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.

"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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