What if Hillary Clinton gave a speech about gender? (And why she won't.)

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March 21 2008 7:12 PM

And Speaking of Perfect Unions …

What if Hillary Clinton gave a speech about gender? (And why she won't.)

Hillary Clinton. Click image to expand.
Hillary Clinton

This week, Barack Obama gave one of the most important speeches about race many of us have ever heard. And, whatever you think of his candidacy, on the merits, this speech was anything but soaring, empty rhetoric. In the way of all truly important political addresses, it reached beyond comforting blah-blah (America … patriotism … change) and challenged us with truths we'd rather not contemplate. Instead of claiming to be a victim of race politics in America, Obama asked the victims on both sides—white and black—to acknowledge that there are victims on both sides.

There are a bunch of reasons Hillary Clinton won't give the speech on gender that her rival just gave on race, and we'll get to those. But if she were to give that speech, what would it say?

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Start from the premise that Clinton is not really in the optimal position to hold forth about unions, perfect or otherwise. Unlike Obama, who was forced to respond to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's incendiary comments, Clinton has no Rev. Wright looping endlessly on CNN. The closest thing she has to an embarrassing confidant with unfortunate views about race is an embarrassing spouse with an unfortunate history of going after women like they were petit fours. But the Starr Report ain't YouTube. (And in her autobiography, Hillary says she never read it.) It's also not news.

At some level, Clinton no less than Obama should be asked to account for the fact that someone close to her holds views from another century, and in her case we don't mean the 20th. Perhaps tagged to the next governor to be outed for his faithlessness? Or to the news that while Hillary was brunching with Col. Mustard in the billiards room, the president was canoodling with Miss Scarlet in the Oval Office? We'd like to hear such a speech, because what Obama did in 40 eloquent minutes for the conversation about race in America, Hillary Clinton could do for the conversation on gender. And here's just a rough outline:

1)     I am proud to be a woman and a mother and the first serious female contender for the presidency, but my gender is only a part of who I am, and it doesn't define or constrain me.

2)     I am part of a generation that faced and still faces all sorts of gender slights and slurs, and I honor the women who came before me for their commitment to achieving equal rights for women in the face of that.

3)     But I would ask the women of this country to stop engaging in petty warfare over who has suffered more—women or blacks, women or men—as it is corrosive and fruitless. This country was founded on the promise that you can become the best thing you can dream for yourself; you are not trapped by the worst thing that's ever happened to you.

4)     Things have improved for women in America in the last decades. They are not perfect; there is still much to be done. But women have made enormous strides in a few short decades, and to suggest otherwise is to devalue the life's work of too many heroes of the women's movement.

5)     It is possible, indeed it is probable, that just as women have faced barriers and obstacles and derision, so have Hispanics, so have blacks, and so have men. No one in America can corner the market on suffering. Who the hell wants to spend their life in a corner, anyhow?

6)     Men. What are they thinking? (Pause for applause.)

7)     But seriously, if we in this country are ever going to move beyond Hooters, beyond date rape, beyond the wage gap and the glass ceiling, beyond Girls Gone Wild, and bulimic 12-year-olds, we need to start working together. We need to work with men on the gender signals called out by the media and with business about the value of women workers. We need to talk to one another respectfully and listen to one another's complaints.

8)     Men, we understand and honor that many of you are taking paternity leave and folding the laundry and eating takeout because we forgot to turn on the crockpot. We get that everything has changed very, very quickly, and it's hard to come home to a wife who's coming home at the same time. You are doing more than your dads ever did around the house, and we still get mad when you forget to clean out the lint filter. It's nuts. But it's getting better. Stay with us.

9)     Married guys, don't fool around with hookers. Don't fool around with staffers. Don't fool around with interns or Supreme Court justices. It's insulting to us and to you and to them. Marriage has to mean something. Gov. Spitzer. Bill, darling. I can respect the heck out of your political achievements even as I berate you for demeaning marriage. Life is complicated that way. Deal, buddies.

10)   People of America, I understand why some of you are anxious at the prospect of a woman president. Sometimes I am nervous, too. But it's time. Also, I am sorry about that whole cookie comment.

Only, she won't ever give that speech, will she? Because as much as Hillary Clinton the wife and the woman and the mom no doubt hates it, Hillary Clinton the candidate has largely benefited from her husband's extracurricular activities. That's because—and this is the tragic part—America seems to like her best when she's being victimized—by Bill or Rick Lazio or the media. In that sense, her husband is a useful prop who reminds us of the extent of her suffering.

She won't give that speech because the whole narrative of her candidacy—and more broadly, her life—is as rooted in grievance as Obama's is in getting past grievance.

Her biggest supporters are the women who see themselves in her and who feel that she is/they are owed this; after all she has/they have endured. But she won't give that speech because those women don't have as much in common with her as they think. Sure, her husband's behavior has humiliated her. But she has also helped him humiliate the women he's been involved with.

She won't give that speech because she has been on the wrong side of gender bias. OK, there is no right side, but she consistently relates to and protects and stands with the oppressors in the gender wars, not the victims. It isn't only that she stayed with Bill Clinton, but that she invariably sees him as the victim, preyed upon by a series of female aggressors.

According to Carl Bernstein's A Woman in Charge, as her husband prepared to run for president, she pushed to get sworn statements from women he'd been rumored to have been involved with, statements in which they were supposed to say they'd had no relationship with him. She even interviewed one of these women herself, at her law firm. She also led efforts to undermine Gennifer Flowers, whom she referred to as "trailer trash."

In an interview she gave after the Monica Lewinsky affair became public, Hillary spoke about how horribly her husband had suffered in his childhood as the result of being torn between the first two women in his life—his mother and grandmother. (Note: Again, in this scenario it's the women who are victimizing the poor little guy.)

Hillary Clinton can't give the speech because she has not always been so sisterly, and if her biggest fans knew who she really blamed—other women—they might not still be fans.

One of the most laudable things about Obama is that he always elects to rise above the politics of victimization. One of the most troubling things about Hillary Clinton is that she is never above cashing in on it.

Melinda Henneberger is a Slate contributor and the author of If They Only Listened to Us: What Women Voters Want Politicians To Hear.

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