After more than two decades in the very public eye, after being graded on her hairstyle, hailed as a modern first lady (then berated for being just that), after being a successful U.S. senator, a presidential candidate and a secretary of state, Hillary Clinton ponders another presidential run facing a stubbornly sexist conundrum: She’s either a female victim, making her too weak to lead, or she’s refusing to be a victim, making her too “ruthless” to be president.
Clinton has seen this movie before. When Bill Clinton was running for president in 1992, he presented his wife as a bonus – if the country elected him, he said, they got two for the price of one. Given that Hillary Clinton was an extremely intelligent, Ivy League-educated lawyer, this was a reasonable boast, and the press initially treated the ticket as a reflection of the modern role of professional women. That worked until Clinton said she wasn’t about to sit around the White House having teas and baking cookies – a reasonable statement, especially given that no one would expect a male spouse of a president to behave as such. But the comments cast her, wildly unfairly, as an inappropriately ambitious woman who didn’t understand her place. The failure of the Clinton health care plan (which failed for reasons far more complicated than the former first lady’s involvement) cemented the idea that women like her should not try to grasp the reins of power.
Her husband’s sexual dalliances, bizarrely enough, damaged Clinton as well. While the president indeed was criticized (and impeached) for his behavior, Hillary Clinton became the object of derision as well. Why didn’t she leave him, people wondered. What kind of woman would tolerate such behavior? She was cast as victim, then punished for refusing to cast herself in that role. Instead, she kept a commitment she made to a marriage (more than many, many couples do under far less stressful circumstances).
Much time has passed, Bill Clinton long ago left office, and Hillary Clinton has served in elected office and in the cabinet. And yet, the old biases regarding women, power and victimhood persist.
A U.S. senator is resurrecting the relationship between Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, calling Clinton a “predator” who violated a “young girl.” Lewinsky, of course, was an adult at the time (though a young adult). And the comments reinforce the double standard (and delusion) that women don’t really like sex, and are automatically victims if they participate in it. But the criticism isn’t really about Bill Clinton, anyway – it’s about trying to derail what would surely be a formidable candidacy by Hillary Clinton in 2016. Why this episode is still relevant is questionable enough; why Hillary Clinton should be tainted by it is even more baffling.
And a conservative Washington publication, The Washington Free Beacon, has reported on notes taken by an old Clinton friend, Diane Blair, who died in 2000. In her notes, Blair describes a first lady irritated by the press corps, dismissive of Lewinsky as a “narcissistic loony tune” and pained by the troubles in her marriage. All of that sounds like a pretty reasonable reaction for any person. But because Hillary Clinton is female, the disclosures are filtered through a special lens for women, the Free Beacon describes Clinton as alternately “ruthless” and “surprisingly human.”
What’s the surprise in Clinton being human? As opposed to what – a robot? An alien? A llama? Ah, but Clinton isn’t allowed to feel both vulnerability and anger. As a woman, she can choose one of two roles, the article suggests – weak victim or crazed, brutal power-grabber. And not coincidentally, both roles make her unqualified to be president.
Clinton is, if anything, a survivor, and that is threatening to a lot of people.
She’s made friends and enemies – like most people. She’s made mistakes and
scored big successes, much like the men who have run for office over the years.
Her detractors can continue to insist she choose the role of victim or
non-human. She may not run, or she may well run and lose. But that won’t make
her a victim. And it won’t make her less than human, either.