There’s a lot being made lately about Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s inability to attract “professional” women to her cause. There’s also a lot been made about Sen. Barack Obama’s ability to talk to feminists. And then there’s the whole idea of “change” which gets a lot closer to women’s problems voting for Clinton than anyone wants to admit.
On the surface, Clinton’s inability to get traction with a wide swath of professional women is something of a contradiction. The assumption as you connect the dots across the magazine cover stories and front-page profiles is that “feminists” and “professional” women are the same crowd with the same interests: women who want to see another woman in the White House.
There are plenty of women with high-powered jobs who are happy to call themselves “feminists” and who are supporting Clinton’s candidacy. But there are just as many – the more calculating perhaps, the more moderate, maybe – who understand that in many circles “feminist” is code for “lesbian”. Or they’re women – and they are legion in partners’ meetings and board rooms – who believe feminism is politics and that politics has no place in business because such ideas – spoken or not – do not sit well with their male colleagues. Judging by her behavior in the Senate and on the campaign trail, Clinton in, in many respects, one of these women. One who has pulled her punches – in her love life and her professional life – to succeed.
Clinton’s new-found ability to cover her desire to wield power with a softer touch, her somewhat stiff and stilted delivery, her get-it-done-at-all-costs failure-is-not-an-option view of the her campaign, along with that train-wreck of a marriage are all earmarks of a very brittle version of the 21st century American womanhood, one that calls for almost constant, visible, unending compromise on all fronts.
Hillary Clinton is prepared, she is ready and – partly because she’s spent her life being held to a higher standard – she’s about as much fun as a nun at a co-ed summer camp. And she is in many respects the woman her peers – often desperately – do not want to be, a woman many are afraid they have become. In almost every area of her life, Clinton’s followed a remarkably cautious course – marriage to the politician, not entering politics, putting up with his philandering, not striking out on her own (even out of pride), cutting a moderately conservative course (on the Iraq War, on international diplomacy on health care), not bringing anything truly radical to the debates about the nation’s future.
Clinton is also a woman who – correctly or not – is see to have somehow not gotten this boy-girl, husband-wife thing down. Let’s face it, there are plenty of women who would happily sleep with Bill Clinton but precious few would sign up for a lifetime of on-and-off commitment. That’s another sacrifice Hillary Clinton appears to have made and for lots of women (paging Maureen Dowd) this is what rankles the most.
If the tired old saying about presidents is true – Americans elect the man you want to have beer with – then there’s a female corrallary and Hillary Rodham Clinton is not a woman you’d take shopping. Her husband? Hell, yes. Maybe even her daughter who clearly knows her way around upper Madison Avenue. But the Senator? Nah. And it ain’t just the pantsuits. It’s her sensibility. Clinton’s the woman who will ask why you need another pair of black shoes, not the one who will remind you that Christian Louboutin is only on sale at Nieman’s Last Call for about 10 seconds and if those things fit, you better grab ‘em. Now.
Leave it to Oprah Winfrey to hammer home this contrast. Oprah – a successful career woman by any stretch of the imagination – shows up on stage at a political rally in a warm silver pantsuit, a little low-cut and a lot sexy. You may never watch her TV show but man, if you’re going to be 50 any time soon, you wanna look as good as Oprah does. And you want to be as fun and as interesting, as likable as she appears to be. Not to mention the boyfriend.
That’s not to say Clinton isn’t likable. She is gracious, well-spoken, a good politician and, increasingly, a comfortable and savvy campaigner. But she’s not standing before her peers saying she’s going to make great changes in their lives or hers. She’s telling us she’s going to keep doing what it takes to keep going. And for some that’s just not good enough anymore.