Clinton Can't Have It Both Ways on Gender

"How do we beat the bitch?"

That's the inflammatory question a Republican asked John McCain at a televised November campaign meeting in South Carolina. Lousy language. Bad form. Worse, the questioner was a woman who looked like your next-door neighbor. The one who gets her hair done every week and never misses a Sunday morning at church. Video of the historic/hysteric moment was posted on Youtube; the thing was viewed nearly a million times.

Candidate Clinton is the woman everyone loves to hate. Hillary-for-President? They're fightin' words.

Internet social networking sites are especially fertile ground for misogynist seeding; anti-Hillary groups spring up like ragweed in pollen season and, before you can get your hankie out, everybody's sneezing. Facebook is the home of groups like "Hillary Clinton: Stop Running for President and Make Me a Sandwich" and "Life's a Bitch, Why Vote for One? Anti-Hillary '08". Myspace hosts "Citizens United Not Timid"-- catch the acronym. It's enough to make you sick. It's largely male rage, both inexplicable and vicious.

Off-line, more than a few Southern gentlemen have told me "I'm sorry. I simply will not vote for a woman for president of the United States." They can't say why. When challenged, they revert to "There's just something about [Hillary Clinton] I don't like. (Read: 'If there's anything I can't abide, it's a woman with PMS and a smart mouth.').

Pollsters and media talking heads have slavishly postulated the odds of a woman winning the White House (Are We Ready?) and the percentages have been all over the map. On a good day, somewhere around 60-67% of Americans, give or take, claim they'd have no problem voting for a woman. Easy enough to say, of course, and P.C. But a finger to the touch screen, in the privacy of the voting booth, may tell another story altogether.

What about the other 33-40%? The ones who won't say they'll vote for a woman? Does that mean any woman--or just the one who's running now? Sociologist C.J. Pascoe, researcher with the Digital Youth Project at Berkley's Institute for the Study of Social Change, has said, "This would not be happening if it were Elizabeth Dole [running for president]." Can we take that to mean a conservative woman seeking the highest office in the land might not provoke the rabid misogynist reaction Hillary Clinton does? Why is that?

How has the Clinton campaign responded to Feminazi Fever? What positive steps have been taken to ameliorate a bad situation? To describe the campaign--and the candidate--as ambivalent is an understatement. There have been missteps along the primary path that nearly put their campaign cart in the ditch.

Hillary tells us, in no uncertain terms, she's smart enough and tough enough to serve as our first female president. From Day One. And she's absolutely right. Nobody knows the issues any better and nobody seeking the nomination, on either side, is quicker with a sharp comeback or an equally sharp elbow to the ribs. Like the low blow or not, "This is politics, not bean bag..." as the HRC team likes to say.

Point taken. But she can't have it both ways and here's where Clinton campaign ambivalence kicks in. The gender game is in play, and HRC won't pick a side.

First it was a debate last fall. John Edwards challenged her, on her record and on her rhetoric, fair and square. She bristled, and by the next morning Clinton surrogates were crying foul, accusing the "bad boys" of ganging up on the lone woman.

A third place finish in Iowa added impetus to the gender game. By the time Hillary got to New Hampshire and South Carolina, hubby Bill was in full armor, astride his white charger and going after his distressed damsel's enemy with a lance as big as an intercontinental ballistic missile. Sir William would eviscerate all comers, and he wouldn't necessarily play by the rules of chivalrous behavior, either. Hillary's response when it backfired? "He did it because he loves me." A fluttering, feminine Hallmark moment for the masses.

The NY State Chapter of NOW sprang to Hillary's defense, too. When Senator Edward Kennedy, a longtime proponent of women's causes, endorsed Barack Obama, they attacked. Ted Kennedy was a traitor, a betrayer of all women, they cried. Whatever candidate he (and niece Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg) believed was best for the country, he should have supported the woman, because she's a woman.

We have loathsome, mindless misogyny on one side of the bell curve and gender ambivalence on the far side. We have woman-bashing "Get thee to the kitchen, wench!" on the one hand and "I'm as tough as you are, buster, get out of my way!" coupled with "I'm vulerable, too--and that ain't no way to treat a lady!" on the other. Both are destructive and dishonest. Both are bad for the process and bad for the country. Intellect, strength, character and capability know no gender. There's no logical or practical reason a woman can't run this nation as well as any man. Better than most.

That said, a strong, smart woman who's well-qualified to serve as president doesn't need to play the game on both sides of Gender Street. If she does, she gets the disrespect she's got coming, adds momentum to the misogynist movement. The Clinton campaign cannot control the knuckle-dragging misogynist. What they can control is an unfortunate pattern of ambivalent behavior that feeds the beast-- and take their campaign setbacks on the chin, like the other guy has always had to do.

In the Promised Land of enlightenment and gender parity, what's good for the goose is, after all, good for the gander.


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