What the US election teaches us about the state of feminism today.
On the face of it, it was not unreasonable for Hilary Clinton to court the female vote. Women account for 52% of the US population, more of them identity as Democrat than Republican, and female democrats are largely “feminist” in their outlook. But the fact that as many as 84 per cent of left-leaning women under 30 chose not to support her in the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary shows two things. First, the heavy feminist rhetoric which she has been bucketing out may well have had its day. If not, even for a Democrat, it doesn’t always pay to use it in leadership contests.
One of the most cringe-worthy moments must have been the call from former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to potential supporters, repeating the line which has always smacked of hypocrisy and emotional blackmail:
“There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other!”
The idea that women will support one another willy-nilly is now considered grossly naive by anyone who has encountered modern female competition, or learned of the cruel practices of foot binding and FGM carried out by mothers and grandmothers on defenceless girls. It is also completely out of proportion as a precursor for selection of someone to the most powerful office in the land. Gender solidarity only goes so far.
Passé too is the female leader push. For older generations the possibility of electing a woman US president may well have been a historic moment in time, but not so today. There are currently 18 female leaders across the World, and 63 out of 142 nations having had a female head of government or state at some point during the last fifty years. Between them Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and President Pratibha Patil of India led for 21 years out of the last 50, as too have female rulers in Ireland and Bangladesh. The Nordic countries now see it as no big deal. Nor is female leadership uncommon in South and South East Asia and in South America.
So, in this context, basing much of her campaign on advocacy of women’s rights has come across as seriously out of touch. The plaintive appeal that ”it’s time for a female President” just doesn’t wash on a new generation of men and women who have long taken female equality for granted, and therefore feel no need to repay Clinton for it with their vote.
However, if there is merit in playing to same sex support, which there may well be, then Hilary Clinton’s aides could grudgingly learn a lot from Baroness Thatcher. If she used the female card, which can be a powerful tool, it was in a more authoritative and effective manner. At the same time she demonstrated superbly well, by neither capitulating to masculine patterns of behaviour, nor pleading for votes out of gender sympathy, the powerful political skills women possess. She was one of the great feminist icons of our time, and she set the bar high for future female leaders.
We now no longer question women’s right to be efficient leaders, not because of the irrationality and idealistic fantasy of a gender solidarity movement, but due to the pragmatism and leadership abilities of our former conservative Prime Minister.
As far as feminism is concerned, perhaps Mrs Thatcher was simply ahead of her time. Mrs Clinton should take note.
Louise Burfitt-Dons was the Conservative Candidate for Nottingham North in 2015, is on the London Committee of the Conservative Women's Organisation, and contributes to Conservative Home. She also writes the Right Wing Feminist blog.