Hillary is us

Feminists want to see in Hillary Rodham Clinton what they want to see in themselves. With expectations so high, can the potential presidential candidate do anything but let women down?

Published October 16, 2006 12:30PM (EDT)

This September, in the gilded reception room at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York, Jane Fonda smiled gamely as she greeted reporters and guests. The actress was there to receive an award from the Center for the Advancement of Women. I asked her what she thought of the idea of Hillary Clinton running for president. Her smile faded abruptly, replaced by a dark pause and tensely set jaw. "Well," Fonda said, "her position on the war disappoints me a lot, and that's a biggie."

Fonda quickly added that Clinton would respect "women and women's bodies," but insisted she would never vote for a candidate just because she was a woman. "We've had plenty of female presidents and prime ministers where I would've rather had a man of conscience, a male feminist," she said. But would Fonda support Clinton for the presidency? "If she's the Democratic candidate, of course I will." Not exactly a ringing endorsement.

To be fair, Clinton is probably not banging down Fonda's door for a plug. After all, a picture of young Barbarella attending a rally in the vicinity of young Vietnam vet John Kerry circulated in 2004 as anti-Kerry propaganda. But jumping on a girls-for-Clinton bandwagon would seem to be so smooth, so historic, so romantic; Fonda's hem and haw suggests that the former first lady and current senator from New York is not the apotheosis of the feminist project that so many women had hoped she would be.

Clinton puts liberal women, especially those who comfortably call themselves feminists, in a very awkward position. At last a woman is favored to run for president of the United States. And not the kind of woman one might have guessed would grace a major-party ticket. Clinton is not a Republican whose politics make Margaret Thatcher look like Barbara Jordan. She is a politician who once appeared to be feminism's fantasy made flesh -- smart, direct and driven to defend bold social causes like children's welfare and women's equality.

But pick apart the pretty tapestry that features Hillary as Eleanor Roosevelt reborn, Shirley Chisholm recalled, and Pat Schroeder redeemed, and you'll find a knottier weave: recognition threaded with betrayal, idolatry with disappointment, approval with anger. You'll certainly find ardent feminists who are true Hillary believers. But you'll also find plenty whose moods blacken at the mention of the New York senator's name.

In the fall of 2005, I attended the premiere of "Commander in Chief," the now-defunct network television show in which Geena Davis played the president. At the party at Caroline's Comedy Club, it was embarrassingly difficult not to get choked up, as hokey as the show was. In part, that was because of the visceral, painful reality that as a nation, we have never respected women enough to elect one as our chief. Yet here we were, able at last to imagine one on television, on the brink of imagining one in real life: Hillary Clinton, whose path from iconoclastic first lady to senator to president might have been so deeply satisfying.

But somewhere along the way, Clinton's personality became political, and her politics became deeply suspect. "There is an assumption that because she's a woman, because of the excitement about the potential of a woman running for president, because of her first lady status, that women will automatically adhere to her in a strong way," said Kate Michelman, former head of NARAL Pro-Choice America, who is currently working to overturn the South Dakota abortion ban. "I don't think that's true. Hillary, along with every other candidate who aspires to this nomination, has to earn the women's vote."

Earlier this year, author and filmmaker Nora Ephron, who covered the nomination of Shirley Chisholm for president in 1972, wrote that Clinton has "as much authenticity as Naugahyde." For American feminists who have long pictured themselves running arm in arm toward Pennsylvania Avenue with a woman like Clinton, coming to grips with the politically slick senator has been hard to take. But ambivalence about Clinton reflects our confusion about what authenticity in feminism (and in ourselves) means once it mates with the practicalities of the political world.

Ann Douglas, a Columbia University social historian who profiled Clinton for Vogue in 1999, told me that women see in Clinton what they want to see in themselves and in the body politic. She referred to an old Tony Curtis anecdote about a fan who approached him and asked, "Are you who I think I am?" It's the same with Clinton, Douglas said. "We say, 'I want her to be who I think I am.' I want her to hold up my own ideals of myself." With expectations so high, can Clinton do anything but let women down?

When we first met her in 1992, Hillary Rodham Clinton looked like, well, a working mother and feminist circa 1992: She had recently chucked her Coke-bottle glasses, but still sported practical headbands and small amounts of ineptly applied makeup. Why should it have been otherwise? Clinton was a busy woman when her husband ran for president. Mind-bogglingly, she was the first first lady in American history to have a postgraduate degree, and the first to maintain, without apology, a full-time career outside her husband's political life.

"I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was fulfill my profession, which I entered before my husband was in public life," she said. "I'm a big believer in women making the choices that are right for them. The work that I have done as a professional, as a public advocate, has been aimed at trying to assure that women can make the choices they should make." Everyone soon learned that she had not changed her name after marrying -- at least not until 1982, when it was determined that her refusal to do so had cost her husband his second term in the Arkansas governor's mansion two years earlier.

There were other ways in which Clinton quickly asserted her independence from femme couverte practices, including her 1992 campaign-trail assertion that she was not "some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette." The irony, even after all of time's cruel jokes, is that that was a brave and important thing to say. Justified ire from ruffled Wynette fans aside, the rage with which the comment was greeted reflected a country unused to the idea that women are not obligated to stay in bad marriages and support their mates. It was just this kind of statement that made millions of working women, who may never before have seen themselves reflected in a political, let alone presidential, wife, look up at the television and take notice.

The truth was, Clinton was the real deal: smart and driven, with good politics. A Goldwater Republican kid who'd turned left at Wellesley, she became her college's first valedictorian and gave a speech that was so goddamned good that she received a seven-minute standing ovation. It was covered by the Associated Press and Clinton was featured in Life magazine as a student leader. She went to Yale Law and worked for underprivileged kids at New Haven Hospital, for Walter Mondale on behalf of migrant workers, and on the McGovern campaign. She was one of a handful of young women on the Watergate Committee and monitored the Black Panther trials for civil rights abuses.

Clinton specialized in children's rights and in 1974 famously compared kids' legal rights to other unjust "dependency relationships," citing "marriage, slavery and the Indian reservation system." She got raked over the coals for aligning the institutions of marriage and slavery, but her point was legally and historically dead-on. Clinton was an intellectual, a rigorous social and political thinker. She was a solid feminist, a boomer lady of the left -- and many excited women saw themselves in her. As columnist Molly Ivins joked back in May of 1992, when Bill Clinton was traversing the campaign trail, "What this country needs is a candidate half as good as his wife."

When Hillary moved into the East Wing, America got to know someone whose personality, profession and belief system were entering a state of flux. During her early years in the White House, she broke wifely tradition with the same frequency that tabloids reported she broke lamps during fights with her husband. Most famously, she belly-flopped with a well-intentioned, badly executed and dismally received plan for universal healthcare.

In 1995, she went to the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing and asserted that "women's rights are human rights"; she partnered with Janet Reno to create a Violence Against Women office at the Department of Justice, and told the United Nations in 1997 that "In too many places, the suffering of women is defined as trivial, explained away as a cultural phenomenon; perhaps it is for this reason that women do not receive proper healthcare, including access to family planning." In a 1999 speech about pay equity, she observed, "We know that women who walk into the grocery store are not asked to pay 25 percent less for milk ... It is not just a gap in wages, it's a gap in our nation's principles and promises."

But she also spent a lot of time smoothing her rough spots, sprucing up her public persona. The hair, the makeup, the glasses, the clothing all got fixed. That's what happens when you're married to the leader of the free world. Hillary also began to tame some of her political cowlicks. After the healthcare debacle she backed away from a meaty role in her husband's administration and began to fulfill more pro-forma first lady obligations. (See "Dear Socks, Dear Buddy: Kids' Letters to the First Pets," Hillary Rodham Clinton, Simon & Schuster, 1998.) She traveled extensively, focusing on areas where women's rights were imperiled, often with daughter Chelsea. Clinton's awkward spikes were getting trimmed and smoothed as she bellied her way toward her own political career.

That career was made possible by the smoothing of one particularly unruly spike: the one about refusing to stand by her man. Throughout the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Hillary allowed Bill to play her for the fool, leading her to national television to talk about a vast right-wing conspiracy against her husband. She did not do what many women would have loved her to do: throw him out. Instead, Hillary allowed herself to look not hard-ass and erudite and powerful but stoic and vulnerable and ill-used. She allowed herself to be exactly the kind of powerless woman she had initially refused to let the American public take her for. In doing so, she became more likable, digestible and, for the first time, politically viable herself. Wrote New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, who admittedly has a Hillary hang-up: "She couldn't move up until she was pushed down."

In January 2001, before her husband had even vacated the White House, Hillary Rodham Clinton was improbably sworn in as the junior senator from New York, a state in which she had resided for one year. As she became the most popular girl on the Senate floor, there were only echoes of the figure she had cut eight years before. As senator, Clinton became positively sleek, fulsome and oleaginous as she slipped and slid from one side of the aisle to another. She was supple with surprisingly high approval ratings and buoyed by buzz about where her political career might next go.

Her youthful work on behalf of migrant workers was replaced by a 2003 radio assertion that she is "adamantly against illegal immigrants." Where she once fell on the sword of universal healthcare, she now partnered on a healthcare compromise with Newt Gingrich -- Gingrich who led the revolution against her husband in the name of that accursed health plan! Where she once advocated passionately on behalf of children's rights, she now pressed the Family Entertainment Protection Act, protecting hapless kids from the dangerous effects of video games.

She bid adieu to her longtime awkward support for Palestine with a final wanton embrace of Suha Arafat in 1999. In its place was an unctuous love of Israel, embodied by the introduction of one of those wily lost Jewish relatives who often appear on Methodist family trees when it is convenient to do so. Gone was her wonky devotion to her hometown Chicago Cubs. That particular loyalty was doffed in favor of a Yankees cap. The Yankees! What perfidy. No clumsy losers for the new Hillary Clinton, only slick, moneyed winners.

As senator, Clinton proposed flag-burning legislation -- flag-burning legislation -- to appease conservatives. After the 2004 election, the woman who wouldn't change her name and who was the keynote speaker at NARAL's 30th anniversary celebration joined the herd of Democrats distancing themselves from the pro-choice plank in the Democratic platform. Calling abortion a "sad, even tragic choice" for some, Clinton told an Albany audience of women's rights activists in January 2005, "I, for one, respect those who believe with all their hearts and conscience that there are no circumstances under which any abortion should ever be available."

Her gaffes were no longer the kind you could get behind -- all knees and elbows and Tammy Wynette. Now they were stomach-turning in their transparent need to please. In January of this year, speaking at a black Baptist church, she compared the House of Representatives to a plantation, adding with tone-deaf infelicity: "And you know what I'm talking about."

Then there is the fact that Clinton has refused to condemn George Bush and the war in Iraq. She voted for the war; she voted for the Patriot Act, a bill that stripped away the very civil liberties she was so keen to protect as a law school student. She resists the idea of designing a timetable for troop withdrawal. She has played both ways in the Connecticut Senate race: supporting her buddy Joe Lieberman, then later lending his opponent Ned Lamont her campaign manager Howard Wolfson.

And it's working. The woman is going over like gangbusters in unexpected venues. She's the first New York senator to sit on the Armed Services Committee. According to the Atlantic Monthly, she participates in an elite prayer breakfast, during which antiabortion, anti-gay, anti-evolution Kansas Republican Sam Brownback recently asked her forgiveness for having hated her in the past. Her approval ratings in New York are sky-high. She is the new poster child for bipartisan cooperation, and jaws could have been forgiven for dropping when, on a recent edition of NBC's "Meet the Press," the Republican candidate for Senate in Ohio, Mike DeWine, was more eager to name-drop his associations with Clinton than he was to assert his support for President Bush. Clinton has become, in her transformation from lawyer to political wife to senator to presidential hopeful, a one-size-fits-all likability machine who will juggle freedom and flag-burning if that means winning the talent show.

Meanwhile, the women who no longer see themselves or their political beliefs in Clinton, but have worked their whole lives to amend the single-sex backwater of American presidential history, are increasingly hamstrung in their feelings about her. They must ask themselves whether they should turn their backs on Clinton or whether this rare, flawed opportunity for progress is better than none at all.

For some, the choice is already made. Fourteen years after praising Clinton, Molly Ivins penned a column titled "I Will Not Support Hillary Clinton for President." "Sen. Clinton is apparently incapable of taking a clear stand on the war in Iraq, and that alone is enough to disqualify her," Ivins wrote. "Her failure to speak out on Terri Schiavo, not to mention that gross pandering on flag-burning, are just contemptible little dodges."

Actress Susan Sarandon appeared to sum up the attitude of many feminists when she flayed Clinton earlier this year in an interview with More, calling Clinton "a great disappointment." While Sarandon said that Clinton seemed to be "a very bright woman," she accused her of having "lost her progressive following because of her caution and centrist approach. It bothered me when she voted for the war. There were brave people who didn't. She's not worse than other politicians, but I hoped she would be better."

And that's it: Women hoped she would be better. Interviewed in New York magazine, Arianna Huffington -- herself a nimble political shape-shifter -- weighed in on Clinton, observing that "In Dante's Inferno, there's a special place reserved for those who know best and are not doing it."

There is no denying that the possibility of a female president -- or even a female candidate -- is a big deal. It may not make sense, it may be irrational, but it would mean something serious to have a woman leading this country for the first time in America's history. No matter who the woman is.

Pat Schroeder, the former Democratic Colorado congresswoman who tried to run for president in 1988, but couldn't raise the money and famously dropped out of the race in tears, told me that she was excited about the prospect of a run by Clinton or even Republican Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Regardless of politics, Schroeder said, it was time to storm the White House, "the ultimate tree house with a sign that says, 'No Girls Allowed.'" Schroeder added that the slogan for either woman's campaign could be, "We couldn't mess it up any more!" and speculated that "an awful lot of us would quit what we're doing and go work to make it happen."

To many women, making that happen means cutting Clinton some slack and realizing that she is navigating a labyrinthine political maze. Literary agent Sarah Burnes, who saw Clinton speak in 2003 and found her "masterful," said hearing liberal women rip Clinton is disheartening. Burnes said she feels like "the days of believing in any leader with your whole heart are over," but given that rather grim limitation, it is "a political responsibility" for left-leaning ladies to support Clinton. "That's why I was so pissed off at Susan Sarandon," said Burnes. "It doesn't help."

In the online magazine Sirens, journalist Allison Hantschel expressed her own guilt about the fact that while she is "unexcited," "uninspired" and "indifferent" about Clinton, she is "nagged by the feeling that this makes me a bad feminist. After all, a woman president, any woman president, is a victory for womankind, right?"

"That will probably be true for some," Michelman told me. "If she runs, it will have been a long journey to having a woman candidate finally taken seriously as a presidential hopeful." But, she added, "even though it will be historic, women want to be assured that they have a candidate who will represent them."

Writer Ellen Chesler is assured. Chesler, who called herself a "longtime friend and supporter of Clinton," argued that if Clinton ran and were elected, she "would be one of the first women who has been true to feminist values" without "in any way ignoring the issue of choice and balance in women's lives, and certainly without ignoring the rights of men." Clinton understands, Chesler maintained, that "women's rights are only an avenue toward enjoying a better democracy. She has clearly shown herself to be a candidate who can carry the banner of women without making it offensive."

But it's the "without making it offensive" part that tends to stick in the craw. Faye Wattleton, former Planned Parenthood president, who now heads the Center for the Advancement of Women, told me, "It is my fondest hope that Mrs. Clinton, if she is the presidential candidate, does not try to" -- Wattleton paused, searching for le mot juste -- "triangulate on the issues of reproductive rights." Wattleton wants Clinton to advance the notion that "unintended pregnancy should be rare and that abortion should be safe and legal," a deliberate variation on the Bill Clinton chestnut, long attributed to his wife, that abortion should be "safe, legal and rare."

Recently, Hillary regained some political ground with feminists by pushing over-the-counter emergency contraception Plan B through the glutinous (and possibly corrupt) bureaucracy at the FDA. Then last week, she appeased those disgusted by her refusal to support gay marriage by lending her support to a bill that would provide insurance benefits for same-sex partnerships. These moves -- late and somewhat limp, but good for women, good for civil liberties, good for underrepresented Americans -- may represent the best of what Hillary Clinton can offer the American left: unreliable, occasional, but intermittently effective action on behalf of the good guys.

Compromise may also be the best Clinton can offer American feminists. Her brand of inoffensive feminism has been a savvy move to distance herself from the hoary, hairy phantasm of 1970s women's rights activism. After all, the right has long dangled the hirsute succubus of stereotyped feminism in front of the American people like some kind of bogeywoman. The specter has so cowed the left that it has retreated behind a Disneyfied facsimile of a feminist: someone who is easy on the eyes and synapses, who is well groomed and strikes a careful balance between threatening and demure, who doesn't object to sliding right, possibly taking a macho stand on the war, possibly making basic abortion-rights activists feel like Andrea Dworkin radicals.

Clinton clearly made a decision some time ago to meet those specifications. Her vision of female and feminine leadership may be expansive enough to include cookies and spongy-soft listening tours in which she cuddles up to conservatives, but it will not include the radical politics on which she was weaned.

Many pragmatic feminists believe that's a smart move. "Hillary most certainly was a feminist, when the label and identity could be used strategically to her benefit," said Rebecca Walker, author and co-founder of the Third Wave Foundation, an organization of young feminists, via e-mail. But identifying herself as a feminist today "would be divisive and undermining to her cause of representing, or seeming to represent, all Americans." Walker continued that although Clinton "voted for the war and made sympathetic antiabortion statements, my sense is that she stands for a 'feminist' agenda." To Walker, that agenda includes reproductive freedom, pay equity, increased family leave, universal healthcare, environmental preservation and education reform.

Walker broke a big-time taboo by coming out and saying one of those things that is impolite to mention. "I have to be totally honest and say that I would vote for Hillary because of her husband," she said. "Real partnership, with its mammoth requirements of negotiating power and taking turns, is the next feminist frontier," and "President Hillary and first gentleman Bill would give the world one hell of a demo."

To others, Clinton is all the feminist they need right now. "I am wild about her as a person, and I am definitely a liberal feminist," said comedian Janeane Garofalo, a host on liberal radio station Air America. "I like her very much for who she is -- when she doesn't pander to right-wing constituencies." As for troubling Clinton stands like the flag-burning conflagration, Garofalo said, "There's no way she could fully believe in that. Having said that, this woman has been so browbeaten, so picked-on, so ridiculously maligned that I don't blame her for having these spurts of post-traumatic stress disorder."

Even the Hillary-skeptical Ephron had to agree. "No question, women are hard on women, and men are hard on women too," she told me in an e-mail. "And women are especially hard on Hillary because she's such a Rorschach and we all want her to be exactly like us, whoever we are."

Where women are now is a hell of a lot closer to political equity, or at least to the executive branch of government, than we've ever been before. That's good news. But it's painful, too. Fourteen years with Hillary Clinton has shown us exactly how much easier it is to hold fast to our politics when we're on the outside looking in. Get within striking distance of the center of power, we face a paralysis of political idealism: What do we give up to get inside? Do we have to bastardize our beliefs to do it? If Clinton is balancing her political ambitions with the principles that motivated her to enter politics in the first place, then perhaps she still does have something in common with feminists: We are balancing our ambitions for her, and ourselves, with the ideals that motivated us to first invest in her.

The reality is we are probably going to vote for her if she is the Democratic nominee, even if we have to hold our noses. Ephron told me she remains lukewarm on the former first lady, but added that "if she comes around on the war, I'm there. And if she gets the nomination, of course I'll vote for her. And I'll give her money. I'm a Democrat."

So maybe that's it. She's a Democrat. She's a woman. So she's not exactly what we thought she could have been, or as Tony Curtis might have said, what we thought we could have been. But in the end, Clinton may just beat the alternative. By a hair.

By Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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