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Misogyny is the vicious expression of sexism. Both undoubtedly play a role in our electoral politics. But while the rise of Donald Trump has set misogyny in sharp relief, the election of Hillary Clinton would hardly solve the problem of patriarchy, the broader architecture of power relations underlying misogyny. It might even implicitly justify the patriarchal order, if a powerful woman defeating a boorish sexist in the race to be “leader of the free world” is seen as the culmination of feminism. If truly dedicated to liberation, feminists must demand more—of candidates and of politics in general.
The sexism experienced by global elites such as Clinton pales in comparison to what women such as Caceres and her compatriots face.
That said, dismantling patriarchy seems a virtually impossible task. Its current form is rooted in the Age of Exploration and the Enlightenment and supported the conquests, geopolitics, and philosophies of those eras. It was formative to the Western legal concepts of both personhood and property, as well as to the rise of the sovereign European state, the Atlantic slave trade, the practice of settler-colonialism, the mass murder of black and brown peoples, and the exploitation of those denied legal and political recognition. The patriarch—the conceptual ideal man and citizen—was and is defined and protected by his power over intimate associations, and that power remains supported by politics, law, capital, militarism, and police power. I disagree then with Manne’s metaphor in which misogyny is the law enforcement branch of patriarchy. Rather, actual law enforcement—state power—was and is a branch of patriarchy.
Our concern should not only be that women are ancillary to men but that this condition reflects the patriarchal state’s broader regime of domination. There is a reason that the United States is often called the policeman of the world. Within this country, the undocumented, the incarcerated, the homeless, and victims of trafficking lose again and again in a political economy that embraces the free market as gospel. They are then pilloried for their failure to effectively compete, to collect enough chips—with little regard to how the system is rigged to favor those who are born with a mountain of chips. Even if all else is equal, the market favors those with the qualities prized by the patriarchy: the right skin color and passport, the trappings of noble personhood in presentation and style, intergenerational wealth.
Which brings us back to this presidential election. Yes, sexism and misogyny are afoot. But the entire enterprise is saturated with the problem of patriarchy. Consider the following story.
Berta Caceres, a Honduran environmental activist and Lenca indigenous leader, was shot to death this year by paramilitary forces. As secretary of state, Clinton, with President Obama’s assent, abetted a 2009 coup of the president of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya, who had transformed Honduran politics by recognizing and empowering Afro-Hondurans, indigenous people, trade unionists, and environmental and LGBT activists. After the coup, things changed rapidly. Gains in reproductive freedom were rolled back. Repression flourished; paramilitary forces tortured and murdered LGBT and indigenous activists; farmers were robbed of local control. Caceres was as much defined by her gender as by the legacies of imperial domination and capitalism.
The sexism experienced by global elites such as Clinton pales in comparison to what women such as Caceres and her compatriots face. When elite women act as agents of the domination of others, we must look past the misogynistic jabs directed at them to perceive how they are guilty of far graver crimes of patriarchal violence, directed against less powerful and marginalized women.
A recent Internet meme subtly addresses the capacity of women to reinforce hierarchy. The image replaces Clinton’s on #ImWithHer endorsements with an image of Fannie Lou Hamer, a mid-twentieth-century sharecropper turned freedom fighter from the Mississippi Delta. For her efforts to liberate African Americans, Hamer was beaten, sexually assaulted, and permanently disabled. In 1963 she and other African Americans in Mississippi were prevented from casting votes in the Democratic primary. In response, they established the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which sent its own delegates to the 1964 convention, arguing that they should be seated in lieu of the illegally elected Mississippi delegates. With white southern delegates threatening to leave, the Democratic National Committee offered a compromise of two seats with no voting rights. Hamer and her fellow activists refused.
“We didn’t come for no two seats when all of us is tired,” Hamer said. Today, as a feminist, I don’t seek liberation in one symbolic seat, when all of us is still tired.
Imani Perry is Hughes-Rogers Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University and author of More Beautiful and More Terrible: The Embrace of Racial Inequality in the United States.
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