Election's Secret Theme: Letting Women Know Who's Boss

(Photo: AP/Matt Rourke)

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks to supporters in Hooksett, New Hampshire, after the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday, February 9, 2016.

As they tend to be, the media narrative emerging from New Hampshire the day after the first-in-the-nation primary is simple: a tale of two “outsiders” named Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.

Yet step back to examine the campaign’s ongoing controversies and it becomes clear that the subtext, the dark undercurrent, of the 2016 presidential contest is about something even greater than the changing dynamics of America’s major political parties. It’s about the role of women in American society. And a whole lot of Americans, male and female alike, remain uncomfortable with the notion of real female power.

On the Republican side, that’s evident not only in the stances against women’s rights embraced by all the GOP candidates, but particularly in the utterances of frontrunner Donald Trump, who has placed misogyny first on the list of cultural resentments that fuel his campaign. Just this week, Trump echoed an audience member who used the word “pussy” to describe rival Ted Cruz (because of the senator’s squeamishness on the use of waterboarding as an interrogation technique), and his reference last August to the menstrual cycle of Fox News personality Megyn Kelly was all-telling. Judging from his decisive win in New Hampshire, this tactic seems to be working.

Among Democrats, the dynamics of gender are more complicated and, like the campaign itself, express generational differences. According to the ABC News exit poll, while Sanders won overall among women primary voters, Clinton won 56 percent of women over the age of 45. Put another way, this roughly breaks down to a Sanders/Clinton gap between women born before the 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade, and those born after. (It’s not quite as clear-cut as that, of course; Sanders won 43 percent of women over 45.)

But the stage had already been set for the current war over the meaning of feminism, which broke out on February 6, after Gloria Steinem’s appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher, and Madeline Albright’s ill-timed repetition of her old line, “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women,” at a Hillary Clinton rally. (Steinem promptly apologized for a dismissive remark about young women who support Sanders—nestled in a paean to millennial feminists—but there are many, like New York Times columnist Frank Bruni, who are invested in not letting it die.)

To understand the frustration of older feminists (of which I am one) in this election—frustrations that may have led to those lapses in message discipline—allow me to refer you to that time Bernie referred to Planned Parenthood as “part of the political establishment” in an attempt to deflect the importance of Clinton having won the organization’s endorsement.

That time was a January 19 appearance on MSNBC. We had just closed out a year in which 57 new anti-choice laws were added to the books, in which an epic slander was conducted against Planned Parenthood by video-producing right-wing activists, in which Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards was hauled before a congressional committee to answer the lies put forward by the anti-choice slanderers, and in which three people were slain in a Planned Parenthood clinic by a gunman said to have been motivated by those very lies. Then there’s the fundamental fact that part and parcel of any healthy economy is women’s right to control their fertility, and Planned Parenthood is being demonized for facilitating just that. Yeah, I’m feeling a burn even as I type this.

Perhaps Sanders’s sour-grapes disparagement might have been less disturbing had his campaign paid any special attention to women’s rights before being shamed into it, or given more than lip service to the income inequality that exists between men and women. I say this not to disparage the majority of female New Hampshire Democratic primary voters who cast ballots for Sanders, or to make excuses for the Clinton campaign.

The sting of income inequality is felt acutely by women, who still earn a mere 77 cents to every dollar made by a man, and Sanders’s rhetoric about a rigged economy resonates for good reason. Nonetheless, for all of its broad-strokes structural analysis, the overall Sanders campaign message is that class warfare alone will right the societal power imbalances that plague lives of people in marginalized groups. It won’t. Within every social class, be it the 1 percent or the several that comprise the 99 percent, some people are more equal than others.

A common thread in the critique made of Clinton supporters by those backing Sanders is that Clinton’s gender shouldn’t matter in this quest. (I’m looking at you, Frank Bruni.) She’s on the wrong side of history, they say, what with her ties to the financial industry, her bad Iraq war vote. And Hillary has been wrong on a lot of things, but she’s also been right on so many—the fight for women’s equality first among them.

Don’t tell me that the gender of people in power—especially on the Democratic side—has no bearing on policy or politics. Anita Hill would have never gotten a hearing of her allegations against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas were it not for the seven women members of Congress who made it happen. As things turned out, the all-male Judiciary Committee, led by Democrats, managed to shut that thing down, and today Justice Thomas sits silently on the bench, enthusiastically joining decisions that are terrible for women.

In 1986, I was a frustrated young feminist, picking a fight with Gloria Steinem at an editorial meeting at Ms. magazine, where I was a junior editor. What set me off was the decision to put a very wealthy woman, Sallie Bingham, on the cover of the magazine, because of her legal challenge to her family over her inheritance rights, which she said were abridged on account of sex.

“Anytime she wants to, she can come off her perch to slog it out with the rest of us,” I said, all class-warrior-like.

Steinem patiently explained, essentially, that for the time being, we’ve got the economic system we’ve got; therefore Bingham’s fight mattered to women because she believed in women’s rights, and that philanthropy and investment depended on wealth, that cause of women’s rights depended on philanthropy and investment.

In matters of power, whether financial or political, the life experience of the person who wields it informs his or her every decision.

It wasn’t until I spent years covering the Koch brothers and the massive political machine they built that I got it.

For all of the gendered consternation of the 2016 presidential campaign, you’d think this was a contest about women’s rights. And you’d be right. If only someone wanted to discuss the details.

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