Feminist Reflections on the 2016 Presidential Election

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profile-pic2016 02 25 Julie Laut

By Nancy Dietrich and Julie Laut

Nancy Dietrich lives in Urbana and is active in the C-U community.  She is a founding funder of the UCIMC.

Julie Laut lives in Urbana and serves on the board of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Urbana Champaign.

The last month has been a time for reflection as we come to terms with the end of Hillary Clinton’s historic bid for the presidency. If the United States’ system of direct democracy extended to that office, we would currently be celebrating the election of the first woman President. And though we mourn her loss, we must remind ourselves that she was the first woman in American history to win the popular vote. For just the second time since 1900, the Electoral College denied the presidency to the person who won the popular election; this time by nearly three million votes, the widest margin ever. However, given the misogynistic, xenophobic, and racist behavior of her opponent, his lack of a clear stance on most issues, and an embarrassing lack of understanding in a number of important areas including foreign policy, many reasonably expected Clinton to win by a landslide.

Numerous reasons for Clinton’s loss have been bandied about: the email server issue that was reignited days before the election; working-class white Americans, long a mainstay of the Democratic Party, feeling like they have been left behind in the current economy; a strong anti-immigrant sentiment that Trump homed in on; Clinton’s support of trade agreements such as NAFTA that sent jobs overseas and have harmed the environment. In all likelihood, these issues and others contributed to some degree to Clinton’s loss. But for her supporters—perhaps for feminists most of all—none of these explanations take away our sense of shock and disillusionment.

Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

[Photo by Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post]

We have found ourselves wondering if there is a segment of the population that simply will not vote for a woman to be president no matter the candidate. Given Trump’s offensiveness, why didn’t Clinton win by a landslide? We’ve elected many men to the presidency who held similar policy positions and were similar in temperament to Clinton. Do we hold women to a much higher standard than men? Could you imagine a female version of Trump having even the slightest chance at becoming the presidential nominee, let alone winning the entire election? We all know the answer to this question. While Clinton may not have been as far to the left as some progressives would have liked—Nancy supported Bernie Sanders in the primaries—the vitriol spewed towards Clinton both during this campaign and her run against Obama in 2008 went above and beyond simply disagreeing with her on the issues.

Before the election, an article on pbs.org by Daniel Bush discussed some of the subtleties of bias experienced by women seeking leadership positions (http://www.pbs.org/newshour/features/hidden-sexism/). Terri Vescio, a professor of psychology at Penn State who studies gender bias, was quoted as saying, “The more female politicians are seen as striving for power, the less they’re trusted and the more moral outrage gets directed at them. If you’re perceived as competent, you’re not perceived as warm. But if you’re liked and trusted, you’re not seen as competent.” Research has borne this out over the years: the double standard is still alive and well.

So where do feminists go from here?

First, women must recognize and challenge the backlash that will happen throughout the Trump presidency, even coming from within our own ranks. This backlash has already reared its head in the House of Representatives, when Rep. Tim Ryan unsuccessfully challenged Nancy Pelosi for House Minority Leader. He was quoted in the Wall Street Journal stating, “A guy like me—it doesn’t have to be me—a guy like me could go into the Southern states, and we need someone who can go into every congressional district.” Ryan, referring to the Democrats’ loss of white male voters to Trump, implied not too subtly that a man would lead better in the current environment than a woman. Fifty women lawmakers signed a letter supporting Pelosi’s bid to retain her position, stating “[Young women and girls] need to see the first woman Speaker—and every woman Member of Congress—standing firm in the halls of power, continuing to fight for their rights, their dignity, and their dreams.” Hillary Clinton’s loss must not result in a greater loss for women in leadership positions.

Second, individual women need to make their voices heard, making sure we are a part of conversation and debate: we need to write letters to the editor and contribute op-eds on important issues; ask questions at public lectures or in the classroom to join the conversation; speak out at city council and school board meetings; run for office at all levels; and call our representatives when important issues arise in our state and national legislatures. Perhaps most important, we must support other women when they speak out and assume positions of power.

Third, we need to continue the fight for gender equity, something that—despite post-feminist rhetoric—is far from complete. Join a group that works towards equality, such as the American Association of University Women (AAUW), which has been advancing equity for girls and women since 1881. Other groups fighting for women’s rights and civil liberties through the courts, in communities, and/or lobbying in state legislatures and Congress include: NOW, Feminist Majority, Planned Parenthood, YWCA, and the ACLU. Get involved. These groups need our support now more than ever.

And finally, we must ask ourselves what we can do to challenge sexism, racism, xenophobia, and marginalization as we move forward. Now is the time to act. Be aware of what’s going on in our community and find a way to get involved. We cannot afford to be silent at this moment. We may have lost this opportunity to see a woman as president, but as Hillary Clinton said so eloquently after her loss to Barack Obama in 2008, “Although we weren’t able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time…the light is shining through like never before, filling us all with the hope and the sure knowledge that the path will be a little easier next time.”

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