Over the Hillary

Feminists Find It Hard to Stand By Their Woman

"Women overwhelmingly supported Hillary because we felt she would represent our voice," says feminist activist Jodie Evans. "But it turns out she's pretty much from the old-boy school. She's moved by money and power." Co-founder of Code Pink, a women's peace group, Evans organized a march of 100 women to Hillary's Washington office on March 8 to protest her support of the war in Iraq. The marchers wrote their complaints on pink lingerie that they handed to Clinton, their way of symbolically firing her from office. Evans later spoke to the senator about the Iraqi women and children who would die in the war, a conversation she says she instantly knew was futile. "When I looked into her face that day, she had that look of a politician who'd lost herself," says Evans. "There was something dead and pasty and lost."

Of course, New York's other supposedly liberal senator also put his weight behind the war, and no one marched to Chuck Schumer's office and called him pasty. Therein lies the crux of Hillary's current dilemma: On the one hand, right-wingers react rabidly to her seemingly simply because she's a powerful woman (one particularly sick website titled "The Clinton Witch Project" equates a Hillary presidency with the "bitch slapping" of America). On the other hand, women expect more from her because she's female—and are harder on her when she disappoints.

Hillary shares this burden with other female politicians. "Women want a cross between Mother Teresa, Joan of Arc, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Madonna" in their female officeholders, says Marie Wilson, president of the White House Project, a group working to create a climate in which an American woman could be president. Female elected officials have to be powerful, but if they seem too strong—or don't, say, temper their competence with personal tidbits about mothering and piggish romantic partners—they get written off as icy and inhuman. Male politicians don't have to walk the same tightrope, of course. "After 9-11, when Giuliani added a dash of caring, they worshiped at his throne," says Wilson. "But women have to do that all the time."

At the same time, female candidates feel pressure to distance themselves from women's issues. "The general populace is always concerned that women are only going to be good on the softer issues," says former Manhattan borough president Ruth Messinger, who lost a brutal mayoral election to Rudy Giuliani in 1997. "Then there are always women who want to know why we're not going out whole hog on their issues," she adds. Some female candidates are vocal on behalf of their female constituents, acknowledges Messinger, "but look at how easy it is for those people to be marginalized."

Indeed, surrounded by the ghosts of ousted female politicians, Hillary has plenty of reason to be obsessed with electability. In a country that now ranks 59th in the world in terms of the representation of women in national government (with 14 female senators and 62 women in the House, the U.S. is currently tied at 14.3 percent with Andorra, the speck of a nation wedged between France and Spain), women are always on thin political ice. And, at least so far, Hillary hasn't fallen through.

For some, Hillary's commitment to women's issues is beside the point. "I think just the fact that she is a strong senator is going to help women in general," says Maria Ungaro, executive director of New York Women's Agenda, an umbrella organization of some 100 groups. "It shows that we can do it."

Only additional time in the Senate and on the real campaign trail will tell what else might be necessary—or at least seem necessary—to get even further in politics. If Hillary does manage to ride the waves of public opinion to the White House in 2008, feminists may be debating yet another groundbreaking question: Is it an achievement if the first woman of American political power finally reaches the end zone with positions that are indistinguishable from most men's?


Related Story:
"Hillary's 'Living History': A Lifeless Letdown" by Joy Press

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