Web Only / Features » February 2, 2012
Farewell to Our Feminist-in-Chief
America’s top diplomat and former First Lady rewrote the rules on what women can be in America.
For decades, Hillary Clinton has served as a litmus test for just how much the American public will accept from a smart, ambitious, assertive, feminist woman.
The woman on the platform seems happy. She’s an ordinary woman, well-dressed but not ostentatiously so, pretty but not playing it up, heading gracefully into late middle age. Her voice is low and calm; her tone is gracious. She smiles frequently as she speaks, compliments the reporters surrounding her and tells them how good it’s been to work with them, with what reads as genuine affection.
“I think after twenty years–and it will be twenty years–of being on the high wire of American politics, and all of the challenges that come with that,” she says, “It would probably be a good idea to just find out how tired I am.”
That gets a laugh, and she laughs with it. If you take Hillary Clinton moment by moment–if you take her, for example, at this moment on January 26, as she announces that she step down from her position as the Secretary of State when the president’s terms ends–it’s hard to imagine that she’s spent the last two decades of her life as one of the most hated women in America. And if you take her on the whole, the void left by her promised departure from American politics is nearly impossible to comprehend.
“Women look for themselves in any woman who stands out among a sea of men,” says blogger Melissa McEwan, of Shakesville. “Women who find themselves in Hillary Clinton have a passionate attachment to her, because they see reflected back at them qualities they have or hope to acquire–strength, independence, fortitude, a commitment to other women–but also because to see a woman with those qualities in her position is some sign, even despite her Shawshankian swim through a river of shit to get there, that this nation will embrace a woman like that, like them.”
For decades, Hillary Clinton has served as a litmus test for just how much the American public will accept from a smart, ambitious, assertive, feminist woman: How much she can reasonably hope to attain, and what opposition she will face. Her basic competence has never truly been in question; her “likability,” the ability of society to accept her, always has been. And women have projected their deepest hopes and fears onto her throughout.
The “challenges” alluded to by Clinton have been huge. Her attempts at healthcare reform led to a “Billary” label and caricatures of the president and his wife as conjoined twins. She refused to bake; America panicked. When her husband cheated, people called her too aggressive to keep him happy; when they stayed married, people called her too submissive to stand up for herself. She ran for the Senate, prompting hand-wringing over her power-hungry nature–she was a wife, her husband already had a job in politics, why did she need a job, too? And she won. So she ran for president, which was where the trouble really started.
The amount of overt misogyny aimed at Hillary Clinton during the 2008 campaign, from conservatives and progressives alike, was enough to shock many young women – even Obama supporters like myself – into a new awareness of just how powerful and widespread sexism still was in this culture. In this magazine, Susan J. Douglas accused Clinton of being too much “like a man.” (And, hilariously, pointed to notable dying-wife-betrayer and sex-tape-maker John Edwards as an example of a more truly feminine and caring politician.)
Feminist veteran Robin Morgan penned a scorching and controversial response, entitled “Goodbye to All That, Part II.” Though I didn’t agree with every statement therein, I admit I winced with uncomfortable recognition when I hit the line about young, female Obama supporters “who fear their boyfriends might look at them funny if they say something good about [Clinton].”
Morgan describes the feminist movement’s relationship with Clinton as longstanding, rooted as much in an understanding of her historical importance as anything else.
“When I was growing up, [a First Lady] arranged flowers. I mean, that was the job,” Morgan told me in a phone call. “The only thing that was known that they consistently did was become alcoholics.”
But, Morgan says, Clinton has persistently exceeded the culture’s expectations and fulfilled those of her feminist supporters.
To be the first First Lady who openly sought equality with her husband, and the first First Lady with her own political career (and post-graduate degree)–to go from designated flower-arranger to Secretary of State – and to inadvertently spark the feminist conscience of an entire generation along the way is no small accomplishment. Those I spoke to predicted further accomplishments. Morgan thinks she could be Secretary General of the U.N.; McEwan suggests that she’ll be “a global ambassador for women” with the Clinton Global Initiative.
But, without Hillary, where do women stand? Which other figure can reflect women’s ambitions, and their fears about the price of ambition, in such a profound and iconic way? There are many women in the political arena, but few as powerful and as historically resonant as Clinton. One clue may be in the passionate outpouring of support for Elizabeth Warren–another law-degree-possessed woman in her early sixties with decisively progressive politics, a gift for fiery summation of the progressive worldview, and a big, committed following, which is already pushing for her 2016 presidential candidacy.
When I put out two queries on Twitter–to speak about Warren, and to speak about Clinton, respectively–the responses I received were almost all women who wanted to speak about Warren. We appear to have found our new girl.
McEwan acknowledges that, in some ways, Warren may well be Clinton’s “most natural heir.”
“I don’t know if there will ever be another Hillary Clinton, though,” says McEwan. “And in a way, I hope there isn’t, since she is an icon not just because she is extraordinary, but because she is alone.”
In the end, what may be the finest sign of what Clinton has accomplished, and which barriers she broke down, is this: People do not, generally, compare Elizabeth Warren to Hillary Clinton. The person they compare Warren to is President Barack Obama.
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Sady Doyle is an In These Times staff writer. She is the author of Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear... and Why (Melville House, 2016) and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beatdown. You can follow her on Twitter at @sadydoyle, or e-mail her at sady