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Coming Out Of Election Haze: How Do Women On Left Overcome Elite Feminism?

Now that the election haze is dissipating, there are multiple theories flying about as to why Hillary Clinton lost the election to Donald Trump—some blame the Electoral College, some say that she ran a stupefyingly arrogant campaign, and that she was just not likable, and others believe that the way in which she relied on women to carry her towards an election victory may have been her undoing.

Overall, the overtly-commercialized, bourgeois feminism that became the very core of her campaign’s identity made her inaccessible to many women, especially those on the left.

I spoke to three leftist women about the aftermath of the election and asked them where women on the left go from here.

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Akira Hino

Addiction counselor. Her clients include homeless teens and adults, people entering treatment after serving their sentence as part of parole requirement, as well as professionals in need of addiction treatment.

How would you define bourgeois feminism and what role do you believe it played during this election? Did it impact Clinton’s loss? Why/why not?

My main definition of bourgeois feminism is the fixation and focus on women’s access to leadership roles without disrupting the current economic and social order. Liberals adopted the focus of leadership access in framing various versions of identity politics, but I think for too many people, leadership access was no longer a goal they found relevant because of the need for immediate economic relief. I think it had an impact in that many people were unenthusiastic about Clinton, and I think the low voter turnout was one of the factors of her loss.

During this election we saw a number of high-profile, white feminist writers ignoring leftists who offered criticism of Clinton. How do we combat their influence and their formulaic disregard?

I think the election results speak for themselves about the influence in the general population. I think the only way to combat their influence and disregard is to organize the people who don’t feel represented by the mainstream talking points and give them alternative analysis that speaks to their interests. I think you and many left women are doing exactly that.

There was a lot of pushback against women, who criticized Clinton during her campaign run. Why do you believe so many women were unnerved by criticism of  Clinton?

I think for a lot of committed Hillary supporters she was a projection of many professional women’s aspirations as well as their experiences. So attacks on Hillary were registered as a personal insult rather than seeing her as a public figure.

Now that Donald Trump has been elected, Clinton’s fanbase has come out hard against anyone who expressed any disapproval of her policies, going as far as to blame them for his landslide win. Have you come across this? Why are they wrong?

I come across this quite a bit. Too many people see politicians as extensions of their personal identity rather than a public figure that needs to be pushed to meet their material demands. When you identify with a politician on that level, you’re unable to craft your message to people that doesn’t identify with the politician in the same way, and you’re not able to advocate for them efficiently.

Elections always come with a real risk of losing, and you never get to improve your game if you’re uninterested in improving tactics and messaging to appeal to people outside your home base. I think the fact that Democrats have lost—in addition to the presidential election—so many seats as governors, senators, and representatives indicate their lackluster electoral strategy.

Where does Hillary Clinton’s devastating loss leave feminists on the left who are unimpressed with bourgeois discourse, especially those who argue that “elitist feminism” leaves many women out? Where do we, as leftist women, go from here if we’re to (re)build a revolutionary movement?

I think the most important target are women who don’t identify as feminists and many people who are ambivalent about bourgeois feminism. Politics is about influencing others and increasing ranks and appealing to people that don’t identify with bourgeois feminists. And getting them on board with feminism that represents their interests is an incredibly important step to building a revolutionary movement.

Liza Featherstone

Journalist and journalism professor based in New York City. She is also the editor of “False Choices: The Faux Feminism of Hillary Clinton”

You wrote “Elite White Feminism Gave Us Trump,” where you blamed “elite feminism” for Donald Trump winning the election. How do you define this ideology—this “elite feminism”?

I would define it as both a style of politics and a substantive ideology. The style is, it is elitist in its expression, in its preoccupation with rich women like Hillary Clinton and Beyonce and its general disinterest in working class women and their concern. But I would also define it as an ideology: an active commitment to a neoliberal, militarist order as long as a few women advance within that order.

At its worse—as in the 2016 Democratic primary—elite feminism can be weaponized against the interests of the vast majority of women by pitting a narrow politics of representation against a redistributive agenda that has been shown to help all women and stigmatizing the latter as somehow sexist.

There was a lot of pushback against women who criticized Hillary Clinton during her campaign run, and you were one of their favorite targets, especially after the release of “False Choices: The Faux Feminism of Hillary Rodham Clinton,” which you edited. Why were so many women unnerved by your criticism of Hillary Clinton?

The charitable reason is that the stakes were high in an election against Trump. But I’d also argue that the professional managerial class, which includes those of us who work in the media, is very invested in just the kind of dead end feminism that Clinton represents. So criticisms of her make them defensive.

Now that Donald Trump has been elected, Clinton’s fan-base has come out hard against anyone who expressed any disapproval of her policies, going as far as to blame them for his landslide win. Have you come across this? Why are they wrong?

I actually haven’t encountered that much of this. Interestingly, most of the most vicious criticism of my work comes either from certifiably crazy Twitterati or from gossipy media elites on secret liberal list servs that people think I don’t have access to. Even there, no one has directly come out and blamed me for Trump’s win as far as I know. If they did, they would be wrong because I’m not that powerful, and more importantly, I certainly did not advocate voting for Trump.

I actually did advocate voting for Clinton in swing states. I don’t think journalists/writers should ever be silent about powerful people. I will say, however, that after the primary, my criticisms were intended to help people prepare to think about left opposition under a Clinton presidency, and had I believed that he could win, or that it would be this close, I probably would have framed some of my criticisms differently.

Where does Hillary Clinton’s devastating loss leave feminists on the left who are unimpressed with bourgeois discourse, especially those who argue that “elite feminism” leaves many women out? Where do we, as leftist women, go from here if we’re to (re)build a revolutionary movement?

I think it leaves us with an opportunity. Whatever we think of Hillary Clinton, Trump’s win is devastating. But I think the failure of her campaign shows that this kind of elitist feminism can’t help us in these intense and complicated times and that we need to build a much broader (LOL pun intended) movement.

I think we engage in building organizations for the long term, whichever organizations we are best positioned to work on, whether those are unions in our workplaces or socialist organizations in our communities. We also need to stand up to Trump by protecting the rights of immigrants and other minority groups, and continue to work locally on issues that don’t require the federal government’s help, like the fight for a $15 minimum wage (the majority of low-wage workers are women).

Zoé Samudzi

PhD student in Sociology at the University of California, San Francisco.

How would you define bourgeois feminism and what role do you believe it played during this election? Did it impact Clinton’s loss? Why/why not?

I would define bourgeois feminism (aka Lean In-ism) as classed gender interests, i.e. a feminism whose interests lie solely in promoting the mobility and success of formally educated and middle class and up [white] women.

Within this election, it was an identity politic that used guilt and an imposed obligation to mobilize women around Hillary Clinton, and it subsumed “women’s progress” within a narrative of Clinton breaking the ultimate glass ceiling—becoming president, regardless of the fact that position or even access to certain kinds of social and economic mobility are inaccessible to so many women.

I think it impacted Clinton’s loss in that her appeal to certain kinds of women alienated so many women of color, and even many working and middle class women. But it was ultimately white women’s investment in white supremacy, rather than the contrived feminist unity she represented, that led white women to vote for Donald Trump over her.

Tokenization of people of color was rampant during this election, and it came from all directions. At the same time we saw a number of high-profile, white feminist writers ignoring women of color who offered criticism of Hillary Clinton. How do we combat their influence, and their formulaic erasure of women of color, in the future?

Right now, I’m grappling with the outright refusal to engage in or at least attempt to initiate dialogue with white women in certain politicized spaces. Toni Morrison has that incredible quote about the function of racism as distraction: that it “keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.” She says that none of that labor, none of this explaining over and over again to people who refuse to listen to and engage you as an equal, is necessary.

It’s getting increasingly more important to me to invest in our own feminist spaces rather than fighting for inclusion in a conversation that has no interest in our voices or agency or humanity.

There was a lot of pushback against women who criticized Clinton during her campaign run, why do you believe so many women were unnerved by criticism of Clinton?

White women internalized the criticism because they saw themselves in Hillary Clinton: any criticism of her politics was ultimately a criticism of them and the politics they shared with her.

Now that Donald Trump has been elected, Clinton’s fan base has come out hard against anyone who expressed any disapproval of her policies, going as far as to blame them for his landslide win. Have you come across this? Why are they wrong?

They’re wrong because, as so many people have pointed out, people of color quite overwhelmingly showed out for Clinton, despite being deeply critical of her politics and past policies. Hell, 94% of black women voters voted for her! But, per usual, white people—particularly white women—refuse to hold themselves accountable for their complicity in white supremacy so they would rather blame ethnic minority and third party voters, despite clear evidence that white people’s vested interest in white supremacy enabled Trump’s victory.

Where does Hillary Clinton’s devastating loss leave feminists on the left who are unimpressed with bourgeois discourse, especially those who argue that “elite feminism” leaves many women out? Where do we, as leftist women, go from here if we’re to (re)build a revolutionary movement?

If anything, her loss vindicates women that are critical of the idea that there is anything radical about a trickle-down feminism that forces women of color, queer and trans women, disabled women, working class women, and women of other marginalized identities to prioritize the interests of cis-hetero white women over our own.

From here, I think it’s important that we’re methodical about constructing a gender politic that’s deeply critical of all facets of whiteness, that’s self-reflective about our own benefit from and complicity within systems of oppression. [We need] a real intersectional understanding of our identities accompanied by real concerted efforts at dialogue, solidarity, and material supports for other marginalized women.

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Roqayah Chamseddine

Roqayah Chamseddine

Roqayah Chamseddine is a Lebanese-American writer, published poet, and journalist, whose work can be found at Roqchams.com.