As Hillary Clinton has resurfaced on the public stage, so too have narratives critiquing her 2016 presidential run. Perhaps the most persistent of these is the argument that her campaign neglected economic issues, supposedly alienating "working-class" voters.
Careful observers have pushed back on this narrative, noting that she in fact spoke extensively on economic issues, that poorer voters were more likely to vote for her and that voters most concerned with the economy favored her. Scholars have shown that race and gender bias were more significant factors in predicting support for Trump than economic dissatisfaction.
Not only did Clinton consistently talk about economic issues, she frequently and explicitly did so in a way that centered on women. She incorporated discussion of jobs and economic opportunity into speeches about reproductive justice. She spoke often about the significance of equal pay and accessible child care. Rather than sidelining "women's issues" as minor, she argued that fair economic policies for women were essential not just for women themselves but for the families they often supported and for the economy as a whole. Indeed, a central tenet of her campaign was that "women's issues" are "economic issues." One of her most repeated phrases on the stump highlighted the link between women's rights and economic policy: "If fighting for women's health care and paid family leave and equal pay is playing the woman card, then deal me in."
This approach was not accidental. As political scientist Kelly Dittmar noted, "Her message was consistent with an idea featured formally at the [United Nations' Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing] to move gender equality to the forefront of policy and political agendas: what the UN has titled "gender mainstreaming."
The framing of economic issues, using traditional tools from the discipline, often minimizes and curtails discussion of gender. This has been attributed by scholars to a host of factors. Unpaid work in the economy, for child and elder care for example, is often done by women but does not show up in national economic statistics. Women are underrepresented within the economics discipline itself, and neoclassical economic assumptions about a universal 'economic man' within many economic models have constrained analyses of human interactions and interrelationships in a way that tends to omit the lived experiences of many, particularly women.
These facts may serve as an additional explanation for the narrative that Clinton did not have an economic message: The language traditionally used in economics that keeps gender on the sidelines may have additionally impacted the ability of some observers to recognize Clinton's economic messages, given their explicit inclusion of gender. This is in spite of the fact that her economic plans were widely endorsed by economists themselves (here and here).
Feminist economists would argue that gender mainstreaming economic policy in this way not only benefits women by highlighting unequal economic outcomes across genders, but also provides valuable insights on economic processes at work for everyone. But the lack of resonance with previous economic policy speeches that do not typically use this language might have added to the perception that the message was missing.
This is not to say that there aren't valid critiques of Clinton's economic plans or message. Nor do we suggest that her framing was without risk – indeed there is evidence that elevating women in discussions of economic policy was perceived by some men as a threat. But her message, and how we evaluate it, is significant far beyond perceptions of one candidacy. Inclusion of women's experiences into economic policy discussions makes for better economic policy, and signals that women's voices are worth hearing. Invalidating or erasing those message implies that "women's economic issues" are not "real economic issues." And it reinforces the notion that women are less worthy of a seat at the table where economic decisions are made.
As equal pay day and current policy debates remind us, women's health care, paid family leave and equal pay remain pressing economic issues. And as the latest economic forecasts show, perception of the economy matters for consumers, but does not always match reality. More careful attention to policies that lead tangible economic improvements for everyone will be needed on the road ahead.