The Campaign as Opportunity for Public Feminism

Dr. Susan Lurie

Trump circulates the phrase, “playing the woman card,” as a derogatory epithet, meaning Hillary appeals only to one gendered constituency and is narrowly focused on these minority concerns. He deliberately, of course, affiliates playing “the woman card” with racist notions of playing “the race card.” It is a tactic that depends on identifying political differences in bodily differences. For Trump, “the woman card” is held by a category of voters who are deficient in bodily terms—mired in disgusting physicality, in weakness, in body-based irrationality. Take Trump’s notorious reaction to Hillary’s slow return to the podium after a commercial break in a debate: it is “disgusting!” that she went to the bathroom.

Appallingly, instead of undermining Trump’s appeal, such attitudes about women seem to increase it; they have what to many of us is a startling efficacy in 2016 political contests.   At the same time, perhaps Trump’s crude, uncensored rhetoric illuminates precisely how such characterizations of “woman” can retain currency today. Linking categorical political differences to essentialized, denigrated bodily ones has a long history of success in maintaining differentials in the US—at the level of citizenship, participation in political leadership, access to political protection, and so on. As regards a woman running for president, Trump seems to count on these tactics for generating an outrage and disgust that makes such political leadership both deficient and unimaginable.

Hillary responds by taking up the “the woman card” as a badge of honor, as a robust politicized identity, benefiting from half a century of popular feminist discourse. And, as Helena Michie points out in her contribution to this forum, Hillary stamps “the woman card” with the sign for the women’s bathroom. In doing so, she seems to cheekily reference Trump’s relegation of women to a derogatory bodily difference. But Hillary also appropriates the reference for feminist politics, as the woman card frames its holders as enfranchised subjects of political agency and demand. I don’t think we should underestimate the importance of this particular kind of transformation, just as I don’t think we can ignore the surprising need for it in 2016.

At the same time, as feminists we know to ask about the conditions for such transformation: What is the scope and nuance of political demands made in the name of woman? How might any political frame for “woman” privilege some women and exclude others?

But academic feminism has tended to oppose an assertion of political identity to an alertness to exclusionary terms for it. I’d like to suggest that a Clinton vs. Trump ticket provides an opportunity for ongoing public feminist conversations, in which these often opposed feminist analyses are strongly compatible ones. Thus, we should ask how Hillary’s deployment of “the woman card” leads us to think as well about how this card interfaces with categorical access to other enfranchising identity cards: voter registration cards, healthcare cards, credit cards, to name a few. Yet, as we make these inquiries, the campaign also promises to keep front and center the tenacity of everyday forms of sexism and misogyny—and their signature efforts to essentialize, degrade, and legislate control of female bodies. The upside is that feminist public discourse in the coming months can be the occasion for questions about differences between and within women, on the one hand, and questions of women’s political demands, on the other.