Hillary's "Feminist Problem"

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) participates in a news conference on Capitol Hill May 22, 2007 in Washington, DC. The focus of the conference was to call for a pay raise for the U.S. military.
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This column was written by Lakshmi Chaudhry.

"I love [Hillary Clinton] so completely that, honestly, she would have to burn down the White House before I would say anything bad about her!" exclaimed Nora Ephron in a 1993 Newsday interview. Three years later, she told the Wellesley class of 1996, "Understand: Every attack on Hillary Clinton for not knowing her place is an attack on you." Come late 2006, however, Ephron was the one on the attack as one of the self-described "Hillary resisters" — those who believe that "she will do anything to win, who believe she doesn't really take a position unless it's completely safe," as she wrote on her Huffington Post blog, "who believe she has taken the concept of triangulation and pushed it to a geometric level never achieved by anyone including her own husband, who can't stand her position on the war, who don't trust her as far as you can spit."

This rather dramatic change of heart encapsulates one of the great ironies of Hillary Clinton's bid for the presidency. Many of the very same feminists who were her most ardent supporters as First Lady are now fiercely opposed to her historic bid to become the first female President of the United States. The woman once described by Susan Faludi as a symbol of "the joy of female independence" now evokes ambivalence, disdain and, sometimes, outright vitriol. The right wing's favorite "femi-nazi" now has to contend with Jane Fonda comparing her to "a ventriloquist for the patriarchy with a skirt and a vagina."

So what's up with the Hillary-bashing? "Women don't trust Hillary. They see her as an opportunist; many feel betrayed by her," wrote Susan Douglas in a May In These Times article titled "Why Women Hate Hillary." A month later, in her Newsweek column, Anna Quindlen declared, "The truth is that Senator Clinton has a woman problem."

Not exactly true, as it turns out. Hillary Clinton was the number-one choice of 42 percent of likely Democratic primary women voters in a recent Zogby survey, compared with 19 percent for Barack Obama and 15 percent for John Edwards. And her favorable rating among independent women is a whopping twenty-one points higher than among independent men.

Let's be clear: Hillary has a "feminist problem," and more so with those who lean left.

At first glance, the fault line dividing feminists in their view of Hillary Clinton is merely a matter of ideology. On one side are the mainstream moderate women's organizations such as NOW and EMILY's List, facing off against more radical progressive feminists, especially those opposed to the Iraq War. Some of her supporters claim that much of the anger is inspired by her now-infamous 2002 Congressional vote. "It's about this one vote, which was not to invade Iraq but to authorize the President to wage war. I can't understand how this can be held up against a lifetime of important political work," says NOW president Kim Gandy.

Antiwar sentiments run high indeed, but when it comes to feminism and feminists, the "Hillary divide" also mirrors a deeper debate over the relationship between gender and political power. The ambivalence over Hillary's candidacy has just as much to do with increasing skepticism about the value of making it to the top.

"Having a woman in the White House won't necessarily do a damn thing for progressive feminism," writes Bitch magazine founder Lisa Jervis in LiP magazine. "Though the dearth of women in electoral politics is so dire as to make supporting a woman — any woman — an attractive proposition, even if it's just so she can serve as a role model for others who'll do the job better eventually, it's ultimately a trap. Women who do nothing to enact feminist policies will be elected and backlash will flourish. I can hear the refrain now: 'They've finally gotten a woman in the White House, so why are feminists still whining about equal pay?'"

Jervis's views were echoed by her peers on the blog Feministing, where Jen Moseley wrote, "As women sign up to work with anyone but Senator Clinton, of course, they're being asked why. That's the bad news. The good news is they're all giving the same answer. Being a woman does not get you the automatic support of women. There's no vagina litmus test, people."

Simply breaking the glass ceiling, once a cherished goal of all feminists, has lost much of its appeal, especially after seven years of the Bush Administration. Over the course of his presidency, George W. Bush has appointed women to some of the most prominent positions in his Administration — all the while working to undermine women's rights across the board. So it is that we witnessed a fierce assault on women's reproductive rights even as Condoleezza Rice became the first African-American woman to make Secretary of State.

Opting for Edwards or Obama — who are often perceived as more liberal — becomes an attractive proposition for feminists who believe "gender is not the only thing, not even the most important thing in feminism," as Center For New Words program director Jaclyn Friedman puts it. "Hillary's not my friend. She's not actually progressive. The fact that she's a woman is an unfortunate red herring." Feminist principles may be better served, she claims, by electing a truly liberal candidate who will move us further toward a more progressive and therefore more equitable future — an imperative that feels all the more urgent after eight years of Bush. "Things are so bad in this country, and the person we elect is going to be so important," she says. "The whole put-a-woman-in-the-White House seems too abstract and theoretical, a middle-class luxury."

To be fair, the women and the organizations supporting Hillary are hardly advocating a "vagina litmus test." As Gandy points out, NOW has supported male candidates in the past and is now backing Clinton because of "a demonstrated history" of her commitment to feminist ideals. Even Laura Liswood, co-founder of the White House Project, which is dedicated to putting women in office, fully embraces the idea that women should vote their politics rather than their gender, "if the choice is between a woman who doesn't represent you at all and a man who does."

But Liswood cautions against undervaluing what she calls "the power of the mirror, of knowing who it is we can be by who it is that we see." By becoming the first female President of the United States, Liswood says, Hillary would "change the whole memory scan of young people, in terms of...what leaders look like." Even Condoleezza Rice, reviled as she may be for her conservative views, has done her bit for gender equality simply by virtue of the position she occupies.