On Tuesday night, Hillary Clinton became the Democratic Party’s presumptive nominee for President of the United States. However, in accepting this distinction, Clinton laid claim to more than just the mantle of a party. Positioning her now all-but-inevitable nomination as the culmination of nearly two centuries of feminist struggle, Clinton also took up the mantle of American feminism.
As a feminist scholar and historian, I see a problem here. The feminist tradition to which Clinton has laid claim is more complex than Clinton lets on and Americans need to know this.
Consider the scene: in a victory speech delivered (with intentional irony) beneath the glass ceiling of Brooklyn’s Navy Ship Yard, Clinton told supporters, “Tonight’s victory is not about one person. It belongs to generations of women and men who struggled and sacrificed and made this moment possible. In our country, it started right here in New York at a place called Seneca Falls in 1848 when a small but determined group of women and men came together with the idea that women deserve equal rights.”
Just hours before Clinton delivered this speech, her campaign released a video bearing much this same message. Entitled “History Made,” the video celebrates Clinton’s victory as the climax of a feminist tradition that began with the suffrage movement in the 19th century, continued with the women’s liberation movement in the 1960s, and lives on today in the intersectional feminist activism of transwomen of color like Blossom Brown and Cherno Biko, both of whom are featured in the video.
This narrative of unbroken feminist continuity is undeniably stirring, especially at the end of a primary season dominated by the unvarnished misogyny and racism of the Republican Party’s presumptive nominee.
There’s only one problem with this narrative: it is false. Far from the frictionless, unified movement portrayed by Clinton, historically, feminism has been a movement rife with conflict and division.
Take, for instance, the Seneca Falls Declaration of 1848. Among the sentiments the Seneca Falls feminists declared is the following: “[Man] has withheld [woman] from rights which are given to the most ignorant and degraded men—both natives and foreigners.” Here, in the midst of what Clinton figures as American feminism’s founding moment, we have a nakedly classist and nativist appeal. We have feminists decrying the injustice that well-educated, well-mannered, native-born American women are worse off politically than men of lower stations – working class men, immigrants, Native Americans, and men of color, to be precise.
Two decades later, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the author of the Seneca Falls Declaration, reprised and more overtly racialized this argument to oppose the passage of the 15th Amendment, which was intended to extend the franchise to black men. It is “a serious question,” Stanton wrote, “whether we [white women] had better stand aside and see ‘Sambo’ walk into the kingdom first.”
This tendency to advocate for women’s rights on the backs of other marginalized people (many of whom are, of course, women) is a regrettable, recurring feature of American feminist history.
Fortunately, time and again feminists have banded together to counter this tendency with less myopic political visions. For instance, in the early 20th century, Mary Church Terrell, a suffragist and civil rights activist, countered what had by then become the rampant racism of the American suffrage movement by pressing the issue of black women’s suffrage.
These internecine feminist struggles have continued. Later in the 20th century, as so-called “second-wave” feminists fought to secure women access to a world of meaningful work outside the home, working class women and women of color criticized these efforts for unfairly shifting affluent women’s domestic labor onto their backs. Second-wave feminists also faced criticism from lesbians and other women whose queer desires placed them outside the bounds of sexual propriety. Their problems, this motley crew of dykes, sluts, and perverts insisted, did not center on husbands and children, but on heteronormativity – the deeply ingrained idea that only cis gender roles and heterosexual relations are “normal” – and the practices and institutions that sustained it like marriage and the nuclear family.
Clinton’s rhetorical nods to a continuous and unified feminist movement gloss over these significant aspects of feminist history. We should reject this narrative not only because it is a historical nonstarter, but because it is politically pernicious. Presenting Clinton’s nomination as the culmination of a unified feminist struggle fundamentally misapprehends feminism’s most vital and enduring achievements.
As Clinton rightly emphasizes, feminists have, indeed, made history with this nomination. However, what she gets wrong is that feminists have made this history not by marching lockstep, arm-in-arm toward a clear and common goal, but by stepping out in multiple and often divergent directions. Those directions have been deplorable at least as often as they have been dazzling. The progress that we have made has come not from our seamless unity, but from our missteps being checked and challenged by a quarrelsome chorus of contentious feminist voices, who argue not just with anti-feminists, but with each other. For all our faults, the American feminist movement has been blessed with the politically enlivening gifts of diversity, division, and disagreement.
If this disunity, which Clinton’s narrative obscures and occludes, had not been a hallmark of the feminist movement, the only history feminists like Clinton could lay claim to today would be a history of injustice and exclusion. Such a history would be more in keeping with Trump’s reactionary populism than the vibrant, multifaceted feminism America has – and needs. Clinton has made historic steps, and her ideas and policies have changed over the years. As she hurtles towards November, now is the time for her rhetoric to embrace the American feminist tradition in all its complexity. Oversimplification is a Trump thing.