Last week, an article by The Atlantic’s Michelle Cottle ran victory laps ‘round the liberal internet. This study of sexism in high places was widely shared on social media and favourably mentioned in press abroad and, due to its inclusion of comments by former PM Julia Gillard, at home.
Cottle had made the claim that powerful women are subject to powerful sexism — or “misogyny”, as our caffeinated age prefers. This is true; public women do cop extraordinary and particular abuse. There is not much to argue with in this piece. But there’s not a whole lot to agree with, either.
Even if you didn’t read this “brave” post, which warned of the cruel and gendered critique that presidential nominee Hillary Clinton is likely to face, you’ve seen its substance before. Notably, during Gillard’s time as PM in which dozens of Australian writers made the claim that this downfall was largely, if not entirely, due to sexism.
Other than sexism, there could no “other plausible reason that Abbott leads (over Gillard) in the polls”, according to The Guardian’s Van Badham, a commentator possibly on vacation for those three years, which had produced many other reasons that became plausible to the electorate. Publisher and former policy adviser Anne Summers revived her own career in describing the end of Gillard’s. She wrote a book, dozens of articles and a talk, which she came to refer to as “The Newcastle Speech”, successfully marketed as a Gettysburg Address for liberal feminists.
Before Summers’ historic rebranding, the speech was called “Her Rights at Work”, and this points to its central conceit, almost identical to Cottle’s, more precisely. The idea is that women like Hillary Clinton and Julia Gillard are, for all their power, just two of the girls in the typing pool.
This is an old but persistent idea in liberal feminism: all women suffer equally under patriarchy. Whether you’re Marillyn Hewson, CEO of Lockheed, or Diane Smith-Gander, Chairman of Broadspectrum Limited, you’re as likely to be pinched on the bum as any secretary. You can oversee the fabrication of weapons or the operation of detention centres, but you remain subject to an indignity identical to that borne by the women killed by your drones or raped by your contractors.
I guess you can make the argument that patriarchy is an independent system of power that simply intersects with other systems, but I don’t know why you’d bother. This notion that sexism is a one-size-fits-all hierarchy is, like other thought experiments, only useful in first year philosophy tutorials. In a world of power complexes too inscrutable to enumerate, there is, in my view, no point in saying, “powerful women like Hillary Clinton suffer sexism just like I do!” Even if one can draw a graph linking sexist GOP sniping to, say, female poverty — something for which we can certainly hold Clinton, a vocal advocate for the hollowing out of US welfare by her husband’s administration, to account — what then? What use is there in honouring Clinton as one of the girls?
[Razer: we need President Trump, to ignite a real and fiery revolution]
The use is not feminist, but political. Just as that Bill so effectively said, “I feel your pain”, Hillary communicates this sentiment through the pop-feminism she has lately come to embrace. Liberal feminism allows a powerful woman to democratise her own suffering; make it seem as though she feels it as keenly as the female minimum-wage worker whose hourly rate she refuses to tie to inflation.
Clinton may be cynical, but many of her feminist supporters are, like Gillard’s, eager to buoy this myth of shared pain. They believe utterly in the practice of “shining a light” on the sexism that is encountered by the world’s most powerful women. They believe utterly that equality trickles down. But sincerity is a guarantee of almost nothing but stasis, and in extending the Clinton campaign’s claims that Hillary feels our pain, “patriarchy” — or whatever name you want to give to the various flavours of social inequality — remains undisturbed.
The only disturbance of which liberal feminism, so perfectly expressed in the Cottle piece, is capable is to campaigning tactics. And even these don’t really change that much. Declaring your candidate an underdog (I apologise for the sexist resonance here, I can’t think of a synonym due to the virus of patriarchy) is an old strategy. Persecution is a false political virtue, no matter how true the thing it points to is. When Donald Trump says, “I am not part of the political establishment”, he is falsely telling the truth. When Hillary Clinton says, “I am not a man”, she is falsely telling the truth. When liberal feminists say, “Hillary suffers sexism” they are falsely telling the truth.
Hillary does suffer sexism. Of course she does. She also uses her suffering masterfully and there were dozens of occasions during the primaries when her Democratic rival and his supporters were charged with enacting it. All women suffer sexism. Of course we do. The British Labour Party uses this suffering masterfully to delegitimise Jeremy Corbyn and permit Tory press to report on a “culture of intimidation” for which they hold him entirely responsible.
I am not at all fond of sexism. In its social form, it diminishes the lives of my comrades. In its personal form, it reads everything I have ever written as hormonal lunacy. I am an opponent of sexism, AKA a “feminist”, but I am also opposed to the appropriation of feminism by those, male or female, so ravenous for power that they will claim the real suffering of the many as their own.
I am sorry that Julia Gillard suffered sexist attack. I really am. Perhaps Julia Gillard, who still recounts this sexist attack, is now sorry that she authored legislation that attacked low-income single mothers — this happened to pass on the day of her famous misogyny speech.
But so long as this “feminism” that holds that equality for women must begin at the top, not the bottom, stands, we’ll never know if Gillard is sorry for dudding her sisters. We’ll just keep on believing that powerful women really feel our pain.