Meredith Burgmann on the 2016 US Federal Election (WEL NSW AGM November 2016) - Women's Electoral Lobby

Meredith Burgmann on the 2016 US Federal Election (WEL NSW AGM November 2016)

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Talk presented at WEL NSW AGM, 12th November 2016

by Meredith Burgmann

 I'm honoured to be doing this talk. I always describe myself as a long term, devoted but negligent member of WEL. 

This is a very different talk to what I was contemplating when I began thinking about it.  It's going to be a bit angry, a bit dogmatic and a bit scatty. It'll also be more personal and less policy- detailed than I had anticipated. I also don't want to replicate some of the excellent articles that have been written in the last few days, particularly those by Annabel Crabb, Jenna Price and Anne Summers.

I was going to talk about what we could expect from our first woman president. Also, with the luxury of a Hillary victory under our belt, I was going to ask myself a few deep questions about my own feelings about Hillary. I was going to ask why I hadn't rushed over to America to work on her campaign, as I had in 2008 and 2012, for Barack Obama. And in fact, why had I, after a huge inward tussle, ended up supporting Obama in the 2008 primaries instead of our first woman candidate, Hillary.

Was it because I decided Hillary was a bit of a hawk, or was it because, in that instance, race trumped gender. I think it was a bit of both. In 2008, after I'd been working hard for many weeks for Obama, as I was driving to the party that evening I thought I would pinch an Obama yard sign from the lawns outside people's places. In America, they have yard signs rather than Corflutes. I then discovered that every single Obama-Biden sign had disappeared, they had all been souvenired and only the McCain signs were left. That was when I realised I was part of history. 

So Hillary is a vaguely progressive, slightly hawkish, professional politician. She is someone who would sit comfortably in the socially liberal wing of the right of the Labor Party in Australia. She's no Margaret Thatcher and in almost all circumstances she deserves to be supported.

What I came to understand is that our first female anything is never going to be perfect. They will always have had to make compromises and political deals along the way. I was furious with Julia in 2001 about Tampa, and the Labor Party's response on the early refugee crisis when she was the spokesperson. In fact, she replied to my letter that I sent to her on behalf of Labor For Refugees, saying 'Never write to me again.' But I swallowed my views on this and supported her as our first woman Prime Minster, especially as the misogyny surrounding her grew uglier and more insistent. 

We actually forget how terrible those years were for remarks about women. I remember those that won Ernie nominations. The main one is from Minister Mal Brough for the “joke” menu item ‘Julia Gillard Kentucky Fried Quail - small breasts, huge thighs and a big red box.’ And then we have Alan Jones, 'Her old man recently died a few weeks ago of shame, to think that he has a daughter who told lies every time she stood for parliament.' Alan Jones again, 'Women are destroying the joint. Honestly, there's no chaff bag big enough for these people.' And then there’s the Howard Satler interview, talking about Julia's partner, Tim Mathieson - 'He must be gay, he's a hairdresser.' And one that Julia herself talked about recently in an article. David Farley, the CEO of the Australian Agricultural Company, was demonstrating to a bunch of politicians an abattoir machine, and said ‘So it's designed for non-productive old cows; Julia Gillard's got to watch out.' And finally don’t forget the claim that she was “deliberately barren”.

Having a woman prime minister opened the floodgates for misogyny. It was like permission had been given to behave badly. All comments got worse, even those from the media and from shock jocks. I think having a woman contender in the American situation had the same effect.

The images of violence perpetrated against the woman were the same as in Australia, for instance Trump's insinuation that his supporters should defend their Second Amendment rights by shooting Hillary; a Trump warm-up announcer, Wayne Root, describing a fantasy of his where Clinton and Huma Abedin meet the same violent fate as Thelma & Louise; and another Trump advisor, a guy called Baldasaro, saying that Hillary Clinton should be put in the firing line and be shot for treason.

However, I did support Hillary against Bernie Sanders, although of course I was attracted to many of Bernie's policies. But I think in this situation the white woman trumped the white male. Her femaleness trumped his ideological purity.

There are a few vignettes from the election campaign that stay in my mind. And these are very personal reflections. The first one is during the first debate, both at the beginning and at the end, Donald Trump put his arm around her. It was almost like he was trying to reinforce the view that she was a weak woman and wouldn't be able to make it through the campaign. It was either that or he just couldn't help himself groping the nearest female body.

There are also the endless attacks on Bill Clinton, which somehow became Hillary's fault, Also the attacks on Huma Abedin because of the behaviour of her husband, former Congressman Weiner. I kept thinking that if Hillary and Huma Abedin were country music characters, they would have been heroines, the 'stand by your man' kind of heroine, but in this context they were simply vilified.

In the second debate Trump called Hillary a nasty woman...I think there is something particularly female about the term ‘nasty’. And I love the way that American women took up the term with gusto and wore tee-shirts saying 'Nasty Woman'...very like those who adopted the phrase 'Destroy the Joint' here in Australia.

Andrew Bolt has argued that ‘the glass ceiling doesn't exist, only weaklings whine, Hillary Clinton chose to play a feeble victim card, praying it would win her votes’. But I think it's quite clear, not once did she play the victim. She got up every morning and went out there and smiled. I got to like her more and more as the campaign went on. Very much as I did when I watched Julia deal with the constant everyday misogyny.

The next question I have to ask is, was it because she was a woman that she lost? The answer is ‘you betcha’.

The figures on male voting were that 63% of white males voted for Trump. Being a woman made it easier to paint Hillary as dislikeable, untrustworthy, and weak. Look at how her health issues were played up. And finally, it even made it possible for her to be painted as anti-woman. The Trump campaign actually helped put out a book by Roger Stone and Robert Morrow, called 'The Clintons’ War on Women.'

Just look at the bald facts. Hillary was the most experienced candidate in American history, as Obama called her, and no one has ever denied. She had a couple of slip-ups and some poorly chosen language counting against her, but, as Jenna Price described her recently, she was "a decent flawed woman".

She was standing against a man (white) who (and any one of these problems would have knocked an Australian politician out of the race immediately) evaded taxes and lied about showing his returns. He boasted about sexually assaulting women. He stiffed tradies and other partners during his business career. He failed in many businesses. He evicted African Americans in his early life as a slum landlord. He called Mexican Americans rapists and accused a Latino judge of not being able to be unbiased. He approved the use of torture. He promised to imprison his political opponent. And he is a climate change denier. 

However, it was always going to be hard to defend an administration that had spent eight years trying to fix the effects of the global financial crisis, and the George W Bush invasion of Iraq.

But Hillary will be blamed for the defeat; just wait for the post-event rewriting of history.

What does this mean for the future? Will it teach young girls that if you try, you will fail? The answer is yes. Already in Australia, a recent report called the Everyday Sexism report, carried out by Plan International, interviewed 600 girls and young women across Australia, and a third said it would be easier to get their dream job if they were a male. They also believed that women in prominent roles were scrutinised and criticised more than men.

So what does it mean for the future in the United States?

I'm on the email list for Planned Parenthood, which is the American equivalent of Family Planning, and they are already in panic. Donald Trump promised at one stage to punish those women who had an abortion, but still promises to punish abortion providers.

Hillary was committed to, basically, doubling the minimum wage, which would have disproportionately affected women who are more likely to be on lower wages. Similarly, women will be disproportionately affected by the watering down of Obamacare.

One story that brought tears to my eyes, was that during election day hundreds of women visited the grave of famous American suffragist, Susan B. Anthony. And they stuck their 'I Voted' stickers on her headstone. Whatever we are feeling now, our sisters in the United States are feeling far worse.

The fact that some progressive women didn't support Hillary has exacerbated the split that I call 'the good being sacrificed for the perfect'. I think it's an old Gough saying. This is the state of mind of progressives that goes along the lines of... Donald Trump is a misogynist pig, but Hillary Clinton has conservative foreign policy positions and misused her email server, therefore they are both as bad as each other and Hillary must not be supported. This is the Helen Razer response. I've also found it this week, shockingly, from a female left Labor MP. I was gobsmacked, and of course it is also the response of many Greens supporters and Trotskyists. I know these people. They voted against the republic because it wasn't quite the right model, saying there would be another referendum in two years. They voted for Ralph Nader because Al Gore was tainted somehow and gave us George W Bush, the Iraq War, and ultimately, Islamic State (thank goodness we have preferential voting in Australia). They supported voting against the ETS in 2009, because it wasn't perfect. And that gave us years and years of inaction on climate change.

Who am I angry at? First of all I'm angry at James Comey, who quite obviously knew what he was doing when he made his statement about Hillary's emails just ten days before the election. I'm angry at Julian Assange, who timed his Wikileak dumps about the Democrats and about Hillary. He timed them to do the most damage, just before the Democrat convention and just before the election. If he'd dumped them all at the beginning, or better still, just after the election, who would have cared. But to do it when he did was a very deliberate attack on Hillary Clinton. 

I blame the aforementioned “Hillary's not perfect so you can't support her tribe”, and the Bernie supporters who did not come out to vote. I don't blame people for supporting Bernie in the primaries, but I blame them for not coming out and supporting the progressive woman in the ultimate vote. Bernie himself behaved in an exemplary fashion, and stumped for Hillary all over the country. How could you sit on the sidelines for this fight? The two candidates were not "as bad as each other".

I also blame the 63% white men who voted for Trump. As that very angry African-American guy on CNN said on the night of the election, it was a 'whitelash', but we have to keep remembering it was also a 'manlash'. However, I'm also angry at the 52% of white women who voted for Trump. Compare that to the 7% of black women who did.

Basically, what do we have to be optimistic about? Well, he's old and he might die. Second, WEL got 20 new members. Thirdly, Hillary still won the popular vote. Less than a quarter of Americans, actually, voted for Trump. The midterms are in two years time, and we only need a few thousand more votes in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin to turn around the result.

Trump can't possibly deliver for those who voted for him, so there will be an eventual rejection of him. Many of his policies are mutually exclusive. Such as 'Make American Great Again' and no overseas commitments; such as imposing a 45% tariff on Chinese goods and still expecting China to buy American manufactured products.

Next, can it happen here? No. The main reason is economic. There are huge differences between the two countries. In the last 30 years our minimum wage has risen in real terms by 11%, whereas in the United States the minimum wage has decreased in real terms by 21%. Similarly, in the last 29 years, our percentage of college educated students increased by 90%, whereas in the US it only increased by 30%.

In Australia there was little support for Trump. One poll said there was 60% support for Hillary, and 19% support for Trump. Australian women supported Hillary 68% to 10%. Even most Liberal MPs supported Hillary. This does say something about the relative civility of the Australian polity. A poll of Australians in this morning's paper said that 75% of Australian women opposed Trump.

I just want to finish this talk by reading from Hillary's concession speech. And don't forget, she was wearing her purple suit. And Bill had a purple tie. I can't help thinking that it was probably their outfit for her triumphant victory speech, rather than the concession. But this is what she said. "To all the women, and especially the young women who put their faith in this campaign and in me, I want you to know that nothing has made me prouder than to be your champion. I know that we have still not shattered that highest glass ceiling, but someday someone will. Hopefully, sooner than we might think right now. And to all the little girls watching right now, never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world."

This is very reminiscent of Julia's speech about sexism as she was leaving office. She did say it would be easier for the next one and for the one after that.

Hillary is now free to be the champion of the young women and I hope and believe she might be.

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