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!
Meghan O'Rourke: Hello to everyone, and thanks for joining us today.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The truth is that this is a major defeat for women, who are going to have to wait a long time, a half-generation or more, before the next serious run. And once again, we're about to have a presidential race with no women on either ticket (we can't even imagine a ticket with two women). Can't we have some sense of tragedy about, that even as we rejoice with and lift up Obama?
washingtonpost.com: One-Hit Wondering: Yes, Virginia, there will be another woman candidate in your lifetime(Slate, May 27)
Dahlia Lithwick: Hiya, Washington. Thanks so much for reading! I suspect that if you and I had talked three years ago about the possibility of having an African-American president in our lifetimes, we'd have been flailing for names, too. That was more or less my point: We are more ready than we think and we came awfully, breathtakingly, close. Please don't think that I wasn't as thrilled at the prospect of a woman President as yourself. I was. I am. But I was never willing to support any woman just because she was a woman; that is its own form of sexism, dontcha think? Maybe I am too optimistic. But I don't see a clutch of "iron my shirts" cracks and a nutcracker as evidence of a country so gripped by gender bias that they can't see straight.
McLean, Va.: I am a middle-aged male type-person. I just wanted to say that I really enjoy the XX Factor. It reminds me that although there clearly is no single female voice, there are a lot of brilliant ones—and I thank you for sharing them.
Meghan O'Rourke: Thank you so much for sharing your support. XXFactor exists (and will continue to) because of readers like you!
Boston: Do you think that, once Hilary leaves the race, the focus will shift from how "women" as one bloc theoretically would vote to the candidates' actual positions on issues? Especially as we gear up for the big, national election, I'm tired of hearing about how I'm going to vote one way based solely on the fact that I'm a woman.
Emily Bazelon: The intensity of the focus on "the women's vote" may diminish, but it's not going to go away, because McCain and Obama will court women assiduously. (What if McCain picks a woman for V.P.?) Even if it's annoying to be treated as a bloc-member automaton, it's not a bad thing to be courted—it should mean, anyway, that things you (we) care about are getting attention and in theory at least that could have a real result. Universal preschool, anyone? Social security parity? Paid family leave?
Coos Bay, Ore.: Don't hillary and her millions have to wholeheartedly support Obama? The next president will make two or three Supreme Court nominations; a McCain victory may pack the court with Regent University grads, overturning Roe v. Wade.
Emily Bazelon: Protecting Roe and the right to a legal abortion is a big part of Obama's pitch to women, yes. But voters are often more complicated in their thinking, aren't they? I think it's a little dangerous to assume that the single-issue pitch will bring women flocking to the Democratic ticket—in other words, to take them for granted.
Austin, Texas: Do any of y'all have reactions to recent suggestions both here in the Washington Post and in Slate that Hillary Clinton should be fast-tracked to a nomination for the Supreme Court in an Obama administration? The fact that this idea was floated not by bloggers but by regular contributors just floored me. I think the appellate bench is (or should be) a highly technical job that Clinton has not demonstrated the skills for. I'll set aside my feelings on whether she exhibits judicial temperament.
Dahlia Lithwick: Hallo, Austin. I thought this was a wacky idea and I still do! A Clinton confirmation hearing would be a living nightmare for this country in that it would smoke out all the ugliest aspects of Clinton hatred and add no substance. My understanding is that Clinton is an incredibly capable lawyer. I don't doubt she is qualified. But I don't think a romp through the Clinton's dumpster would serve the country, the Clintons or the court well at all. Thanks.
Oella, Md.: To Meghan O'Rourke
This is a question about the limitations of the Web for organizing purposes. You wrote that you e-mailed a group of young women, asking them what they thought of Clinton's campaign and that the responses were mostly young, well-educated, upper-middle-class, and white. Am I correct in assuming, since you made the comment, that you sent the e-mail to a more diverse group and only the smaller, less diverse group responded? This is not to critique your methods, but to try to learn about ways that movements can become more diverse. Thanks.
Meghan O'Rourke: Great question, and I appreciate your asking it. In this case, I was interested in the responses of educated, upper-middle-class women, in part because early on many had argued that these were the women Hillary wasn't winning over. And I wanted to know what women of that milieu felt now, six months after the debates last winter. I wasn't, in this case, seeking out a very diverse set of answers (though I would've been thrilled if I had gotten more diverse answers). But it is the case that when I asked people to forward the email, they probably forwarded it to women of the same class, educational background, etc.
Los Angeles: Re: Insight Magazine article linked on Slate—how does O'Rourke explain her continued reliance on a notorious and famously discredited accusation against the Clinton campaign?
Meghan O'Rourke: You're right that I probably shouldn't have relied on that detail. It had seemed to me that there was enough confusion around the origins of the rumor that it was fair to link to it. But I probably should have erred on the more conservative side and not used that detail. Thanks for pointing it out.
Rochester Hills, Mich.: My mother is 93 and has, as she said, waited until women were granted the right to vote in the hopes that someday should could vote for a woman for president. I, her daughter, am 62 and feel as though I too have been waiting forever to cast my vote for a woman—Hillary! My mother feels she will vote for McCain, in the hopes that Hillary will run again in 2012 and she can vote for her then. I found that an interesting idea. While I dearly hope my mother will be alive in 2012 to vote yet again, I was wondering if you believe there are other Hillary supporters who might think this way?
Emily Bazelon: I think there are other Hillary supporters who are thinking this way now, in this initial flush of disappointment. And sure some of them will stick with that idea through November, I suppose. But if you're a Democrat, it's a pretty narrow way to view what you want from your president. Your mother cares more about his or her sex than about what he or she does in office? She disagrees with McCain on most issues, but thinks it's worth four years of him in office to give Hillary the chance to run again? With respect, that doesn't seem like feminism to me. It seems like Hillary worship.
Indianapolis: First a comment: I think the four of you represent some of the best writing online these days. Thanks. Question: If Hillary really wanted to be vice president, she had to have known that strong-arming her way onto the ticket was not the way to go. What's her angle?
Melinda Henneberger: Thank you! I don't think she wants to be vice president, for one thing because as Maureen Dowd mentioned, she's been there and done that. When Gore had the job, he used to joke about how when anyone asked him what it was like being the second-most powerful person in the world, he'd answer, "I don't know, she seems to like it.'' My fear—unfounded, hopefully—was that what looked like her hard-sell for the No. 2 spot was just the opposite, a tactic that would make it impossible for him to offer it to her, because to do so under pressure would make him look weak. Yet then, if it weren't offered to her, her supporters would be even more unhappy, and more likely to either vote McCain or stay home in the fall. I hope I am dead wrong, and that she is now going to do her utmost to bring her voters into Obama's tent.
Highland Park, N.J.: Hi all. How do you think Obama should move forward, in terms of courting Hillary's supporters?
Dahlia Lithwick: Hey Highland Park. That's the trillion dollar question, huh? I think Obama needs to address her supporters' doubts about him—about his experience and readiness—head on. I also think he needs to help women understand that women and African Americans are NOT in some kind of footrace. Women do not lose when African Americans win and vice versa. That has been the single most toxic element of this primary season: Our inability to accept that this race would be historic and stunning and enriching, regardless of the specific outcome.
Turlock, Calif.: You keep framing your view of Clinton against some 35-year-old backdrop, as though it were still the 1970s and Clinton were a hormonally charged 26-year-old. When some ecstasy-promising revolution becomes near-exclusively embraced by the young, it is far more likely than not to be little more than young people following their hormones and self-centered rebellious whims, as young people always have and always will.
Maturity and experience never mollify adversity or injustice, only one's view of what constitutes adversity or injustice in the grand scheme of things that includes the world beyond their own—e.g. a college student may truly feel "oppressed" when the school clamps down on illegal file-sharing, but those views of "oppression" should be transformed sufficiently if not completely by the age of 35. If it isn't, then something went seriously wrong with that person's development or exposure to the world beyond their own nose.
Did it occur to you that Clinton's maturity and experience has mollified the vigor or weight she once threw behind some of her more youthful views? That she grew up and became a less self-centered person who isn't as prone to emotional rhetoric with little substance, and views the world as a delicate balance of often-competing interests—as opposed to the more defining youthful trait of tending to throw far too much weight behind or against this or that because it is tied on some level to their own self-interest?
Meghan O'Rourke: I don't think that young people today are self-centered and rebellious. I think they're searching for real change. It's quite frightening to be young today. It's scary, for example, to contemplate the economy, to contemplate global warming, to imagine bringing children into a world racked by the threat of global terrorism. So I believe that young Americans are galvanized by the idea that there's a candidate who might be able to change things. Sure, maybe Obama won't be able to; but the notion that he *might* be able to is quite powerful.
And as for maturity: You're right that people grow up and grow less self-centered sometimes—that sometimes they're quite immature as 22 year olds. But I don't think Clinton was one. I think sometimes our youthful impulses are worth preserving.
Kensington, Md.: I consider myself a feminist, but voted for Obama because his campaign focused on bringing out our better angels (listening to each other and working together), while Hillary's hopes were pinned on bringing out our prejudices, resentments and fears. I do hope we soon see a woman running who embodies Obama's orientation, rather than Hillary's. Simple as that.
Emily Bazelon: Yes I think that was Meghan's point in her piece this week, and it's been a frustration for a lot of women. For me this is why it never made sense to view the race as the first black man v. the first white woman, ie which mattered more, race or gender. Sure, it was that. But it was also Barack Obama v. Hillary Clinton, with all their particular strengths and weaknesses. In the end, their individual characteristics amounted to more than the categories they stand for.
Ontario, Canada: Why did Hillary Clinton not just step down graciously and lady like? This only proves she is for SELF not the PEOPLE she is to represents. She likes the POWER and attention. She is not to be trusted.
Dahlia Lithwick: Hallo there fellow Ontarian!
I can't agree that Clinton stayed in the race because she was selfish. She had 18 million people who believed deeply in her, and she felt that she was doing the right thing by them when she stayed in the race. That said, I do agree that we haven't yet seen the kind of gracious, supportive take-one-for-the-team behavior that she can be modeling or those supporters. I believe we are about to see it soon.
Pittsburgh: I graduated from the University of Michigan when it was still legal to look a job applicant in the eye and say "oh, we don't hire girls for those positions," and when sexual harassment wasn't a crime, it was a perk—just like the corner office and the expense account. I managed to become the CEO of a small subsidiary of a big bank and deflect the unwanted advances that women encounter in male dominated fields.
Still, I am uncomfortable with the attitude among some of Sen. Clinton's supporters that we as women are "owed," and that we have waited long enough for a woman president. By the same token, I think that for Sen. Obama to repair his relationship with these voters, he is going to have to quit referring to us as "ladies." Call us what we are—women.
Emily Bazelon: I don't like "ladies" either. It always makes me think of the ladies' room. (Though I do think that lots of people men to be polite rather than to offend when they use it.) I agree that Clinton didn't do herself any favors when she projected being owed, because she was a woman, or married to her difficult husband, or had waited in the wings of the White House for eight years. No one is owed the presidency. It's too huge a job for that. (At the same time, to be fair, Clinton gave voters plenty of other reasons to support her.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 . . . .
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?
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!)
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?/
Chicago: Thought you might be interested in this shirt, XX Factor Ladies! An XX shirt! When I found it online I couldn't believe it! Love your columns!
Dahlia Lithwick: Thanks chicago. Buying some for my young sons!
Chicago: Your article exactly captures what I feel, but also what many women I know, in their late 50's and early 60's have also expressed. How does Hillary honor feminism by attacking Obama using all the old white men tricks? And then for her to blame her problems on sexism? I'd like to know how "real" women feel. The histrionics of a small group of women who have hung on to Hillary have been portrayed as representing the sentiments of all women. Have you seen any research or polls that dig deeper into women's attitudes toward Hillary?
Meghan O'Rourke: Thanks so much. I'm glad that I did seem to capture something real women are feeling. Your point is a really important one, and what was most moving to me, writing the article, was hearing from women about what they felt. I received so many eloquent, heartfelt, confused, angry, happy, frustrated emails from women. And it made me realize that the reality of how women feel toward Hillary is so complex the media can't accurately capture it. I have seen various polls but nothing that seems to me to give a complete picture about women's feelings—or anything like it.
In fact, I've been thinking Slate ought really to publish an oral history/email history of thoughts from women like you. It would really be a service: we need more than soundbites in articles.
New Brunswick, N.J.: The premise that Hillary wasn't feminist enough for young women is wrong—young women abandoned her, not the other way around. Perhaps she could have pushed the gender issue more, but Hillary faced the age-old quandary of how to be a strong woman in a man's world. She was damned if she did and damned if she didn't. When she teared up (didn't cry, mind you) on the campaign trail, for example, pundits sneeringly derided her for not being able to handle the presidency and all that it entails. But then to say that she was too much like a man to attract young women's support? I think the truth is closer to the fact that young women collectively don't identify with feminism the way that older women do.
Give Hillary some credit for all that she did do—she got further than any woman ever has. She is one of the thousands of women who have had to deal with outright sexism and misogynistic vitriol on a daily basis and still kept going. Stop blaming her for not fulfilling the expectations of a generation of young women who had it all handed to them and didn't quite realize the sheer enormity of what it would mean to have a woman in the White House.
Emily Bazelon: I agree with you, wholeheartedly, about giving Hillary credit. Also about the problem of damned if you do, damned if you don't. It was very real in this campaign, though of course we'll never know what would have happened if Hillary had run differently, as Meghan suggested.
About younger women and our feminism, though, I wonder if you're being fair. I think a lot of us DO consider ourselves feminists. Maybe our definition is slightly different—certainly that's the case if you define any right-thinking feminist as a Hillary voter. But in the end, on the substance as opposed to the symbolism, I wonder how far apart we really are. And I hope we air those questions as thoroughly as we aired the ones about gender identity in this campaign.
Beijing: Are we ever going to see Hillary in a dress again? Is there something wrong with her legs? Being tough does not equate to wearing trousers. Her cynicism aside, I just got tired of those suits. A woman aiming for the highest post in the land should have had a better dress sense. Or at list someone to help her. Who says a strong, highly intelligent woman cannot be feminine? What a missed opportunity
Dahlia Lithwick: Beijing, Clinton needs to be credited for feeling her way along in wholly unfamiliar political and public territory. The skirts/pants thing is the tip of the iceberg in terms of the fine line she was forced to walk. She made some very hard choices about how to present herself and while some of them might strike us as cartoonish, she had very, very little room to operate, and she taught us so very much about what the next time will look like.
Anchorage, Alaska: Good morning (local)—my question to the XXers is this; while most of the mainstream media will be devoted to the surface appearances of reconciliation, forging party unity, etc., what do you expect to be happening behind the scenes? I've seen plenty of "it's Obama's party now," but really, don't you think it would be a daunting task to either expect the old "Clinton" guard to soften and meld into the new generation, or to be rooted out? I read many of the comments from Ickes, Davis, etc., to be as much about preserving their own behind-closed-doors power as about Clinton deserving the nomination.
Melinda Henneberger: Totally right; it's only 51 percent Obama's party now.(Or whatever; the way in which I most identified with Hillary is that I, too, am opposed to math.) But surely the biggest question still on the Democratic table is whether/to what extent she'll work for Obama. (Will she pull out the stops? Or undermine him while seeming to pull out the stops?) I think one reason you saw John Kerry so strongly in Obama's camp is that there were also major questions about how much her heart was ever in the '04 campaign.
Anonymous: Dear Emily, Melinda, Dahlia and Meghan: I've read about how Obama "gets" Gen X and Gen Y voters. Clearly, he doesn't "get" baby boomer white women in the same way. I'm a stereotypical Clinton backer ... aging baby boomer, white, female, college educated, HR Manager, 4 years to retirement, a lifetime Democrat who's never missed an election. I think Obama's campaign has been mostly flash and very little substance. The flap over his church leads me to believe that he's passive-aggressive. Bottom line, I'm really pissed that my candidate, Hillary Clinton, lost the nomination. What can/should Obama do to convince me to vote for him? Thanks. Jean
Meghan O'Rourke: I think you're right that Obama doesn't get baby boomer white women the same way he gets younger types. And I think Hillary really does, to give her credit. So I totally understand your frustration that your candidate didn't get the nomination. And I think Obama is no messiah: He has his flaws, his arrogance, his weaknesses. But he is a strong Democratic candidate in many ways. He seems to me—and I can only speak for myself—to be trying to put together a platform that will bring America forward. And what I like about him is that he seems to listen to voters.
Finally, though: If you care about women's issues at all, do you really want McCain to be president? He has his appealing qualities. But his support of women, frankly, is not one of them. He recently called his wife a nasty word in front of reporters; he laughed when a supporter called Hillary the "b-word," and he voted against the equal pay bill for women. As a woman interested in furthering the rights of women, I'd really not want this man in the White House.
Ventnor City, N.J.: I'm a white, fiftysomething, feminist, women's studies professor who has supported Obama, not Clinton. I really agree with the recent post that she based her campaign on valuing masculine trait, and this was a disappointment. I also believe that if she was going to run on her "experience" during the 1990s, then she had to bear some responsibility for draconian welfare reform, DOMA, NAFTA and other unfeminist legacies of her husband's administration. I have been cringing at the way her campaign has driven a wedge between white women and African Americans (similar to the period after passage of the 15th amendment). I think she would be a disaster as a vice presidential candidate (and I can't wait for Bill to leave the stage).
That said, I can live with her "suspended" campaign if her point is to have the historical landmark of being one of the few women to have their names placed in nomination at the convention. I'm surprised that I haven't heard any commentators mention this as a possible goal. It's not power, but it is an important place in history. What do you think?
Meghan O'Rourke: Great point. I hadn't thought of that. If that were her goal, I would support it. I just worry it's not.
New York: There are persistent rumors McCain is interested in a corporate Republican woman, say Carly Fiorina or Meg Whitman, as vice president. Thoughts?
Melinda Henneberger: Shockingly, he has not asked for MHO, but he'd sure be smart to pick someone like that; Fiorina in particular is awfully impressive, and would appeal to many a Hillary voter.
Essex Junction, Vt.: There has been a view out there expressed by Clinton supporters, especially among women, that this contest was "stolen" from them—that Hilary, and they by extension, have been "victims". Out of this feeling seems to be bubbling up a desire among some for retribution or even revenge.
My question is, how much do you think these outraged feelings are justified by the way Obama and his campaign behaved during this contest, and how much are they the result of legitimate historical grievances that finally now have an outlet? Are there serious, legitimate complaints to be made about the way Obama and his campaign treated their opponent? Finally, where do you see this anger going from here? Will it have a real effect on the race for the White House?
Meghan O'Rourke: These are profound questions and we're running against the end of our hour here. But I just wanted to say quickly that I wish I knew the answer to the questions you raise, and that I'll think more about it and try to address them on XXFactor.
Park Ridge, Ill.: I think the very last statement of this essay summed up the whole problem with Hillary's campaign: "After all, feminism need not be joyless." There was no sense of fun about Hillary, shots of Royal Crown aside, just grim determination. I consider myself a Baby Boomer feminist (I'm 49), and to me, a sense of humor is paramount to the psyche. Would any of you care to comment on Hillary's seemingly total lack of joy?
Melinda Henneberger: I dunno; maybe this WAS her joy, and may she find more of it in her next endeavor.
Hardyston Township, N.J.: In the body of your article, the word "ecstasy" or some variation of it appears at least 4 times. That is the problem I find with many educated women of your generation. they look to the "ecstasy" of a situation rather than what educated women of my generation fought for in the '70's and '80's...true equality in every facet of life. You want all of the perks without any of the struggle. I think you will find very quickly that your abandonment of Senator Clinton was ill-advised.
Meghan O'Rourke: I don't agree: women my age have struggled too. My point isn't that we want cheap joy with none of the hard work. It's that in the midst of all the hard work, we shouldn't forget that joy is possible too. Largely because of the revolutionary work of feminists the generation before us.
Emily Bazelon: Hey, everyone, thanks so much for the thoughtful and great questions and comments. It's great to hear from so many XX Factor readers! We really enjoyed the chat. On to November!
Slate editor Emily Bazelon edits the "Medical Examiner" and "Jurisprudence" columns and writes about law and family. Slate contributor Melinda Henneberger writes columns for Commonweal, the Catholic opinion journal and was a reporter for the New York Times. Dahlia Lithwick is a senior editor at Slate and writes "Supreme Court Dispatches" and covers legal issues. Culture critic Meghan O'Rourke was formerly Slate's culture editor and an editor at The New Yorker; her writing and poetry have also appeared in The Nation, the New Republic, and the New York Times.