Hillary Clinton Does Not Represent Values that Help Women

05/11/2016 05:33 pm ET Updated May 12, 2017
US Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks during a rally on  May 11, 2016 in Blackwood, New Jersey. / AFP /
US Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks during a rally on May 11, 2016 in Blackwood, New Jersey. / AFP / KENA BETANCUR (Photo credit should read KENA BETANCUR/AFP/Getty Images)

"I strongly argued that we had to change the [welfare] system...I didn't think it was fair that one single mother improvised to find child care and got up early every day to get to work while another stayed home and relied on welfare...The third bill passed by Congress cut off most benefits to legal immigrants, imposed a five-year lifetime limit on federal welfare benefits, and maintained the status quo on monthly benefit limits, leaving the states free to set benefit limits...I agreed that he [Bill] should sign it and worked hard to round up votes for its passage...Weeks after Bill signed the law, Peter Edelman and Mary Jo Bane, another friend and Assistant Secretary at HHS who had worked on welfare reform, resigned in protest." - Hillary Clinton in her 2003 memoir Hard Choices.

Not liking Hillary has nothing to do with her being a woman. It has everything to do with the hypermasculine values she espouses.

Hillary is that rare combination, even in our grotesque political landscape, of a smooth-talking neoliberal with the worst tendencies of a warrior-neoconservative. You couldn't say that about Bill to the same extent, but there isn't a regime change opportunity, a chemical or conventional arms deal, an escalated aerial (or lately drone) war, or an authoritarian friend in need, that Hillary hasn't liked. If we get her, we will only be setting back feminism by decades, because her policies--like welfare "reform"--have always come packaged under the false rubric of caring for women and children. It's like George W. Bush's "compassionate conservatism," the rhetorical cover she needs to enact policies, time after time, that erode women's and children's standing even as she claims to be their steadfast advocate.

It has been disheartening for me to read some female intellectuals, particularly in the New York literary world, rage against any criticism of Hillary. We are told it's only sexism that makes us speak. We'd better check our feminist credentials. Are we, who criticize Hillary, misogynists? Then why do we have kind words for, say, Elizabeth Warren?

We've had similar criticisms of Condoleezza Rice, Sarah Palin, and Carly Fiorina. Fiorina, for me, was the scariest person running for president this cycle; you felt that poor autistic Ben Carson, if you begged and pleaded with him for your life, just might spare you, but not Carly! Carly even made a virtue of dragging Hewlett Packard down into the pits, which is not much different than Hillary's indifference to the erosion that occurred in foreign policy during her tenure as Secretary of State, as she failed to move into a more liberal paradigm, insisting on sanctions and other punitive regimes, in countries like Iran, that disproportionately hurt women. John Kerry, once he took over, quickly picked up the dropped ball and achieved diplomatic success on a range of fronts, including climate change, where Hillary had failed.

There is a palpable deficit of feminist values in this country's politics, after sixteen dark years of war, surveillance, vigilantism, police controls, economic servitude, and debt. To the extent that we can generalize about feminine and masculine values, the country desperately desires--well, two-thirds of it anyway, those besides Trump and Cruz fans--a reinjection of feminine values. That means compassion, acceptance, and understanding for those left behind by misguided economic policies. That means valuing, once again, as this nation has done for the periods it has shone brightest, imagination, beauty, soft-spokenness, and unexpected generosity.

In the early 1990s Hillary did represent, to some limited symbolic level, a change for the better in terms of feminist values--though this certainly didn't translate into actual policy improvements for women or children or minorities, rather the opposite occurred in policies engineered by the Clintons. Furthermore, one could argue that it was George H. W. Bush who prompted the relative humanization of the 1990s, after the harsh Reagan-era rhetoric, promising a kindler, gentler nation, and aspiring to be the "education president" and "the environmental president." The elder Bush's policies were to the left of either Clinton, when it came to immigration, civil liberties, clean air, disability, and many other issues.

The Clintons went out of their way to pursue--often gratuitously--policies that hurt women and children. The reelection seemed safely in their pockets, yet they went ahead anyway with harmful laws on crime, welfare, telecommunications, immigration, and surveillance, legitimizing right-wing discourse that was to bear full fruit in the following decade. It was the Clintons who set the stage for the massive harm that was to befall women, immigrants, the poor, the elderly, and children once they provided liberal cover to social darwinist ideas that had been swirling around in maniacal think tanks but had not been able to make it through congress.

The Clintons have somehow managed to convince half the sane world that they should be the natural recipients of African-American votes, despite everything they have done, when in power, to erode the economic security of African Americans and other minorities; the false hope raised during the 1990s was that the economic boom, itself a mirage as it turned out, would eventually lead to significant wage gains, but that never happened.

Poor and minority women and children were drastically hurt by the welfare bill the Clintons so enthusiastically pushed through congress, and likewise all the policies, from trade to student aid, they pursued in the name of fiscal responsibility, cutting the deficit and the debt, and playing by Wall Street's tune. On neoliberal disciplinary virtues (which in Hillary's mouth are twisted in a rhetoric of "empowerment"), she's little different than Milton Friedman, the greatest post-war popularizer of the "free market" mythos. "Personal responsibility," separating the virtuous from those deserving of sanctions, is as much a credo for her as it was for Reagan, as it was for Barry Goldwater.

The global IMF and World Bank consensus, the regime of structural adjustment to make developing countries fall in line with the dictat of bankers in the developed world, reached the peak of its authority during the 1990s (even Reagan hadn't been as effective at legitimizing the paradigm in the developing world). The so-called "Washington consensus" was, and remains, a nihilistic retort to any type of redistributive policies poorer countries might wish to pursue to uplift their people. Is cutting education and health care and utility subsidies, in the name of balancing budgets to the satisfaction of the global banking elite, a feminist value? Yet no one is more responsible than the Clintons for making the withdrawal of government from public services worldwide gospel--at least until some Latin American countries finally started breaking away from the imposition in the 2000s.

Though she still likes to present herself as a fighter for women's and children's rights, let's keep our sights on Hillary's actual record.

When Central American refugee children started streaming over the southern border a couple of years ago, Hillary was quick on the mark to condemn these poor souls to death and oppression. In a 2014 discussion with Christiane Amanpour, she refused to say that she would allow unaccompanied minors fleeing violence to stay in the country, insisting instead on the "message" of deterrence that had to be sent to prevent others from thinking of seeking refuge in the U.S.

Though Bernie Sanders didn't use this example during the last Democratic debate, when it came time to tighten the screws on bankruptcy laws, making it harder for poor people--often women--to escape the burden of unreasonable debt, Hillary was there to do the big financial institutions' bidding (the law eventually passed congress in 2005).

She has always been late to the scene, and adopts a placating rhetorical stance, on any cutting-edge progressive issue, from gay rights to drug legalization to doing something about mass incarceration, even if her policies (such as the "defense of marriage") have explicitly promoted the regressive attitudes in the first place. She likes to show up, once someone else has done the job, to pick the credit, as she did when she eagerly stood with New York governor Andrew Cuomo for passage of the $15 minimum wage, something she was opposed to in principle at the national level; in any case, incrementally lifting the minimum wage to $15 in different states, in three to five to seven years, is already too little too late.

The huge affection shown for Barack Obama in the first six months of 2008 was because he came across--rather disingenuously as it turned out--as embodying feminist values. He enunciated an ethics of compassion we had sorely missed during the macho Bush years. All that changed as soon as his nomination was secured, and after June 2008 he had no further interest in holding anyone accountable for the vicious hypermasculine deeds of the preceding eight years.

Hillary has always undercut feminism by selectively appropriating hyperfeminine tropes when it suits her politically, undermining the ideal of the equality of men and women, including emotional equality. She calls up the tears when necessary, for example in the 2008 New Hampshire primary, to get sympathy. The entire subtext of her sixteen-year-long positioning for the presidency seems to be, I've paid my dues, especially in terms of the emotional costs, so I must have my turn. This is not a particularly empowering feminist message. Likewise, to keep repeating the one million miles she traveled and the 112 countries she visited as Secretary of State seems a throwback to the prefeminist notion of backbreaking work for its own sake. She was there, she may not have a record to point to, but she sure showed up and worked her butt off to be physically present everywhere!

I desperately wish to see a female president. It happened long ago in many other nations, some of which are not even "developed" countries by our reckoning. Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and many others did it a while ago. Yes, it would be wonderful to have a female president, but it turns out that this time it's Bernie Sanders who comes closest to representing the feminist values of caring, trust, understanding, compassion, peace, and yes--love.

If only, for a single moment in this campaign, Hillary had showed some humanity, a momentary break from her constant triangulating and having it both ways, thinking she's obligated to always give a confusing double-edged answer to every question! She didn't do it on her 2014 book tour either, which told me she had learned nothing from the way her 2008 campaign failed to resonate with voters looking for feminist values.

She is a severely compromised candidate, because the way she articulates her policies jars so badly with what we expect of an ethics of caring. It is jarring in the same way that Condi or Carly were, and it is a particular contrast to Bernie's soft side on full display at rallies and in debates, and to Obama's softer side (at least until the summer of 2008). I don't believe the country will only accept a female president if she's dressed up in patriarchal regalia; this is yet another way Hillary has long been undermining feminism, by making us believe that actual feminist values are simply not palatable for public discourse at the national level.

Eileen Myles (a poet whom I like a lot, and who in fact wrote in praise of my first poetry book), recently wrote a defense of Hillary, because "wouldn't you want...[a vagina] sitting on the chair in the Oval Office?" Indeed, Eileen, I couldn't agree more, and I respect you for your lifelong commitment to equality, but may we please get a vagina that doesn't have a patriarchal mind attached to it?

We who support Sanders are not BernieBros. Please don't demean us by calling us that. It is not about hating Hillary's gender. It is about our own desperate desire for feminist values.

Anis Shivani's books in the last year include Karachi Raj: A Novel, Whatever Speaks on Behalf of Hashish: Poems, and Soraya: Sonnets (forthcoming June 2016). His new novel is A History of the Cat in Nine Chapters or Less.