The ‘feminist legacy’ of Margaret Thatcher and Indira Gandhi is an ambiguous one. These women, in varying fashion, rose to great political power, and exerted it with varying degrees of aplomb. (They both earned nicknames that assimilated their visible displays of ‘steel’ into a stereotypical vision of male toughness.) Gandhi came to power in a nation whose imagined and real social role for women was sharply limited; it is unclear what Gandhi’s being in power had to do with the greatly increased visibility of women in Indian public life (the latter presence might well be linked with the changes in the political economy that have been introduced in India since the 1990s.) Thatcher’s ascendancy was seen as a victory for women in British politics while her policy support for women’s causes was widely debated. Again, in her case, it is not clear whether her tenure broke glass ceilings and rolled back the tide of sexism in British public life.
All of which is a long-winded way of saying that it is unclear to me that the election of Hillary Clinton as president will represent a windfall for feminism and women’s rights. The US of 2016 is not the England of 1979 or the India of 1966, but patriarchy–engaged in mutually supportive roles with corporate structures–still rules the roost here. The American corporate stronghold over politics, whose most visible symbol is the rampant economic inequality that so permeates the lives of American citizens, is better than most in co-opting potential foes as allies. In its embrace, traditional identity politics matter for little (even as Barack Obama found that his being black was as potent a political force to be ranged against him as any other.)
Materialist feminists know that dismantling patriarchy will not be done without dismantling the economic system it works with; elect an economically privileged person to power and they will simply perpetuate class privilege. Their identity lies with their class, with their economic group, with the allegiances that ensure their economic and political power. Nothing in Hillary Clinton’s record–stretching back to her days in Arkansas–indicates that on taking power she will enact policies that will act to dismantle the very system that is her, and her family’s, best friend. To be sure, the symbolic value of her victory will be immense; it would send a powerful signal to many women, old and young, that their voices have been heard, that they have political representation of a kind, and that oft-repeated-claim that more young women will find it possible to dream about political power will sound ever more plausible.
But those same women, I fear, will find their paths to the ‘top’ blocked if the routes remain the same. And they will resolutely remain the same unless power–in this political and economic system–is exercised differently, for different ends, by those who attain it, by those who show their priorities lie with matters more weighty than the mere retention of that power. Hillary Clinton does little to indicate she will make the kinds of possibilities dreamed about by women more tangible, more substantial. Worse, her election could weaken those arguments which claim that women are economically and politically under-represented. Remember, the refrain will go, if she can make it, so can you.