Love her, loathe her or simply accept her as the least toxic dish on a hegemonic menu, Hillary Clinton will soon be the world’s most powerful politician. There are few groups or state actors who can know this will be a good thing. Of course, Saudi Arabia will be happy to maintain its relationship with its best ever arms saleswoman and Goldman Sachs will be relieved to know it has such a close friend, family member and after-dinner speaker in the White House. I imagine The Guardian will be grateful for the licence to publish another thousand thin opinion pieces about how this really means something for the girls. But for the world’s everyday women and men who count feminism among their concerns, this presidency means something more difficult.
Hillary Clinton’s election represents the end of Western feminism.
Clinton, we ought to make clear, is not herself responsible for the death of this particular dream. Unless one takes the Great Man, or Great Woman, view of history, no individual can extinguish a mass movement. She didn’t kill the hopes of Mary Wollstonecraft with a pantsuit and with foreign policies that support unthinkably cruel and sexist regimes and militias, with domestic policies that support the idea of reproductive freedom for my gender but extinguish the economic reality for many of either securing an abortion or raising a child. She just signifies an end already written by Wollstonecraft in 1792.
Like all the great liberal Enlightenment thinkers, Mary Wollstonecraft, mother to both Western feminism and important novelist Mary Shelley, had a best-before date. The kind of equality she urged for in her masterwork A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was, like that of Locke, Hume, Kant and Smith, predicated on narrow privilege. These philosophers, who extended the tradition set in train by Magna Carta of defending the right to be powerful for those who were not kings, were always in the business of power. Some people should just have it. This, of course, means that some other people won’t.
Simply and broadly, our liberalism and our liberal feminist traditions are based on the idea of merit. If you are good and hardworking, then, really, you deserve more. Which seems like a nice idea right up to the point you see that it implies there are people who deserve less. This is Western liberal morality: there are those who are undeserving.
Although a handful of popular thinkers, among them Germaine Greer, gave a challenge to this idea a red-hot go in the 20th century, Western feminism retains its core belief in merit, of the deserving and the undeserving poor. Many Western feminists, from Gloria Steinem to Clinton-advocate Jessica Valenti, believe far less in equality than they do in “equal opportunity”. This ideology runs deep and strong enough for even those feminists who profess Marxism — that significant Western challenge to Enlightenment morality and the idea that some people are just better — to say “I’m With Her”.
Although she has only lately, conveniently, declared herself a feminist, Clinton has long been an advocate for “equal opportunity”. Her message that we need to be better individuals in order to have a better society, the obverse of Marxism and the clearest expression of Western Enlightenment ideals, is clear. From her time as Arkansas’ First Lady, she has been plain that the true crisis in America is one of individual values, not of governance. We need to be good, she says, and she expressed this again recently via Medium when she urged her fellows to volunteer for the good of the nation. America is still great, she says. The only problem is bad values.
America is not great. It’s a shit show whose script is written by the small investor class. The purchasing power of most of its citizens has fallen drastically while its prison population has, thanks in large part to the reforms of her husband for which she tirelessly advocated, become immense. But, you know, still, the problem is not bad policy, but bad people. Bad people like Donald Trump.
Trump is, of course, bad people. But his personal badness is no more the source of America’s badness than that of the petty criminals that Clinton once said should be “brought to heel”. But his morality remains prevalent and finds one of its clearest expressions in the deluded cheer-leading of persons such as Van Badham, who is now not the only “Marxist Feminist” in the world to support the idea that bad people make a bad society, and not, as is very clear in Marx, the other way around.
So this is what Western feminism has become: an unstinting reminder that “the standard that you walk past is the standard you accept”. We now charge individuals with the responsibility of social change and rarely hold our politicians to account. Clinton can support the gender apartheid of Saudi Arabia and make no comment at all about the real growth area of the prison industrial complex she demonstrably helped create, which is the imprisonment of women of colour. As long as she is all sassy in debate with Trump and throws in a few femmo zingers, the other idiots at The Guardian will praise her as speaking “about women everywhere”.
We Western feminists expect nothing more from our putatively feminist politicians than we might get from the movie Working Girl. To feel for Hillary is, apparently, to feel for all the women of the world, even those in the prisons that she built or the regimes that she endorses. As Wollstonecraft and her contemporaries insisted, as they pardonably could, from the tiny world of 18th-century Europe, it was all about individual actions.
And this has become the central problem of Western feminism, and the reason transnational, or, less convincingly, intersectional feminists have challenged it. If the message is, for everyone, It All Starts With You, then, how does this play out for a girl in Pakistan? (Or, a woman of colour in a US prison.)
In this very readable summary of her research on feminism of the Global South, Shenila Khoja-Moolji addresses this question. The figure of the “girl”, so beloved by both the UN and the Clinton Foundation, is constituted in Western feminism as a potential entrepreneur. Although Khoja-Moolji argues that young women do have and at times enact agency, she also dares to ask the obvious: “How are adolescent girls going to address state corruption and the War on Terror?” The scholar asks that others, including Western feminists, authorise the environment for that to happen.
But between praising the ingenuity of particular “strong women” and shaming men, who just happened to be born into a class of fast diminishing privilege, the Badhams and the Valentis of the West see no reason to talk about anything but the morality of the individual. And, sheesh, we can forgive Wollstonecraft for this, but not the modern, allegedly global feminist.
Feminists in their Western iteration remain as blind to the background in which their activism takes place as were all the Enlightenment thinkers. It is not really an adapted contemporary feminism, but just more liberalism, with added memes and snappy talk about “bad” men we don’t like. There is nothing beyond the Western territory it inhabits, and this myopia makes it possible to call a nominee who supports gender apartheid a voice for all the women of the world.
Not seeing the background to forms of violence other than the most open, explicitly gendered kind has become a special Western skill. Nowhere have I seen this feeble Manicheanism more marvellously expressed than in a recent article by popular feminist Clementine Ford. Here, the author decries those who would impinge on the rights of women who play an online game of murder. Shooting, she explains, is part of the game. Sexual assault, apparently possible in this particular role play, is not. It is not only a violation of the murder game to virtually grope virtual women, but it is real. The murder is not real. In other words, killing people is a fiction or something to be overlooked, while grabbing a “pussy” on the internet is the true crime.
This is Western feminism. Evolved in the salons of the 18th century and now deployed not only in the disappointing op-eds of the present, but in the policy of Clinton. It’s all about certain individual infractions and victories, and always stubbornly ignorant of the lives of those outside the game.
When Clinton rises to inauguration in one of the colours of her rainbow pantsuit, that is the moment we can say that Western feminism has begun to recede. Those outside the game, which are a great many, have had enough “equal opportunity”. And so have I. There is nothing left in Western feminism for me. There is nothing left but a nervous breakdown in liberalism. Thank goodness for our sisters from the Global South. It is in the work of people like Khoja-Moolji or the anti-drone activism of wonderful babies like Malala Yousafzai that the only hope for our truly global movement remains.