Depending on your perspective, it’s either Hillary Clinton’s great misfortune or incredible luck to be matched with an opponent who believes men like him can simply grab women “by the pussy,” who has been accused of making unwanted sexual advances against colleagues, and who made a sport of sizing up all the beauty queens in the pageant he owned. Because Donald Trump represents the worst version of how powerful men treat women, the symbolism of Clinton can seem uncomplicated: Her White House victory, if it comes, will be a win for women.
What that means, though, is that women have been twice silenced in this election: Once by Donald Trump and his allies, who have dismissed his demeaning behavior toward women as “locker-room talk,” and the other by Clinton and her supporters, who have pushed a narrative that she is both the symbol and champion of women’s progress. The second is subtler, and in no way equivalent to Donald Trump’s comments on women. But for some women who don’t feel represented by Clinton—specifically those on the left, along with women of color—this experience has been alienating. Just as it’s important for women and feminists to resist the downward suck of Trump’s vulgarity, so it’s important to entertain the limits of what Clinton’s presidency might mean for women’s advancement.
“If you criticize HRC, it looks like you’re endorsing fascism,” said Catherine Liu, a professor of film and media studies at University of California, Irvine.
And “the tone of some of this has been: If you are anti-Hillary, you are anti-woman,” said Naomi Christine Leapheart, a non-profit worker in Philadelphia who is seeking her ordination in the United Church of Christ. “I have, as they would say, receipts in that department.”
At the beginning of October, Clinton held a 20-percentage-point lead over her opponent among women surveyed in a Quinnipiac poll. But even women who intend to vote for Clinton don’t necessarily see themselves in her. Lots of women in the U.S., like Leapheart and others from around the country whom I spoke with in phone interviews, are not enthusiastic about Clinton, even if they’re horrified by the possibility of a President Trump. As the language used to refer to women has somehow become even more ugly and sexist during these final days of the election, a strong majority of women voters have signaled their intention to vote for Clinton. But the real divisions among them have largely been overlooked as a result.
Throughout the election, Clinton’s campaign has happily told the story that she is the woman’s candidate—during debates, on her merchandise, and especially upon becoming the Democratic nominee. “Thanks to you, we have reached a milestone: The first time in our nation’s history that a woman will be a major-party nominee for president,” she said during her June speech in Brooklyn, after winning enough delegates to secure the nomination. “It started right here in New York at a place called Seneca Falls, when a small but determined group of women and men came together with the idea that women deserved equal rights.” Later, she spoke about the day her mother was born: June 4, 1919, the day Congress gave women the right to vote.
The trouble with marking Seneca Falls and the 19th Amendment as straightforward landmarks in America’s march toward equality is that they only represent some women’s history. Black women did not take part in the convention where the Declaration of Sentiments was promulgated. African American advocates for women’s rights like Ida B. Wells occasionally clashed with white women in the movement, some of whom courted white Southerners in their quest for the vote. Many women of color did not benefit from suffrage until 1965, when the Voting Rights Act finally eliminated many of the racist barriers to their enfranchisement.
Even Clinton’s nomination isn’t a straightforward first: Shirley Chisholm, a black Congresswoman, ran against George McGovern in the 1972 Democratic presidential primary. As Charmaine Chua, a Ph.D. student at the University of Minnesota who is skeptical of Clinton’s candidacy, put it, “The movement from Seneca Falls to the present covers a whole other set of steps in between that weren’t progressive at all.” If beating Trump is the apotheosis of feminism, then feminists haven’t achieved much at all. “I do not agree with the idea that we have to vote for Hillary and talk about her uncritically because of a fear of Donald Trump,” said Donna Murch, a professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey. “I think that is politically dangerous.”
Like this overly clean historical narrative, some of Clinton’s limitations are bound up in her identity. “I think Clinton comes from a background that is a bit disconnected from women of color,” said Farrah Khan, a Pakistani American candidate for city council in Irvine, California. “Our struggle is a bit different than hers might have been. When we’re running for office, when we’re moving ahead, we’re not only moving ahead as women—we’re moving ahead as minority women.”
While Clinton can’t help that she’s white, her whiteness at least partially determines who she can claim to speak for and represent. “She doesn’t seem to understand my everyday experience as a black woman,” said Leapheart.
Especially because Trump has so little support among black voters, it’s often assumed that Clinton has “black women in her pocket,” said Amaryah Armstrong, a theology Ph.D. student at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. Earlier this year, women on Twitter started the hashtag #GirlIGuessImWithHer, expressing reluctant support and feelings of distance from Clinton. “It’s everything from how much she spent on her suits and jackets—that’s so far from any reality that I have,” said Leapheart.
This is another factor that distinguishes Clinton from most American women: Like the vast majority of other national political figures, her household income puts her in the top 1 percent of earners in the U.S. Armstrong said this is the most alienating factor for her. “I don’t think it’s the fact that she’s a straight, white, cis woman,” she said. “Honestly, I think it’s the circles that she travels in—she’s a wealthy and elite white woman, and because of that, doesn’t have to deal with the kind of realities of living under the economic system that we live under.”
On a symbolic level, Clinton’s wealth matters—few women can identify with her life. “There’s a sense that for upper-middle-class women, or elite women, she represents this breaking-down of glass ceilings,” said Armstrong. “But when I think about poor women and working women, it’s hard for me to see her nomination as a victory in such a complete sense that she tries to portray it.”
From a political perspective, Clinton’s personal wealth highlights a divide within the Democratic Party, especially following a primary in which wealth and income inequality were central issues. “I think she’s courted the middle, and she’s made herself a very good Republican,” said Liu, the UC Irvine professor. For women looking for a radical vision of politics, including economic policies that would benefit poor women, Clinton’s platform may be unsatisfying.
“I don’t think there’s anything from her, tangibly, that’s different from a lot of other white, male candidates I’ve seen growing up my whole life,” said Junauda Petrus, a performance artist and activist in Minneapolis. “I wouldn’t sit down with these old-ass white people under any other circumstance to hear their opinions. But because they’re running for president, I’ve got to care.”
There are limits to how much Clinton can be criticized simply for who she is; no one can be a living symbol of every experience. But many women disagree with her policies as well. Charlene Carruthers, the national director of Black Youth Project 100, a grassroots organization in Chicago that trains young activists and organizes advocacy efforts, was particularly critical of Clinton’s role in ’90s-era welfare reform, which changed the structure of aid to poor mothers and children.
“I’ve voted in every election since I was 18,” Carruthers said. “I do not plan to cast a vote for Hillary Clinton in November. I cannot in good conscience, as the daughter of a black woman who has had to deal with the consequences of policies she has supported.”
Because she’s been in public office for so long, Clinton’s positions on different issues have changed over time. She didn’t start supporting same-sex marriage until 2013, for example, and specifically affirmed that marriage is between a man and a woman earlier in her political career. She has been embraced by LGBT organizations in Washington, including the Human Rights Campaign, but that doesn’t mean she’s won over all LGBT voters.
“It’s not enough to just be a woman who gets there—I want her to push for policies that actually help women and help genderqueer people and women of color,” said Jess Braverman, a lawyer who works in the public defender’s office in Minneapolis. “I want it to be more than just: She’s the first woman nominee for president.”
When it comes time to vote in November, women who don’t feel represented by Clinton have a few choices. “I’m voting for her, but I’m not, in general, in life, super excited,” said Braverman. Liu, who doesn’t live in a swing state, said she’d likely be sitting the presidential election out.
Petrus, in Minneapolis, told me over the phone that she was going to go for Jill Stein, but later followed up via email: “When reflecting more, I wanted to be thoughtful of the reality of the situation we find ourselves in, and in many ways it is avoiding disaster: the election of a reckless and hateful white supremacist who is accountable only to his own masturbatory narcissism,” she wrote. “At this point, electing Hillary is the only way to do that and I believe she is beyond capable of presidency.”
Some still haven’t decided. For people like Leapheart, who lives in the swing state of Pennsylvania, votes really do matter. She said she’s frustrated by the possibility of casting an anti-Trump vote. “I remain so disappointed. While we’re so busy arguing against what we don’t want, we’re not articulating a vision for what we can have, and what we do want,” she said. “As we get closer to November, I think I’ll have to decide I’m able to live with in terms of my own voting decision. But I don’t think I’ll be happy either way. Maybe I should just stop looking for that.”
Ultimately, that may be the lesson of Clinton’s feminist achievement: No one woman can truly represent 51 percent of the population. If anything, her candidacy, and potentially her presidency, will be a chance for those who care about women’s advancement to take stock of what’s next, now that it’s perfectly clear that even a woman running for president can’t stop misogyny. As many of the women I spoke with pointed out, presidents are only one kind of leader—as Petrus put it, “I see women who are presidents in the ghetto. You don’t have to hold the [White House] office to run things.”
But who knows? Just as some women have found their champion in Hillary Clinton, perhaps other feminists will get their hero one day—a woman who will undoubtedly be just as flawed, and raise just as many critiques, as Clinton.
“I’m sorry to be such a downer on this,” said Liu. “I want to be celebrating. I just can’t. Maybe there will be a second female president in my lifetime who I can be really happy about.”