What does Hillary Clinton's loss mean for feminism and its future?

A woman and girl read sticky notes with messages of resilience, resistance and love on a wall in Oakland, Calif., Nov. 20. The notes were based on a phenomenon that began in New York City in response to the election of Donald Trump. (Newscom/Splash News/John Orvis)

Before Nov. 8, many had predicted that the post-election period would be a time for healing and soul searching — among Republicans. Instead, it has become a time of liberal introspection and finger-pointing.

Some told NCR that the loss of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton is a harsh lesson for women and racial minorities.

"Polls do show this: There was no question in people's minds who was the better candidate for the job, but that's not what the decision was made on," said Mary Hunt, director of Women's Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual (WATER).

"That's not a happy thing to learn in terms of how the world works. It's really the case that the world and life isn't fair, and there are structural reasons why injustice persists, and those do have to do with racism and sexism and so forth."

That an advanced and powerful nation like the United States went so long without so much as even a defeated female presidential candidate prior to Clinton is a "disgrace in which we have been living for the last decades," Hunt said.

We say: Charlottesville reveals the weeping wound of racism. What do we, the American Catholic faith community, do next? Read the editorial.

"With a country the size of ours, with the history we have, this country has never elected a woman," she said. "That's on us — not on her. We have to look at ourselves and think, what does this mean?"

The myth of sisterhood

Those surprised by the election are studying exit polls for insights. Who showed up? Who didn't? Or (perhaps most interestingly) who did we assume would vote as a united demographic?

Beyond the fact that the first female candidate of a major political party did not win over large swaths of women, however, is the fact that President-elect Donald Trump — a billionaire with a rich record of both admitted and alleged harassment, assault and insults toward women — did as well as he did.

According to FiveThirtyEight, Clinton won women by 12 points overall, with Trump winning men by the same margin, "a historic gender gap." But, on average, white women went with Trump. Clinton barely squeaked out a majority of college-educated white women (at 51 percent), but she lost white women without a college education, securing a mere third of them. (For comparison, 39 percent of college-educated white men and 23 percent of white men without a college education voted for Clinton.)

"The sting of it is not the loss of a woman candidate, but that a woman candidate lost to someone who is manifestly not as able and who has treated women badly," Hunt said. "The issue is not gender; the issue is competence, and apparently [competence] doesn't matter.

Nor did Trump drive women to vote against him — at least not in unusual numbers. Overall turnout among women, according to FiveThirtyEight, was just 1 percentage point higher than in 2012.

Comedian and late-night television talk show host Samantha Bee addressed white women voters in a post-election opening monologue: "If Muslims have to take responsibility for every member of their community, so do we."

"A majority of white women, faced with the historic choice between the first female president," she continued, "and a vial of weaponized testosterone, said, 'I'll take Option B. I just don't like her.' Oh, hope you got your sticker, ladies. Way to lean out."

But Sally Scholz, a philosophy professor at Villanova University, was not nearly as flabbergasted as Bee, noting that "sisterhood has actually long been more of a fiction than a reality," and that Clinton's lack of resounding support from white women is no referendum.

Sisterhood, she argued, is a "creation of an era" that wanted to categorize or compartmentalize women and women's concerns.

"If you put feminism all into one little category, and you say it's just those women, and tell other women that if they disagree, they're not being good sisters — then you make it an impossible movement.

"Women are going to disagree," Scholz said. "We're a vastly different and varied demographic, and we have a right to understand ourselves as varied and different."

Underlying sexism

As a professor, Scholz said she often needs to begin her courses on feminist theory by providing evidence that sexism still exists. For some of today's youth, "there's a readiness to say we're in a post-sexism era or post-feminism era, that women are equal."

Today, women are more likely to be college graduates than men are — a trend that is also starting to be reflected in household breadwinners.

As a Yale law graduate who had worked on the Watergate commission before becoming the breadwinner of her own home in Arkansas, Clinton embodied that burgeoning reality at a time when people were still getting used to these concepts.

Journalist and feminist icon Gloria Steinem said in 2012, "As long as most of us, to put it mildly, are raised by women when we're infants and little children, we associate female authority with childhood, and we see male authority as more appropriate to the adult world, just because what we grew up with is normalized. ... You can see it in the way that big grownup news guys treated Hillary Clinton, which was just so horrible. Somebody said, 'I cross my legs when I see her.' ... I think that some of it is because they feel regressed when they see a powerful woman because the last time they saw a powerful woman, they were 8."

Susan Reverby, a professor of women's and gender studies at Wellesley College, Clinton's alma mater, echoed that sentiment, saying, "Otherwise, how can you explain the vehemence toward [Clinton]? There's a kind of deep-rooted fear of her, and anger that she's in the room and that she shouldn't be there."

That 63 out of 142 nations, as of 2014, have already had a woman as head of government, may be comforting.

But Cokie Roberts, author and political commentator for ABC News and National Public Radio, told NCR a female leader is still a bigger deal in the U.S. because it is "the global power." And to be elected in a parliamentary system, such as in Great Britain or Australia, where the head of the party becomes the prime minister, she added, is "not as hard a leap to make as the one to choose the singular person as president."

"It's much more personal," Roberts said.

More challenging than addressing overt sexism are the unacknowledged sexist subtleties that underlie how society perceives women of power. Trump often speculated Clinton didn't look presidential and attacked her health and fitness, which Elizabeth Shermer, a history professor at Loyola University Chicago, said "peddled into the theory of women as the frailer sex." People don't respond to these attacks as clearly because they're less visceral and not as tangible, she said.

Hunt said that to claim sexism is over and Clinton's winning the popular vote is proof would be "misguided."

"In some ways, I think we've only begun to uncover the depths of it. If anything has come out of this that's good, it's that we've been able to see, without having to explain unduly, the depths of sexism and the depths of depravity on the part of some men in terms of women," Hunt said.

She added that not all criticism lobbed Clinton's way is grounded in sexism, but that one cannot "discount" the role sexism has played throughout her career.

"When you see it, it's very hard to name it, because people would say, 'Wait a minute, she's a [candidate for U.S. president],' " Hunt said. "But the answer is, yeah, if that happens to [her], imagine what happens to the woman who cleans your bathroom and serves your coffee — that's where the real issue is. It's not with Hillary Clinton — she'll be fine. But if she can be treated that way, we can draw the implication that every woman can and often is treated that way."

Sexism today, however, is more nuanced than the caricatured "Mad Men" world of powerful men, inappropriate comments and unwelcome advances. It can also be found in the double standards set out for women, the duplicity being in "how we value the contributions of women," Scholz said.

Women's achievements, she said, are often not measured as equivalent to men's, and Clinton — a first lady, senator, and secretary of state — is a picture of that. "If you're a woman, you don't just have to do the job, but do the job better than anyone else who has ever done the job."

This criticism isn't reserved for men; it may go back to the question of why women didn't vote for Clinton in overwhelming numbers.

"As women, we may not act in sexist ways, and we may not say sexist things, but we might nevertheless judge other women more harshly because we've internalized certain standards of sexism," Scholz said.

"For me, this election solidified that we have an awful lot of work left to do. There is more to be said, more to be done, more to fight for, just for the basic respect that women deserve."

The meaning of sweeping

Though Clinton will go down in history as the first female victor of the popular vote, the historic milestone of a first female president awaits another woman.

Reverby said she tells her students that "even if it looks like the same woman is pushing the same broom throughout a period of time, the meaning of sweeping can change."

In this case, it's not just the fact that a woman is the sweeper: Reverby stressed that it's not her body that makes her a feminist, but her politics.

"We used to say early in the women's movement, 'All sisters are women, but not all women are sisters.' If [conservative commentator] Ann Coulter became president, you wouldn't think it was a shattered ceiling at all."

Since the election, nearly 4 million women have joined Pantsuit Nation, an invite-only Facebook group where Clinton supporters share personal stories of how Clinton has inspired them, and where they provide moral support for one another as they fear for their own causes in light of a Trump administration.

In an open letter, one member of the group wrote, "We still view you as our champion, Hillary. Because of you, more women and people of diverse backgrounds and beliefs will become involved in local politics, grassroots organizations, and the overall democratic process."

And that cause — to inspire more minorities and women to run — is key, as the disparity in representation lies foremost in the lack of candidates who run. With women holding 19 percent of seats in Congress, 25 percent of state legislators, 12 percent of governors and 18 percent of mayors, the trend isn't looking promising for the next generation. The New York Times reported that in the last mayoral elections in the top 100 cities, less than a fifth of candidates were women. And twice as many males as female college students said they'd consider running for office someday.

This "ambition gap" can be attributed to a few causes: "Women are less likely than men to be encouraged by parents, teachers or party leaders to run — yet they are also less likely to run without being prodded. They underestimate their abilities and assume they need to be much more qualified than men to run for the same office," wrote the Times.

With a more diverse legislative body comes a different set of priorities and experiences, Roberts said. It's not that men don't pay attention to issues that affect women and children, she said, but it's not a high priority.

"That's the difference a woman in a position of power can make: She's pulling things out from the bottom of the pile and putting them on top."

"One of the things we know is that anytime a woman rises to a certain level in an organization, it usually changes the nature of the organization," Roberts said. She added that women in legislative bodies tend to work across the aisle more, and those who are mothers are often more flexible, cooperative and less concerned about hierarchy.

For Hunt, this election is a "wakeup call" in terms of what's been accomplished and what's left to do on the feminist frontlines. And with the majority of Catholics having voted for Trump, she said, it leaves into question whether or not the mainstream Catholic community is an ally for the cause.

Women of color

Yet, there is one group whose voice was made clear by their ballots, though overshadowed by the white-woman vote, and historically forgotten in the conversation: women of color.

Exit poll results indicate that Clinton clinched 94 percent of black women and 68 percent of Hispanic women, though they total about 13 percent of the electorate combined.

Post-election conversations have focused on white women, likely because they account for more than a third of voters. But conversations within feminism, too, have been historically grounded with the white woman in mind.

Scholz said feminism conceived in the 1970s focused on getting women into the workforce in positions equal to men, which "fails to acknowledge and incorporate the lived experience and concerns of so many women who are already in the workforce, women who would love to have more leisure time to spend with children, women who are raising their children by themselves."

Plus, "equality in marriage is not going to be a concern if you are a single parent."

Such platforms indirectly excluded women of color, women in poverty, and those of particular socioeconomic and educational circles.

Hunt noted that today feminism no longer exists as a gender analysis, but is instead a "piece of a larger, interstructured analysis of making justice on the basis of — from the Catholic perspective — the values of equality and mutuality."

Though this election will be remembered for ushering the first woman into the world of presidential debates and having her name at the top of the ballots, Clinton's actual womanhood, Hunt argued, is less consequential than the policies she would have brought with her to the White House.

Feminists don't just fight for women's issues, she said, but work on anti-war, anti-racist, pro-environment, pro-LGBT issues. But where, she asked, are those people when it comes to feminist issues?

"That to me is what feminism looks like — that's how the movements of social change have evolved. ... But have those same social movements reached out to do their work on gender? That's where I see the energy needing to be spent now."

Adding to that argument, Shermer said that feminism is not just about moving women forward, but about achieving gender equality. How can feminists help men navigate a new reality that might threaten their sense of masculinity, as roles in the home evolve and they are no longer the breadwinners?

"That goes through the idea of there's still a lot to do about gender equality. It's not just about ensuring a woman has access to the best job or has gotten into the White House."

But if the caricature of feminism comes from the 1970s, Scholz said, society is just going to see one woman — in this case, Clinton — who sought her own ambition.

"Feminism is a political movement that is fighting for a lot more than equal pay," she said. "We're fighting for basic dignity, the right to exist and the right to see and be seen and be heard and have our voices respected."

[Soli Salgado is a staff writer for Global Sisters Report.]

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