What Women See When They See Hillary

"I love [Hillary Clinton] so completely that, honestly, she would have to burn down the White House before I would say anything bad about her!" exclaimed Nora Ephron in a 1993 Newsday interview. Three years later, she told the Wellesley class of 1996, "Understand: Every attack on Hillary Clinton for not knowing her place is an attack on you." Come late 2006, however, Ephron was the one on the attack as one of the self-described "Hillary resisters" -- those who believe that "she will do anything to win, who believe she doesn't really take a position unless it's completely safe," as she wrote on her Huffington Post blog, "who believe she has taken the concept of triangulation and pushed it to a geometric level never achieved by anyone including her own husband, who can't stand her position on the war, who don't trust her as far as you can spit."

This rather dramatic change of heart encapsulates one of the great ironies of Hillary Clinton's bid for the presidency. Many of the very same feminists who were her most ardent supporters as First Lady are now fiercely opposed to her historic bid to become the first female President of the United States. The woman once described by Susan Faludi as a symbol of "the joy of female independence" now evokes ambivalence, disdain and, sometimes, outright vitriol. The right wing's favorite "femi-nazi" now has to contend with Jane Fonda comparing her to "a ventriloquist for the patriarchy with a skirt and a vagina."

So what's up with the Hillary-bashing? "Women don't trust Hillary. They see her as an opportunist; many feel betrayed by her," wrote Susan Douglas in a May In These Times article titled "Why Women Hate Hillary." A month later, in her Newsweek column, Anna Quindlen declared, "The truth is that Senator Clinton has a woman problem."

Not exactly true, as it turns out. Hillary Clinton was the number-one choice of 42 percent of likely Democratic primary women voters in a recent Zogby survey, compared with 19 percent for Barack Obama and 15 percent for John Edwards. And her favorable rating among independent women is a whopping twenty-one points higher than among independent men.

Let's be clear: Hillary has a "feminist problem," and more so with those who lean left.

At first glance, the fault line dividing feminists in their view of Hillary Clinton is merely a matter of ideology. On one side are the mainstream moderate women's organizations such as NOW and EMILY's List, facing off against more radical progressive feminists, especially those opposed to the Iraq War. Some of her supporters claim that much of the anger is inspired by her now-infamous 2002 Congressional vote. "It's about this one vote, which was not to invade Iraq but to authorize the President to wage war. I can't understand how this can be held up against a lifetime of important political work," says NOW president Kim Gandy.

Antiwar sentiments run high indeed, but when it comes to feminism and feminists, the "Hillary divide" also mirrors a deeper debate over the relationship between gender and political power. The ambivalence over Hillary's candidacy has just as much to do with increasing skepticism about the value of making it to the top.

"Having a woman in the White House won't necessarily do a damn thing for progressive feminism," writes Bitch magazine founder Lisa Jervis in LiP magazine. "Though the dearth of women in electoral politics is so dire as to make supporting a woman -- any woman -- an attractive proposition, even if it's just so she can serve as a role model for others who'll do the job better eventually, it's ultimately a trap. Women who do nothing to enact feminist policies will be elected and backlash will flourish. I can hear the refrain now: 'They've finally gotten a woman in the White House, so why are feminists still whining about equal pay?'"

Jervis's views were echoed by her peers on the blog Feministing, where Jen Moseley wrote, "As women sign up to work with anyone but Senator Clinton, of course, they're being asked why. That's the bad news. The good news is they're all giving the same answer. Being a woman does not get you the automatic support of women. There's no vagina litmus test, people."

Simply breaking the glass ceiling, once a cherished goal of all feminists, has lost much of its appeal, especially after seven years of the Bush Administration. Over the course of his presidency, George W. Bush has appointed women to some of the most prominent positions in his Administration -- all the while working to undermine women's rights across the board. So it is that we witnessed a fierce assault on women's reproductive rights even as Condoleezza Rice became the first African-American woman to make Secretary of State.

Opting for Edwards or Obama -- who are often perceived as more liberal -- becomes an attractive proposition for feminists who believe "gender is not the only thing, not even the most important thing in feminism," as Center For New Words program director Jaclyn Friedman puts it. "Hillary's not my friend. She's not actually progressive. The fact that she's a woman is an unfortunate red herring." Feminist principles may be better served, she claims, by electing a truly liberal candidate who will move us further toward a more progressive and therefore more equitable future -- an imperative that feels all the more urgent after eight years of Bush. "Things are so bad in this country, and the person we elect is going to be so important," she says. "The whole put-a-woman-in-the-White House seems too abstract and theoretical, a middle-class luxury."

To be fair, the women and the organizations supporting Hillary are hardly advocating a "vagina litmus test." As Gandy points out, NOW has supported male candidates in the past and is now backing Clinton because of "a demonstrated history" of her commitment to feminist ideals. Even Laura Liswood, co-founder of the White House Project, which is dedicated to putting women in office, fully embraces the idea that women should vote their politics rather than their gender, "if the choice is between a woman who doesn't represent you at all and a man who does."

But Liswood cautions against undervaluing what she calls "the power of the mirror, of knowing who it is we can be by who it is that we see." By becoming the first female President of the United States, Liswood says, Hillary would "change the whole memory scan of young people, in terms of ... what leaders look like." Even Condoleezza Rice, reviled as she may be for her conservative views, has done her bit for gender equality simply by virtue of the position she occupies. "It's an important social progression. You can't write these women off just because we highly disagree with them," says former Planned Parenthood president Faye Wattleton, who now heads the Center for the Advancement of Women. "It moves us toward a time when we can attack someone like her because of what she stands for and not because she is black or a woman, because we already know that the country won't go up in smoke because we had an African-American woman from Alabama as Secretary of State."

Clinton's supporters also argue that women candidates are unfairly subjected to higher standards, especially by women themselves. It's why antiwar feminist organizations like CodePink are less likely to give her a pass for her Iraq vote than they would, say, John Edwards. Explaining the reasoning behind their "bird-dog Hillary" campaign to The Nation, founder Medea Benjamin wore her double standard on her sleeve: "You expect more of a woman."

When it comes to presidential politics, this double standard also works in subtler ways. "There's not one man of either party who is at the top of the race right now who, if he were a woman, would be taken seriously," says White House Project's Marie Wilson. "We wouldn't tolerate the lack of experience or the marital history [of Rudy Giuliani]. If Obama were a woman, and I don't care how articulate or wonderful, we'd be telling her that she didn't have enough experience." Or, as Susan Estrich wrote in her 2005 book, The Case for Hillary Clinton: "Imagine if Hillary weren't a woman. She'd simply be the best-qualified candidate, with absolutely everything going for her ... . If she were a he -- Harry Rodham, let's say -- the Democratic Party would be thrilled." Of course, come 2007, the party establishment is suitably enthused about Clinton. And for their part, progressive feminists would say that their problem with Hillary Clinton is not that she is a woman but that she has turned out to be no better than Harry Rodham.

Still, there's no question that Clinton bears an extra burden, not least because her victory would represent such a historic breakthrough. "The fantasy was that the first woman President would be someone who would turn the whole lousy system inside out and upside down. Instead the first significant woman contender is someone who seems to have the system down to a fine art," wrote Quindlen in her column.

Yet most feminists recognize that the chance of a true-blue lefty becoming the first female President is about as likely as that proverbial snowball's. Much as we like to bemoan our nation's backward ways in matters of female leadership, the kind of women who actually make it to the top in other parts of the world -- leaving aside Chile's Michelle Bachelet -- are cut from the same cloth as their male counterparts. Susan Douglas may accuse her of epitomizing "the Genghis Khan principle of American politics," but Hillary Clinton is not a patch on dear old Maggie Thatcher or Indira Gandhi, and she's definitely left of Germany's Angela Merkel.

At least part of the problem with Hillary is Hillary, as in her outsized and often caricatured public persona, which makes it hard to figure out just who she is. Is she a misunderstood moderate, accused of selling out positions she never held? Ruth Mandel, director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University, certainly thinks so: "She is a centrist. She is a political pragmatist in the most solid American tradition."

Or is she a much-maligned liberal, whose Senate voting record on critical issues places her even with Obama and solidly to the left of progressive favorite John Edwards? So say the ratings of Americans for Democratic Action. Then there are those who label her the ultimate political operator, ever eager to trade principle for poll numbers. Her many critics certainly have no shortage of evidence to muster toward their cause. Claims made on either side of the "Hillary divide" are varied, confusing, often contradictory and sometimes compelling -- perhaps because the debate over Hillary is very often not about Hillary at all.

In a 1993 Time magazine cover story, Margaret Carlson described the then-First Lady as "the medium through which the remaining anxieties over feminism are being played out." In 2007, however, Hillary Clinton's presidential bid is becoming a lightning rod for a debate within feminism, and over its goals. What do we liberated women want: to join the clubhouse or burn it down?

Forty years after the launch of the modern women's movement, there are still no easy answers to that question. And it is why, once you get past the rhetoric, the emotion Hillary Clinton most often evokes is painful ambivalence, even among her harshest feminist critics. "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," said Ephron in a recent Salon article. But feminists will also just as readily acknowledge the high price of playing with the big boys, even when they don't like her one bit. "She tried to be something different [as a First Lady], and she was ultimately beaten into submission -- by the media, the voters, the politicos," says Friedman. "I don't know what I would expect her to do. I couldn't expect myself to do better in the same place. I really don't."

For all her skepticism about the value of electing minorities to high office and her personal affinity for Edwards, Jervis says she balks at the idea of voting for a white male in the Democratic primary when she has the historic opportunity to choose otherwise. "I'm not sure what will happen when I actually step into the voting booth and have to pull that lever," she says. But she has no doubt that if Hillary Clinton does make it past the primaries, "I know I'll have an emotional reaction to a Hillary candidacy. It is going to be meaningful to me."

Whether or not Hillary wins the nomination, makes it to the big white house or falls by the wayside, her admirers and critics alike understand that she has done far more than any of her predecessors for women in national politics simply by running. She is the first woman to be the frontrunner for her party's presidential nomination -- with the blessing of the old boys' club, i.e., the Democratic Leadership Council, no less.

But equally important, as Faye Wattleton points out, whatever her failings, Hillary Clinton is no Pat Schroeder, whose 1988 presidential bid ended early and ignominiously in a flood of tears. "This is not a candidate who is going to dissolve in the enormous heat of presidential politics," she says. Over the past fifteen years, every aspect of Hillary's life has been subjected to the kind of scrutiny -- and many times abuse -- that would make male politicians cry. As the latest crop of biographies demonstrate, the media's appetite for Hillary "exposés" shows no signs of waning. Carl Bernstein's A Woman in Charge and Her Way: The Hopes and Ambitions of Hillary Rodham Clinton, by Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta Jr., spend 1,000-plus pages between them re-examining every personal, political, romantic and sartorial decision she's ever made, often with unflattering results. And there will be plenty more of the same over the next year. "Someone who can conduct herself with credibility under that kind of scrutiny and hold up to it is definitely opening the door for a future woman in the White House. She must be given credit for that," says Wattleton.

Hillary Clinton is the first female candidate -- love her or hate her -- who is impossible to dismiss simply because she is a woman, even by Republican strategists like Frank Luntz, who offered this caution: "Put gender aside. Just treat her like you would any other candidate." It's not exactly the end of patriarchy, but it's surely reason enough for all feminists -- left, right or center -- to cheer.

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