‘Hillary’s rise to fame as a presidential candidate was paved by the struggle of many women before her’ argues Dr Masuma Hasan.
Hillary Clinton lost the US presidential election on 8 November against the prediction of so many experienced political pundits. She said all the right things and raised all the right issues during her campaign: unity in diversity, inclusiveness for all races and communities, building bridges instead of walls, health care and social security, equal opportunities for women, tolerance for all faiths, especially for the endangered Muslim community, reaching out for the marginalized and the poor, protection for women’s reproductive rights and the rights of gay and lesbian groups. Donald Trump, her adversary, scandalized with his crude references to women, his attacks on Muslims whom he promised to debar from entering the United States, on Mexicans to prevent whose entry he would build a wall along the Mexico-US border, calling them rapists, his determination to dismantle Barack Obama’s health care scheme, cut taxes for the rich, which would lead to more investment and jobs, protect ownership of weapons, and thereby make America great again.
Trump became the subject of disgust as one woman after another came forward to accuse him of sexual assault. He had no experience whatever of public office or governance, he had never been a member of either house of Congress. He surprised his fellow Americans by lack of knowledge of world affairs, and by praising Vladimir Putin. On the campaign trail his vocabulary was so limited that he could not string three consecutive sentences coherently. Each sentence could be just two or three words. Hillary, on the other hand, was eloquent and had been a Senator. As Obama’s Secretary of State she had vast experience of diplomacy and had travelled the world over on behalf of her country.
Hillary was not the first woman in the United States to run for the office of president. More than a score of women had pitched for that post, some of them just nominees on the lists of small socialist and workers parties or the Communist Party, but also of the two major parties. They were brave women who defied prejudice and misogyny, some even managed to win delegates. Women got the vote after the 19th amendment was ratified in 1920 but, in a strange anomaly, men could still vote for women.
The first woman to run for president was Victoria Woodhull in 1872 and again in 1892, followed by Belva Lockwood in 1884 and 1888, a lawyer who was the first woman to practise before the US Supreme Court in the face of the caustic sarcasm of various justices. It was not until as late as 1964 that Margaret Chase Smith, whose name was placed in the nomination list for president by the Republican Party, became the first woman to be elected to serve in the House of Representatives and the Senate.
The most celebrated presidential candidate was probably Shirley Chisholm, African American, whose name was included in 1972 on the list of nominees in the Democratic convention. She was the first black woman to be elected to Congress, serving seven consecutive terms.
My purpose in mentioning these women is to point out that Hillary’s rise to fame as a presidential candidate was paved by the struggle of many women before her. In 2008, Hillary lost the Democratic nomination to Obama. In 2016, she won that nomination but failed, as she said in her concession speech, to break the glass ceiling.
Let us ponder over the reasons for her failure. There is the simple feminist argument that Hillary lost because she was a woman. In the conservative culture of America, in which women do not always draw equal pay with men, cannot rise easily to management positions or in the corporate hierarchy, where there is so much controversy about women’s right to abortion, and so much emphasis on sexism, this must surely have been a contributing factor. But the voting pattern suggests that there is a serious disconnect between urban and rural America which surfaced unexpectedly in this hotly contested election. Speaker Paul Ryan said after the election that Trump had heard a voice which others did not hear. The American heartland voted for Trump, the cosmopolitan, urban and urbane east and west coasts voted for Hillary.
Why did this disconnect, which surely did not spring up suddenly, make such a difference this time? It was a white backlash to the election of Obama as president eight years ago. His election was a revolution in American politics and came as a monumental surprise across the world. The audacity of his pitch hurt white supremacists who felt it was bad enough that their country was inhabited by blacks ─ all of whom they could not ship back to Africa ─ Hispanics, Latinos and now these strident Muslims. It was worse that not only did a black man become president, he also enacted policies ─ or tried to ─ which went against their laissez-faire vision of society, the capitalist vision of the survival of the fittest without state intervention. The heartland believes that it represents these ‘American’ values.
Hillary’s campaign has been criticized for being badly managed and she has only herself to blame for the scandal of her insecure emails ─ thousands of them. How could she have been so naïve and unwise? Even an ordinary public functionary knows that official correspondence has to be kept secure from prying eyes.
One must also ponder upon the role which the media and pollsters played in Hillary’s defeat. The constant focus on percentage gains and percentage losses and polling predictions were not a favour to her. Although we recognize that is how campaigns are assessed and monitored, the hype about her impending victory must have put many minds at rest that she was winning, anyway. However, the American system must be among few systems in the world in which one can poll the majority of votes and still lose an election. Hillary polled 200,000 popular votes more than Trump.
The United States, with its vast size, immense wealth, its sophisticated weapons, the armoury of a superpower, does not have space for a woman president. And South Asia, with its poverty and backwardness, its sloth and slums, elected women to power long before Hillary appeared on the scene: Sirimavo Bandaranaik in Sri Lanka, Indira Gandhi in India, Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan and even Hasina Wazed in Bangladesh. These countries are said to be infested with gender discrimination, marginalization of women and girls, cruel customs, abuse of widows, honour killings and extreme misogyny. But one should accept that, in this freak situation, it was the men in these countries who voted to bring these women to power. As we all know, it is not easy to call out the women’s vote in conservative societies on election day.
Trump’s victory may have been graciously conceded by Hillary and gracefully accepted in transition by Obama, but the last three days of violent protests in American cities indicate how upset its citizens are. One girl in tears wailed about how disappointed she was in her country that a misogynyst like Trump could become the president. Trump himself has described these disappointed protesters as ‘professional agitators’ instigated by the media. That reminds me of Ziaul Haq’s language and reaction to the political movement against him in the 1980s in Pakistan.
Putin may have reason to rejoice that he will deal with a novice, and ISIS has expressed satisfaction at Trump’s success but the world’s leaders have congratulated Trump with some reservations. His resolve to do away with trade pacts and the Paris agreement on climate change are disappointing enough. If he tries to undo Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, it will open the door to global instability. In countries like mine, however, it will strengthen obscurantism and conservative forces. If the great president-elect of the United States can get away with blatant sexism and bigotry, why can’t we?
Meanwhile, a signature campaign has been mounted, urging the electors of the electoral college who will vote on 19 December to cast their votes according to their conscience and not according to their commitment. One wonders how many ‘faithless electors’ there will be on that date.