There are few phrases in politics, let alone the English language, which frustrate me as much as “There’s a special place in Hell for women who don’t support other women.” This expression is originally attributed to former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who uttered the quip during a 2004 panel at Wellesley College while reflecting on women’s leadership. Albright originally intended for the quote to serve as a counterpoint to stereotypical workplace dynamics where women have been forced to function as adversaries in order to survive in a male-dominated world. For, in a patriarchal society where women’s opportunities are far too limited, how can women expect to effectively fight against gendered inequalities if they’re too busy fighting one another?
Since its inception, the expression has made prominent appearances throughout American politics. During the 2008 presidential election, Cice Presidential Candidate Sarah Palin recounted a “providential” moment she’d experienced on the campaign trail at a Starbucks when she first saw the quote on a coffee cup. She noted, “It was Madeleine Albright, former Secretary of State and UN ambassador… Now she said it, I didn’t. She said, ‘There’s a place in Hell reserved for women who don’t support other women.’” In 2016, the phrase once again sparked newfound headlines and controversy when while stumping for Secretary Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail, Albright herself modified her famous statement by declaring, “…you have to help. Hillary Clinton will always be there for you. And just remember, there’s a special place in Hell for women who don’t help each other.”
But upon close examination, how great of a sin is it to break this particular assumed pact of sisterly solidarity? In recent years, as with many things in politics—bills, programs, litigation, agencies—the phrase’s current usage has since become distorted from its original purpose. The abuse of this phrase is not mutually exclusive to either end of the political spectrum.
“serve as a shield that allows conservative female politicians to excuse questionable political choices”
For Republicans, “There’s a special place in Hell for women who don’t support other women,” has been appropriated to serve as a shield that allows conservative female politicians to excuse questionable political choices. With this phrase, a woman like Sarah Palin—who has opposed all forms of abortion (including in cases of rape and incest), who has pushed for the implementation of parental consent and notification laws, and who has failed to support comprehensive sexual education programs—can frame herself as an irreproachable feminist icon by automatic virtue of her womanhood, without having to justify her stances and without supporting other women herself. The combative, declarative nature of “There’s a special place in Hell for women who don’t support other women,” is one of its rhetorical strengths, but when used in this conservative application, it’s also one of its argumentative downfalls.
The phrase allows the speaker to expect the universal support of other women without requiring any evidence as to why this support is warranted. Such a fallacy results in a political paradox wherein the support of women may be naïvely assumed for female politicians whose policies may ultimately be counterproductive to the Women’s Movement. Operatives presume that we’ll instinctively follow the deceitful authority of the Ivanka Trumps, Kellyanne Conways, Sarah Huckabee Sanderses, and Betsy DeVoses of the world because their roles as women somehow cancel out their roles of complicity within an objectively sexist, misogynistic administration.
“weaponized by the party’s old guard to invalidate and shame the opinions of female detractors into silence”
Conversely, for Democrats, “There’s a special place in Hell for women who don’t support other women,” has been weaponized by the party’s old guard to invalidate and shame the opinions of female detractors into silence. Comments from older, Democratic women such as Albright oversimplify the identity politics that comprise much of the contemporary liberal base and disregard the nuanced perspectives that may influence women’s differing political preferences. They arrogantly assume that liberal and independent female voters will automatically flock to female Democratic candidates based largely upon their gender, regardless of whether that candidate’s personal and political record may leave much to be desired, particularly for female voters from traditionally marginalized communities.
In every notable instance that a woman’s claimed, “There’s a special place in Hell for women who don’t support other women,” the phrase has always been uttered by an established, cisgender, heterosexual White woman. In isolation, the statement may be seen as an empowering battle cry of female unity. However, its clear association with older, predominantly White feminists may lead others to question whether the term “women” truly applies to all women, or if it’s patronizingly being used by White female politicians to shame women of color, women of lower income, women of lower education, into silence for failing to “support” them—when in truth, the politicians are the ones failing to support all facets of these women’s identities through shortsighted policies.
Is there “a special place in Hell for women who don’t support other women?” As an imperfect human and an imperfect feminist, I can’t be the final judge of that statement. But what I can judge is the intent and implications of policy. So, can I promise that I’ll support every woman in politics? No. But what I can promise is that I’ll support every woman who supports women through her actions and policies. And if that’s not good enough—then, I guess I’ll see you in Hell.
Emily Wasek recently graduated from the College of William & Mary with a major in Government and a minor in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies. While in college, Emily served as president of Women’s Initiative in Leadership, an organization dedicated to cultivating the next generation of female leaders.
Much of Emily’s previous work has focused on the intersection of women and political progress. Her honors thesis, “A Women’s Place in the State House: Exploring Backlash Effects of Women’s Increased Descriptive Representation” examined whether women’s increased elected presence resulted in a legislative backlash that could increase policies counterproductive to women’s interests. As a research fellow for the Project on International Peace and Security, her white paper “Mobilizing Change in Central America: Fostering Women’s Networks to Combat Gang Violence” analyzed how women’s coalitions could be used to enhance anti-gang policies in Central America.