The Two Mistakes Hillary Clinton Made on Women’s Rights in Wednesday’s Debate

Hillary Clinton at the final presidential debate on October 19, 2016. Getty Images.

Hillary Clinton at the final presidential debate on October 19, 2016. Getty Images.

I watched the debate.

I hope that on Saturday when Kate McKinnon comes out as Hillary, in that awesome ivory pantsuit, her first line is, “Look, Bill, my wedding dress still fits!” SNL, are you listening?

I hadn’t had the opportunity until last night to watch a woman on a national stage thoughtfully take on sexual assault and reproductive rights. It felt good. Like one of us was talking about our stuff. And she does her research. Maybe it’s what’s inspired me to send out more pitches and lose the imposter syndrome I’ve been carrying around as a writer for the last few years.

But even in the context of not shying away from sexual assault and reproductive rights, I thought Hillary missed two critical opportunities for pushing the dialogue forward on women’s rights. Let’s be clear: It’s rare that we hear a woman of such stature speak for us, but we need to build the foundation for a change of course in dialogue about sexual assault and reproductive rights, and that’s where things fell short.

Clinton’s two misses on women’s rights:

1. The sexual assault conversation was an opportunity for Clinton to put assault in a larger cultural context, and cite the statistics that only 2-10% of sexual assault reports are false, and that only 63% of assaults are even reported. Instead “fame-seeking” remained on the table as a plausible reason Trump’s accusers came forward. That can’t stand. Under- and unreported assaults are often due to fear of retaliation and victim-shaming. In addition, the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s review of the research tells us that “when an assault is reported, survivors may feel that their victimization has been redefined and even distorted by those who investigate, process, and categorize cases.”

The alleged assaults got redefined and distorted over the past week, and the victims were widely shamed: It’s not often that we see such a quick, public feedback loop proving stereotypes and research findings on why victims don’t come forward. This was a missed opportunity to push the dialogue away from victim shaming and toward the facts.

2. Abortion. Clinton clearly stated her support of Roe v. Wade and defended against Trump’s false allegations that late-term abortion is considered an acceptable way to abort an unwanted fetus “days before delivery.” She humanized the discussion on reproductive rights in a way that many of us haven’t seen in the public sphere, especially falling on the heels of the Planned Parenthood violence and “exposés” of last year. But Clinton lacked the nuance that could have swayed on-the-fence moral voters to her side.

The landscape of the pro-life and pro-choice movements is changing. The future of the pro-life movement, for example, is going to be tied more to social justice and human rights issues than to fundamentalist Christianity. Clinton should have made the link to how her plans would support mothers who decide not to get abortions. An Atlantic article last year noted that single, working-class mothers face serious obstacles: “dealing with childcare, transportation, and health insurance, all for paltry wages,” and then, “many mothers who do find work are only one crisis away from losing that job.” Changes, such as universal pre-K, paid leave, access to high-quality, affordable child-care, and good-paying jobs, are critical to lift mothers out of poverty and guard against childhood traumas. 

Supporting single parents and working class families is the flip-side of the reproductive rights debate, and in the future won’t be separated from it. Last night’s debate erred on the side of an abortion-rights dialogue from the 1990s, and although it felt like a drink of cool water to hear a woman so clearly and compassionately defend a woman’s right to choose, an opportunity to paint the rest of the social justice picture was lost.


3 responses to “The Two Mistakes Hillary Clinton Made on Women’s Rights in Wednesday’s Debate

  1. You took my breath away. Yes! Yes! Yes!

    • Hi Lauren, I’m from over the pond and as such have no immediate ‘stake’ in this election, but I have found myself riveted to CNN and Fox News just to watch every painful minute of the pre-election cycle play out on the world stage. I agree with your points that she missed some very glaring opportunities to push back against her running mate but I’m not sure she could have pushed back against him on the sexual assault conversation that needs to happen worldwide by the way! (Americans do not have the sad monopoly on how they treat women who have been abused, assaulted or raped.) But given it was alleged her husband committed some of the same types of assaults, and even given that those charges were dropped having been deemed of no merit, I doubt she wanted to open herself to a barrage of insults/accusations/ and the outright lies that would have come her way had she stayed on the topic. I think myself, that Michelle Obama is a much better candidate for American women to look towards and to have as their spokesperson on not only an American stage, but even a world stage. She does not have the baggage that poor Hillary does. Let me be crystal clear here – I think, given the type of run-up to this debate that Hillary Clinton has had that she is a saint to have stood up to the blatant lies, name calling, abuse and rubbish she has had levelled at her. I actually feel quite sad that THIS is the election campaign she is forced to run.

  2. Just remember that she’s been fighting this fight for a long time, and as President, she’ll take that fight where it needs to go.

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