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.

Contributors to "XX Factor," Slate's women's blog, were online at Washingtonpost.com to chat with readers about the feminist dilemmas of Hillary Clinton's candidacy and other women's issues from the campaign. An unedited transcript of the chat follows.

Melinda Henneberger: I've never shown up first to anything in my life, so I must be XX-tra eager today!

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Meghan O'Rourke: Hello to everyone, and thanks for joining us today.

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Baltimore: Why is this the first story that mentions revolution and the rise of Obama and the fall of Ms. Hillary in the same breath of fresh air? FC

Meghan O'Rourke: Thanks for the nice words. I imagine there probably were some other stories that did this. But it's true that much media coverage tends to focus on one candidate at a time—not the candidates in the context of one another.

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Santa Monica, Calif.: As we assess Clinton's campaign, how do we separate what were feminist issues from what were Hillary-specific issues?

Melinda Henneberger: I strongly agree with Meghan's excellent piece about how for a lot of us, Hillary was not feminist enough in her campaign, casting Obama as the "girl'' in the race—as if that were a bad thing! Yes, sexism is alive and well, but there are so many good feminists who ended up turned off by various aspects of Clinton's campaign that I couldn't buy it as a major factor.

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Philadelphia: After the Pa. primary (my state), I'd like to know why the media considered it to be racist when 60 percent of white blue collar males voted for Senator Clinton, but not racist that more than 95 percent of blacks voted for Senator Obama? Race was a major part of this election on both sides ... Historically feminist blacks were voting for Obama because he was black as much as certain groups of whites who would never vote for a woman voted for Clinton.

Melinda Henneberger: The reports about race as an issue in the campaign were based on the surprisingly high percentage of voters not only in your state but others, as well, who walked right up to exit pollsters and told them that race had played an important role in their decision. In West Virginia and Kentucky in particular, an overwhelming majority of those voters who said race was a major factor went for Senator Clinton.

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Montreal (relocated from New York): While I was originally a fan of Hillary Clinton, and believe she has been an effective and dedicated Senator, I have been disappointed for some time by the tone of her campaign and her various "problematic" statements on many fronts—almost all of which have been commented on by XX Factor contributors. What steps would you suggest she take to get past the bad blood occasioned by her campaign gaffes, make peace with Obama and the party, and most significantly recover/resuscitate her image so she can continue a career of public service with grace and dignity?

Emily Bazelon: Clinton either has some atoning to do, for the hardball she played along the way, and also simply some work to do to bring the party together, given how long the primaries lasted. (How much of each depends on how you think she handled herself.) Her big peacemaking offering is a full-throated endorsement, of course—our colleague John Dickerson suggested the other day that a hug or a double-cheek kiss might be in order, as opposed to arms clasped and raised. Then she has to make a real, genuine, and concerted effort to reassure her supporters that they are not being screwed by the Democratic party, and that Obama can be their candidate, too. That needs to happen not just at this unity appearance on Saturday, or next week, but all the way through til November.

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Minneapolis: My observation is that among women my age in Minnesota—in their 70s or early 80s—many of those passionate for Hillary are Republicans (often with private school, moneyed backgrounds) who were driven from the GOP over women's issues, particularly pro-choice which they are extremely committed to. They may say they will vote GOP, and might, but the pro-choice issue is still there as a plus for Obama. Susan Gross

Emily Bazelon: That's a really interesting observation. It matches my sense that all the older women who are core Hillary supporters aren't automatic Obama converts. I'm not sure whether the women you know are a small or a large slice of the pie, but they are going to need to be courted, not taken as a given.

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Cincinnati: Why would hard-core feminists switch their support to McCain in the general election? A candidate who has unapologetically and forcefully fought against reproductive freedoms, who married his mistress almost two decades younger than he? I'm also a feminist, and I supported Obama, but I see absolutely no sense in crossing over to vote for McCain in anger against Obama. What am I missing?

Meghan O'Rourke: I share your puzzlement. The idea that women who care about equal rights—let alone hard core feminists—would switch over to McCain seems crazy to me. I do wonder whether such a cross-over would *actually* happen. I think there's been a lot of threatening rhetoric about changing over, sure. But when push comes to shove, and women start to look at McCain's record on women's rights—and if the media begins to write more assiduously about McCain and women—then they may think twice.

And you're right: crossing over in anger at Obama is not very logical. There've been moments when I thought Obama could be more sensitive to gender than he has been—more sensitive to the fact that women really warm to the notion of a female president. But compared to McCain? Come on.

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Atlanta: I am a female in my 50s. Since you all are much younger, I don't believe you have any idea how difficult it was to be a woman in a man's world in the '70's and '80's. I worked for a Big 3 auto manufacturer—can't get much more male dominated than that—and in order to climb the corporate ladder, I had to act more like a man than a woman.

In my opinion, Hillary never really gotten over this syndrome. Her temperament has not adjusted to the 21st century. I, too, was disappointed that she did not define herself as a woman and use it to her advantage. She campaigned like being a woman was a disadvantage! But I do understand her mindset, based on the era she is from. She is still struggling too hard to find a balance.

I believe there are 2 reasons she lost. Because of this trying to be a man thing, she lost men because she comes off as strident. Someone recently said, "When men hear Hillary speak, they hear their wives telling them to take out the trash." And she lost women like me, because, as you said, she was not feminist enough. Just my 2 cents.

Dahlia Lithwick: Hey there, Atlanta, and thanks for writing. Actually we are not really all that much younger than you! We just write like teenagers. I don't disagree that the younger generation of feminists has no idea how brutal the glass ceiling was; I don't know about Emily but my law school class was 50% women! But while that helps illuminate the big gender rift between the generations of feminists, I almost think it's beside the point. I think the whole "second wave versus young feminists" narrative swamped the whole campaign and ultimately obscured a lot more than it illuminated about the race.

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Washington: When is it okay to stop talking about Hillary?

Emily Bazelon: Soon enough! As in next week or the week after, she won't be front and center any more (unless this V.P. speculation goes on and on). I'm not sure, though, that we should entirely celebrate that, as feminists. I'm tired of the Clintons, yes, but I think the airing of gender issues in this campaign has been hugely useful and bracing (if often distressing, at the same time). We owe that to her candidacy, in large measure.

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Chicago: Meghan, I really enjoyed your piece on Hillary not being feminist enough. However, I wonder if Hillary could have run on a candidate-of-change/feminist platform when she's so know for standing by her serial philanderer man? While I think many women might be able to accept someone who dealt with and overcame cheating in her marriage, how do they accept a Hillary as their feminist champion, when so many issues facing women are at least indirectly related the sexual habits and thinking of men like her husband?

Meghan O'Rourke: This is a great question, and one I thought a lot about over the past few months. If I'd had more room, I'd have addressed it in the piece. I know a lot of feminists were horrified that Clinton chose to stand by her man. That always struck me as odd. Because one of the gifts of feminism is to allow us to arrange our private lives—the matters of the heart—as we will. And while I feel I can be kind of doctrinaire about feminism, and the need for women to band together, I feel we should all be libertarians when it comes to eros. That is, who knows what keeps her in the marriage; maybe it's ambition, but maybe it's a complicated form of love.

That said, I think the problem of Hillary standing by Bill was that he so clearly harassed and manipulated women who had less power than he did. And you're right that it would have been hard for Hillary to present herself as a feminist champion. Yet we don't have a lot of great role models with as much power as she had. And I think if she had whole-heartedly embraced that role—and humbly admitted that she's made mistakes—a lot of women would have warmed to her campaign.

At least, I would have.

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Minneapolis: I believe that when Hillary supporters talk about her being their "last best hope that they will ever see a woman be elected president", they aren't finishing their thought. The entirety of that thought is "This is our last best hope of seeing a woman OF OUR GENERATION becoming president." There's been an interesting divide between women of that generation and my generation (I'm in my mid-40s). Because the women of that generation did take much of the laboring oar for the advancement of the feminist cause, I wonder if they don't feel sometimes that they are more deserving of the presidency than the up-and-comers like Amy Klobuchar or Kathleen Sebelius. Your thoughts?

Emily Bazelon: I agree entirely about the generational divide. I've found it both instructive and heart rending as the campaign has progressed. Some writers have cast this as a rift between mothers and daughters; that's an oversimplification, but I do think both sides have something to gain from listening to each other. I'm not sure, though, that I think the mothers will go on to insist that one of them be the standard-bearer. Many of them saw Hillary's candidacy differently than I know I did (as a 30-something), and their disappointment now is probably different. But the next time around? I think the particular qualities of the candidate will matter more than her age.

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Edwardsville, Ill.: I'm a big fan of Meghan O'Rourke's writing, but when she wrote that "Clinton's relationship to gender seemed at turns angry and deeply ambivalent" in contrast to Obama's relationship to race, I had to laugh. Meghan, have you read "Dreams of My Father" or "Audacity of Hope"? If so, do you really believe that Obama's relationship to race is anything but "angry and deeply ambivalent?" I think the whole controversy with Rev. Wright arose from just that anger and ambivalence, and my Senator's quest to reconcile himself with race. I also don't think his anger and ambivalence (or hers) ought to be counted as a negative. Shouldn't we all be angry about the role of race and gender in our society, still, after all this time? Aren't women all ambivalent about the impact our gender does or should have on our life choices? What do you think?

Meghan O'Rourke: That's a really good point, and my only excuse is that I was writing overnight on deadline! What I was trying to say, more precisely, was that in her demeanor on the campaign trail, Hillary (to my eyes) didn't manage to seem as open and humble about her situation as Obama did. Obama is deeply ambivalent in those books: you're totally right. But on the stump he seemed willing to admit how hard it was for him—and to have chosen to let people see how hard it was for him. So there's an ambivalence there, yes, but he managed to project a somewhat unified front ABOUT that ambivalence. Whereas I felt Hillary switched back and forth more.

Part of what I was getting at, or wanted to, IS that women do feel ambivalent and angry. And I understand Hillary's ambivalence and anger—I really do. And I feel I've acted the way she has, writ small, in situations where I've felt chagrined that men seem to be given more authority by default. But I do think it's the real challenge for women: how to care deeply about women's rights and equality while not becoming embittered.

And let's face the unfair, bitter truth: I, like many women, probably hold Hillary to a higher standard than I would many men. I wish that weren't the case, and I strive against it. But I'm sure I'm complicit in the double standard.

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Atlanta: Was any editorial discussion going on behind the scenes these past few months to address the anti-Clinton bias of your blog? Henneberger in particular wrote scarcely anything that couldn't effectively—and more pithily—have been glossed as "Hillary is bad."

Melinda Henneberger: I'm sorry you see it as bias, but all I can say is I wish she had given me more positive material to work with. When Hillary Clinton first appeared on the national scene, I was so taken with her, and loved everything from her history to her hairband. My husband has reminded me that when we moved to Washington in the mid-'90s so that he could take an assignment covering the Clinton White House, I was constantly lecturing him, "Now you be fair to them!'' Because at the time, I saw both Clintons as the victims of terrible regional and class bias and her as a target of woman-haters across the land. Her and their behavior over the years has changed my view, and no one is sorrier about that than I am.

Emily Bazelon: In a more general sense, we didn't carefully construct XX Factor to be balanced between Obama and Clinton supporters. (After all, we want the blog to last longer than the primary season!) But it's true that older women are under-represented, and that probably fed into the Obama tilt you're identifying. Judith Shulevitz has been a great voice on the blog for a different point of view.

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Washington: Dahlia—I thought your piece on the next woman president was overly optimistic. When you dig deep, do you really think a woman has a chance at the presidency in the next 15-25 years? None of the women you listed in your column are even close. And pinning our hopes on an unseen phenomenon? If there were any historical examples, that might be credible, but aside from Hillary, there aren't.

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