In 2008, I was a sophomore in high school. I was unable to vote, but offered up all my support to Barack Obama anyway. Even as I crossed my fingers and hoped that he came out on top in the primary against Hillary Clinton, I still held onto the belief that regardless of who got the nomination I’d be represented. A black man, or a white woman. It didn’t occur to me until much later that I wasn’t fully represented by either of them, and now I see even less of myself in Clinton’s nomination than I did Obama’s. Clinton’s nomination is historic, and she should take a lot of pride in her victory as the first woman to be nominated to lead a major party, but her nomination didn’t land with all of us, even if we still plan to give her our vote.
After Clinton surpassed the number of delegates necessary for her nomination, it was an exciting moment for the supporters who’d been watching her go toe-to-toe with Bernie Sanders. Articles popped up about Clinton breaking “the last glass ceiling” and how her mother was born the same day the 19th amendment was ratified as if this is proof the cosmos conspired to make Clinton the first female Democratic nominee. Maybe the cosmos did conspire a little bit (who am I to say they didn’t?) but everyone needs to keep in mind that the 19th amendment only gave white women the right to vote. Women of color didn’t get that until much later.
While the “all women got the right to vote” thing is a common error, it speaks to what women of color see when looking at Hillary Clinton: a beacon of progress for white women. A reminder that while Hillary Clinton may have shattered a glass ceiling for white women, a lot of us are still standing under our own. It’s not discrediting Clinton’s accomplishment to say that I’m not exactly thrilled with her candidacy. We can appreciate, and even celebrate, Hillary’s historic win without lifting up her nomination as progress for all women.
Clinton’s first speech after winning the nomination is being heralded as “intersectional” (like “Hillary Clinton Spoke About Reproductive Justice in A Genuinely Intersectional Way,” a headline that gives me hives). The speech was intersectional, about the necessity of abortion rights for women of all economic and racial backgrounds. But we still don’t have any way of knowing, aside from what Clinton tells us, that she also values intersectionality in feminism and in politics.
Intersectionality, coined by Kimberle Crenshaw in the 1980s, is the theory of how different forms of oppression interact and has been moving into mainstream feminist conversations in recent years. As it should. If you ask me, all feminists should be intersectional, but it’s frustratingly difficult for women of privilege (like the white, cis-gendered, straight, able-bodied, wealthy Clinton) to engage with the ways their oppression differs from women of different backgrounds. That “intersectionality” is even being used when it comes to Hillary Clinton says something about the ways in which our expectations are being broadened surrounding women in power, but we still have to be very careful about using that word when it comes to Hillary Clinton, whose politics have been entirely unintersectional.
We can’t talk about what Hillary Clinton will do as president without talking about what she did when she wasn’t. Clinton is one of the most trigger happy and interventionist politicians to enter the race, recommending disastrous military action that’s led to the deaths of thousands of civilians (including women) and bolstered oppressive groups that commit their own vicious crimes against women. As First Lady she began the “superpredator” myth and co-signed Bill Clinton’s Violent Crime Acts bill that ended up disproportionately affecting black communities, and she supported and lobbied for policies that only heightened the disadvantages faced by black Americans. And those are just a couple of examples. Clinton’s policies haven’t always (some would say ever) been in line with the kind of feminist credibility she’s being given now.
The nature of feminism, including intersectional feminism, is that beliefs can evolve. We can and should unlearn harmful ideologies and make an effort to do better in the future. Maybe Hillary Clinton, whose campaign has made a point to stress how intersectional she is nowadays (sometimes in very cringeworthy ways), has done that. But that’s one hell of a chance to take on someone with her record. Since her campaign began, Clinton’s said that she regrets voting for the Iraq War and “super predators” and has outlined plans to reverse the damage caused largely by Bill Clinton’s policies. But even if Clinton is saying all the right things, that doesn’t erase what we’ve seen from her already. If she’s really seen the error in her ways, we won’t know for sure until she actually arrives in the White House – if she makes it there.
At this point, I’m just crossing my fingers and hoping for the best.
She should take great pride in what she’s accomplished, but the uncertainty surrounding her intentions makes it hard for me to do the same. It’s possible, but being 100%, totally excited about a presidential candidate is a rare, once-in-a-lifetime sort of occurrence. My excitement for Obama in 2008 was equal parts seeing a black man with a real shot at the presidency and being an excitable high schooler. Even as my excitement has dimmed over the years, I’m not immune to the historical significance of Clinton’s nomination. It means something great that the first vote I ever cast in a presidential election was for a black man and the second will be for for a white woman.
Clinton’s visibility and high chances of election (compared to those of other female candidates who have come before) are going to mean something to young women who may not understand all the complexities but will still see a woman with great political power. But it can’t all be about the optics and the history, it’s also about the politics.