At the Boston Park Plaza on 2 September, Hillary Clinton is speaking to over 1500 supporters, mostly women, each of whom has paid $250 for a sandwich and a chance to hear her. The Republican National Convention has only just ended, so Clinton gets warm laughter and applause when she thanks Phyllis Schafly, Pat Robertson and Pat Buchanan for the attacks that have brought out her defenders in such great numbers. She speaks of an America where women have a right to make choices about their bodies, their careers and their families. She speaks of equality in jobs and pay and of decent education and health care for everyone. Join her. Join Bill. We can make the future. I remember how I felt listening to John Kennedy’s inaugural address as a 12-year-old schoolgirl. I was excited but anxious, aware that I was too young. It wasn’t yet time for my generation. Perhaps it would be time now. Embarrassed by my reverie and my emotion, I pull myself back to the present. Clinton is no longer speaking. At my table sit a lawyer, a real-estate broker and an architect. They are debating whether she is ‘too hard’.
The following day I am in Kennebunkport. My decision to get involved with the campaign has brought me to a Democratic fund-raising dinner in George Bush’s backyard, attended by Al Gore. Gore has just given a sympathetic description of Bush as a man deeply rooted in the tolerant, moderate Republicanism of New England, who has lost his moorings as he tries to win elections by manipulating right-wing constituencies other than his own. Seated next to me is a beautifully dressed, fortysomething businessman who appreciates Gore’s tactful and politically devastating portrait of the President. ‘I like Gore,’ he says. ‘A smart man, a good politician. Clinton, he’s a different story. That Hillary kills it for him. A man can’t be married to a woman like that and expect to be seen as a leader, a real man. She is out there front and centre. He’s not king of his castle.’ I know I have been introduced to him as a professor at MIT, something that usually protects me from such displays of candour. Has the mere fact of my husband’s presence and the assumption that he has paid for the evening transformed me into a woman to whom it is safe to say such things? As I wait in line for dessert, silently rehearsing clichés about strong men not being threatened by strong women, I am joined by the businessman’s wife. She takes me aside and explains that the recession has been hard on her husband and she has been working to support their family. It is important not to wound his pride.
Three days later in Bordeaux, four first-growth vintage wines are being served at the sumptuous lunch which celebrates the annual reunion of five classmates from the Harvard Business School and their wives. Each of the men thinks George Bush has done an inadequate job as a chief executive. At this point, however, only my husband has decided that the President should be punished by being denied his vote. I sense that this is not fertile terrain for my efforts to recruit new Democratic voters. I turn to the other wives, expectant, hopeful. All are well educated. All have worked. Two are black. All but one have pursued legal or business careers during their marriages. Two are childless. Immediately, the conversation becomes an emotionally-charged debate about Hillary Clinton. Her life reflects some of their most difficult choices. But they are not willing to defend her. They are not willing to defend themselves.
Clinton is accused of putting herself first. With only one child, she is not ‘really’ into motherhood. She comes on like a man. Of course, to be a good lawyer, you have to, but there is a price to pay. Her aggressive, ‘out there’ style might be right for her or for me or for them, but it should not be presented as a model for American women. ‘The kind of marriage I have, or you have, or the Clintons have is not for everyone. It shouldn’t be put forward as the norm.’
I realise that I am starting to take all this very personally. This first week in September has not just been a hard week for Hillary.
Hillary Clinton is my age. She went to college only a few miles away, at Wellesley while I was at Radcliffe. She has tried to work and be a mother. So have I. She has had difficulties in her marriage. I’ve been divorced so I know about that too. If American women find her life so controversial, I suppose mine is as well. And yet 25 years of reading about my current angst in the pages of women’s magazines in dentists’ offices have left me feeling less an emblem of controversy than of cultural clichés. A politicised undergraduate life followed by a graduate school and academic career that was about ‘making it’. An easy entrance into the job market, with much competition for my presence as a woman, followed by increasing resistance when it came to salary increases and academic tenure. A painful divorce. Therapy. Starting over. Panic when I learned with all of the other baby boom femmes d’un certain âge about my greater chances of being hijacked by terrorists than of finding a husband at 37. Baby hunger. Biological timeclocks. High-tech infertility treatments. Adoption. Learning that I had better throw the magazines away because there is no such thing as a happy balance of motherhood and work. There is only juggling and worrying and doing the best you can. I recognise in Clinton a steely pragmatism to which I aspire. And a year ago I might have assumed that other women would as well.
A year ago, one might have thought that Hillary Clinton would have had American women on her side because she, like them, has had to navigate the troubled waters of being a woman, a wife, a worker and a mother during a time when all the rules were changing. But it is hard for Hillary Clinton to have American women on her side because they are not yet on their own side. No matter what choices a woman has made, she is ambivalent about them. If she went to work, she remembers her mother who stayed at home. If she stays at home, she is haunted by a sense of her frustrated talents and ambitions, and very often, those of her own mother as well.
It is very hard to tolerate ambivalence, so hard that we reassure ourselves that we are not x by placing the label on someone else. It is called projection: Hillary Clinton as Rorschach. The manoeuvre is easiest when the target object is in some way ambiguous, evocative because on the boundaries of things. Barbara Bush exists on carefully defined terrain. The mother. The grandmother. She supports her man. She provides a safe harbour. While Bush crosses no lines, Clinton crosses minefields: a mother who works outside the home, a lawyer who defends the family by promoting the rights of children, an independent professional whose first loyalty is to her husband’s political ambitions. If Hillary Clinton had been one of the women running for the Senate or House of Representatives, no one would have criticised her make-up or her hair or her dress. As a candidate’s wife, she was betwixt and between and thus fair game.
Only a year ago, another attractive lawyer, a black woman named Anita Hill, was cast in Clinton’s current role as Rorschach and lightning rod. After Hill accused Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment, character witnesses for both sides testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Among those lining up for Thomas was a panel of women who had observed the Hill/Thomas working relationship. In their testimony Hill appeared as uppity, jealous, too pretty, too educated, too fancy, too Yale. Hill crossed the lines and blurred the boundaries: what would have been seen as appropriate professional reserve in a man became intolerable arrogance in the young woman. What would have been his forceful confidence became her bitchiness. Here, too, as in Clinton’s case, it was hard for Hill to appeal to American women because not only do American women have a hard time appealing to each other, they have a hard time appealing to themselves.
Although Bill Clinton has retreated from his suggestion that his wife might have a cabinet level position in his Administration, it is fair to say that Hillary Clinton’s relationship to her husband reminds people of Robert Kennedy’s relationship to his brother: trusted adviser, companion, friend. It is striking that Hillary Clinton’s up-front influence is so threatening to an electorate which has had to face up to the realities of a Reagan Administration held hostage to Nancy Reagan’s astrologer. But backstage manipulation does not cross the line between masculine and feminine. It is easier to tolerate a scheming wife than a powerful colleague. The last firestorm of this sort was when Rosalyn Carter sat in on the meetings of her husband’s cabinet. ‘If you elect Bill, you get me’ is how Hillary has often put it.
The Clintons’ marriage is a political partnership. There is nothing new about the idea: we have had Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Lyndon and Ladybird Johnson. But unlike the Roosevelts and Johnsons, the Clintons have translated the genre into a modern vernacular: they have made the partnership public rather than private. And in doing so, they have violated a powerful taboo. As is so often the case, the taboo is more apparent when the sex roles are reversed. If a female candidate for the United States Senate had her husband who had never held public office introduce her at campaign stops it might well seem a strange political gesture. If her husband made it clear that he expected to have a key role in his wife’s administration, his comments would be derided as sexist presumption, an infringement of her necessary effort to run on her own record.
The Clinton candidacy is wooing the generation which insisted that the political is the personal, the personal the political. In some measure, the Hillary wars dramatise the limitations of that vision. There are times when politics needs to stand outside our other involvements, or at least try as hard as it can to do so. If modern political marriage really means two for the price of one, it needs to be seriously re-thought, an important enterprise that has nothing to do with sending Hillary back to the kitchen to bake cookies or preside over teas.
There is however, no apparent sign that, should Bill Clinton win the Presidency, people will let Hillary Clinton retreat, as she might wish, and as I am suggesting common sense might dictate, back into her own career and well-developed independent interests. The British ask their electoral system to offer up a prime minister. Americans require a first family. If Hillary Clinton becomes first mom, the American family romance will heat up considerably. Through her, American women are playing out their mixed feelings about their own hard choices. Perhaps her presence will provide material for working through some of these issues to greater resolution. One would hope so. Until then, the Hillary wars will simply express a new American symptom, a projection of parts of the self that American women love to hate.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.