Sunday, May 18, 2008

Stage 2
Hillary Clinton supporters going through the five stages of grief seem to have moved from stage one, denial, to two, anger. (A few early adapters have jumped to stage 3, bargaining: these are the people who bellow that Clinton has "earned" a spot on the presidential ticket, and an overlapping group--mostly big-dollar donors--seem to be cutting a different set of deals with their counterparts in the Obama camp.) A piece in Monday's New York Times details this anger, through the lens of supporters who blame residual sexism for their candidate's defeat.

Mrs. Clinton seemed to channel the lives of regular women, who often saw her as an avenging angel. Take Judith Henry, 67, for whom Mrs. Clinton’s primary losses stirred decades-old memories of working at a phone company where women were not allowed to hold management positions. “They always gave us the clerical jobs and told us we didn’t have families to support,” she said. At a rally last month in Bloomington, Ind., she sat with her daughter Susan Henry, 45, a warehouse worker, who complained that her male colleagues did less work and made more money than the women did.

Decades after the dissolution of movement feminism, Mrs. Clinton’s events and donor lists filled with women who had experienced insult or isolation on the job. Moitri Chowdhury Savard, 36, a doctor in Queens, was once asked by a supervisor why she was not home cooking for her husband; Liz Kuoppala, 37, of Eveleth, Minn., worked as the only woman in her mining crew and is now the only woman on the City Council.
[A]s others watched a campaign that starred two possibly transformative figures, they felt a growing conviction that the contest was unfair. Mrs. Clinton’s supporters point to a nagging series of slights: the fixation on her clothes, even her cleavage; chronic criticism that her voice is shrill; calls for her to exit the race; and most of all, the male commentators in the news media who, they argue, were consistently tougher on her than on Mr. Obama.

Some even accuse Mr. Obama of chauvinism, pointing to the time he called Mrs. Clinton “likeable enough” as evidence of dismissiveness. Nancy Wait, 55, a social worker in Columbia City, Ind., said Mr. Obama was far less qualified than Mrs. Clinton and described as condescending his recent assurances that Mrs. Clinton should stay in the race as long as she liked. Ms. Wait said she would “absolutely, positively not” vote for him come fall.
Cynthia Ruccia, 55, a sales director for Mary Kay cosmetics in Columbus, Ohio, is organizing a group, Clinton Supporters Count Too, of mostly women in swing states who plan to campaign against Mr. Obama in November. “We, the most loyal constituency, are being told to sit down, shut up and get to the back of the bus,” she said.

Identity politics is rarely appealing. What drives me crazy about this particular manifestation, though, is that Hillary Clinton--brilliant and strong-willed though she surely is--could hardly be less suited for the role of feminism's "avenging angel." Toward the beginning of the piece is this sentence: "As a former first lady whose political career evolved from her husband’s, Mrs. Clinton was always an imperfect test case for female achievement." But, the point having been made, the author then drops it. That's a mistake, because, simply put, THERE IS NO HILLARY CLINTON PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN WITHOUT BILL CLINTON.

I'm at pains here to explain that this isn't meant as an insult. What I mean is that the money at the Senator's disposal, the network of loyal supporters within state and local party organizations, and of course the tremendous brand loyalty that she tapped into, all spring from her husband's presidency. It's not that she couldn't have built these things on her own--though, given her lackluster political skills through most of this campaign, I have my doubts, and considering that she evidently never considered running for office before the late '90s, I'm not sure she ever would have had the inclination--but the point is that she didn't have to.

This is not to denigrate the experiences of the older white women who have been Clinton's most loyal and vehement supporters. What they endured stinks. And beyond the particular slights and insults, the zeitgeist in which they grew up--that they met life with the societal presumption of a different and lesser set of possibilities--is unconscionable. My mother, a huge Hillary Clinton fan, wanted to be a lawyer when she was young; nobody in her world thought she could do that in the '50s and '60s, so she became a teacher. There are millions of smart, strong women like her out there who were dissuaded from pursuing their highest aspirations; it's easy to grasp why they're pissed, and it's no more seemly to belittle them for their loyalty to Clinton than that of African-American voters for Obama.

Even so, Clinton herself milked this sympathy for all it was worth. The Times again notes that "Mrs. Clinton, who made womanhood an explicit part of her run, seemed unwilling or unable to talk candidly about gender." And had a great piece a couple months back, which I might have linked here, about why Clinton could never give a parallel speech on gender to what Obama said on race:

[A]s much as Hillary Clinton the wife and the woman and the mom no doubt hates it, Hillary Clinton the candidate has largely benefited from her husband's extracurricular activities. That's because—and this is the tragic part—America seems to like her best when she's being victimized—by Bill or Rick Lazio or the media. In that sense, her husband is a useful prop who reminds us of the extent of her suffering.

She won't give that speech because the whole narrative of her candidacy—and more broadly, her life—is as rooted in grievance as Obama's is in getting past grievance.

Her biggest supporters are the women who see themselves in her and who feel that she is/they are owed this; after all she has/they have endured. But she won't give that speech because those women don't have as much in common with her as they think. Sure, her husband's behavior has humiliated her. But she has also helped him humiliate the women he's been involved with.

She won't give that speech because she has been on the wrong side of gender bias. OK, there is no right side, but she consistently relates to and protects and stands with the oppressors in the gender wars, not the victims. It isn't only that she stayed with Bill Clinton, but that she invariably sees him as the victim, preyed upon by a series of female aggressors.
One of the most laudable things about Obama is that he always elects to rise above the politics of victimization. One of the most troubling things about Hillary Clinton is that she is never above cashing in on it.

I believe very strongly that one day, very probably in the next 10-20 years, millions of us who have come to support Obama will proudly cast our votes for a progressive, inspirational woman running for the presidency. Women who feel that Clinton's election was their (and her) due, and that it was stolen from them by the less-qualified and less substantial younger man, deserve our empathy--but they're also missing the point, twice. One, Hillary Clinton didn't lose this thing because she's a woman; she lost it in large part because she's a Clinton, with the dishonesty, lack of integrity and ever-present sense of victimhood attendant upon that name. And two, she--unlike, I believe, the next crop of female candidates--came as close as she did largely for the same reason.


Chris said...

A bit off topic, but I always silently chuckled a little at the current idea of 'feminism' and the women's movement, etc. THis basically involved bored middle-class and upper-middle housewives from the 50s who wanted to work but their husbands wanted to be the breadwinners. My grandmother has been working since she was 12. Many older black women I know have worked for just as long. Poorer women and minority women weren't exactly along for the ride with this movement, IMO. It sort of ignored their issues and needs. Just a thought.

As for Hillary's supporters, I believe she really should've stated 'I don't want your vote if you are voting against Obama because of his race'. But, then I guess that would take integrity.

David said...

I hear what you're saying and it's true as far as it goes, but "feminism" also embraces the notion that women not only can be workers, but be bosses. The Betty Friedan (sp?)/Gloria Steinem generation obviously were as smart or smarter than their male counterparts, but they didn't have the same opportunities. They were more fortunate than people like your grandmother in that they didn't have to work shit jobs--they "married well," in the idiom of the times--but they didn't have the options that men of their education enjoyed. That was their fight.

Of course, the difference between them and Hillary Clinton was that their fight was based on merit and talent, and hers is on grievance and "being owed."