In a new book, 30 female writers critique Hillary Clinton. Again. And again. And still miss the point.
“I don’t understand,” wrote historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in his diary in late 2000, “why educated and professional women, otherwise intelligent and tolerant, are so unreasonably possessed by Hillary-hatred … I cannot extract a clear statement of why they all detest her.”
After reading a new book that addresses precisely this question—a collection of essays titled “Thirty Ways of Looking at Hillary: Reflections by Women Writers”—neither can I. In fact, after reading all 30 essays, I don’t want to know anymore.
The essays—written mostly by New York intellectuals, and edited by Susan Morrison, The New Yorker’s articles editor—dissect Clinton’s femininity, sexuality, clothes, mothering, marriage, mystique and, of course, likability. Or, more precisely, why so many educated, middle-class women have a visceral response to her. “My generation definitely has a Clinton problem,” writes Amy Wilentz in an essay on Clinton’s clothes, or “costumes.”
The reasons for their suspicion outlined here are mostly personal—she doesn’t have a hobby, aside from cleaning closets and completing crossword puzzles. She doesn’t appear to have been deeply attached to her family pets. She lacks sensuousness. She showed a hint of cleavage. She wore turquoise earrings with a yellow pantsuit. She liked prim headbands. She changed her maiden name. She married Bill Clinton. She stayed married to Bill Clinton. She is still married to Bill Clinton. Even her voice, Marie Brenner writes, “reminds us of the fifth grade teacher we despised.”
Imagine if men wrote a book about Clinton containing this kind of minutiae—the same women would turn and savage them for trivializing her.
And herein lies the conflict. Many of these authors would have expected to support a female presidential candidate. They came of age in the 1970s, were buoyed by the tumult, thrill and promise of the women’s movement, but are now puzzled and discomfited by what appears to be the result of their labors, or their hopes—the polished, private, pragmatic Clinton. Her journey from Helen Reddy to Céline Dion may have been a necessary one, they concede, but is still symbolic of a slide from sister to sellout. As Katie Roiphe writes: “If Clinton is in many ways the embodiment of certain feminist ideals, then it may be that many of us don’t like feminism in its purest form.”
Whatever. Isn’t the question: is she any good? Or, how will she lead the country? No one in this collection seriously analyzes her position on Iraq, her shift in health-care policy, her record as a senator, her promise of change, the likelihood that she can get elected or whether she has the right credentials. It is jarring—and worrying.
Many of the essays are clever, entertaining, provocative and elegantly written. But as you read one after the other, a certain self-loathing is evident: do we dislike Clinton, they ask, because she is like us—or not like us? If she is the Rorschach test so many claim her to be, that inkblot here is an unhappy woman. In a thoughtful piece, Dahlia Lithwick asks if women don’t trust her because her suffering has been done in private: “We like to see all the crying and the dieting because we are still crying and dieting ourselves.” Roiphe argues that what she calls Clinton’s “phoniness” “may be so irritating, so unforgivable, to so many smart, driven women in part because it is our own.” Some even complain she reminds them of their mothers—in a bad way.
The narcissism is overwhelming. And the standards she is held to are irrational. Jane Kramer admits she wants to know if Barack Obama has enough courage, ability and vision to be president. At the same time, she asks of Clinton: “Why do you want the job? What kind of woman does that make you?” “I take Hillary personally,” she confesses, unnecessarily.
As Clinton’s victory in the New Hampshire primary demonstrates, what unites women is not Hillary Clinton—it is attacks on Hillary Clinton. So when Rush Limbaugh says Americans don’t want to watch a woman grow older in the White House, when Christopher Hitchens calls her an “aging and resentful female” or when John Edwards implies she is too emotional to be president, you can count on women hurdling into the Clinton camp. Katha Pollitt, for example, says that although she prefers Edwards and Obama on policy grounds, when she comes across “one of these sulfurous emanations from the national collective unconscious … I want to sit down and write Hillary’s campaign a check immediately.”
The problem is that many of the authors seem unaware of how much support Hillary actually has among women. Roiphe declares, “I have yet to meet a woman who likes Hillary Clinton.” How, then, to explain that polling has consistently shown blue-collar women have rallied to Clinton’s campaign, along with older women? A recent Pew Research Center study found 49 percent of female Democratic supporters back Clinton—only 28 percent chose Obama.
So not all women think the same way. It’s just that some voices are a lot louder than others.