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November, 2nd 2007

On Hillary Clinton and the picking-on-a-woman thing

– Liz Mair

So, in the aftermath of the Democratic debate the other night, where Hillary Clinton pretty much bombed out, the issue of sexism in politics has come to the fore.

For those who haven't seen, Hillary Clinton's campaign has been going on the defensive with the "Piling On A Woman"/"All The Boys Are Mean And Sexist" thing, and not a few political pundits and newsmakers have been backing her up. And I'm getting irritated.

The dominant opinion in the political punditry world seems to be that Hillary Clinton is getting beaten up by the boys purely because of her genitalia and it's not fair and the boys need to stop it. I beg to differ. Hillary Clinton is getting beaten up by the boys because a) she's the frontrunner, by a mile, and that's what likely losers do to change their fortunes-- they attack the person with the most votes and b) Hillary refuses to take firm positions and takes the words "nuance" and "vague" to a whole new level. Otherwise bluntly put, this is not about her being a woman. This is about her being a frontrunner with significant flaws. And I, for one, am offended that few in the media seem capable of recognizing this.

Yesterday, on MSNBC, there were a stunning array of comments made on this subject ranging from the seeming implication by a representative of NOW (see the "Playing the gender card" link) that it's so important to send a message to our daughters that women can succeed in politics that maybe everyone should be nice to Hillary (coupled with the also implicit suggestion that because women inherently bring different life experience to jobs, Hillary being a woman is a qualification in itself), to the suggestion made by a guest on Hardball (link when I can find it) that even the mere questioning of Hillary's leadership experience by Rudy Giuliani amounts to 1950's Ward Cleaver style put down of a woman. Everyone seems to agree: Hillary's linking of her predicament to sexism will work because, as the woman on Hardball yesterday suggested, every woman has experienced this kind of "piling on" in the context of a boardroom or [insert other male-dominated environment].

Hogwash. To deal with all of these points in order, first, I don't think that supporting a candidate, or not rigorously assessing their qualifications for office because they have the same physical attributes as one's children is a good way to go. The presidency isn't an office where affirmative action policies should apply-- Americans want the very best we can have, not just someone who's going to boost our children of a particular gender's confidence. No one should be giving Hillary an easy ride because she's a woman any more than anyone should be giving Rudy Giuliani an easy ride because he's Italian-American. Electing a president isn't about making demographics in the population feel good-- it's about selecting the appropriate person to run the country. And I don't see how characteristics with which one was born, and has no control over, inherently make one predisposed to being the best available leader.

The lady from NOW, it seems, would disagree with me about this. She seems to think that women have distinct and homogenous life experiences and that therefore, Hillary being a woman is a "must-have" qualification for a president in itself. I disagree. I'm a woman, but I very much doubt that Hillary and I have many common life experiences. Among other things, we grew up in entirely different times. Hillary probably had restrictions on her ability to wear trousers to school, I did not. She's from Chicago, I'm from Seattle. She came of age in the era of peace, love and rock n' roll. I came of age in the era of globalization, grunge and Google. She probably did have to fight against a lot of stereotypes that prevented women getting ahead in her day. I grew up in a time when girls were evenly matching boys in the classroom. She went to an all-women's college. I shunned the idea and went to a highly competitive university to do a degree where most of my fellow students were male. She became a lawyer at a time when there were few of them, and no doubt suffered discrimination. I became a corporate lawyer at a time when women entering the law was quite common, and even though I entered a heavily-male-dominated area of practice, I can say with confidence that my colleagues were (with one major exception) far from sexist, and certainly never "shouted me down in the boardroom" because I had boobs, which is essentially what is being claimed to have occurred vis a vis Hillary during the Democratic debate. Further, Hillary has one child. I have none and suspect it will stay that way. Hillary has a philandering, cheating husband. I do not (thankfully). Hillary was browbeaten into changing her last name to "Clinton." I was not browbeaten into changing my last name to "Strong." Hillary, or so says Bill, actually likes baking cookies and having tea parties with her female friends. I do not (I'm a pretty good cook, but my husband is way better, and while I love tea and drink about 10 cups a day, I don't actually have a lot of female friends, and the ones I do have like coffee).

I could go on, but I won't. The point is this: about all Hillary and I have in common are things like having to put on a bra in the morning. That's it. And, if that's the kind of essential experience we need in a president, then may I respectfully suggest that there's another candidate in this race who fits the bill.

As for this suggestion that that "other" candidate questioning Hillary's leadership experience amounts to a Ward Cleaver style dissing of the undervalued homemaker, let me also make clear that this is bunk. In case no one has noticed, both Giuliani and Romney seem to have been quite willing to question the leadership experience of their fellow candidates who have only served in Congress, without outside business experience, regardless of their genitalia. Hillary, or her supporters anyway, seem to think she should be exempted from this because she's a girl. That is patently absurd.

Personally, I find it offensive as a woman in politics to think that there's any kind of popular belief that I shouldn't be held to the same standards as the men because of my gender. Likewise, it is offensive to me to suggest that if I take a hit from a boy (or boys) in the context of a policy debate, it's because I'm a woman, and that as such, everyone should worry about it or feel sorry for me. Unless a fellow pundit or consultant is claiming that I lack a brain because I wear a bra, that's patently ridiculous-- and I'm a big and strong enough girl to deal with wars of words with the boys without screaming "sexism" to try to conceal me losing a debate, or to make me feel better when I do (kind of like claiming a badly sprained ankle after butchering a shot on goal in a soccer match). Hillary should be, too. But, evidently, she's not. And, evidently, women are OK with her buying into the "I'm just a poor, frail woman and they're picking on me, help, help, distress, distress" nonsense.

Maybe this is a generational gap thing. Maybe women over the age of 29 have had life experiences that lend them to having sympathy for Hillary, poor little weak thing, who's fighting just as hard as she can against all the evil men, that she is. I certainly know from talking to older women in my family that more of them have experienced extreme sexism and discrimination than I have, and maybe this all sounds fair if one is among that group.

But for me, who I guess feels she grew up in a rather post-feminist world, where men and women are much, much more equal and assumptions are rarely made about "feminine" and "masculine" qualities (at least by reference to what seems to have been the case in the 1950's), this all just makes me worry that stereotypes that I don't care to be branded with are being perpetuated. And it bothers me deeply that it's a woman, indeed one associated so strongly with women's lib and feminism and all, who's encouraging it.

I was obviously never going to vote for Hillary (in a million years), but my hostility to her has been even more entrenched by what I've seen this week-- and it's certainly going to make me fight harder to ensure that none of my female friends supports her.

Hillary, for all the "girl power" she likes to espouse, is sadly not a real example of a strong woman, or one who's particularly "liberated." It's the ultimate irony, but it's also ultimately pathetic.

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