XX Factor bloggers and readers discuss Hillary's feminist dilemma.

Real-time discussions with Slate writers.
June 5 2008 5:01 PM

The Feminine Mistake

XX Factor bloggers join readers in a debate about the dilemmas of Hillary's candidacy.

(Continued from Page 2)

Somerville, Mass.: Does anyone know whether putting Hillary on the ticket really automatically would grab those 18 million-plus voters (those who wouldn't already vote Democrat automatically)? On the flip side, if her constituency was made of a lot of Republican women, Reagan Democrats and white working-class union voters, would they really prefer her on the ticket to a more experienced (i.e. white male) candidate like Edwards, Gore, Biden, etc.? Essentially I'm asking whether—if Obama is weak with white men but strong with Independents—picking Hillary over a safer Edwards/Biden type might drive away more of those voters than those gained?

Melinda Henneberger: We'll probably be arguing over this one for a while, but my own view is that he'd lose more voters than he'd gain by putting her on the ticket. For one thing because as I said, it would make him look like the sort of person who gives into blackmail, and that's not the image he's going for! Also, it would completely undercut the "I'm all about change and turning the page'' narrative to choose someone who so represents the status-quo as the vice-presidential nominee. (Yes, Biden and Edwards have been around the block a time or two also. But Clinton made a central selling point of her campaign that no one was as good at the old politics as she, that no one would be better at putting together a Democratic version of the Republican Attack Machine, as she always called it. To some of us, this does not seem like change. Or progress.

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Chicago: Isn't Hillary Clinton just a very mediocre politician? Many women have worried that she is their last best chance, and she certainly was positioned by her marriage to make this race. She also is tremendously intelligent and strong—but at the end of the day, this contest was a political contest, and she wasn't up to it. Her speaking style, even at its best, is artificial. She has the tin ear and poor judgment to make vulgar statements about her "hard-working white voters" and RFK's assassination. She just isn't an "in-the-moment" performer like her husband or Obama, and isn't that what it takes nowadays?

Dahlia Lithwick: Chicago, I couldn't agree more. Clinton is actually an exemplary politician in some senses—she is smart and well-informed and thorough and respected for her ability to broker deals across party lines, and get things done. But I think you hit the bull's-eye when you point out that she simply did not have the innate political skills that Obama had. She is not a gifted speaker, her political instincts seemed way off in many cases, and she doesn't have the ability—as Meghan wrote this week—to truly inspire and stir the public. Hopefully the history books will note that this—mores than her gender—was what decided this race.

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New York: It wasn't just that what HRC did to inoculate herself against the sexism inherent in the system made her seem more like a man—it made her seem more like a Republican. To my eyes, while it seems like a plausible argument to say that Hillary Clinton failed to cast her campaign as a sufficiently transformative endeavor, and though it might have been harder for Clinton to seize the day than her male competitor, HRC could have avoided many of the pitfalls of identity politics if she had not spent her time in the Senate and on the campaign trail trying to split the mythical difference between core liberal Democratic positions and what she thought were the ones that made her more electable.

What do you all think?

Meghan O'Rourke: I agree with you—she spent a lot of time trying to split the difference on issues, and it harmed her. George Lakoff, who just wrote a book about political rhetoric, and what's behind it, was on NPR yesterday talking about the differences in how Obama, Clinton, and McCain use the word "bipartisan." And his point was that when Hillary uses it, she uses it in a way that downplays—or tries to paint over—the difference between her and those who disagree with her positions, in order to imply the disagreement isn't that profound. Obama, on the other hand (according to Lakoff) uses it to acknowledge there ARE real differences, but to stress that he'll be open to compromising when it comes to policy.

If that makes sense—Lakoff explains it much better.

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Baltimore: While it is somewhat understandable why African-Americans might feel resentful about HRC given her husband's comments in SC, her solicitation of segments of the population that were underinformed and blatantly racist and her own racist comments about hardworking white people. However, Obama and Michelle have not said anything disparaging about women. In fact both of them exemplify a "feminist coupling" and he obviously takes pride in what his daughters will be able to accomplish in a post-racial post-gender world. Why is the older white female cohort so resentful of Obama??

Emily Bazelon: I don't think that resentment has much to do with Obama. He had maybe a bad moment or two along the way—that moment mid-stream in a debate about Hillary's likeability, delivered without a hint of humor, made me cringe. But aside from that, and we are talking very venal sin in the long haul, I agree that he and Michelle Obama have been respectful and gracious about gender identity. As a couple, they embody shared ambition pretty well, and yes those two adorable little girls are only an asset. But all of that, however compelling, doesn't mean that older white women (or anyone, for that matter) wouldn't have cause to prefer Hillary. She was the safer choice. Certainly we can argue that Obama is a risk worth taking, but I don't blame voters for being cautious.

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San Francisco: Who do you think are the least and worst offenders of sexism in the coverage of this primary race?

Dahlia Lithwick: hey San Francisco. Interesting question. I am not certain what a "least" offender looks like but I think the media in general has been far less sexist than we keep hearing. Yes we obsessed too much about race and gender. But good grief this race was a sea-change and we were all blown away. Some pundits said some dumb things and some writers wrote some dumb things. But it looked to me that mostly we were all just striving to make sense of the gender and race factors as best as we could . . . .

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Boston: One question for all: Many of you stated that Hillary just didn't have what it takes—negative campaigning, not feminist enough, too tough, too masculine, etc.—to be the Democratic candidate. While I, and many others, agreed with you, this was a little disheartening to read week after week! Can you provide the qualities that you think would make the perfect female candidate for president? And why would you choose those qualities? I love reading your pieces! Thanks for all your hard work!

Meghan O'Rourke: God, it must have been disheartening! Sometimes I felt disheartened too: I wanted to like Hillary, and I do see that we, as women, sometimes hold Hillary to a higher standard than we would a man. On the other hand, I felt about her candidacy much the way I felt about Kerry's. Her opinions seemed so designed to pander to the public. Even the fact that she had voted for the war, and now runs on the platform of withdrawing soon. She seemed to be playing a kind of hardball politics I've never liked. Frankly, my problems with her weren't because she was a woman, to large extent. A perfect female candidate? Who knows. I just want one who could have the courage of her convictions.

Melinda Henneberger: Disheartening is right! Gosh, I'm not holding out for the perfect female candidate; no candidate is that, and no voter, either, for that matter. But I think there is a deeper bench of female talent on both sides of the aisle than we have acknowledged, because the focus has been so exclusively on Hillary Clinton. Why doesn't Nancy Pelosi get more credit, for instance?

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New York: Many of the Hillary women who are now threatening to vote for McCain also are Jewish, and I believe this is more sanguine to their choice than their being a woman—and I believe they know this and are being deceptive here.

Emily Bazelon: Obama has done a good job in the past few weeks trying to address the concerns of Jewish voters. Listening to some of the comments out of Florida, I have to say I was amazed (and because I'm Jewish, embarrassed) at the willingness to believe claims about Obama that have been debunked over and over again—that he's a Muslim, that his middle name has some dire significance, etc etc. This week, Obama addressed AIPAC, and I heard he was a hit. It will be interesting to see whether Jewish women shift toward him as the race moves to the next stage (though I don't want to overstate the significance of this, since there aren't that many of us!)

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Utek1: I think the whole feminism vs. racism debate is actually a smokescreen to the biggest policy difference between Clinton and Obama—Hillary supported the war in Iraq (and even voted to give Bush the authority to continue on into Iran) while Obama opposed it from the outset. Triangulation on Iraq sunk Kerry, and it sunk Clinton. That's why Hillary was eager to play into the feminism vs. racism angle and Barack wasn't, because it let her play the victim and avoid accountability for her own lousy judgment. This is the lesson I hope Democrats will take from this race.

Melinda Henneberger: Yes, as our current president would say, that was a biggie! But another problem with arguing, as her supporters did, that no problem in our country is as pernicious or enduring as sexism is that it wildly undercut her argument that as a woman, she was more electable.

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Bloomington, Ind.: I love the XX Factor blog, and I would love to hear more—especially from Megan—about women of color in all this. The media has done a disservice to all of us by pitting gender vs. race and not realizing the intersection of both in women of color. "Women" in media stories generally means "white women." Making the election about identity politics instead of who's the best candidate not only rips the party apart, but makes the feminist movement suffer from division. As a young professional woman of color, Hillary's open invocations of race were extremely damaging to my views on the traditional feminist movement. You both have touched on this issue in your columns, but I'd love to hear more.

Meghan O'Rourke: Great question: I totally agree that the media has done a disservice to us all by pitting race vs. gender. It's not what the issue here really is. And it's also an unanswerable question: Which is more endemic? Well, who really knows. And it's not a zero-sum game! As you say, women of color, after all, are a large contingent of voters! And putting women of color in a position where they feel they have to choose between two "ism"s seems really short-sighted.

So in general, I try not to talk about one vs. the other. In my Hillary piece, I *did* feel I had to talk about how gender and race play into our paradigms of leadership, for obvious reasons. But it makes me uncomfortable in general.

Along the way, I've had some really interesting conversations with women of color about how they feel about this race and the media's coverage. I haven't written a lot about it, because I haven't been able to identify any singular response: Each person I've talked to has felt different from the next. So in a sense, I want to hear less from me, on this issue, and more from you, in a sense. (Feel free to email me.)

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Louisville, Ky.: Do any of you think that her relationship with Bill Clinton eventually proved to be her undoing? Considered as an individual, Hillary seems nearly a perfect candidate, as former First Lady to a philandering ex-President she seems far from ideal. Was there a way she could have addressed that—maybe by divorce or something nearly as drastic?

Emily Bazelon: You know, I've been watching Bill Clinton in this election with the sneaking suspicion that he was out to sabotage his wife. Not deliberately, exactly. I think part of him v. much wanted her to win. But I think part of him didn't, and that helps explain why he turned into such a red-faced bully. I've got no proof, but it was hugely odd to watch a man who has been one of the most talented politicians of his generation, yadda yadda, turn into a train wreck.

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Baltimore: Can you please tell me how any Hillary supporter could vote for McCain, knowing that he laughed with a woman supporter who called Hillary the "B" word last fall? That dismissive, offensive act trumps anything that Obama might have done in the minds of these women.

Meghan O'Rourke: Amen. That and he called his wife the c-word, and he voted against the equal pay bill that recently went through the Senate.

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San Francisco: Thanks for the column about the ridiculous "not again in our lifetime/generation" claims about possible future women presidential candidates. There are quite a few very qualified women in Congress and the governors' mansions all around the country today. Consider the speaker of the House, for example, my representative, and both of my senators—not to mention national leaders not in elective office, such as Condi Rice, who certainly could run.

Dahlia Lithwick: San Fran. Yes California boasts some extremely talented female politicians and there are some seriously gifted women governors and prosecutors and state senators out there who don't get enough credit. I also attended a conference for a newish women's organization called MsJD recently. You couldn't take a step without running into some brilliant, passionate, articulate young woman. It was like visiting that island Wonder Woman hails from! I came away dead certain that the pool of female talent out there is so much deeper than we yet know. Also: willing to bet big money that more young women were inspired and moved by the Clinton run, than scared off by it. This is how we make history. Not always on the first attempt but on the one that follows soon after! Thanks for reading.

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Tucson, Ariz.: First, I just want to say to all of the contributors that I love the blog and the various issues it raises. It has been a delight to read your reflections during the primaries, and I look forward to seeing more between now and November. Second, my personal opinion is that the idea that Clinton's staunch-feminist female supporters will vote for McCain in droves is wildly overrated.

My mom is 63, and we have had increasingly bitter arguments in the past six months about Clinton vs. Obama (the most recent, and most painful, was on Sunday, when she basically said I had been brainwashed by my husband into supporting Obama). However, she freely admits that she would chew off her arm before she voted for a Republican for president, especially this year. While I am sure that there will be some holdouts, I think this theme is more a creation of the media than a real threat (and I'm a journalist). Thanks again for your excellent work!

Emily Bazelon: Thank you! That's v. nice to hear. When we started the blog we really didn't quite know what it would become, and it's gratifying to have found our audience.

Numbers-wise, I think you're right about Clinton women turning into McCain votes. But they could stay home, or give less money, or just feel grumpy and de-energized. That's why Obama needs to make sure he keeps reaching out to them. And why I think (perhaps just as important) Obama supporters should go around with olive branches if they want their candidate to win. She needs to be a good loser. But the women in his camp also need to be gracious winners.

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New York: The comment about pandering reminds me of what I felt was the climax, in the literary sense, of the campaign: Clinton pretending to be pro-gun and Obama shooting back "who is she now, Annie Oakley?"

Melinda Henneberger: And we needed those moments of comic relief, didn't we? For me, that moment perfectly captured how far we had come from the Million Mom March! But almost all candidates seem to feel they have to pretend to have grown up in the Old West, and it doesn't work! Voters were on to Kerry's brand spanking new hunting togs, as they were to Romney's tales of how much he loved gunnin' for varmints.

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Boston: I'll tell you how Hillary lost me—listen to her speeches. "I" have a plan, "I" will fight for, "I" can fix. She has an answer for everything. No one is that smart. Had she used the work "we" more often, she would be the next president.

Dahlia Lithwick: Some pushback for you Boston? I wonder how much that "I" rhetoric was simply jarring coming from a woman. We are notoriously awful at using that pronoun. (We are good at saying "we" however!)
Perhaps we all need to train our ears to hear women who say "I" as confident and assertive rather than as know-it-alls?/

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