Michelle Obama has reignited debate about whether women have a special duty to back female candidates in elections. But her suggestion that women don’t know what’s in their own best interest is sexist and patronising.
Madeleine Albright, the first woman Secretary of State, decreed that there was ‘a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other!’
Some, it seems, are still coming to terms with the fact that women backed Trump in last year’s US Presidential election.
‘As far as I’m concerned, any woman who voted against Hillary Clinton voted against their own voice,’ announced Michelle Obama at a conference in Boston this week.
Overall, just 54% of women voted for Clinton in 2016. White women in particular have been criticised for voting the wrong way. 52% of white women chose Trump over Clinton. A majority of white women without college education backed Trump (61%) as did 45% of white women with a degree.
Theories abound as to why Clinton lost. Some point the finger at sexist voters, others at Russian attempts to influence the election; some point to fake news, others suggest Clinton was too much of an establishment figure.
In the eyes of Michelle Obama, Trump’s success tells us nothing about Clinton’s weaknesses as a candidate:
‘To me, it doesn’t say as much about Hillary ― and everybody’s trying to wonder. Well, what does it mean for Hillary? No, no, no.’
Obama thinks we are all asking the wrong questions. The question we should be asking is:
‘What does it mean for us as women? That we look at those two candidates, as women, and many of us said, ‘That guy. He’s better for me. His voice is more true to me.’’
Obama’s repetition of ‘as women’ is revealing. Her assumption is that women enter the voting booth and vote — not as individuals — but as representatives of their gender. Whereas men might be expected to weigh up where candidates stand in relation to a range of issues, women, she assumes, have their gender to the fore in the decision making process. And if they don’t, then they should.
There is no evidence to show that women are more likely to vote as representatives of their gender than men. Surveys suggest that the economy and terrorism were the issues that concerned voters the most in the run up to the election. These issues were just as likely to be of concern to women voters as men. Unemployment, defence, education, the environment — any number of issues may have been more important to women than a narrow fixation on what was best for women. After all, women are just as capable of rational decision making and separating national issues from their own immediate concerns as men.
Some women no doubt did vote ‘as women’ and in the interests of women — and may have decided the best person to represent them was Trump. Socially conservative women, particularly those against abortion, might have backed Trump as a positive choice and as a riposte to the liberals who choose to ignore or berate them.
Obama has an answer to these women: ‘Well, to me that just says you don’t like your voice. You like the thing we’re told to like.’
Her assumption here is that women who voted for Trump are incapable of independent thought and instead act out of internalised misogyny. In other words, women who hold different views to Clinton, Obama and Albright suffer from a form of self-loathing that renders them unable to do anything other than please men. How insulting.
It’s Obama who seems to hold women in low regard. On the campaign trail she criticised Trump for his insalubrious boasting about ‘grabbing women by the pussy’. ‘I can’t stop thinking about this,’ Obama said at the time, ‘It has shaken me to my core in a way I could not have predicted’. But not all women reacted in this way. Some women were able to brush off a stupid and degrading comment. This is not to say it was a funny or trivial remark but simply that some women chose not to be offended, not to be shaken to the core over a decade-old, off-the-record boast. They looked instead at Clinton and Trump’s policies and found Clinton more wanting of new ideas.
Obama assumes women have simply become used to taking sexist insults: ‘I know you have sat, women who have sat in a classroom, or in a boardroom or around a conference table and watched a man go on and on and on and on and on, maybe saying something, but a lot of times saying not a lot, but taking up a whole lot of space’. She continued, ‘We have been socialized to sort of sit there and be quiet. We can’t afford to just sit by and let other people run roughshod because we are living that reality right now.’
In short, women should vote as women and for women because of ‘manspreading’ and ‘mansplaining’. This is trading in stereotypes. Does Barack ‘go on and on and on and on and on’ we might wonder, or is it only certain types of men?
Indeed, is it all women who are deserving of our vote or only some? What about the likes of Ann Coulter or Kellyanne Conway? Margaret Thatcher or Theresa May? The injunction on women to vote for women is really a way of chastising women for not doing as they are told by the likes of Obama, Clinton and Albright.
Joanna Williams is the author of Women vs Feminism, Why we all need liberating from the gender wars.