Can Hillary's Defeat Be Blamed on Sexism?

Washington Matters

Can Hillary's Defeat Be Blamed on Sexism?

As Hillary Clinton's supporters adjust to the fact that she is not going to be the nominee, many of the women on her side are beginning to suggest that she lost at least in part because of sexism. You can certainly make that argument, but it just leads to a dead end.


It's a measure of how far we've come -- and how far we have to go -- that the opposing Democratic campaigns are debating whether her gender helped or hurt


Clinton clearly won a lot of support from women (and some men) who were excited by the idea of a woman finally winning the White House. She used that to her advantage whenever she could. At the same time Clinton was dogged by plenty of sexist remarks and attitudes. She struggled from the start with high negatives. Some 45% of Americans simply disliked or even hated her, and much of that had to do with a sexist approach to her history in the White House, with people blaming her for standing by Bill, for being too "aggressive" on health care or too "heavy handed" in her dealings with the travel office. Not all of that was sexism -- we have a bad habit of resorting to sexist and racist language and imagery to describe behavior we don't like -- but some of the criticism certainly had to do with gender stereotypes.


Gender was always a double-edged sword for her. While she's clearly capable and a worthy presidential candidate, she wouldn't have been a viable candidate if she hadn't been married to Bill. At the same time, being married to him helped bring her down.


The effect of racism on Obama is more obvious. Clearly, it's hurting him among many white voters, many of whom don't feel comfortable with Obama and some of whom admit that his color is the reason. At the same time, Obama has won over 90% of the black vote, and blacks turned out in massive numbers, giving him at least a few victories he wouldn't have otherwise claimed.


Arguing about whether sexism was a net winner or loser for Clinton -- or whether racism was a net winner or loser for Obama -- is clearly silly. We'll never know how much Clinton's problem was her gender and how much was due to a personality that many voters found grating and untrustworthy. We will find out whether Obama can win over many of the working class whites that are wary of him, but we'll never really know if those who don't are harboring concerns about race or about his politics and leadership.

And it doesn't really matter. The discussion itself distracts us from addressing the multiple problems plaguing the country. Moreover, it does nothing to advance our ability to overcome one of the most stubborn of those problems -- the fading but still potent stain of prejudice that allows racism and sexism to hold people back at all levels of society. The debate over why Clinton lost doesn't help do that.