In the late 1960s, radical feminists throughout the United States engaged in “consciousness-raising” sessions, seeking to make women aware of how oppressed they were as married mothers primarily dedicated to raising their children.
Listening to Hillary Clinton’s concession speech last weekend made me feel like an unwilling participant in a 21st century “consciousness-raising” session. Clinton reclaimed the mantel of championing women’s rights, repeatedly referring to her historic moment as the first woman to come close to winning a major party nomination. She also carefully emphasized the existence of a dark cloud of sexism hovering over her campaign.
She said, “But I am a woman, and like millions of women, I know there are still barriers and biases out there, often unconscious.”
Clinton took credit for making it normal for a woman to win primary state victories, for a woman to become close to winning the nomination and for the public to think a woman can be President. She proclaimed, “You can be so proud that, from now on, it will be unremarkable for a woman to win primary state victories, unremarkable to have a woman in a close race to be our nominee, unremarkable to think that a woman can be the President of the United States. And that is truly remarkable.”
She further posed the question, “When we first started, people everywhere asked the same questions: Could a woman really serve as Commander-in-Chief? Well, I think we answered that one.”
The doors of education are open to women. This school year, according to the U.S. census, women were projected to earn 59% of bachelor’s degrees, 61% of master’s degrees and 52% of first-professional degrees, such as law and medical. Women are not just earning degrees at the same rate as men, but are actually passing them.
Yet, in examining the top positions in some traditionally male fields, it is clear that women are not achieving at the same rate as men. In 2007, only 13 of the FORTUNE 500 companies were run by women and 26 of the FORTUNE 1000 companies were run by women. According to a November, 2007 report by the National Association of Women Lawyers, just 8% of law firm leaders are women. This year, women hold only 16% of Senate seats, 16.3% of House seats and 23.7% of state legislature seats.
Clinton and her supporters have been able to make claims of sexism with straight faces and these claims have resonated with some segments of the population, partly because of these disproportionate numbers. For example, Katie Couric recently said, “One of the great lessons of [Hillary Clinton's] campaign is the continued and accepted role of sexism in American life, particularly in the media....It isn't just Hillary Clinton who needs to learn a lesson from this primary season — it's all the people who crossed the line, and all the women and men who let them get away with it.”
For Clinton’s camp, sexism itself is the reason for this difference in numbers and the reason she lost. Maybe there is some lingering sexism. But in making these claims, they discount all of the other important contributing factors. For the career achievement gap, for example, they ignore the fact that earlier generations of women did not always have the same educational opportunities as men. Also, they disregard the role of choice, both the choice of women to leave the workforce and the choice of women not to vote for Clinton. Many women simply do not agree with the policies, practices and politics of Clinton, and other women running for office, making it difficult to claim sexism. As it turned out, Clinton’s campaign never had a huge advantage among women voters. Clinton captured the female vote of women over the age of 65, while Obama won with younger women. Women in the middle split almost evenly. Clinton barely won a majority of Democratic women voters—the landslide that some predicted never materialized. Is it sexist for a woman not to vote for a woman?
Clinton and Couric do women a disservice by simplifying the complicated reasons for her losing presidential bid to a case of rampant sexism. They would be better off spending less time teaching the existence of sexism through “conciousness-raising” and more time learning why so many women rejected Clinton through listening.