Self-proclaimed feminist and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has the potential of becoming the first U.S. female president. ‘Girl Power’ isn’t just a playlist on Clinton’s official campaign Spotify; it’s the rallying force that stands firmly behind her.
At a demonstration in February former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called on her fellow women to fight the good fight. “You have to help … there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.”
The binding sisterhood of feminism has been embraced by many of Hillary’s followers. Activist, writer and author of What Will It Take to Make a Woman President? Marianne Schnall says that unlike decades ago, a strong sense of female identity and solidarity among women has spilled into pop-culture “and more well-known figures have been owning it, whether it’s somebody like Beyoncé or Emma Watson” who advocate these values.
Schnall refers to a traditional dictionary definition of feminism: an ideology that believes men and women should have equal rights and opportunities.
It’s “really about making sure that women and girls are empowered to discover and use their voices in the world and make the choices they want for their own selves and well-being.”
Be that as it may, women who didn’t support Clinton were outraged by Albright’s rhetoric. York University professor Sandra Whitworth calls her statements demeaning to younger voters. “I would be furious if I was being dictated to in that way,” Whitworth says. “It’s a bit disturbing.”
Whitworth, who has taught Feminist and Women’s Studies for 26 years, says the conflict surrounding the election “has generated some interesting discussion about whether feminism is just about women or about seeing people gain power who would actually promote feminist politics.”
In this age where conversations are rapid and numerous on social media, carrying different opinions, perspectives and discussions surrounding so–called women’s issues within media and politics have been fiery. Whether feminism at large, its meaning, or its practical implications are good or bad is contentious.
There have been many advances made in women’s issues on all fronts since feminism first emerged in the 19th and early 20th centuries and progress is ongoing. However, sexism in the media is one daunting challenge that discourages women from entering politics, says Nancy Peckford of Equal Voice, “a multi-partisan organization dedicated to electing more women in Canada.” She says, “Women are more susceptible to more social media harassment as elected representatives … we’re really hard on women who stumble,” whether it concerns financial spending or fashion sense.
In 2014, Time magazine ran a piece on Clinton and on its cover was a giant pant-suited leg with a tiny man dragging on the heel of a woman’s shoe. The coverline read “How to Scare Off Your Rivals Without Actually Running Yet.”
In a Huffington Post opinion piece, Schnall says that image provides an example of how “confident women are portrayed in a negative light as threatening or unlikable” and that “women achieving leadership positions are anti-man.”
Like other feminists, Schnall asks for fairness. A problematic request? YouTube vlogger Karen Straughan thinks so. “Feminism tends to take the most uncharitable interpretation when it comes to men; their motivations, their psychology … why patriarchy was sort of a human universal for a millennium.
“Sexism is probably not going to go away,” Straughan says “But, whether that sexism has some sort of nefarious or malicious intention,” is subjective.
And it seems that Straughan isn’t the only woman who has concerns with some feminist theories.
Earlier this year a poll taken by Chatelaine, Canada’s top women’s magazine, found that 68 per cent of women between the ages of 35 and 45 didn’t identity as a feminist. “Partly it was (because) people are very uncomfortable with the word,” says editor-in-chief Lianne George. Those who didn’t use the term opted for another like ‘equalist’ or ‘humanist,’ but still espoused the same beliefs as their feminist counterparts. “They see it as a woman who’s angry, who hates men, who has a real chip on her shoulder.”
Anna M. Agathangelou, associate professor at York University’s Political Science department, explains that it’s very common for people to shield the patriarchal system from criticism. That’s how it becomes a “problematic label.” Feminists “get punished for even raising the question about the inequalities and the violence that we face in society.”
“Feminism is not just about women,” Agathangelou continues, it’s “about everybody in the sense that men can also be equally violated and brutalized by a society that believes that certain norms count.”
The hypothesis and analysis, Whitworth says, “doesn’t fit on a bumper sticker well,” but it also has to do with the reality that “the media doesn’t bother to pay attention to subtlety and complexity.”
George, by contrast, strongly identifies as a feminist and soon after she joined Chatelaine, the magazine re-branded to reflect their long-time political and social values. The response was interesting, to say the least.
In late 2014, after publishing an article on Justin Trudeau and “how he was courting women voters,” external responses were bitter. “A lot of people just assumed that because Chatelaine had published it, it was a fluff piece. And there was a lot of comments about why are we even covering politics. Kind of ‘Why don’t you stick to your cherry cobbler?’ type of comments.”
The editor, who has also worked for the National Post and Maclean’s found the comments curious. Chatelaine was the first publication writing about liberal reproductive rights, “everything from birth control to access to abortion to equal pay … well before the second wave feminists in the states were writing about this.”
The article in question explored Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s character and values, which included supporting women as strong political figures. Speaking on gender parity in January at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Trudeau said, “We shouldn’t be afraid to use the word feminist. Men and women should use it to describe themselves whenever they want.”
Suffice it to say people took notice. “The fact that we have a gender balanced cabinet is hugely important symbolically,” says Peckford, “because it does suggest to women that if you are elected there are opportunities.”
History was made in November when Trudeau appointed Canada’s first gender equal cabinet. When asked why he appointed 15 men and 15 women, he replied, “Because it’s 2015,” with a shrug of his shoulders, his ministers laughing and smiling behind him.
As a result, the country ranked 20th in international women’s political representation in that year according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, a global organization of parliaments.
“Women remain a significant minority in the House of Commons and the under-representation of women has been both chronic and historic,” says Peckford. “We are only seeing very incremental rises. It’s encouraging to see that we have a Prime Minister who is leveraging the talents of women in his caucus.”
But the fact is that parliament as a whole is only 25 per cent female, according to Equal Voice statistics.
It’s evident that more women ought to be engaged in the political process, particularly as candidates for office, but simply voting for women solely based on their gender is no solution. Western University political scientist Christine de Clercy notes voting decisions are far too complex to be based on a single element.
“Most of the survey researchers tell us that there are probably people who do vote (based strictly on sex), but they are a very small proportion of the population,” she says. Most voters weigh their decisions based on several competing factors such as party identification, experience, endorsements and personality.
“Trying to appeal to voters to cast votes just on gender actually is a very difficult strategy and to date has not proved to be a particularly successful basis,” says Clercy. “Hillary Clinton actually demonstrates (that).” Clinton, “a lifelong advocate for women and families,” according to her official campaign website, garnered a mere 18 per cent of the female Democratic voters aged 18 to 29.
The burning leverage Sanders has on Clinton is his inclusive approach to politics. “Bernie Sanders has done a very good job at articulating an attempt to speak to those who have been more marginalized,” says Whitworth, “not only by their gender but by their race, by their class, by their religion which has not been the way Hillary Clinton tends to articulate her positions.”
Perhaps this is why feminist icon Gloria Steinem was widely ridiculed for attempting to explain away Bernie Sanders’ strong following among young women. “When you’re young, you’re thinking: ‘Where are the boys? The boys are with Bernie,’ ” Steinem said on Real Time with Bill Maher, to which Maher responded: “If I said that … you’d swat me.”
Though whether or not feminists ought to vote for Clinton as a symbol of female progress is still debatable. Agathangelou says she doesn’t find this reasoning compelling.
“Hillary has been in the centre of global power,” she says, “so for us not to ask questions of that and assume ‘Hillary is a woman, so we have to vote her in’ without raising questions about her specific policies and what kind of world are you interested in seeing” could be a risky decision.
On the contrary, people who do favour Sanders do so not because of his identity, but because he pushes the boundaries and stands up against dominant institutions of power that oppress more than one kind of person, says Agathangelou.
Political ideologies like feminism, or the socialism of Sanders, espouses inclusion. “I think the best (of feminism) does that,” says Whitworth, striving to establish a system that benefits not only “white middle class women,” but also the whole world.