Death of a Saleswoman
How Hillary Clinton lost me—and a generation of young voters.
Meghan O'Rourke joined fellow "XX Factor" bloggers in an online chat with readers about Hillary Clinton's feminist dilemma. Seethe transcript.
Unfortunately, a man's rules seemed to be politics as usual. There were the researchers who planted fears that Obama had been schooled in a madrasah, the bizarre (for a Democrat) implication that McCain would make a better president than Obama, the appeal to voters' latent racism. It was these types of calculation that lost her many young women's votes. Worse, all this hardball was occasionally interrupted by cynical, strategic cries of sexism. It's indubitable that sexism infected the campaign, and the media's coverage. Of course, there's a double standard when it comes to men and women in politics—"the tyranny of high expectations," as Elizabeth Kolbert puts it in Thirty Ways of Looking at Hillary, a recent anthology.John McCain can call his wife a "cunt" in the earshot of reporters and get little blowback, yet Clinton can't change her hair without being called untrustworthy. But even last fall Clinton's relationship to sexism seemed schizophrenic: First she did the tough, impervious act, and then she played the dame in distress when a debate didn't go her way. In contrast to Obama's matter-of-fact relationship to race—as a subject that bore serious discussion but was hardly the be-all and end-all of American politics—Clinton's relationship to gender seemed at turns angry and deeply ambivalent.
Of course, there's some logic behind Clinton's calculation that running on gender was too politically risky. Race—however profound an issue it is in America—doesn't get in the way of the paradigm that treats ambition and leadership as masculine qualities. Gender does.Obama can still draw on the classic paradigm of leadership; Clinton would have had to create something new. To judge by all kinds of studies of women in private-sector leadership positions, this would have been a fraught battle, strewn with double standards. It's only fair to point out that many of Hillary's attributes—toughness, control, emotional distance—are qualities that are sometimes admired in men but almost never in women. We'll never know whether the traits Clinton displayed in this campaign would have drawn less animus from voters had she actually been a man.
But if ever there were a moment to have ventured that battle, this was it. If she'd run against an establishment candidate like Kerry, being the experienced woman would itself have seemed radical. In the context of Obama's transformative campaign, though, she couldn't afford to become the old-style candidate. As Obama grew more potent, Clinton grew more brittle. She allowed him to set the terms of debate—optimism, church choirs, soul music. Then she responded by tearing him down instead of defining the conversation on her own terms. At the apogee of her campaign's vicious sniping this spring, Clinton seemed to embody a travesty of feminist values—to be a cautionary emblem of what can happen to a gifted young woman embittered by the challenges she's had to face. It was as if she failed entirely to see the revolutionary nature of her achievement.
Last week, I e-mailed a group of young women, asking them what they thought of Hillary Clinton's campaign as it drew to a close. The women I heard from were mostly young, well-educated, upper-middle-class, and white—one of the groups that didn't flock to Hillary in numbers her campaign (and many second-generation feminists) had expected. I got one response over and over: frustration that Clinton hadn't done enough, as a historic "first," to differentiate herself from stodgy, old male Washington politics. But they also felt … ambivalent about their frustration. In that sense, you might say, nothing has changed. Women have always been ambivalent about Hillary. In another sense, though, she had been a candidate of profound change—albeit not in the way that you might think. Her own risk-aversion has given us "something to chew on," as a young film producer told me. And the media's sexism forced twenty- and thirtysomethings to recognize that feminism is not just "our mother's problem," as another young professional phrased it.
As he goes forward, Obama will undoubtedly be compared to Abraham Lincoln. But I always thought Whitman was a more apt predecessor for both candidates. Whitman embodied the ecstatic to which Hillary Clinton, at one time, linked her hopes for a better America. But she didn't make it part of her campaign. Instead, she made fun of Obama's knack for lighting a fire in the hearts of a wide swath of Americans. She preached pragmatism instead of fellow-feeling. And she scolded Obama for being starry-eyed. But her decision to turn away from the ecstatic was a great mistake, as Whitman might have understood. By stripping her campaign of its native appeal, by refusing to portray herself as part of a transcendent feminist narrative, by diluting the dynamic pleasures of mass political response, she let us down. After all, feminism need not be joyless.
Meghan O'Rourke is Slate's culture critic and an advisory editor. She was previously an editor at The New Yorker. The Long Goodbye, a memoir about her mother's death, is now out in paperback.
Illustration by Charlie Powell.