I’m an Obama girl.
You may not find me crooning “I Got a Crush…” in red hot pants like The Obama Girl of grandiose YouTube fame, but I am certainly moved by the guy, and inspired that so many others are inspired. Practically speaking, too, I think he has a better chance of beating McCain—and so I’ll do what I can to ensure that Barack Obama is the forty-fourth president of the United States.
Yet as happy as I am to hear of every subsequent primary he wins, there is one hesitation, one small glitch, that has me recently rethinking my sympathies. I know already, from my suburban hometown, that Hillary Rodham Clinton leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of many New Yorkers. But it hadn’t occurred to me, before seeing this outpouring of support for Obama, that such a part of this support is an adamant rejection of Clinton—a fear, even, of Hillary’s victory.
Granted, Senator Clinton is no perfect candidate. And there’s no denying that Obama is more charismatic and exciting a political entity; I’m frankly glad that he has a better chance. Still, I’ve realized something, through talks I’ve had with my mother and a handful of women professors of her generation: I’m not sure Obama’s chances should be this much better. I’m not sure Obama’s chances to be the next Democratic presidential nominee— and the next president — should be this much better, for just these reasons.
Whether you want to believe it or not, this country does not take well to a middle-aged woman who has worked as hard as she has to get as far as she has. A Woman in Charge, as Carl Bernstein titled his recent biography of Hillary, tends not to go over in our modern era.
New York Times columnist Nick Kristof recently wrote about other “women in charge,” describing how enormously successful many female monarchs have been throughout history (Hatshepsut, Cleopatra, Queen Elizabeth, Maria Theresa, to name a few examples). And yet in the world we live in, far fewer women have succeeded in positions of significant political power.
Kristof points to the Goldberg paradigm, an experiment in which participants are asked to evaluate a text or a speech. The words presented are always the same, but some readers are told the writer is female while others are told the writer is male. Around the world, readers rate the same work higher when told it was written by a man.
Experiments show, too, that women who draw attention to their achievements turn off the general public. Even more interesting, to me, is the fact that these confident women offend the female public more than the male.
Since the mid-1990s, India has required female leaders in one-third of village councils. Women quickly proved better village leaders, by objective standards such as number of bribes taken or construction and maintenance of wells. Still, most women were considered worse leaders, and most were not re-elected.
This makes it hard for Hillary to highlight her achievements — because then she is seen as too boastful, as trying too hard. In the eyes of the public, she may be considered likable or capable. But if she tries hard to show that she’s capable, the nation refuses to perceive her as both.
This double standard of politics in our age forces women to steer an impossible course of impossible judgments. I’m not saying that Obama does not face similarly impossible judgments—maybe he’s just better at ’transcending race’ than Clinton is at ’transcending gender’—but she, in any case, faces undeniable, inexorable scrutiny.
Rush Limbaugh said that America would not want to elect a middle-aged woman who will “get older before their eyes on a daily basis.” Hillary “is not going to want to look like she’s getting older,” he riffed, “because it will impact poll numbers, it will impact perceptions.” Leave it to the big boys, Rush would guide us. His comment is a sad manifestation of the same old chauvinist vitriol.
John McCain did not challenge a supporter who called Clinton a “bitch.” Republican consultant and Nixon “dirty trickster” Roger Stone started an anti-Hillary group called “Citizens United Not Timid” (doesn’t take a genius to get the acronym). Carl Bernstein has famously picked on Clinton’s “thick ankles.” And who can forget the July 2007 piece on Clinton’s cleavage during a talk on the Senate floor, by Washington Post Pulitzer Prize-winning editor Robin Givhan. Givhan acknowledged the suitable subtlety of the shirt’s V, yet called the neckline “startling… like catching a man with his fly unzipped. Just look away!” An entire article about a candidate’s cleavage, of all things; talk about a step backward for women! As a woman, Givhan should have known better than to make such a superficial critique. It’s not like America would really accept a dowdy, aesthetically-clueless female leader).
It’s gotten to a point where Hillary just can’t win—and this psychological reality may well translate into her political reality She is either too much a feminist or not feminist enough. If she cries, she’s just doing it to milk votes; and if she doesn’t, she’s overly masculine.
As Jason Horowitz wrote in a January GQ article on “Hillary Haters,” she is, “an extremist left-wing flower child masquerading as a moderate, or a warmongering hawk disguised as a liberal. She’s a liar and a lesbian (short hair! pantsuits!), a cold fish and an adulteress. She has no maternal instincts and is hobbled by a debilitating case of insecurity, for which she compensates by acting like a thug. She is the spineless wife of a habitual cheat, and the willful enabler of her husband’s affairs. She’s in politics to keep Bill around, and she ran for the Senate, and then the presidency, to exact revenge for his philandering.”
Through all of this malice, the weird thing is this: Clinton is an exceedingly strong presidential candidate. Imperfect, yes, but Hillary is extraordinarily bright, poised, and — even if it’s become a taboo word — experienced. Yet her actions, speeches, and policies make no difference for some; her laugh is ’maniacal,’ she is ’scary,’ she has weird eyes, she kills animals, she’s a witch.
As Stanley Fish has observed, “the Swift Boat campaign against John Kerry was a model of objectivity” compared to the efforts of Hillary’s detractors, who have characterized her as a burglar, a blackmailer, a misogynist, a sociopath, even a murderer. This rampant, peculiar, and limitless hostility is closer to anti-Semitism than to anything else:
“She is,” concludes Horowitz in “The Hillary Haters,” “an empty vessel into which [her critics] can pour everything they detest.”
I am not arguing for Hillary’s policies against Barack’s, nor do I think any of us should vote out of pity. I am only looking for fairness in the way the country considers her as a candidate. As the feminist writer Robin Morgan writes, “When a sexist idiot screamed ’Iron my shirt!’ [at Clinton,] it was considered amusing; if a racist idiot shouted ’Shine my shoes!’ [at Obama], it would’ve [justly, of course] inspired hours of airtime and pages of newsprint analyzing our national dishonor.”
America may need Obama now, with his idealism, dynamic aura, rhetorical flourishes, and promising brand of change. But this issue doesn’t have much to do with him—Obama’s attributes simply don’t explain the reasons Senator Clinton is vilified so.
The double standard that Hillary faces, as Morgan smartly points out, is not from a desire for ’regime change.’ “This is not ’Clinton hating,’ not “Hillary hating,’” she writes. “This is sociopathic woman-hating,” laden with vicious ageism besides.
Whether she advances to the convention in Denver or not, we would do well to acknowledge how sexist the nation’s response to Senator Clinton’s candidacy has been.
Maybe the Spice Girls’ reunion tour is more politically motivated than the “Wannabe” women know. Maybe “Girl Power” is just the message we need to hear—and, finally, fully digest.