A new book about the 2008 campaign rehashes the feminist insults of 2008: Hillary Clinton as nutcracker and bitch. Rush Limbaugh's crack about whether Americans "want to watch a woman get older before their eyes on a daily basis." Sarah Palin as "slutty flight attendant," she-devil, and pit bull with lipstick. What was supposed to be the year of the woman turned into its opposite, argues Anne Kornblut in Notes From the Cracked Ceiling—a year that "revived old stereotypes, divided the women's movement, drove apart mothers and daughters, and set back the cause of equality in the political sphere by decades."
The whole dismal picture made even Kathleen Parker, not a retiring fleur, fret last week about whether we will ever have a woman president and whether American politics is permanently sexist. Well, is it so? The constant rehashing of cracks by Limbaugh and David Letterman don't convince me. By the end of the book I am convinced that, at worst, America is short on original metaphors for women. Let's call it "dullist"—the absence of creative thoughts or insults. It may be true that women in public life are, as many have suggested, stuck in a prison of opposites: bitch or ditz, brain or womb. But that merely proves that our insular, gossipy political culture, and certain media dolts who are obsessed with it, are not especially deep thinkers.
Kornblut's reporting reinforces the idea that Hillary and Palin are not good test cases for the feminist thesis because they are so particular. In Hillary's case, the book backs up the point my colleague Meghan O’Rourke made in 2008 about Hillary’s feminist dilemma: "Her problem wasn't that she was a feminist. Her problem was that she wasn't feminist enough." Early on, Mark Penn wrote Clinton a memo warning that the voters "do not want someone who would be the first mama, especially in this kind of world." Clinton heeded the warning. "I am not running because I'm a woman," she repeated over and over. Patti Solis Doyle admits to Kornblut that the campaign never embraced "the idea of the first woman president as a strategy." Even the most memorable line of her entire campaign—the "18 million cracks in the glass ceiling" almost never happened. Aides told Kornblut that Clinton had tremendous ambivalence about the phrase, fought hard to keep it out, and only relented at the last minute.
Palin, meanwhile, gained as much from feminist stereotypes as she lost. For every lipstick joke and fake porn image there was a testimony to her supermom qualities and unique combination of brawn and beauty. Some women criticized her for working with young children, but many more admired her for hustling. Kornblut quotes the statistic that 41 percent of women do not think mothers with young children should work. But more than half of women with young children do work, which means they identified with her dilemma more than criticized it. Plus, as Kornblut points out, Palin's candidacy forced conservatives into defending the growing presence of working mothers, which counts as some kind of feminist progress. If Palin did suffer from stereotypes—trailer trash, Wasilla hillbilly—they were ones that applied equally well to her husband, Todd.
Game Change, the dishy book about the campaign by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, offers a way to think about what I've come to think of as superficial sexism. The excerpts from the book made Hillary and Elizabeth Edwards seem like twin nightmares. Politico pulled out a section revealing Hillary as a scheming, haughty harridan, and the New York magazine excerpt makes Elizabeth Edwards into a monster. Both portrayals reek of a kind of offensive male campaign sniggering, wherein two swashbuckling reporters get the dirt from a bunch of young male campaign staffers, and some male-blogger parasites pile on.
But, in fact, if you read the whole book, the portraits of Hillary and Elizabeth are not nearly so flat and nasty. Hillary is shown as agonized and worried about her daughter, and Elizabeth's erratic behavior is explained in the context of her cancer and her husband's affair. It's revealing that when these nuanced portraits are translated into the media, they get flattened into familiar stereotypes. But what does it reveal, exactly? Mostly that bloggers can be lazy, editors can be salacious, and people should read more books.
The obvious question to ask is: Are the media gossips and dolts equally stuck in two gears when it comes to insulting men? To that, I have to answer no. There are indeed more variations on the male insult, and Game Change covers most of them: Bill Clinton is petty and embarrassingly flirtatious. John Edwards is dishonest, egomaniacal, and vain. Only Barack Obama is preternaturally cool, even when everyone around him is flailing.
And that, really, is the important point. Obama was not just the result of a long steady progress of civil rights. He was a bolt from the blue, the happy result of his particular charisma married to this particular moment in history. If he hadn't appeared, we might have waited a long time for our first African-American president. Like Kathleen Parker, I cannot at the moment think of an obvious candidate for the first female one. But I am certain that one day, soon, she will happen along and surprise us.