Over the Hillary

Feminists Find It Hard to Stand By Their Woman

The hype for Hillary Clinton's Living History, currently second only to the new Harry Potter on bestseller lists, has coated the country with a thin mist of New York's junior senator. In its mysterious mass media way, the flowery, eau de Hillary promotional pap seems to be boosting public affection for a woman who has had difficulties wielding her outsized image. Fifty-three percent of Americans recently reported having a favorable view of the former first lady, according to a USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll. That's up 10 percentage points from right before her pub date. But even as she basks in the warm cuddle of the political center, Hillary Clinton has enraged many of the progressive women who helped put her in office in the first place.

Hillary, the committed savior of women and children, is being unmasked as feminist fantasy, while a more staid, middle-of-the road politician is emerging in her place. Was a time not long ago when Hillary was seen as a shining, headbanded example for ambitious women everywhere. You almost expected feminists to start giving the shy girls from math class WWHD bracelets. What Would Hillary Do? Certainly not cower silently in the corner. She would make sure any struggling female classmates understood the problems, ace the exam herself, and maybe even improve the syllabus while she was at it. She would and did—as a lawyer, advocate, and the most prominent symbol of American femininity—use her position and smarts to protect women and children. Given even more of a chance, she would surely change the world.

But the Hillary who gave stirring speeches about the importance of protest as the first student graduation speaker at Wellesley College has faded as her pragmatist doppelgänger has begun prowling the halls of Congress. Once known for her opposition to the Vietnam War and the later "vast, right-wing conspiracy," Hillary is turning out to be a centrist whose electability may be the biggest of her political achievements. Liberated from the antiquated office of first lady into what seemed like a true seat of power, she finally has the ability to vote and create legislation on so many of the issues she's talked about. But save a few largely symbolic gestures (last week, she introduced a bill to designate a national historic site in honor of the female labor hero Kate Mullany), Clinton hasn't stuck her neck out much for either women or children, much to the dismay of the feminists who were once her primary constituency.

"Without women's support, her campaign wouldn't have made it off the ground in the first place," says Carolyn Eisenberg, co-founder of Brooklyn Parents for Peace, a group that petitioned Clinton to speak out against the use of cluster bombs in Iraq. "She wrote the little book about the little village full of sanctimonious statements about the responsibility to protect the young, but when it came down to it, her position is not much better than Bush's. I thought she'd be better."

It's not as if feminists plucked these expectations out of nowhere. As a lawyer, Hillary argued for the rights of children as citizens. Her book, It Takes a Village, published as her husband was running for his second term, did make the case for subsidizing child care and improving education. She insisted on the appointment of a female member of the Clinton cabinet. And when campaigning for Bill, she made sure to speak out about "drive-by deliveries" (when new mothers were being rushed out of hospitals by insurance companies), family medical leave, and, famously, health care. (As architect of the Clinton health care plan, she became the first first lady to try her hand at crafting major national policy.)

But much of the image of Hillary as feminist hero—too much of it, it turns out—was the creation of women desperate for a leader. As first lady, her role by definition hinged on her marriage, and many women could at least relate to her triumphs and failures in this realm. She'd put her career first, spurning Bill's early proposals, and still snagged the guy she wanted. She got to be her wonky husband's still wonkier debating partner, no apologies necessary. And she even had the governor of Arkansas attend Lamaze class with her. Then Monica et al. won her public sympathy both for being spurned and for being saddled with someone whose judgment was so obviously inferior to her own. (The idea of her having her own affairs is within the realm of the imagination; the idea of her getting caught is not.)

As for the specifics of her politics, it wouldn't have been appropriate for her to spell them all out as first lady. So, instead, many feminists inserted their own positions into the blanks. When the welfare reform bill passed, dramatically cutting money for poor women and their children, the former staff attorney for the Children's Defense Fund said little. It was easy to imagine the blood boiling behind her placid first-lady mask—easier than seeing her silence as indifference or ambivalence.

After more than two years in the Senate, though, Hillary leaves little room for progressives' projection—and much for their disappointment. She hasn't taken the lead on women's issues, like increasing child care benefits in the welfare bill or revisiting CEDAW, the UN treaty described as an international bill of rights for women, which the U.S. has so far refused to sign. Instead, she's made a point of lying low, at least politically, teaming up on bipartisan efforts with Republicans such as Tom DeLay, focusing on the solid middle of homeland security, and tending to smaller, New York-specific matters like encouraging broadband access upstate. Most pointedly, she cast her vote in support of the war in Iraq, even though most women in the state opposed it.

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