We Must Not Become Clinton Apologists

After clinching the nomination, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton rode to a resounding conclusion to this primary season, winning the District of Columbia by 78% to 21%, an electoral end zone dance following her triumph over Senator Bernie Sanders.

The cliches about history being made are undoubtedly true; just under a century since the passage of the 19th Amendment, that very franchise was exercised to elevate a woman to the cusp of the presidency. To commemorate this, Clinton’s team crafted a viral campaign video that situated their candidate as the natural byproduct of a long-running, intersectional movement for justice and equality — notably, even trans women had speaking roles in the clip, another milestone in mainstream politics.

I feel no guilt about saying that I am glad to finally see a liberal woman nominated for the presidency.

There’s a lot to reflect on, however, now that the celebrations have subsided.

Clinton is not just an “imperfect” candidate, as the popular euphemism goes. It says something discomfiting about white patriarchy that the first woman to be nominated as the candidate of our putatively left of center party is one who has had to go out of her way to distinguish herself as an incrementalist hawk, whose compromises can be measured in blood, and who — by any number of exhaustive accounts in the press and by scholars — is friendlier to militarism than the Obama Administration has been. This is all sobering, to say the least.

It has been speculated that this hawkishness is itself a byproduct of the patriarchy; if a male politician lives in fear of not being seen as “tough,” then a woman cannot risk even the faintest trace of “weakness.” In the American context, with muscular militarism writ large everywhere one turns, that means being a hawk — even being an out-and-out war criminal. It is on the political stage where the old adage “work twice as hard to be seen as half as good” is perverted into something truly awful. For what does being “good” in this arena actually mean? What does being a “strong leader” look like in the political system?

We got hints of this commitment to hawkishness in how Clinton reacted to the Orlando massacre, calling for redoubled bombing of ISIS in response — despite the fact that the shooter’s link to ISIS is as tenuous as a single furious declaration in his final moments, and despite the mounting evidence that he was motivated by a distinctly domestic kind of homophobia and machismo-inflected desire to act violently upon it. Clinton did what a “strong man” (or, just a plain old strongman, cf. Trump) would have done, and pledged that the faintest intimations or shadows of Islamic extremism must be met by more indiscriminate bombing campaigns.

This is the trap many women politicians will find themselves in — lacking the freedom to be as relatively nuanced as President Obama for fear of such “weakness” being seen as an indisputable biological defect rather than a debatable moral one. This is worth recognizing when trying to understand Clinton’s decisions, and certainly some feminists like Jill Filipovic have made this argument at some length.

But too often, this is where the conversation stops; for progressives, the options seem to be either accepting Hillary’s hawkish views as the byproduct of her trying to make it as a woman in politics, or detesting those views so much that we staunchly condemn her candidacy. There is, as always, another path.

We mustn’t simply stop there and wash our hands of the matter; even if there is an understandable fear of holding women to a higher standard, it is possible to avoid misogyny while critiquing Clinton’s choices. Indeed, she also responded to Orlando with pro-LGBT messages and calls for stronger gun control, progressive interests that should be nurtured and contrasted with her hawkishness; feminists need not outright reject her, but we must push her on these issues, encouraging her better instincts and protesting her ugliest ones. Forceful protest of any militaristic Clinton administration foreign policy should be encouraged rather than hamstrung by liberals, and a coalition of communities, activists, and policymakers should be willing to work with that same administration on productive domestic policies. We will have to walk and chew gum at the same time, supporting Clinton when she lifts people up, and protesting vigorously when her trust of American might leads to imperialist posturing.

Once the election as a whole is over, feminists as a whole will have to reckon with this new and uncomfortable analytic terrain. The woman who will inevitably be crowned with the Ms. Magazine headline “This is What a President Looks Like” is also a white woman of the economic elite who, for a great many Arab and Muslim people, is a leader insensitive to how their lives matter. That is inescapable, and it is not a moral rounding error but a serious crime, of which we must take ownership.

We will have to find a way to criticize her and hold her accountable, to see her as a beginning, not an end; now that she’s punched a hole in the glass ceiling, we should fight to get a truly progressive, radically minded woman through it. I will be a feminist writer for many years to come, but I will not sign up for a feminist critical enterprise that makes apologism for a President Hillary Clinton its core mission. As she has adopted the full sweep of feminist history as a prologue to her career, so too must we address her as a standard bearer and a consequence of feminist failures to live up to the best of our ideals, and to recognize how her career is in part the result of what our system forces women to be in order to succeed, rather than merely excusing or defending it.

For those of us who “make it,” the pressure to uphold the patriarchal values of our institutions is oceanic in its weight. To prove ourselves the equals of men, we must often prove ourselves to be as ruthless as them in enforcing the old order; in this way, perversely, we prove not to be a “threat.” A woman must be an “Iron Lady” in order to succeed and be accepted by her peers in spite of her gender.

But we as feminists, if we are to continue to promote faith in the liberal democratic enterprise, must push for more than this, and chart a way forward for women leaders to do more than simply be the best patriarch they can be. That should be the aim of our criticism: how to help women with political aspirations go beyond what Clinton felt herself to be capable of. To dare more. It’s possible we needed Clinton to create space for that, to force the public to accept the reality of a woman presidential candidate, but whether or not that’s true, we must still strive for more.


I straddle a strange line. I am a trans Latina who grew up working class and “made it,” so I wear suits, talk pretty, and have a white collar profession, all while being a woman; in some ways, I’m the natural constituency among feminists for Clinton, women who can relate to her and see themselves in her and her struggle.

But I don’t.

I am not white; my university experience is excruciatingly rare in my vast extended family; my right to use public restrooms and otherwise exist is hotly debated; my economic position is precarious. Unlike many of the feminist media luminaries I look up to, my position is one that makes it difficult for me to isomorphically map my experience onto Clinton’s. Where some feminists see her as the pinnacle of “our” achievement, I can only ever see her as someone else, a woman whose constellation of symbolism spells out something that was never meant for me and that I can never be.

And yet she has blazed out space for someone who might be more than that. And this matters, too.


Lead image: flickr/US Embassy Kabul Afghanistan

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