The disturbing rise of the "Hillary Harridan."

Women writing about politics, etc.
Aug. 20 2008 6:49 PM

The Madwoman in the Blogosphere

The disturbing rise of the "Hillary Harridan."

Lady Macbeth
Lady Macbeth

You know her. She's got wild eyes and rumpled hair. At some point she stopped caring about the stains on her blouse. She's hurt, angry, rejected, and she's willing to take the whole damn place down with her. She is Lady Macbeth. She is Jane Eyre's deranged pyromaniac Bertha Mason. She is Cruella DeVil and the biblical Lilith. She is Snow White's wicked stepmother, Miss Havisham, and Emily Bronte's ghostly Catherine Earnshaw. She is the oldest literary type around—the bitter madwoman, hellbent on revenge and willing to act against her own interest to win some respect. And now, to hear the media tell it, she is a Hillary Holdout; she's a PUMA (Party Unity My Ass); and she belongs to 18 Million Voices.

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate. Follow her on Twitter.

Political campaign coverage is always driven by stereotypes. Blue-collar men, soccer moms, and latte-sipping liberals are the blocks on which election stories are built. But the rise of the "Hillary Harridan" is a disturbing development. It unearths a creepy literary type that harms women a lot more than it helps them. The suggestion that irrational, emotional, self-referential women are swinging the election is not a theme any woman should endorse.


In their groundbreaking work of literary feminism, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar looked at the relationships between female Victorian novelists and the female lunatics who pervaded their fiction. Gilbert and Gubar argued these writers were psychologically forced to create their own "mad doubles." At a time when women were seen as either angels or monsters, these decorous literary women would "obsessively create fiercely independent characters who seek to destroy all the patriarchal structures." The vengeful madwoman is the author's secret double, the representation of her own unspoken frustration and rage.

A few months ago, Linda Hirshman wrote that media attacks on Hillary Clinton as an unstable hysteric had a long and undistinguished literary and psychological pedigree. Men have basically been calling strong ambitious women insane for centuries. But the intriguing new twist is that long after Clinton conceded the primary race to Barack Obama, some of her supporters have willingly embraced this same media image of the irrational madwoman and attached it to themselves. It was sexist when Chris Matthews called Clinton a she-devil. But in allowing themselves to be portrayed—over and over—as petulant harridans, unable to "heal" from the wounds of the primaries, these Clinton supporters are embracing the same she-devil stereotypes they once claimed to resent. Today's PUMA blog hisses "NO MORE MS GOOD GIRLS!!"

The media have been complicit in lapping up the tales of bitter old women. Any story erected around a pre-literary archetype of the destructive power of a woman scorned is destined to be hit candy, whether or not it represents any statistical reality. It's hardly clear that Team Hillary is as vast or as powerful as it claims. Polls suggest there isn't a deep pool of Obama-hating women who could derail his election.

These disgruntled women—whether they plan to vote for John McCain, sit out the election, or simply gobble up airtime—are tacitly working toward electing McCain; a candidate who claimed last week at a presidential forum at Saddleback Church that life begins "at the moment of conception" and who voted against legislation ensuring equal pay for women. These women must be well aware that a vote for McCain is a vote to overturn Roe. I assume they don't care. But my real problem with the Hillary Harridans—and the media's relentless focus on them—is that they give new life to Paleozoic stereotypes about irrationally destructive older women.

None of this has anything to do with the legitimate outrage most of us felt about sexism in the coverage of the Clinton campaign. Women have many reasons to be angry in America, and I am not suggesting that all political discourse must happen in hushed voices and bowties. It is not insignificant that Hillary supporters felt disrespected, shut down, and unheard in the primary process. But as Taylor Marsh has pointed out, they've now become victims of the same sexist media machine that turned Clinton herself into a parody of a madwoman. They have fallen prey to an "echo chamber that promises hope, but only delivers deceit by offering claims of something that will not come." They are given unlimited airtime, so long as they continue to threaten to topple the entire edifice of the Democratic Party in pursuit of some ephemeral, unreachable sweet revenge.

The 2008 election has offered an object lesson in the need to open up our political discourse to include different voices and styles and beliefs. Everyone is entitled to speak and be heard, but there is a cost—a tangible cost—for women who insist on speaking in the irrational, angry, and vengeful voice of an outdated literary archetype. Particularly in 2008, when we don't need to invent "mad doubles" in order to topple the patriarchy. We can do that just by showing up.

Yet somehow, in the waning days of August, and in the interest of achieving their unachievable ends, some disgruntled Hillary fans are willing to pander to the same media sexism they decried in the primary campaign; willing to stamp their feet and shake their fists and holler, "Out damned spot!" long after it's clear the spot was imaginary and that women's political power is finally very real.


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