"Vagina voter": Witnessing the sexism hurled at Hillary in '08 -- and the assumptions made about her supporters -- changed my life

My awareness of how sexism affected the '08 campaign came gradually, but when it did it changed me profoundly

Published November 14, 2015 10:30PM (EST)

  (AP/Charlie Neibergall)
(AP/Charlie Neibergall)

Excerpted from "Love Her, Love Her Not: The Hillary Paradox,"

Hillary Clinton and her myriad personal and political experiences have made me a braver person than I used to be. Looking back on the 2008 primary campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, I can connect the events that ultimately changed how I see myself as a political person.

As a volunteer on Hillary’s campaign, for eight months, I made numerous phone calls to super-delegates and members of the National Organization for Women. Until then, I’d never followed Hillary’s life or career too closely. I only became a volunteer after I saw the sexism that was thrown her way by fellow Democrats as she campaigned; that sexism prompted me to learn more about her as a person and as a candidate. I didn’t realize at the time how strongly sexism would ultimately shape Hillary’s campaign and its outcome, as well as my view of the political world.

At the time, I was working on a documentary film about the women’s liberation movement and had a full-time job in the film industry as a visual effects editor. My daughter was five years old; the time demands of motherhood were still new for me. Nevertheless, I managed to schedule my campaign volunteer work during lunch breaks and in the few hours I had after I got home. It was the first time I ever volunteered for a presidential political campaign. Was it hard? Yes. But it was transformational.

It was explained to me once in the early days of my visual effects work on feature films that although the work seemed difficult and abstract, one day I would understand its technical complexity in a simple way. The metaphor used was the light bulb being turned on in a darkened room. One day the switch would flip to “on” and I would fully understand. My growing awareness of how sexism impacted Hillary’s presidential campaign wasn’t achieved as easily as a switch turning on; it was a slow rotation, as with a dimmer switch. With each incremental turn, a cultural undercurrent that involved women and presidential politics was illuminated. It changed me profoundly.

The first turn of that political dimmer switch happened in my kitchen in 2007. I was watching Hillary’s online announcement to the nation that she was running for president. In the video, sitting on a couch and looking into the camera, she said, “I’m beginning a conversation with you, with America.”

I had never heard of anyone announcing a presidential run in such an understated way, and it felt awkward. There was no man on a stage with his wife dutifully standing next to him to project an image of family. There was no mention of God. It was just her, alone, and she wanted to talk about our country. She wanted to “chat.” The image of her looking back at me was unique.

That metaphorical dimmer switch turned up one millimeter.

The next event was in January of 2008. It was the evening of the first primary election in the much-anticipated Iowa caucus. (Iowa, at this point, was one of only four states that had never elected a woman to any national office.) I was watching Chris Matthews on the MSNBC news show Hardball, as I always did. Hillary had come in third in the caucus, and it was a shocker, as she had been expected to win. Matthews was full of bravado as he questioned whether Hillary should stay in the race. That hit me in my gut. Why would a pundit suggest she should quit at the start of the primaries? After all, both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush lost Iowa’s coveted first place win when they ran for the presidency. I didn’t remember people calling for them to quit the race.

Another millimeter.

Then on the heels of the Iowa loss was her New Hampshire win. That night, I got my daughter out of bed, and we watched Hillary’s victory speech together. I said to her, “She is going to be our next president.” That was odd. I had never said those words before.

I could feel that dimmer switch turning up another millimeter.

But something happened the next day on Hardball that would continue to happen on many shows after every state Hillary won. Chris Matthews looked glum on the news panel of reporters and commentators who were discussing Hillary’s New Hampshire win, when he remarked, “the reason she may be a front-runner is her husband messed around. That’s how she got to be senator from New York.” He said it confidently, as if he were declaring a fact, somehow sure that a woman could never win a presidential primary or a U.S. Senate race on her own merit without voter sympathy about a cheating husband. This dislike and, often times, hatred for her by liberal progressives was something for which I was naively unprepared. I expected the venom to be delivered by Republicans and conservative pundits, but not from her supposed allies.

The sexualization of women who dare enter the male halls of authority is a common tactic to suppress female ambitions for the White House. And men aren’t the only ones who resort to it. When the liberal Air America radio show host Randi Rhodes called Hillary a “big fucking whore” and another Air America host, Stephanie Miller, continually referred to Hillary as “Mrs. Clinton” instead of Senator Clinton, these subtle and not-so- subtle attacks succeeded in doing two things: They relegated Hillary to a mere sexual being, and they erased her substantive political experience, both as United States senator and as First Lady.

Plenty of examples of that abound. Conservative MSNBC host Tucker Carlson said in July of 2007, “She scares me. I cross my legs every time she talks.” When discussing Hillary’s performance at one of the debates, MSNBC commentator Mike Barnicle said Hillary’s attitude made her “... [look] like everyone’s first wife standing outside a probate court.” This created a bonding moment for the all male panel, as they laughed at that image comparing a serious presidential candidate to that of an annoying spouse.

Another millimeter.

The Hillary hate was also marketed. When the Hillary Clinton nutcracker came along in 2008, it was advertised with the feature of “serrated stainless steel thighs that, well, crack nuts.” That, coupled with Tucker’s revelation, should have clued me in to the pairing of men and Oval Office politics as a clubhouse that had a “No Girls Allowed” sign hanging on the door.

At the time, I was a daily listener to National Public Radio and a reader of progressive blogs, but their common use of sports analogies awakened my senses to a different way of interpreting political coverage. NPR correspondents would open news shows with biased lines about Obama inching closer to Hillary’s delegate count with phrases such as, “He’s within striking distance.” Daily Kos bloggers wrote articles about the state primary dates with themes that reflected a boxing game “... the DNC put a stop to these contests, thwarting her ability to land a knockout punch here.”

Why care about sports analogies? Because they are common in our traditionally male presidential campaign history. Reporters use sports symbolism to cover a race more easily; policy issues are complex, and contests are simple. When women enter races, they are expected to be one of the guys and participate in the language of sports, but that is a man’s game. Men have been building campaign traditions since the founding of this country. By boiling down the primary race into a sports contest, of sorts, it repudiated Hillary’s solid experience—a major experience difference between her and Obama and a suggestion that to win, she needed to “be one of the boys.”

I could see that a powerful male context was flowing through American presidential politics. The dimmer switch about how male-oriented our political system is was turning up full force but wasn’t yet on all the way. However, the building blocks of our nation’s politics were in greater view for me.

When my progressive friends offered that their line in the sand with Hillary was her Senate vote for the Iraq War Resolution, I noted that there had been no similar line in the sand for John Kerry in 2004 or for Senator Joe Biden when he was nominated as Obama’s vice presidential running mate in 2008. Both of these men voted for the Iraq War. This revelation was usually met with silence.

The dimmer switch was a millimeter away from full.

I also came to realize that a presidential nominee has to be likable and, alternately, an aggressor. This is easier for men to portray than for women because of historical archetypes. For the first time we saw a First Lady—the most traditional of political mother images—run for president, and people had to take the Norman Rockwell ideal of a fatherly leader of our nation who sometimes reluctantly declares war and replace it with a motherly image of a woman. In Hillary’s case, she was both a mother and senator who voted for the Iraq War Resolution. This is a combination of two archetypes, caregiver and ruler. For many, this created chaos.

With all the gendered criticism of her, as well as a reluctance to acknowledge her experience and qualifications, I stopped listening to Air America, NPR, and Chris Matthews. I un-bookmarked the Daily Kos. Within a few months I even discontinued my cable service. I had to re-think everything I believed about partisan politics.

I found the hatred for Hillary interesting because I thought that progressives would have been proud of Clinton’s experience as First Lady, notably her speech to the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995 in Beijing. At that now-famous event, Hillary made a high-profile speech about global women’s rights that included the now oft-quoted line, “Human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights.” She spoke passionately about the fact that even though there are many people who would try to silence the words of women on issues concerning the human rights of women and girls, that freedom of speech on these issues was extremely important.

Prior to her trip, the White House administration was nervous about China’s reaction to her speech, especially as she singled out that country’s silencing of women. She ignored their fear and proceeded with her plan. Her speech sent positive shock waves across the globe and was met with tremendous applause by both liberals and conservatives. Looking back now we can see how forward-thinking her speech was on policy issues for women. It was the perfect blend of two images: leader and mother.

A few people angrily asked me why Clinton didn’t quit the race for president, as they thought she was standing in the way of Obama. I think what they really wanted to know was why I wasn’t quitting Hillary. Now the dimmer switch was turned up to full because I had to answer this for myself. And, this is where my shift in understanding took place. It was June of 2008, and it was the end of the primary race.

My old hallmarks of progressivism that formed part of my identity had dissolved, and I saw partisan politics more objectively. I had developed a new way of looking at the political world, especially with regard to women. All the writers, anchors, and politicians just looked like a deck of cards to me. In my mind I took the deck, placed it between my thumb and fore- finger, and jettisoned the cards into the air. I didn’t look to see where the cards fell because I had already walked through the political looking glass. I was in the wilderness. I felt alone, and it was just a little bit cold. But in reality, I was with eighteen million voters who stayed with her, those cracks in the male ceiling of the Oval Office. We could all see differently now after having experienced that campaign.

Hillary’s presence and words were a powerful message to girls and women, and that is why she didn’t quit. And as a mother of a daughter, that is one of the reasons I didn’t quit her. To be sure, Hillary was fighting to win, but she also knew that we needed the memory and the images to move forward for those who came after her. Like her Beijing speech, she was ahead of the curve, but this was a rougher road. The accusations that were hurled at Hillary were hurled at all of us. We were all called “bitter clingers,” “vagina voters,” “working class,” “old,” and “bitches” right along with her and suffered the same dismissal as she did. And some of the people who threw out those slurs were feminists.

Hillary’s 2008 campaign is now a snapshot that is a part of our collective cultural memory from past events that we all share. These memories help us form our identities as individuals and as citizens. Boys and men have the totality of presidential cultural memory reflected to them in the United States: Franklin D. Roosevelt holding up his hat, Dwight Eisenhower with arms held aloft, and John F. Kennedy with Marilyn Monroe. The history of male presidents is the gendered bedrock of power upon which we form our national identity, and women, without similar memories, sense their lack of power.

I grieved when Hillary lost the nomination. The night after she won in South Dakota, one of the last primary states in a campaign already lost, I dreamt about her.

In the dream, Hillary was in the White House. I was with many women in a room waiting to meet with her. When it was my turn, Hillary stood in front of me. I held out my arms as if to receive something. She placed several Middle Eastern shawls and fabrics into my empty arms. I knew women had made them. I took them.

Several years later after the election, I finished my film about the women’s liberation movement and started to speak about how important it is to remember that movement and include it in our cultural memory. If we had had a cultural memory about female leaders in 2008, Hillary may not have been seen as an interloper in the male Oval Office.

As soon as I released my film in 2013, I received an invitation to screen it in Islamabad, Pakistan, as a guest of the International Islamic University. Was I afraid to go? Yes. But after having lived through the 2008 presidential campaign, complete with its gendered rhetoric and undercurrent of dismissiveness of women, I knew how important it was for me to go. Hillary gave me the strength, and I traveled alone.

I screened my film and spoke to an amazing group of Pakistani women who were in the midst of shaping feminism in their own country and wanted to learn more about American feminism. Later, with several of these Pakistani women, I went shopping in one of their open markets. I bought some beautiful fabrics, and as I took them in my arms, I remembered the dream and remembered that Hillary also had been to Pakistan.

That dream wasn’t about me personally. Nor was the 2008 campaign just about the loss of my preferred candidate. There was a bigger picture developing here, and it was an image of Americans connecting with women in faraway places from the symbolic power of a woman in the Oval Office in a way that can’t happen if we elect another man to the White House.

I know Hillary is a big part of this picture. I can see that clearly now because the lights are turned up brightly.

Excerpted from "Love Her, Love Her Not: The Hillary Paradox," edited by Joanne Cronrath Bamberger. Copyright © 2015. Reprinted by permission of She Writes Press.

By Jennifer Hall Lee

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