Photo: Michael Wiser
"After running as a man last time around, Hillary Clinton is now running as a woman." -Maureen Dowd
Clinton and Obama’s 2008 presidential campaigns were the first direct challenges to the streak of white male presidential nominees in America, pitting race against gender in the Democratic primary. Questions about whether a black man could amass enough support to be a viable opponent to the Republican candidate were to put to rest by Obama’s 7.9% lead in Iowa. Clinton’s Super Tuesday success lent support to her potential as well. The Democrats were left with a primary race that would result in either the first black nominee, or the first woman.
At the time, Clinton eschewed her gender as a component in the race. She attempted to run a genderless campaign, a nod to the often vitriolic responses to feminism. Stereotypically masculine traits—decisiveness, impassiveness, objectivity—were emphasized, while feminine traits, such as kindness and empathy, were downplayed. Even her wardrobe was calculated to minimize gender. Still, the media skewered her.
Many had assumed Clinton could rely on female support by virtue of being a woman, but some of Clinton’s loudest critics were women and frontrunners of various feminist movements. Her status as a woman did her no favours in the polls either. Her refusal to acknowledge her gender as a central component of her campaign soon became the crux of her defeat to Obama in the 2008 primaries.
Fast-forward to 2016, and she has since learned from her mistakes. This primary, Clinton has done a 180, putting gender front and center in her campaign. She has preemptively addressed her grandmother status while establishing a softer, maternal side. In contrast to her previous stance, this time around she stated, "I expect to be judged on my merits, and the historic nature of my candidacy is one of the merits that I hope people take into account." And she is right — her candidacy is historic, particularly if she manages to come out on top in the primaries.
Yet, Bernie Sanders’ recent jump in Iowa is putting pressure on the Clinton campaign, which has seen its support slowly dwindle over the last few months. That Sanders is performing well despite receiving very low media coverage, combined with the stigma surrounding his largely socialist platform, makes it tempting to conclude that in the US presidential running, being a woman is still worse. However, the actual implication is far more subtle.
This time, it’s that being a woman isn’t enough.
It’s great that Clinton is acknowledging the importance of gender in the race; it’s great that she is finally pro gay marriage; it’s great that she has chosen to state explicitly "I am a feminist." But it isn’t enough. This time, we need more than a nod to corporate, white feminism, but rather, an informed, inclusive, intersectional approach to the presidential bid. Clinton’s feminism may have improved, but feminism has moved on, and Clinton’s failure to recognize it is costing her.
This descent from obvious-primary-winner to lagging behind a previously dismissed candidate has a sense of deja vu. Clinton was also considered a shoo-in for the Democratic Nomination in 2008, suffering a similarly slow decline in support as Obama gained legitimacy. The first indication that she might actually lose the nomination? Iowa.
As the first major election in the nomination process, the Iowa caucus results tend to set the tone for primary elections. They gave Americans permission to vote for a black president, and they might just give Americans permission to vote for a socialist.
So, with the Iowa caucus’ February 1st date looming, Clinton needs to find a happy medium. Otherwise she may need to accept defeat again—and this time, as a woman.