Barack Obama has been accurately labeled a post-racial candidate—in a world where the rigid silos of skin color are crumbling and evolving into the new unity of a diverse America. As her presidential campaign winds down, I wondered, could we have considered Hillary Clinton a post-feminist candidate?
Unfortunately, the analogy doesn’t fit—or rather, the candidate, Clinton, doesn’t fit the analogy. It is precisely the bona fides of her feminism that exclude Hillary from being considered a post-feminist candidate—and, perhaps to some extent, created the fractiousness of her campaign that she and Bill alluded to as “sexist”.
The leading edge of the feminist movement preceded my own maturity by about 10 years. Choosing to go into a field that had been predominantly male, however, allowed me to observe the transition from traditional professional roles to improved gender equality. As a high schooler and college student in the late 60’s and early seventies interested in a career in the sciences, I had predominantly male professors in those fields. The women professors I observed, at university and, later, in medical school, were dynamic role models and groundbreaking leaders, but leaders who had compromised, adapted, and internalized the structure of the traditional male environment in which they labored.
There were less than 20 women in my medical school class of over 200 students in the mid-seventies—we were considered groundbreakers ourselves, the second class in the University’s history to have more than 1 or 2 women medical students. We were proud to be the vanguard of a new wave of doctors, a skirted army that didn’t answer to the call of “Nurse”. We admired and, at times, commiserated with our female professors about the challenges we all faced. But, despite our common ground, I noted significant differences between our generations.
Most probably, these differences were due to the accommodations these older women needed to make to survive in a traditional environment. These adaptations resulting from that worldview remained with the women even after they had achieved professional success despite frustrating odds. The women fell into two categories, I noted, which I labeled “The Southern Belle”, and “Calamity Jane”.
The “Southern Belle”s, by their own admission, had adopted a submissive role in the male hierarchy, a hyper-feminine, non-threatening pose that enlisted men’s support and facilitation through school and work. Male classmates and colleagues would find their “gentlemanly” traits inspired and would serve as helpful big brothers through the academic pathway.
The “Calamity Jane”s, alternatively, strove to mimic perceived male characteristics and stereotypes, and to exceed, with diligence and drive, the performance of their Alpha male colleagues. Eschewing traits that could be seen as “feminine”, i.e. weak, they adopted an uber-competitiveness that continued to leak through their demeanor even when their battles had been won.
Like Hillary, both of these types of women adopted techniques and skills to survive an immensely challenging social environment that otherwise limited their options. However, both their responses, and their ongoing professional success, were still guided by their memories and perceptions of that environment, i.e. an environment of inequity and discrimination.
Those of us who followed in their footsteps, in a truly post-feminist world, faced our own challenges without those preconceptions. Sure, we occasionally stumbled on pockets of sexism and discrimination—but we had an abiding faith and trust that equality was a value that would supersede these archaic oases of sexist control. Our relationships, our goals, and our philosophies were based on an implicit understanding of “Yes, we can” rather than our predecessor’s battle cry of “Yes, I will”.
I look at Hillary and her campaign, and acknowledge, even as a Barack supporter, that it was a great “college” try. But, the campaign reflected the years that Hillary went to college—and the world that existed then, a pre-feminist to feminist transition. Sadly, Hillary was never able herself to let go of her own experiences and transition comfortably and fully into a post-feminist world.