You take your history how it’s made, now how it’s wished. Those hoping that history this time would be made in the form of the first female presidential nominee from a major political party will instead have to settle for it in the form of the first black presidential nominee of a major political party.
It’s hard to appreciate the breadth of a historical event as it is happening, so the fact that Barack Obama’s ascension from afterthought to nominee may not be fully appreciated by many is understandable. But given this country’s uneasy and complicated relationship with blacks since its inception, it would be nearly impossible to overstate the significance of his nomination, at least until he is actually elected in November.
But none of this even begins to answer the question that’s been rolling around in my head for months: why do women hate women? Maybe that’s a bit harsh. The real question is why do women resent other women in power? This being a man’s world and all, the popular thought is that misogyny is a one-way street. But one painful truth of Hillary Clinton’s failed quest to be the first woman president of the United States is that her undoing was an inside job. It seems that too many women just didn’t want to see one of their own succeed.
I had no expectations that women were going to universally support Clinton because she was a woman anymore then I expected blacks to support Obama because he was black. Ok, bad example. But the fact that Clinton couldn’t connect with more of her gender like Obama connected with his race ended up sabotaging her campaign as much as anything else and says less about her professional shortcomings than it does to how women tend to treat women in power.
There seems to be no dispute that Clinton can be polarizing in her approach. But she is a partisan politician after all and thus it’s expected that her views will clash with others of a different political bent. She’s also been in the public eye for so long, she’s a convenient target. But do women have to be so catty about it?
Maybe it’s what passes for wit these days, but doesn’t it seem like an awful lot of the commentary about Clinton, particularly that written by women, has had a few too many references to her looks, her voice, her clothes, her ankles? Do your own Google search on “Hillary Clinton” and “cankles” and you’ll find over 13,400 entries. Many of these, of course, are the product of the internet’s chief advantage, anonymity. But that doesn’t even begin to explain, for example, those who are actually trying to be taken seriously, like Maureen Dowd. The need to jab Clinton personally while attacking her politics isn’t clever, it’s revealing.
With no sense of irony, too many women, including too many so-called feminists, didn’t support Clinton under the theory that because she couldn’t manage her husband she certainly couldn’t be trusted managing the country. As a corollary, they offered that she has an amazing lack of judgment, and not just about Iraq but because she didn’t dump Bill after he so publicly embarrassed her and her daughter (pick an episode). Not to unfairly turn the focus back on reality, but it is true that it was never her job or responsibility to control her husband. His inability to keep his glands in check doesn’t reveal some shortcoming on her behalf. Her desire to keep the family intact, even under such trying circumstances, hardly constitutes a character flaw, unless, of course, you’re Clinton. You see, she’s an opportunist. Far better, they posit, for the political career to stay in a sham marriage than be distracted by an ugly and public divorce. In other words, never argue the facts with those hell-bent on not letting such things derail an argument being built simply to mask true feelings.
The other odd circumstance is that while personally resenting Clinton’s success, a lot of these same women were still protective of her intentions. Recall the uproar when Chris Matthews of MSNBC suggested (wrongly) that Clinton hadn’t achieved anything on merit, advancing in her career only by playing the victim to her husband’s shortcomings. Feminists, even some who otherwise despised Clinton, howled that the comments were sexist and Matthews offered the inevitable apology, apparently for being misconstrued. Matthews was wrong because he completely glossed over Clinton’s educational background and professional accomplishments. That doesn’t mean he was sexist.
In fact, Matthews’ comments were no more sexist, and probably less so, than those written by Camille Paglia recently in the Telegraph of London. Paglia, a somewhat contradictory intellectual, is either a feminist or she’s not. And while far more literate than the bombastic Matthews, that shouldn’t be reason enough to give her a pass that Matthews didn’t get. She wrote, for example about Clinton that “she is both inspiring role model and cringe-making bad example — an overtly feminist careerist who never found a way to succeed without her husband's connections, advice, and intervention.” Where is the feminist indignation?
How is her (wrong) observation any different than the comments for which Matthews was forced to apologize? And don’t misconstrue. I’m not asking her to apologize anymore than I would have asked Matthews to apologize. But in truth, the observations are nearly identical and yet because Paglia is a woman she isn’t held accountable for what is essentially an angry missive at a woman threatening to succeed. Paglia is a professor and a mostly shrewd observer of the human condition, but apparently she is no more immune to the underlying personal petty jealousy women tend to feel toward each other than the assistant whispering to her female co-worker in the break room about how the boss’s choice in suits makes her look fat.
In some sense, both Matthews and Paglia were fostering certain stereotypes while missing the point that a woman taking advantage of her husband’s connections turns tradition on its head perhaps but it is hardly a sin. No one makes it on his or her own these days. Support systems vary but everyone needs one. Maybe I haven’t read the latest manifesto, but I didn’t think women were ever fighting simply for the right to go it alone.
The final irony is that in defeat Clinton is now being praised by those who criticized her for the role model she really has become. No longer an immediate threat to succeed, it’s fine, even expected for them to give her the hardy pat on the back for fighting the good fight. But a woman is no closer to the White House as a result and while the “atta girls” may be gratifying to Clinton personally she’d be fully justified in asking where were these women when she needed them most?