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The Hillary Mystique

Discussing the Clinton campaign's effect on sexism, feminism, and the possibility of a female president.

As Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign approaches its end, what are the implications for feminism of the first major presidential campaign by a woman? We asked New Republic senior editor Michelle Cottle, who has been covering the Clinton campaign, and Amanda Fortini, a New Republic contributor who recently wrote about Clinton and feminism for New York magazine, to discuss her historic run.

Amanda Fortini: You know, Michelle, we’ve heard a lot about how there’s a stark divide between pre- and post-boomer women voters, but when I was researching my piece for New York, I actually didn’t find that to be true. The real divide seems to be between women who had and had not been in the workforce for some period of time, between women who had worked at a job where prestige and money were at stake, and those who had not. If women had experienced, to a greater or lesser degree, a kind of institutional sexism, they could relate to what they were seeing with Clinton. And they said, “We’ve seen instances of sexism in our lives, but it really hasn’t hindered us. But if we’re going to ascend even higher, to our own version of what Clinton herself has called the highest glass ceiling in the country, we’re going to hit it too.” And it’s made them think about feminism in a way they hadn’t before.

Michelle Cottle: I’ve definitely seen those concerns from the coterie of women around Hillary, the Hillarylanders, who tend to be forty-something women who originally gravitated toward her in part because of their feminist ideals, and because she represented a new kind of First Lady. A lot of these women are kind of crushed that people never grasped or got excited about the historic nature of a woman president in the way that clearly they have about the possibility of a black president.

Fortini: Women in that demographic are definitely very upset. I was surprised to read in a recent New York Times article that some of them have formed a group, “Clinton Supporters Count Too,” and that they plan to campaign against Barack Obama in November, which seemed very surprising to me and certainly counterproductive in terms of women’s rights. If you compare McCain and Obama on the issue of reproductive rights, you have to consider that McCain will very likely appoint two pro-life Supreme Court justices. He also hasn’t supported the Fair Pay Act because he believes it would create frivolous lawsuits against big business. In his view, pay inequities should be dealt with through education and training. But that doesn’t address the fact that in the workplace gender-based pay discrimination remains a problem, nor does it leave women legal recourse if they experience such discrimination on the job.

Cottle: I think that when she drops out, there’s going to be a core of Hillaryites who won’t be able to get over it. I have friends who may feel that way. They’re very disappointed, and they’re kind of offended, by media bias against the idea of a female president, and by the lack of excitement about the historic nature of her run. It’s not as if they’ll go vote for McCain, but if they’re busy the day of the vote they might not feel compelled to get out and vote for Obama. They might stay home. But there’s a huge group of supporters--including Hillary herself--who will get out there and try to make the point that in terms of policy interests, there’s a huge difference between the parties.

My guess is that the Clintons don’t want their legacy to be dividing the party and giving us another term of Republicans, especially if Hillary has any kind of future plans, whether they’re in the Senate or the Governor’s office of New York. And when her supporters are no longer hearing this rhetoric about how people are trying to push Hillary around, everything will soften and people will start thinking about what will be best going forward.

Fortini: You said something that was really interesting to me--that women have felt upset about what they perceive to be a lack of excitement over Clinton’s historic candidacy. Is it that younger women didn’t get behind Clinton as a female candidate early on, before the media bias started to reveal itself? Is it that Clinton herself really didn’t address gender in the way Obama addressed race with his speech in Philadelphia?

Cottle: The best way I’ve found to explain it is through a contrast with the media’s reaction to Barack Obama’s candidacy. You have pundits like Andrew Sullivan waxing rhapsodic about how fantabulous it would be for America’s image, how great and glorious a morning it will be, when we have an African American taking the oath. You would never hear someone say that about a woman. Even if they’re talking about the historic nature of it, they don’t talk about it in such grand and soul-cleansing terms. And I think part of it is that in the history of this country, slavery, Jim Crow, and racism have been much uglier, more overt, nasty phenomena than sexism.

Sexism is here, sexism is present, but it's been more paternalistic, and presented in soft, warm and fuzzy terms: “We want to protect the women! It’s not that we don’t like them.” Even when talking about being in battle, it’s, “We don’t want women to get hurt.” Women weren’t persecuted for burning their bras. Feminism is a different cause than civil rights. Slavery is kind of a moral scar for America, so we can be poetic about how great it’s going to be when we, at last, elect an African American. And we just can’t talk that way about electing a woman. Plus, people seem to be embarrassed--women in particular--to talk about sexism, as though the very notion is kind of retro: “Aren’t we past that?” I think Gloria Steinem’s New York Times Op-Ed was, to some degree, pretty dead-on, and it’s something that younger women aren’t willing to admit to even if they have experienced it.

Fortini: Yes, I found that. They didn’t want to talk about it, saying, “Why are we still dealing with these issues?” or, “We don’t want to whine, we don’t want to complain.” And yet they also felt a little bit chagrined about not having paid attention to these issues earlier. And many of them said that the Gloria Steinem article really spoke to them. And some of them mentioned that Robin Morgan e-mail that was forwarded around, saying, “Look, we don’t like the way that Morgan says it, but we agree that these are issues that people don’t want to talk about, and that we do feel are real and important.”

A lot of women expressed to me that when talking with men, the men brought up exactly what you said--the toxic nature of this country’s history of slavery, and that it would be so much more historic and restorative to see an African American president, whereas there just wouldn’t be the same kind of symbolic significance with a female president. A lot of women were angry at this tit-for-tat kind of comparison. Many of them who had been women’s studies majors pointed out that women in this country were historically the property of their husbands and fathers--while you can’t compare it to slavery, women were currency, women were chattel. People don’t often think about that.

Cottle: Sexism tends to be vastly more subtle. It’s not as though people look at you and say “I’m not going to promote you because you’re a woman and all women are X,” they’ll say, “You’re too pushy,” or, “You’re too abrasive,” or, “You’re not tough enough.” I’ve come across so many studies where they’ve done a series of blind comparisons saying “these characteristics belong to candidate X, and he’s a man, and the same characteristics belong to candidate Y, and she’s a woman,” and in case after case you do find a bias against women as leaders. I think this is particularly difficult when you’re talking about the presidency because people vote for such inchoate “I want to have a beer with him” reasons. Even more so than when they vote for senator or congressman, they’re not voting on policy issues. They say they are, but they’re not. They’re voting on those weird intangibles about who has good character and leadership ability, and time after time, there’s a bias in favor of men, and it’s really hard to overcome that. I think that the bind that Hillary’s gotten into is that she’s had to show that she’s strong enough and tough enough and experienced enough, but in the process, her campaign missed the other part of the equation: She isn’t “human” enough. And that’s a very common Catch-22 among women.

Fortini: I was surprised by the poll findings that have been cited a lot, where people said they would be more likely to vote for a man, black or white, than a woman.

Cottle: The rule of thumb I always use is that people lie to pollsters. Pollsters will tell you that you have to ask, “Are your neighbors ready for a black president,” or, “Is America ready for a black president?” There’s this hesitance to discuss this. It makes people uncomfortable. Men in particular, who don’t really consider themselves 1950s retro kind of guys, get really offended at the idea that such widespread sexism exists. My favorite example was the guy in New Hampshire who yelled, “Iron my shirt!” at Hillary, and USA Today called it a “seemingly” sexist comment. And I was like, what do you mean “seemingly”? This is obviously a sexist comment!

Fortini: I think that’s why men who consider themselves enlightened and progressive do get so offended at charges of sexism, because in so many cases sexism is so subtle and so insidious that they--we--don’t even realize it’s occurring. And most women don’t want to be the one finger-pointing and calling it out. And then it snowballs, and builds on itself. I think that’s what’s been happening over the years, and now we have this situation where latent sexism has really been brought to the fore and people are surprised. It seems like we’re in the early ’70s, especially over at MSNBC where they’re calling her the “grieving widow of absurdity.”

Cottle: I think Chris Matthews did more to help her campaign in New Hampshire than possibly anyone else in the country. I know so many women who think he’s the devil at this point. And from his perspective, he doesn’t see it as remotely a sexist kind of thing. He sees it that he doesn’t like the Clintons, and Hillary is a bad candidate, and it has nothing to do with what quite obviously is a weird, sexist strain going through his commentary.

Fortini: This is another case where it gets muddy. People say the enmity is not anti-women, it’s anti-Clinton. But the dislike of her has been expressed in decidedly misogynistic forms. Male candidates don’t have people putting pictures of them on a urinal ...

Cottle: ... or making nutcrackers out of them.

Fortini: Right, we know all the examples.

Cottle: That said, though, I don’t think that’s why her campaign failed. I think the interesting thing that will come out of this, when they do the endless autopsies, is that they ran a terrible campaign. A lot of her problem was that they had to do two conflicting jobs, as we talked about. They had to make her seem tough enough and also show the human side of her. Most of the country still thinks of her as an “iron maiden.” Aside from that broad messaging problem, which failed to overcome certain stereotypes, they just technically fell apart. That will be what people will focus on. Feminist seminars will talk about the handicaps and benefits of gender in all of this, but I think the hardcore politicos and analysts will talk about the failures in planning.

Fortini: I agree. But one of the things I thought was interesting was The New York Times asking if the media bias was so bad that it would deter future candidates from even running. I disagree with that. Not that coverage wasn’t biased--it was--but anyone who’s ambitious enough to want to run for a high political office isn’t going to be deterred by the fact that they might meet some kind of sexism along the way.

Cottle: The thing that I worry about is that Clinton had certain advantages because of her celebrity that helped her to overcome certain other things--the charisma issue in particular. There are charismatic women, but when you’re talking about “presidential charisma,” or projecting both strength and warmth, overwhelmingly the people who tend to possess this are men. And Clinton didn’t have this, but she made up for it by the fact that she was kind of a rock star in the party, if for no other reason than because of her husband.

Fortini: I worry about that as well. Even if we had a female candidate who had this ineffable, intangible charisma, I think it would be perceived very differently than it would be in a man. When you think about the kind of ease with which Barack Obama conducts himself, I don’t know if it would be received as well if he were a woman. The “I want to have a beer with him” factor that we look for in our male candidates--I don’t think we necessarily want that from a woman. I don’t think we know what we want from our female candidates, frankly.

Cottle: Right. Nancy Pelosi got to be speaker of the House not because she had to work over the entire country--she had to work a specific group of colleagues to get elected, and that requires a different kind of skill set than pitching yourself to millions of Americans. She did not have to win a popular election. It’s the same thing with Margaret Thatcher--it was a parliamentary system. Margaret Thatcher didn’t have to be broadly appealing in order to get her first shot as Prime Minister. It’s not the same system, and it’s not the same skill set. That’s what’s disappointing and disheartening for me. It’s not that there aren’t women out there on the farm team--people talk about Kathleen Sebelius and Janet Napolitano--but just because you’re qualified doesn’t mean you can make that next jump. You have to have all those weird intangibles that put you above the rest, and it remains to be seen what we expect that to be in a woman. With so much of this being about personality, it’s much harder to see who’s going to be the next in line.

Fortini: I think that’s what’s disappointing for so many women, especially older women. There are a lot of qualified people on the horizon, but who’ll really be able to step up? It’s going to be a really long time before we see another viable female presidential candidate, though who knows? Maybe Hillary will be back herself.

Michelle Cottle is a senior editor of The New Republic. Amanda Fortini is a writer in Los Angeles.