Gender lessons

As Hillary Clinton's historic bid grinds to a close, what have we learned?

By Sarah Hepola
May 19, 2008 6:05PM (UTC)
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A male friend of mine e-mailed not too long ago, after reading a few stories about Hillary Clinton's treatment in the press and what it indicated about the existence of misogyny in our culture. "I keep asking myself if it's misogynist that I absolutely loathe her," he wrote. "And the answer is no." Indeed, as has been pointed out many times, in our comments section alone, there is a crucial difference between hating women and hating Hillary. You can argue that the ability to hate Hilary -- or, at least, not to support her candidacy -- is an indication of how far we've come. She is proof that a candidate can be despised on her own merits.

And yet, as her historic campaign grinds to a close, there is a bad taste left in many a mouth. There has been an ugliness about much of this, something I can't quite shake. As Jodi Kantor writes in a piece in the New York Times today, "Mrs. Clinton's campaign, many women say with regret, did not inspire a deep or nuanced conversation between men and women, only familiar gender-war battles consisting of male gibes and her supporters' angry responses."


And that anger is understandable. Julia Keller offers a good rundown in a column in the Chicago Tribune, in which she illustrates how the media has painted Clinton as a vicious old she-demon. "Revealed in the coverage of Clinton's campaign is the persistence of an ancient and distasteful cultural theme: the powerful, ambitious woman as cackling fiend, as fantastically terrifying ghoul threatening civilization." She cites a slew of examples, including Andrew Sullivan calling Clinton a "zombie" and one CNN commentator saying it's "time to take the family dog to the vet." (In a portion on the popularity of death imagery in headlines, Salon even gets a mention for Walter Shapiro's "Death With Dignity.") It's not enough to just not vote for Clinton, argues Keller, she must be destroyed.

Surely part of this is pugilist politics as usual. It's an ugly game. No surprise there. But there are also lessons about how our culture still recoils at powerful women, the nearly impossible demand of women to be both tough and nurturing, and the gleeful grave dancing that awaits them if they fail.

Of all the Clinton stories this weekend, I found myself most moved by a small story from Peggy Orenstein that ran in the Times Magazine. In a piece titled "The Hillary Lesson," the author wrestled with what this bid for the presidency actually meant for her young daughter. "Is she proof to my daughter that 'you can do anything' or of the hell that will rain down on you if you try?"


Maybe the answer is both.

Sarah Hepola

Sarah Hepola is the author of the New York Times bestselling memoir, "Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget."

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