I have seen a certain type of argument made recently by supporters of Hillary Clinton. The argument goes something like this: because of aggressive, ambient sexism in general, and Sec. Clinton’s decades of high-profile public life and service in particular, she has faced extreme challenges that no other mainstream candidate (and particularly not Bernie Sanders) has faced. No woman, it is argued, could be an unkempt, ranting socialist from Vermont and have the level of success that Sen. Sanders has had. And on the flip side, anyone with the sort of experience Sec. Clinton has, who has faced the unfair sexist barrage she has, would have had to have made similar political compromises. Thus, it goes, to fault Sec. Clinton for her ideological impurity, or for unpopular decisions, or for supporting regressive policies is to participate in a sexist system. The charitable interpretation of this charge is that Sec. Clinton’s perceived faults qua progressive candidate for President are themselves the direct result of a sexist political system that constrains women in a way that it does not constrain men. Perhaps it is taking the argument too far to impose on its proponent a further step that, as a result, supporting Clinton is some kind of affirmative feminist act, but I have gotten that sense from some recitations of the argument.
As a feminist who does not support Sec. Clinton (or any other major candidate), I have been unsure about the best way to engage this argument. On one hand, it is beyond dispute that she has faced years of intense sexism that few other major political candidates have. It is also quite plausible that Sec. Clinton has been shaped and constrained by this fact in a way that has likely altered the policies she has endorsed. It is very likely that she would not have survived in politics at the levels she has otherwise. I have seen others counter that, while unfortunate, this history of sexism is largely irrelevant now, when faced with a choice among candidates, some of whom have policy positions closer to one’s own. While I think this response is a good beginning, I believe there is a more serious problem with the argument: it is self-defeating.
The thrust of the argument is that an intensely sexist political process has molded and shaped a candidate, yet the way to strike a blow against this system is to vote for the candidate it created. Maybe I have missed some step in the argument that makes this make sense. As it stands, though, it seems to me that this particular argument can only serve to further undermine the feminist case for Sec. Clinton. It is true that to get where she’s gotten she had to make certain decisions about the kind of politician she would be. Yet, for me, and others who think this political system is deeply broken, it is no selling point that she has found a way to succeed within its bounds. If institutions measure value in sexist or anti-feminist ways, then any candidate who rises to the top in the usual way will have done so in virtue of their having met some sexist or anti-feminist criteria. This fact makes it increasingly unlikely that major candidates can lay claim to robust feminist credentials. Perhaps this response is unsatisfying given that, broken or not, this is the system we have, and a series of choices has to be made in the coming months about who will be the next President. But make no mistake: this move is a concession to that system, not subversive of it.
If Elizabeth Warren were running against Sec. Clinton instead of, or in addition to, Sen. Sanders, I wonder how this would change the political rhetoric around gender during this caucus and primary season. It would make less sense, then, to claim that a woman can only succeed in politics by compromising. Surely Sen. Warren’s meteoric rise in popularity, even while maintaining a significant degree of ideological integrity, is due in part to her later entrance into politics than Sec. Clinton. Yet even with this later entrance, she has faced no small amount of sexism both within and outside of her political career, and she has been an unrelenting voice on issues similar to the ones Sen. Sanders is now gaining national support by highlighting. And why do I not see the same supporters of Sec. Clinton who advance this argument calling for support of Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate for President? Neither Sen. Warren nor Dr. Stein are as well-established in politics as Sen. Clinton, and I am not claiming that either is a perfect candidate all things considered, but they provide alternative narratives for women in politics that reject the idea that there is only one way to play, which is to capitulate to the system. We should be encouraging the elevation of these narratives rather than resigning ourselves to capitulation as the norm.
We can demand more of our candidates, political system, media, and each other. By all means challenge unfair sexist, racist, ableist, and ageist criticism in this election and elsewhere. But don’t stop there. We have the political system we deserve right now because we have refused to require it to improve. There are many ways to go about creating social change, but rewarding the people who play a rigged game well is not a way to make the game fair. The right response to a broken system is not to lean in, but to fight back.