Hillary Clinton's Legacy

05/25/2011 12:30 pm ET
  • Bob Ostertag Composer, Historian, Journalist, and Professor of Technocultural Studies and Music at UC Davis

Two months ago I wrote about the emerging parallels between the bitterness of the current Democratic primary and the split between early white women's rights activists and abolitionists after the Civil War. With the campaign of Hillary Clinton sputtering to its final end, it is appropriate to revisit these issue and see if the disturbing parallels I pointed out have increased or decreased in relevancy since March.

Unfortunately, the historic parallels have only become stronger, and are nearly perfectly crystallized in yesterday's New York Times op-ed by Susan Faludi, the award-winning white feminist author, congratulating Clinton for running a campaign that has advanced the feminist movement in America:

In the final stretch of the primary season, [Clinton] seems to have stepped across an unstated gender divide...We are witnessing a female competitor delighting in the undomesticated fray. Her new no-holds-barred pugnacity and gleeful perseverance have revamped her image in the eyes of begrudging white male voters... It's the unforeseen precedent of an unprecedented candidacy... Not once has she demanded that the umpire stop the fight. Indeed, she's asking for more unregulated action, proposing a debate with no press-corps intermediaries. While the commentators have been tut-tutting, Senator Clinton has been converting white males, assuring them that she's come into their tavern not to smash the bottles, but to join the brawl. ... The strategy has certainly remade the political world for future female politicians, who may now cast off the assumption that when the going gets tough, the tough girl will resort to unilateral rectitude. When a woman does ascend through the glass ceiling into the White House, it will be, in part, because of the race of 2008, when Hillary Clinton broke through the glass floor and got down with the boys.

My original post comparing the present situation to that following the Civil War is included below. The short version is this: after the war, a major schism erupted among abolitionists over whether to campaign first to grant the vote to former (male) slaves, and then to press extend the vote to women (of all colors), or whether to fight for both at the same time. When it became clear that the majority of abolitionists favored pressing the black vote first, two of the most prominent white women's rights activists broke with the movement and began to campaign for white woman suffrage on explicitly racist grounds. They argued that giving white women the vote would protect the nation from the unsavory political influence of former slaves and Asian immigrants. The result was a split in the movement for woman suffrage that hobbled that movement for 50 years.

Faludi's argument fits into this historic parallel perfectly. Clinton, we are told, has done a favor for all American women by campaigning with "new no-holds-barred pugnacity" and "joining the brawl." Incredibly, Faludi neglects to mention the content of what Clinton's closest advisors referred to last week as her display of testicles: racism and war-mongering.

The day after the most recent primaries, Clinton told USA Today that she must continue because she has growing support among "working, hard working Americans. White Americans." It is worth your while to go to YouTube and hear this statement for yourself. When you hear her inflection, it comes off even worse than it does in print. She begins to say that Obama is losing support among "working" Americans, then pauses to specify what she is actually referring to is "hard working Americans," then pauses and specifies even more precisely "white" Americans. She then continues, noting that "whites in both states who had not completed college were supporting me."

OK, Hillary, we hear you. As opposed to all those lazy blacks and do-nothing white college grads, you've got the support of the people who actually work hard in this country - uneducated white people. That is, in essence, exactly the appeal made by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton after the Civil War: the same argument, made to mobilize the same constituency.

The first time around, this agenda created a split in the movement for woman suffrage that would hobble the movement for 50 long years until American women finally won the right to vote in 1920. The whole sordid history is a painful chapter in American feminism that causes American feminists discomfort even today, nearly 150 years later. Some feminists have promoted Anthony and Stanton as historical heroines and role models, and in the 1970s Anthony became the first woman to appear on American money when the Susan B. Anthony dollar was minted. Other feminists strongly object, arguing that ignoring the racist legacy of these women only exacerbates the racial divisions that have plagued feminism in America.

But racism was not the only appeal on which Clinton based what Faludi sees as her effort to "remake the political world for future female politicians." The other was war. In order to convince those uneducated white voters that she had sufficient testosterone to be Commander-in-Chief-from-Day-One, she flatly stated that she would have no qualms about "obliterating" another country, leading her confidant James Carville to state that if Hillary gave Obama one of her balls, "they'd both have two."

This statement, coming from a leading presidential candidate in the only country in the world to ever have used nuclear weapons, was so egregious that it merited a rebuke from the Secretary General of the United Nations. I cannot remember another time when any world leader in any country, trying to drum up last minute votes in an election, made a statement so outrageous as to draw comment from the UN Secretary General.

So, no, I cannot agree with Faludi that Clinton's "strategy has certainly remade the political world for future female politicians." It is simply not news that a female politician who outdoes the guys in appeals to race and war can be successful. Think Margaret Thatcher. The fact that she ran on a machine largely created by her husband, whom she regularly employed to wallow in a gutter even lower than that to which she herself had sunk, makes Faludi's argument even more ludicrous. Incredibly, in Faludi's entire article summing up the political impact of the Clinton campaign, the words "Bill," "William," and "husband" do not appear. Clinton has not even withdrawn yet and the re-writing of history has already begun.

Here is my post from March:

The recent behavior of the Clinton campaign and its allies has disturbing parallels in the earliest days of the woman suffrage movement. Then, in the face of a short-term set-back, the most prominent woman suffrage campaigners broke with the abolitionist movement and espoused explicitly racist politics. The result was a debilitating split in the movement for woman suffrage, and a half century of defeat.

The women in question are Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Like other early women's rights advocates, Stanton and Anthony initially became politically active in the abolitionist movement, and through this activism began formulating an increasingly articulate feminist agenda (though the word "feminism" was not available to them at the time).

The civil war put women's rights on hold, as abolitionist women threw their energies into the union war effort. After the war, the question of voting rights for freed slaves moved to the top of the national agenda. Slavery was ended, but whether the freed slaves would be granted the full rights of citizens, and most particularly the right to vote, was anything but certain. To Stanton and Anthony, the debate on voting rights was an open door for a push to extend the vote to all adult citizens regardless of race or gender. They took it as given that the political coalition which had achieved abolition and was now poised to campaign for the Fourteenth Amendment would see things the same way. It was inconceivable to them that the nation might grant the vote to black men yet leave black women - and white women - disenfranchised.

Most abolitionist leaders, including prominent white women such as Lucy Stone, took an opposite tack, arguing that it was the "Negro's hour" and women would have to wait. In their view, while black suffrage and woman suffrage might be linked logically, the political reality was that the fight for black male suffrage would be a difficult one, and complicating the matter by raising woman suffrage would put the fruits of the tremendous sacrifices of the civil war in jeopardy. Victory for black suffrage, they argued, would open the door for women, whereas a defeat for black suffrage would close all possibility of enlarging the franchised population for years to come. Those advocating this course included movement superstars William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass, both of whom had consistently been far ahead of the pack in their support of female abolitionists formulating a program for women's rights.

The issue came to a head in 1867 in Kansas, where citizens were asked to vote simultaneously on two separate constitutional amendments, one enfranchising black men, the other women. The outcome would finally decide the debate over whether the political rights of slaves would be defined as the "[male] Negro's hour" or a "more complete democracy." With so much on the line, the split between those campaigning for just one or both amendments became predictably bitter. On election day black suffrage won, while woman suffrage lost overwhelmingly.

The real political catastrophe, however, was not this set-back but the ugly politics that ensued. What had begun as a principled disagreement with reasoned arguments on both sides degenerated into a political debacle as one side in the debate refused to accept that its position would lose. Stanton and Anthony had been the most prominent woman suffrage campaigners in the Kansas election, and as they sensed victory slipping beyond their reach they tried to shore up their prospects by reaching out to racists. They developed a close relationship with a flamboyant racist named George Francis Train, who stumped for them around the state. Attacks on the intelligence of blacks were fundamental to Train's standard appeal, and he employed them as an argument for voting rights for women. The collaboration between two top woman suffragists and such a blatant racist horrified many other suffragists. Stanton and Anthony shocked their friends by refusing to budge in the face of withering criticism. "So long as opposition to slavery is the only test for your platform," Stanton angrily wrote to the abolitionists, "why should we not accept all in favor of woman suffrage to our platform and association, even though they be rabid pro-slavery?"

The following year, Stanton, Anthony and Train launched the Revolution, a newspaper which broke much new ground for women's rights in America, discussing prostitution, infanticide, sex education, cooperative housekeeping. But the paper also carried on with explicitly racist appeals to white women. "American women of wealth, education, virtue, and refinement," Stanton warned, "If you do not wish the lower orders of Chinese, Africans, Germans and Irish, with the low ideas of womanhood to make laws for you and your daughters, ... to dictate not only the civil, but moral codes by which you shall be governed, awake to the danger of your present position."

Thus began a split in the movement for woman suffrage that would hobble the movement for 50 long years until American women finally won the right to vote in 1920. The whole sordid history is a painful chapter that causes American feminists discomfort even today. Some feminists have promoted Anthony and Stanton as historical heroines and role models, and in the 1970s Anthony became the first woman to appear on American money when the Susan B. Anthony dollar was minted. Other feminists have strongly objected, arguing that ignoring the racist legacy of these women only exacerbates the racial divisions that have plagued feminism in America.

The parallels with today are obvious. As the Clinton campaign began to feel the chances of Hillary Clinton becoming the first female president slip away, the campaign has resorted to increasingly racist appeals. One wonders if, decades from now, Hillary Clinton will be a hero in the feminist pantheon or, like Stanton and Anthony, a reminder of a painful episode that future feminists will prefer to forget.

For more on this history, see my recent book, People's Movements, People's Press: The Journalism of Social Justice Movements (Beacon Press, 2006).