BY NEERA SOHONI
BOMBAY -- She is the first lady of a nation that is supposed to lead the world's women in their "liberation" -- a woman long seen in the Third World as a feminist and as the epitome of the modern-day "professional" woman.
Yet in response to charges that her husband has cheated on her, she has reacted in the manner of the traditionally oppressed: She has made a public display of loyalty to him, even joining in his denials. Such actions are reason to question seriously Hillary Rodham Clinton's credentials as leader and role model, especially for me, as an Indian woman living in a still overwhelmingly traditional society.
Here, as in so many other areas of the world, women experience oppression almost entirely in their private life -- in their intimate relations. Achieving equality for women in the public realm has no immediate relevance for those whose knowledge of the larger world is limited to the television screen.
Watching Hillary Clinton on television screens here, one sees her jump to the defense of her husband and his presidency. But there is an emptiness in her eyes, and also a sort of suppressed womanhood, as well as distinctive aloneness. One cost of being co-president is clearly the demise of a more feminist United States.
During a recent trip to the U.S., I asked young people at Harvard and Stanford what they thought of Hillary's behavior through the sex scandal traumatizing her and the presidency.
To my surprise, very few young women thought Hillary was being a doormat. Most said they thought the presidency has its obligations, and marital lapses should be put in perspective. As one of my own daughters remarked nonchalantly, "But Mom, we don't look to the president for standards of morality or ethics."
Beyond ethics, what worried me was the lack of interest in assessing or criticizing Hillary's complaisance.
The possibility that decades of feminist rethinking of gender roles has been a waste of time is disturbing. The fact that this realization follows from observing America's first couple is even more distressing. It is not so much the collapse of another Camelot as the devaluation of woman's status within marriage that the newest Clinton affair spotlights.
The first lady, this Hillary, is no different from an aunt or cousin or sister, someone we all grew up with in this part of the world. Faced with an abusive spouse, what did our mothers advise? "Go back to him, my dear. That is your home. He is your all." Seeing Hillary act out that advice is the biggest travesty of the current scandal. What is at stake here is not the ethics of sexual promiscuity but how a wife should deal with it in terms independent of her husband and child.
It is painful but necessary to discard Hillary as a feminist. She fails feminism because she placed herself last or least or less than her other incarnations -- as wife, as first lady, as U.S. citizen -- coming eagerly to the defense of an "endangered" presidency.
If Hillary acts as she does -- stands by her man -- because she loves him or her daughter too much, then her claim to being a feminist is open to serious question. If she does it to protect his presidency, not just her man, then she is a nationalist, not a feminist. Finally, if she is being steadfast out of her own ambition, to stay as co-president, she again falls short of the feminist ideal. An authentic feminist would be honorable only if she sought to hold power on her own, not as an icon with reflected glory.
If feminists and the women's movement feel let
down by the present sexual scandal, they have both Clintons to blame, not just the president.