FALSE CHOICES: The Faux Feminism of Hillary Rodham Clinton

By Liza Featherstone (ed.).

Verso Books. 192 pp. $14.95

In her presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton is selling herself as a feminist, but some of the movement’s leftiest ladies aren’t buying it.

Labor journalist Liza Featherstone’s essay collection, “False Choices: The Faux Feminism of Hillary Rodham Clinton” takes on Clinton’s alleged failings. “Her entire record suggests that she’s bad news for women,” Featherstone writes in the introduction. Many of the reporters and academics who contribute are equally subtle.

Jezebel founder Maureen Tkacik argues that Clinton and other mainstream feminists prioritized the fight for abortion rights (a fight they’re barely winning) without considering the resources, such as fair pay and child care, that women need when deciding whether or not to have a child. Without these, she argues in a chapter titled “Abortion and the Politics of Failure,” reproductive choice isn’t really a choice for the economically disadvantaged; abortion becomes the only option. “Depriving people of the opportunity to have kids is like depriving them of the opportunity to fall in love,” Tkacik writes. “But without welfare, single-payer health care, a minimum wage of at least $15 — all policies [Clinton] staunchly opposes — many people have to forgo babies they’d really love to have. That’s not really choice.”

Academic and activist Yasmin Nair offers an anti-feminist interpretation to the 1995 Violence Against Women bill, which toughened prison sentences for people convicted of assault and rape. Clinton is, Nair writes, a “carceral feminist,” someone willing “to get tough on criminals in order to protect girls and women.” But when you criminalize everything, you don’t just get the bad guys. Clinton’s tough-on-crime stance, Nair argues, has led to the imprisonment of undocumented immigrants, the arrest of significant numbers of women who are mentally ill and the overcriminalization of sex work. Ultimately, Nair argues, these policies serve middle- and upper-class white women. “But vast numbers of other women, mostly poor, often women of color, are left to struggle under a combination of poverty and vulnerability created by the very system that claims to protect them.”

This relationship between economic justice and feminism runs through the book. In “Hillary Clinton, Economic Populist: Are You F—ing Kidding Me?” Nation contributor Kathleen Geier takes Clinton to task for her husband’s dismantling of welfare; her ties to Wall Street and her cozy relationship to corporations, such as Walmart (Clinton sat on the board for several years), which pay their largely female staff abysmal wages with few benefits. “A society in which all are ultimately afforded protection from economic hardship” should be a critical objective of an “authentic feminist movement,” social scientists Frances Fox Piven and Fred Block contend, because women and children suffer disproportionately with tenuous housing, substandard schools, inadequate child care and poor nutrition.

Public school teacher and Jacobin editor Megan Erickson writes about Clinton’s role in the school-reform movement in Arkansas, where she pushed for statewide standardized tests and competence tests for teachers. The reforms were funded by a 1 percent increase in the state sales tax, “the burden of which fell flatly and equally on rich and poor and is obviously more consequential to the latter.” To get these measures passed, Erickson writes, Clinton villainized the teachers unions, turning the battle over schools into “a crisis of values, not a crisis of inequity.”

Never mind that many of these policies are, in fact, the policies of Bill Clinton and President Obama. As Virginia Commonwealth University sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom, a contributor to this volume, writes at one point, “Hillary’s record is also Bill’s record, and that is not just the narrative of revisionist Republican smear campaigns.” Fox blames Hillary Clinton for the welfare reform of 1996 by writing that President Bill Clinton “took Hillary’s advice” and signed the bill, the third version the Republican Congress sent to the White House.

These writers are skeptical of the “mainstream, professional feminism, the sort of feminism that nourishes unbridled enthusiasm at the idea of Hillary Clinton as president of the United States,” as Cottom puts it. And it’s fine to believe, as Featherstone’s contributors do, that electing a woman as president is not a significant feminist accomplishment unless she has the correct policy bona fides. But it’s hard to take seriously the gripes of feminists who hold Hillary Clinton accountable for everything the powerful man around her got passed into law. Husbands are rarely taken to task for their wives’ behavior. They’re different people, after all.

But really, this book isn’t just a feminist indictment of Hillary Clinton, or Bill Clinton, or President Obama, or even the Democratic Party. It’s barely even a book about feminism at all, authored by writers on the periphery of the modern movement. Really, it’s an indictment of a Democratic Party that has failed to reckon with capitalism’s dark side — failed to reckon with neoliberalism itself. Most of these writers don’t seem to believe that there’s a program or law that could fix what’s broken. They want revolution. No establishment politician, man or woman, could possibly measure up.

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