At a women’s empowerment conference Monday evening, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton urged attendees to “dare greatly and lead boldly.”
"Despite all the challenges we face, I remain convinced that yes, the future is female," Clinton said in a pre-recorded message at the annual AOL MAKERS 2017 conference.
She urged viewers: “You are the heroes and history makers, the glass ceiling breakers of the future.”
Clinton's virtual presence at the MAKERS conference shows “how deeply held her views are” about women’s rights, according to Jane Campbell, president of the nonpartisan group, Women Impacting Public Policy.
“This is about what she wants to do rather than what position she wants to hold, so I really applaud her for staying in the public dialogue at this point,” Campbell added. “I think she’s totally right."
But critics found Clinton’s message to be vaguely divisive.
Conservative political commentator Charmaine Yoest, senior fellow at American Values and former president and CEO of Americans United for Life, said that “the devil’s in the details,” and while “there really wasn’t anything specifically that she said that anyone would want to disagree with,” Yoest took issue with Clinton’s gender-specific language.
“My fundamental concern is that while ‘the future is female’ may sound like a catchy slogan, what, as a national community, we need to be talking about is a future that is human,” she said. “By saying that the future is singularly one sex, what does that say about who we are in relationship to others?”
Yoest's argument mirrors that of “All Lives Matters” advocates, who claim that the “Black Lives Matter” slogan is racist against other demographics. Supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement contend that rationalization minimizes the experiences of being black in America and masks legitimate societal inequity. Similarly, “the future is female” could be interpreted as a commentary on gender equality and the disadvantages women and girls have long faced in society.
Despite a record sweep in the 2016 election, only 21 female senators out of 100 serve in the upper house. Of the 435 members holding seats in the House of Representatives, only 83 are female. Yet women account for over half of the U.S. population.
Clinton made history by becoming the first woman to accept a major-party presidential nomination. Despite being heavily favored in mainstream polls — and winning the popular vote by almost 2.9 million ballots — Clinton lost the presidency to Republican Donald Trump.
According to Lisa Maatz, vice president of government relations and advocacy at the American Association of University Women, female voters and their male allies have noticed these inequalities. During Clinton’s presidential bid, “women were outraged” by what they interpreted as sexist double standards that influenced the election results, Maatz said.
The Christian Science Monitor reported last week that after the 2016 campaigns, women are flooding into political training programs in hopes of getting elected and changing the political discourse.
Though proportionally underrepresented in the American government, women still have powerful voices on both sides of the aisle. Elizabeth Warren, the senior senator from Massachusetts, has emerged as one of the most recognized figures from the Democratic Party. President Trump has appointed women to serve in top positions in his administration, including former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, Betsy DeVos, and perhaps most prominently, Kellyanne Conway.
Conway, a senior adviser to the president, made waves in a Jan. 26 interview with the Washington Post, when she dubbed herself a “postfeminist.”
“I don’t consider myself a feminist,” she told the Post. “I think my generation isn’t a big fan of labels. My favorite label is mommy.”
She continued: “I feel like the feminist movement has been hijacked by the pro-abortion movement or the anti-male sentiments that you read in some of their propaganda and writings. I’m not anti-male. One does not need to be pro-female and call yourself a feminist, when with it comes that whole anti-male culture where we want young boys to sit down and shut up in the classroom.”
Yoest agrees with Conway’s view, claiming that Trump's campaign manager was speaking to “a choice that very many women make to prioritize motherhood over career, that many, many women today feel isn’t validated and supported by the modern feminist movement.”
“What we are seeing continually is that it’s not about women,” Yoest said. “It’s about a leftist political agenda, using the banner of women’s rights to achieve their own political aims in a very divisive and hostile way.” Yoest called this agenda the “abortion industry.”
According to Yoest, the real challenge for the modern feminist movement is accepting conservative and Republican women, who are often shunned for their views.
But proponents of feminism like Maatz do recognize that Conway has made inroads for women in politics by serving as the first female campaign manager to nab a presidential victory.
“Even though Clinton didn’t win, there was a barrier of sorts that was broken, and that’s a good thing,” Maatz said.
Though she can appreciate Conway’s contribution, she also said that Trump’s counselor “needs to join us in the 21st century, where feminism values everyone.”
“Being a feminist means you’re inclusive about who you’re advocating for,” Maatz explained. “It’s not a true feminist analysis if it’s not intersectional.”
She also said that the women's marches around the world after Trump's inauguration speak to the fact that we do not live in a postfeminist period.
Campbell stressed that feminism is about equality between the genders and rejected any “anti-male” or exclusive interpretation of the movement. She remembered how in the 1970s, feminists were often equated with lesbians and stigmatized for their beliefs. Then, some women decided to reject a man’s involvement in their lives, not through an “anti-male” stance, but to support inter-female relationships, she said. But as the LGBTQ community has been normalized and accepted into our social fabric, there’s no need for those divisions.
“By my definition of feminist, Kellyanne Conway has just defined herself as a feminist,” she added.
Maatz conceded that Conway fills a difficult role, as “the main spokesperson for a president whose credibility on gender issues, shall we say, is compromised.”
In a Trump era, when officials claim to be postfeminists and after the defeat of a candidate who many believed would be the first female president, women may wonder what their role is in the political sphere. Maatz advised all those who are disillusioned by the Trump administration to start by addressing their local politicians. As an example, she pointed to Virginia’s Republican representative Dave Brat, who recently told an audience that “the women are in my grill no matter where I go.”
“They’re holding his feet to the fire,” Maatz said of Brat. “That’s what we need to do.”
“I have to tell you, that story made me very happy,” she added. “You have to be appropriate, but you have to be an advocate.”