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.
"That bitter cynicism of yours is something you've acquired since you left Radcliffe."
"That cynicism you refer to I acquired the day I discovered little girls were different from little boys!"
—Lloyd Richards to Karen Richards, and vice versa, All About Eve
In the coming days, as Hillary Clinton moves to the sidelines and Barack Obama takes the stage alone, many people will suggest that America just wasn't ready for a female president. This may be true. But we'll never entirely know, because Clinton did not invite us to spend much time contemplating the momentous fact that she was the first female presidential candidate with any chance of occupying that position. Her problem wasn't that she was a feminist. Her problem was that she wasn't feminist enough.
For me, at least, she wasn't—and for many young women my age. Back in the mid-1990s, as a college student, I spent an afternoon on the New Haven Green, adjacent to Yale University, waiting for Hillary Rodham Clinton to speak. There was a huge crowd of mostly young women. I found her impressive, if not entirely galvanizing. She had a girlish voice and soft, wispy bangs, as I recall, and she struck me as a real person—not merely a wife performing the role of first lady. I remember wondering if she might some day run for president. I also remember feeling that it seemed outside the realm of the imagination.
That's no longer the case. When Clinton announced her candidacy in January 2007, she raised hopes and possibilities in the minds of young women across America. But the substance of her presidential run seems far more dismal than I would ever have imagined back in 1995. You can't be a historic first unless you act like one, and Hillary Clinton has not. In the Wellesley commencement speech that made her famous before she got to Yale Law School, she spoke about "searching for more immediate, ecstatic, and penetrating modes of living." Yet Clinton ran away from the revolutionary aspects of her own candidacy. There's been nothing of the ecstatic in her presidential bid—that mode, instead, has been embodied by Barack Obama. He appealed to voters' desire for liberation and revolution, and on the strength of that appeal won them over.
Clinton didn't trust that the message of revolution embodied in her candidacy could animate American voters, particularly male voters. And she lacked the courage of her young, ecstasy-seeking self. And so she sent the message that gender was not a factor. Presumably, she did this based on the reasonable assumption that it was politically perilous to be a woman. But the paradox is that in taking the safe tack she thought made her more electable, she actually made herself less electable. She presented herself as a hard-bitten Washington insider, running on experience when a lot of American voters, particularly young women, were looking for transformation.
Obama understood this from early on. Contrast their opening bids: Obama skillfully announced his in Springfield, Ill., with a speech that echoed Abraham Lincoln. Clinton, by contrast, announced hers in a risk-averse video recording on her Web site: "I'm in it to win," she said redundantly. As her campaign progressed, she rarely invoked the historic predecessors that made her candidacy possible—Susan B. Anthony, say, or Jeannette Rankin, a pacifist and suffragette who was the first woman to be elected to Congress (and who always had the courage of her convictions, voting against the First World War). To be sure, Clinton did praise Eleanor Roosevelt's "thick skin"—rather the way one nerd praises another's social-avoidance techniques. It was part of acting as if she were a man inoculated against the slings and arrows of sexism.
In this regard, Clinton never really was the first American matriarch. Instead, she may be best remembered as our last patriarch. The more her campaign floundered as Obama offered ecstasy and she didn't, the more masculine and hard-nosed she made herself out to be. Cannily reversing gender roles, she told Obama supporters that if he couldn't "take the heat" he should "get out of the kitchen"—a subtle put-down of her own gender aimed at working-class male voters who wanted reassurance that Clinton was manlier than the girlie men the Democrats had of late been nominating. Her supporters (among them, Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana) invoked stories of steelworkers waxing enthusiastic about her "testicular fortitude." While Obama went on rhetorical flights about hope, she compared herself to the hyper-masculine Rocky Balboa—an underdog, to be sure, but a stoic one who keeps getting up. None of this was accidental, even if the source wasn't always Hillary herself. She was "manning up." Over the years, her hair had grown shorter, and her make-up thicker, like a mask. She played the men's game so well that James Carville eventually quipped, "If she gave [Obama] one of her cojones, they'd both have two."
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.