mention of the work Hillary had done, when she was the same age, investigating racist housing practices with Marian Wright Edelman.
In a way, your final paragraph is perfection. It captures everything that is wrong with your piece and your analysis: it gets facts wrong (by accident), it says something misleading (on purpose), and it contradicts itself. For instance, you describe the protest at which Sanders was arrested as one against, the University of “Chicago’s real estate investments,” when it was against segregation in education (against “Willis Wagons,” in particular, the aluminum trailers the Chicago Public Schools Superintendent Benjamin C. Willis placed in Black neighborhoods to serve as classrooms).
What you are referring to in your “real estate” reference occurred a year earlier when Bernie Sanders, then 20, served as one of the leaders of the first sit-in to take place in Chicago. And it was organized after the discovery that housing owned by the University of Chicago refused to rent to Black students.
I’d like to think that trivializing this housing segregation as a real estate investment issue was an honest mistake. But I don’t see how it could be. Not a single article or source I found describes it in those terms.
But let’s turn to Marian Wright Edelman, the founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund, and her relationship with Hillary Clinton. Clinton did, indeed, do incredibly important work for and with Wright Edelman around segregation and education, starting in 1972 when, as a first year law student, Clinton investigated (under cover) the segregation of schools in Dothan, Alabama and then as a chair of the board of the Children’s Defense Fund.
But in yet another example of something you cite which undermines your argument, this close relationship between Clinton and Wright Edelman cooled over political differences.The Clintons were both friends and colleagues of Marian and her husband Peter Edelman, who would serve as an assistant secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services under the Clinton administration. But it was the welfare bill of 1996, which Bill Clinton signed and Hillary Clinton vocally and actively supported and endorsed, that would drive Peter to quit the administration and cause a fallout between the two couples. Wright Edelman urged Bill Clinton against signing the bill, writing in the Washington Post, “What a tragic irony it would be for this regressive attack on children and the poor to occur on your watch. For me, this is a defining moral litmus test for your presidency.” And when he signed it, she said, “President Clinton’s signature on this pernicious bill makes a mockery of his pledge not to hurt children.”
To be fair, Wright Edelman did appear on behalf of Hillary Clinton in 2016 when the race was against Donald Trump. But given how much Clinton refers to her as a mentor, these appearances were few and far between. And Wright Edelman was certainly not stumping for Hillary in the 2008 election. In fact, when Wright Edelman was asked about Hillary Clinton during an interview in July 2007, 7 months into Clinton’s primary run, she said, “Hillary Clinton is an old friend, but [we] are not friends in politics. We profoundly disagreed with the forms of the welfare reform bill, and we said so.”
You may be able to dismiss younger feminists. But surely, you can’t discount the words of one of Clinton’s former mentors and the founder and president of one of the most legendary children’s advocacy organizations. Despite your attachment to who Hillary Clinton used to be or still could be or could have been or might have been, the real-life Hillary Clinton is not the Clinton you want her to be.
A clear-eyed assessment of how and why Donald Trump became president is not just an intellectual exercise or an opportunity to cast blame or religitate the primary. It is the only way to move forward and defeat Trumpism and prevent the next one from propping up.
You claim that young feminists “played a big role in the thin edge (not a landslide, as Trump would have us believe) that gave Trump the election.”
I’d urge you to consider what else could have made up for the “thin edge” that delivered the presidency to Trump. Campaigning in Wisconsin. Spending less money on ads and more money on Latino voter outreach, which was requested and denied.Registering some of the 600,000 Black would-be voters in Florida, where she lost by 100,000 votes.
Of course, getting behind this requires that you accept the idea, foreign to so many Clinton enthusiasts, that candidates need to win elections by earning support. It’s not on the voters to woo and court the candidates. “I’m with her.” You and many feminists in your generation were and that’s fine. But many people, especially those who did not see themselves reflected in Hillary Clinton, including, but not only, young feminists, wanted to hear and believe, She’s with me. She understands my life. And she will be my champion against crushing debt and corporations and endless war that degrade my life and future. But Clinton was not that candidate. And though we voted for her in large numbers in the general election, her vision, as we’d feared in the primary, was not bold enough to counter the faux populism of Donald Trump.
Young women owe your generation of feminists much. But you owe us honesty, respect, and compassion. That’s what many of us millennial feminists felt Hillary Clinton failed to provide. So, you can defend Hillary Clinton’s positions and praise her pragmatism and political expediency. But you can’t pretend she hasn’t changed. Or that she and Sanders were equally progressive or establishment. Or you can. But you’re fooling yourself. If you really believe the millennial feminists you target in your piece are no less feminist than your generation of feminists, then you owe it to yourself and us and our common future to figure out what we value and need in this very different and precarious world of rampant greed, shameful income inequality, militarism, and endless war, overt and covert. And when you figure that out, maybe you can share it with Hillary Clinton.
Erin Neff, of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), and I talk about Susan Bordo’s piece on the episode of The Katie Halper Show.
Born, raised, and still living in NYC, Katie Halper is a writer, radio show host, filmmaker, comedian and former history teacher who identifies as a feminist Bernie Bro. You can find her writing and videos at Rolling Stone, The Guardian, The Nation, Vice, and catch The Katie Halper Show on on WBAI Wednesdays at 7pm, the podcast on Soundcloud and iTunes and extra bonus content at Patreon, and follow her on Twitter.