Hillary Clinton’s campaign may come to an end this week. And, on the eve of a decisive primary, we can’t help but wonder if she made a fatal mistake: downplaying her femininity.
No doubt Mrs. Clinton’s womanhood has played a pivotal role in this campaign, but usually on other people’s terms. Conservative pundits have repeatedly assailed her as an ambitious she-beast. Rush Limbaugh often refers to Clinton in less-than-flattering, testicularly minded terms. Tucker Carlson called Mrs. Clinton “castrating,” a proverbial fear for most American men. And the male of the species isn’t alone in taking on the Senator.
Who could forget the infamous cleavage upheaval, when National Review online editor Kathryn Jean Lopez derided the Senator for revealing too much chest while on the job? Clinton’s campaign seized on the moment, biting back at Lopez’s irresponsible gender card. Advisor Ann Lewis bit back in a fundraising email, writing: “Frankly, focusing on women’s bodies instead of their ideas is insulting. It’s insulting to every woman who has ever tried to be taken seriously in a business meeting.” Too true.
No candidate’s gender, race or religion should be used to derail their efforts. While it’s unseemly for talking heads to use Clinton’s gender against her, it may have been prudent for Clinton to have highlighted her feminine wiles – or, at least, biology – to her advantage.
Barack Obama hasn’t explicitly used race during his campaign, but the historic weight of his race has very often been used to celebrate his landmark candidacy. The frenzy over Obama’s groundbreaking ascension may have eclipsed the relevancy of Clinton’s own impact. Here we have a woman – a strong, smart and perfectly capable woman – who has a tangible shot at the White House. Clinton’s candidacy is just as historic as Obama’s. Many people forget that, however, and Clinton doesn’t work too hard to remind them. In fact, she often downplays her womanhood, as when she backed out of a Vogue photo shoot lest she appear too “feminine”.
The snub led Vogue editor Anna Wintour to blast Clinton – and the media:
Imagine my amazement, then, when I learned that Hillary Clinton, our only female presidential hopeful, had decided to steer clear of our pages at this point in her campaign for fear of looking too feminine. The notion that a contemporary woman must look mannish in order to be taken seriously as a seeker of power is frankly dismaying. How has our culture come to this? How is it that The Washington Post recoils from the slightest hint of cleavage on a senator? This is America, not Saudi Arabia… I do think Americans have moved on from the power-suit mentality, which served as a bridge for a generation of women to reach boardrooms filled with men. Political campaigns that do not recognize this are making a serious misjudgment.
She’s talking to you, Hillary.
While we haven’t heard every single one of Hillary’s campaign speeches, we can’t pinpoint any time the Senator – or the media’s coverage – has highlighted the cultural importance of Clinton’s candidacy. In fact, it wasn’t until last week that we heard Clinton herself note the relevancy of her political trajectory.
The comment came as Clinton spoke with The News Hour‘s Judy Woodruff. Toward the end of their exchange, Woodruff asked Clinton, quite simply, “What would be different about having a female president?” Woodruff’s inquiry isn’t new, of course, but Clinton’s frankness and candor are something worth discussing. Said Clinton:
Oh, I don’t even think we can adequately imagine the difference it would make. It would be the shattering of the highest and hardest glass ceiling. And it would send such a message of hope and opportunity to every little girl, to every young woman.
That’s probably the most common thing that people say to me out on the campaign trail. There’s two things, actually. One is that, you know, people say, “Well, I’m here because of my daughter,” or, you know, “My little girl just learned that we’ve never had a woman president and, you know, I want her to know she can do anything.”
I mean, it would be a very deep change in how people see themselves and who is able to fulfill this position.
Jim Crow laws aside, women didn’t get the right to vote until well after black men. Women continue to make less compared to their male counterparts and women face more physical abuse than men. Having a woman run for the White House, then, strikes at the heart of one of the States’ most tenacious forms of discrimination: misogyny.
Clinton eschewed this point for too long in her campaign, however, thus depleting it of its power. Had Clinton highlighted her historic role – rather than her work during her husband’s administration – she may have captured some of the revolutionary spirit sapped by Obama. She didn’t, though, and racial divides came to dominate much of the primary season, making Clinton’s candidacy seem like just another seasoned politician’s presidential push, not a woman pushing against centuries of oppression.