When Hillary Rodham Clinton announced her presidential run, I braced for an onslaught of “Arquetting.” That term, coined by organizer Irna Landrum, entails “demand[ing] support from a group based on ahistorical narratives about civil rights,” and was inspired by Patricia Arquette’s misguided pitch for wage equity at this year’s Oscars: “It’s time for all the women in America and all the men that love women, and all the gay people, and all the people of color that we’ve all fought for to fight for us now.”
Whatever she intended, Arquette’s comments perpetuated a conflict between white feminists and feminists of color over the meaning of gender equality that dates to at least 1851, when Sojourner Truth gave her “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech, countering white feminists’ insistence that suffrage and abolitionism were separate causes. More than a century later, the black feminists of the Combahee River Collective expressed their “disillusionment” with both the “elitism” of the feminist movement and the sexism of the civil rights and Black Power movements. And the term “reproductive justice” was coined in 1994 because feminists of color felt that the “pro-choice” framework focused too narrowly on individual access to birth control and abortion while ignoring structural inequities, like poverty, that limit women’s reproductive options.
These are examples of the need for intersectional feminism: a struggle for equality that goes beyond just considering “gender” and “women” to other complicating factors, such as class and race.
Clinton’s 2008 campaign, however, was short on intersectionality and long on Arquetting. Her husband, Bill, accused then-candidate Barack Obama’s campaign of “playing the race card” to undercut African-American support for Clinton. Feminist icons Gloria Steinem and Geraldine Ferraro asserted that Clinton’s gender was a bigger disadvantage than Obama’s race. It all left an indelibly bad memory, and I braced myself for more of the same this time.
So far, I’ve seen no blatant Arquetting. Maybe that’s because no one from either party has emerged as serious competition. Or it could be a lingering effect of the justified blowback against Arquette.
Clinton supporters, however, have been guiltier of a subtler lack of intersectionality in implying that anyone who identifies as feminist must get behind Clinton. The Nation heralded her “feminist family values,” and author Gail Sheehy dubbed her “the right candidate for the feminist movement.” The implication is that confluent factors like race should receive no consideration. But Clinton’s record, as documented by Kevin Young and Diana C. Sierra Becerra in the journal Against the Current, would give any intersectional feminist pause:
She insists that abortion must remain ‘rare,’ but has also helped deprive poor expecting parents of the financial support they would need to raise a child [through her support for welfare reform in 1996]. … She has supported the further militarization of the Mexico border and the arrest of undocumented immigrants, undermining the reproductive rights of women who give birth in chains in detention centers before being deported back to lives of poverty and violence.
New York lawyer and writer Carolyn Edgar argues that Clinton ignores these concerns to her detriment. “It took a coalition of women of color to make up for the white women’s vote that Obama lost to Romney,” Edgar says. “So while I wouldn’t say that white women aren’t a powerful voting bloc, I would say that they have to recognize they can’t do it alone.”
Edgar is optimistic that Clinton does recognize this, given the addition to her team of people like Maya Harris, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress who wrote an influential paper on women of color as a voting bloc. But to draw the support of women of color and intersectional feminists, Clinton won’t just have to avoid Arquetting; she will also have to find a way to address her less-than-intersectional record.
Whatever Clinton does, let’s hope the Arquetting on her behalf remains at a minimum. As the actor found out the hard way, it’s a losing strategy for solidarity.