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Hillary Clinton has been trumpeting the gains made by female executives but that will be cold comfort for women mired in poverty.

Doug Mills/The New York Times

In 1992, back when Hillary Clinton was merely a prospective first lady and not a front-runner for the presidency, an advertisement in the August edition of the conservative magazine The American Spectator was peddling a T-shirt bearing the slogan "Save the American Family! Nuke Hillary." The cover story called her "The Lady Macbeth of Little Rock" and convicted her of multiple sins, including signing her tax return with her maiden name. Even more egregious, she was accused of believing that the "traditional family" was bad for women and kids.

Clinton should have ordered one of those T-shirts, just for kicks. More than two decades later, she has confidently styled herself the "champion" of families, although the ones she highlights in her new campaign ad are rather more diverse.

The last time she ran for president, Clinton acted as though being a woman hardly mattered: She would lead like a man. According to The New York Times, her chief strategist at the time, Mark Penn, had advised her that voters didn't want "a first mama." This time, with her credentials secure, she is a grand-mama with a capital G, looking out for the gay couple about to marry, the stay-at-home mom returning to work and the single mom moving to get her daughter into a better school. She is now waving the banner of feminism.

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It feels a little late. Over the past eight years, we've read Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In, watched the number of women surpass men in university degrees, and witnessed a shift in bread-winning and greater equality in parenting. It's not perfect, of course, but when Clinton tells female leaders in Silicon Valley that "this is the best time in history to be a woman," she's telling us what we already know. She's following, not leading.

On the positive side, by putting it out there so overtly, her opponents will have little choice but to engage in a social policy debate framed by gender. But increasingly, it's not Silicon Valley feminism that's needed in North America. Worrying about the percentage of female executives is valid, but professional women in those places of power can, for the most part, take care of themselves.

The persistent problem for the most vulnerable women – and their families – isn't landing promotions. It's poverty. Inextricably linked to that poverty is race – as has been tragically highlighted by recent events across the United States. The single mom in Clinton's ad, at least, has the ability to move: What about the ones who are trapped in poor neighbourhoods and can't? According to U.S. labour statistics, roughly half of all children living with single moms live below the poverty line. (In Canada, households headed by single mothers are also the most likely to be poor.)

It's not male advantage that preoccupies these families; it's money. Currently, the most in-vogue anti-poverty strategy thrust at women has been marriage, which is not only sexist but simplistic, failing to recognize that poverty is often a barrier to marriage, as well as a factor in the stress that breaks couples up. A new analysis of numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labour Statistics found that women work in jobs that pay below-poverty wages twice as often as men; this pattern held up even for millennial women.

While American women are now slightly more likely to have university degrees than men, that's not true for Hispanic or native American women. As inequality widens within and between generations, and more jobs become temporary or part-time, feminism needs to advocate for evidence-based policies that target these problems. Good child care, for instance, can't be cast as a "woman's issue" or sold as a work-life balance solution for stressed-out suburbanites: It's an essential economic and social policy to level the playing field.

(Incidentally, these income trends are also true in Canada, if to a lesser extent. How best to support families also will be a key issue in Canada's upcoming election. The NDP has made affordable, accessible child care one of its central campaign platforms.)

This is hardly a new problem for feminism, long criticized for underplaying class and race. And to be fair, Clinton has touched on these points – she has spoken about the high percentage of women in minimum-wage jobs with few benefits. But her natural leaning, by virtue of long-time advantage and background, is white feminism, the kind that often convinces itself that more female CEOs (or, for that matter, a female president) will de facto change the world for the struggling single mom in the rough neighbourhood who's forced to choose between rent and groceries.

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Eight years ago, just owning her feminist identity would have been fabulously bold. Now, that it's safe to do so, it's the focus of that feminism that counts more. Clinton is seeking the role of champion. The question is: Which American families will she invest the most energy into saving?

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