Is the most popular form of feminism today Imperial Feminism?
by Ian Sinclair
16 February 2021
In the last decade or so there has been a resurgence of feminist writing and activism in the UK and beyond, which has raised consciousness in both women and men. Best-selling British Young Adult fiction author Holly Bourne, Nigerian-American writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Everyday Sexism’s Laura Bates have been three key figures in this important and necessary upsurge. I think they have all done, and continue to do, brilliant work popularizing feminism and feminist arguments for young people, and those who don’t identify as feminists, which has helped to improve the lives of women across the world. Indeed, I have given books written by all of them to family members in recent years.
However, while I am an admirer of their work, I also think it is important to understand the dangerous limitations of the brand of feminism they propagate.
Asked in a 2016 online Q&A “If you were going to create an all-girl group of superheroes who’d you choose (real people and/or cartoon characters)?”, Bourne replied “Hillary Clinton.” She continued: “There’s so many awesome people in the world”, before also choosing “Malala” – that is Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani female education activist who was shot in the face by the Taliban in 2012.
Adichie is also a big fan of the former US Secretary of State and Democratic presidential candidate. Sitting down for an obsequious Q&A with Clinton at a 2018 Pen America event, Adichie opened by noting “When I said hello to Mrs Clinton backstage, I had to try very hard not to get emotional.” She also explained she had recently written an article titled “Why is Hillary Clinton so Widely Loved?” The event ended with the two women embracing for a long time on stage.
And writing in her inspiring 2016 book Girl Up about women and leadership, Bates highlights how Condoleezza Rice became US Secretary of State and “pioneered the policy of Transformational Diplomacy to increase the number of responsible democratic governments internationally”.
Undoubtedly Clinton – and to a lesser extent, Rice – are role models for many women, and have been public advocates for women’s rights and other causes that impact women around the globe, such as female education.
However, the inescapable fact is Clinton has been a senior member of the US government and wider US political establishment since the early 1990s, and therefore her crimes have been extensive and hugely destructive.
As Secretary of State Clinton played a leading role in NATO’s intervention in Libya in 2011. With the mission quickly morphing into regime change, in September 2016 the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee concluded the intervention resulted in “political and economic collapse, inter-militia and inter-tribal warfare, humanitarian and migrant crises, widespread human rights violations, the spread of Gaddafi regime weapons across the region and the growth of ISIL in North Africa.” In November 2014 the Guardian reported on research conducted by Dignity, the Danish Institute against Torture, in Libya after the US-led intervention. “Our data supports the allegations that widespread… and gross human rights violations have taken place in Libya”, the report noted after conducting a household survey. 20 per cent of households had a family member who had disappeared, and 11 per cent had had a family member arrested. Of those arrested 46 per cent reported beatings, 20 per cent positional torture or suspensions and 16 per cent suffocation.
Clinton also backed Obama’s surge of US forces in Afghanistan in 2009 and the covert US intervention against the Assad government which played a role in escalating the conflict in Syria. While she was Secretary of State, the US support for women’s rights champion Saudi Arabia continued, and the US conducted hundreds of drone strikes across the world. Indeed, when Malala Yousafzai met Obama in 2013 she expressed concern that US drone strikes were “fuelling terrorism”, according to CNN.
As a US Senator Clinton voted for the illegal 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, which a 2013 PLOS Medicine journal study estimates led to 500,000 Iraqi deaths. According to the 2004 Lancet study “most individuals reportedly killed by [US-led] coalition forces were women and children”. More broadly, Brown University’s Cost of War research project estimates, as of 2020, 9.2 million Iraqis are internally displaced or refugees abroad due to the 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation. A 2008 Brookings Institution think-tank policy paper noted “some 80 percent” of Internally Displaced Persons in Iraq “are women and children”.
Back in the United States, it is worth mentioning Clinton’s role, as first lady, in President Bill Clinton’s move in 1996 to “end welfare as we know it” by signing the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. “It would be hard to imagine a bigger blow to the material well-being of poor women in America”, Liza Featherstone noted in The Nation in 2016. “As first lady, Hillary wasn’t a mere spectator to this; within the White House, she advocated harsher policies like ending traditional welfare, even as others in the administration, like Labor Secretary Robert Reich, proposed alternatives.”
In summary, as Dr Patrick Barrett Professor Deepa Kumar noted in Jacobin magazine in 2016, Clinton’s record is “one which has been devastating for millions of vulnerable people (especially women and children) both at home and abroad”.
Feminist scholar bell hooks concurs, explaining in 2016 she couldn’t support Clinton because there are “certain things that I don’t want to co-sign in the name of feminism that I think are militarist, imperialist, white supremacist.”
Indeed, a Clinton-supporting feminism is, by definition, Imperial Feminism – what Zillah Eisenstein, Professor of Politics at Ithaca College, defines as “feminism that operates on behalf of American empire building.”
Clinton, then, can only be a feminist icon if you ignore, or are ignorant of, her deadly impact on non-white women and their families in nations like Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan.
The young people who engage with – and look up to – Bourne and Adichie deserve to be exposed to more humane, non-racist versions of feminism than this.
Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.