Election Special: Gender Politics

Ahead of tomorrow's vote, writer and academic Stephanie DeGooyer argues why this is an election about gender

Tomorrow morning, the United States will go to the polls to vote for their 44th president, choosing between the Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, and the Republican candidate Donald Trump. This election cycle has been more divisive and toxic than any other in living memory in the US; it has widened old conservative and liberal fault lines, and created new, even more dangerous ones with the potential to effect not just the US, but the whole world.

This entry, from writer and academic Stephanie DeGooyer, is one of a seven-part frieze.com series that has been published throughout October in anticipation of tomorrow's vote. The remaining entries, considering key issues such as education, environment, Brexit, race, paranoia and class, are available here or by clicking on the tag ‘US Election Special’. 

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When Eileen Myles wrote of wanting to put Hillary Clinton’s ‘vagina’ in the US presidential chair this past February in Buzzfeed, I bristled: it could not be so simple. To mitigate Clinton’s neoliberal hawkishness for the sake of history would be to turn politics into symbolism.

My view changed after watching Donald Trump continually interrupt and challenge Clinton’s right to speak on stage during the first presidential debate on 26 September, and then the second on 9 October. This is an election about gender. Will the American nation elect its first female president, one of the most qualified candidates in history? Or will it choose a man with a startlingly overt record of misogyny and sexual assault? Trump insults women he does not like as ‘dogs,’ objectifies and berates their appearance (Clinton does not have a ‘presidential look’), blames their critique on menstruation, and brags that his fame allows him to grab them by their genitalia. (His racist epithets, on the other hand, which include calling Mexicans ‘rapists,’ discriminating against African Americans for housing, and using the definite article as if ‘the Muslims’ are objects rather than people, have sadly done less to harm his campaign, though they have been no less public).

election-1.jpg

Democratic presidential nominee former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (L) speaks as Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump listens during the town hall debate at Washington University on October 9, 2016 in St Louis, Missouri. This is the second of three presidential debates scheduled prior to the November 8th election. (Photo by Saul Loeb-Pool/Getty Images)

Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican nominee Donald Trump on stage during the second presidential debate, Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri, 9 October, 2016. Courtesy: Saul Loeb-Pool/Getty Images

A lot depends on the way we choose to frame this campaign. It can be a progressive moment in American history – first female president! – or a regressive nightmare in which a fascist demagogue inches closer, depending on which poll you read, to the highest office in the nation and ‘most important job in the world.’ With this latter narrative, one doesn’t necessarily vote for Hillary Clinton, one votes against Donald Trump. The lesser of two evils.

We can also accept both of these narratives, though this is more complicated. Clinton’s supporters want to get rid of the musty locker rooms (and buses) of male privilege. Electing Clinton sends a strong message to the world that America will not abide casual sexual assault and serial racism. But what exactly is the triumph for women here? Whatever becomes of him, Trump has put his public attacks against women on stage, not for debate, but for show; he has made these attacks stick with a bravado when they should have gone away a long, long time ago. That he has persisted this long in the presidential race, with his assaults continually explained away or overlooked by supporters and the media, makes me wonder what direction America is going in. Sexual assault is being condoned and normalized at the very moment that the gender barrier to the Oval Office is being overturned. I think this is why I experience such despair after watching debates in which Clinton so clearly excels. Behind her clear-sightedness and graceful composure is a grimacing opponent who menaces and mocks women in all the old ways and now in profoundly new ones.                                      

Are we for Clinton or against Trump? We can be with Clinton and against her at the same time, voting for her and pushing her to be accountable to a progressive agenda in office. Clinton can change history by putting her vagina in the chair, but the power of this symbol will fade fast unless she proceeds to work with Congress to change and protect policy.

To access our special election series in full, please click here

Lead image: Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican nominee Donald Trump on stage during the second presidential debate, Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri, 9 October, 2016. Courtesy: Jim Bourg/AFP/Getty Images

Stephanie DeGooyer is assistant professor of English at Willamette University, USA. Her book, The Right To Have Rights, co-authored with Alastair Hunt, Lida Maxwell and Sam Moyn, is forthcoming from Verso Books. Follow her @Stevie_DG

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