Update: Hillary Clinton suspended her campaign in Washington today, throwing her full support to Barack Obama.
Hillary Clinton came this close. In fact, as of this writing, she hasn’t formally conceded. Nobody really understands why: why she stuck it out this long, given the math, and why she gave such a grudging, graceless version of her stump speech after the South Dakota primary clinched the nomination for Barack Obama. Suggestions I’ve heard are not very flattering: she hopes to whittle down her multimillion-dollar campaign debt with donations from the deluded die-hards screaming Denver! Denver! She wants the number-two spot. She’s a crazy narcissistic rhymes-with-rich. Maybe she’s just ticked off because pundits have been trying to hustle her off the stage ever since her third-place finish in the Iowa caucuses.
Some think Clinton’s loss, and the psychodrama surrounding it, will set women back. I think they’re wrong. Love her or loathe her, the big story here is Americans saw a woman who was a serious, popular, major-party candidate. Clinton showed herself to be tough, tireless, supersmart and definitely ready to lead on that famous Day One. She raised a ton of money and won 17.5 million votes from men and women. She was exciting, too: she and Obama galvanized voters for six long months–in some early contests, each of them racked up more votes than all the Republican candidates combined. Once the bitterness of the present moment has faded, that’s what people will remember. Because she normalized the concept of a woman running for President, she made it easier for women to run for every office, including the White House. That is one reason women and men of every party and candidate preference, and every ethnicity too, owe Hillary Clinton a standing ovation, even if they can’t stand her.
There’s another reason to be grateful to her. Clinton’s run has put to rest the myth that we are living in a postfeminist wonderland in which all that stands in women’s path is women themselves. Like a magnet–was it the pantsuit?–Clinton drew out the nation’s misogyny in all its jeering glory and put it where we could all get a good look at it. “Iron my shirt” hecklers. Wearers of Bros Over Hos T-shirts and buyers of Hillary nutcrackers. Fans of the Citizens United Not Timid website (check the acronym). Vats of sexist nastiness splattered across the Comments section of hundreds of blogs and websites. It’s as if every obscene phone caller and every exhibitionist in America decided to become an amateur political pundit.
As for the real pundits, thank you, Hillary, for showing us the snickering belittling of women that passes for media commentary: Rush Limbaugh, no Adonis, wondering out loud if “the country” was ready to watch a woman age in the White House; Chris Matthews, Don Imus and Tucker Carlson with their litany of insults–she-devil, Satan, witch, Antichrist, Lady Macbeth. NPR’s Ken Rudin compared her to Glenn Close’s indestructible bunny-boiler character in Fatal Attraction. And surely a special prize goes to Keith Olbermann for his indignant, hysterical bombast after Clinton’s ham-handed reference to RFK’s assassination. Rarely has men’s terror of women with more brains than a Bratz doll been on such public display. And, of course, men were what we mostly saw up there on the small screen, yakking and blathering away.
It wasn’t just men, though. Thank you, Hillary, for letting us get a good look at female sexism: the catty fashionistas and Style page dingbats obsessing over her clothes, her hair, her weight, her cleavage, her laugh. Air America’s Randi Rhodes calling her a “big fucking whore,” Maureen Dowd offering up her twice-weekly dose of vinegar and dozens of women writers musing prettily about why they and their friends all hate Hillary. Could it be they’re jealous? Not, as novelist Mary Gordon has suggested, of Hillary’s bagging of sexy Bill (yuck) but of her unsinkable ambition and drive. Hillary’s run upset the carefully balanced apple cart of trade-off and resignation and semi-suppressed frustration that is how women of the professional class accommodate to patriarchy lite.
Please note: I don’t claim Clinton lost because she’s a woman. (I think it was her Iraq vote, which she could never justify or renounce; assorted strategic mistakes; the bumptious interventions of her husband; and, most of all, that Barack Obama, a prodigiously gifted, charismatic politician, took the banner of change away from her.) The attacks on her may even have helped by making women voters identify with her. In New Hampshire, pols’ and pundits’ sexist mockery of her “misting” made women rally to her side and revitalized her campaign.
Now those women, not all white and not all working class, are on the political map, and so are the issues that made them identify with Clinton: the glass ceiling and the sticky floor, the inequality built into marriage and family life, sexual harassment and assault, lack of support for caring work–paid or unpaid–and, underlying them all, a fundamental lack of respect that over the years can make a woman feel fed up to here. It’s an irony of this campaign that Clinton was seen by the pundit class as a kind of über-diva whose attempts to reach out were transparently phony (beer and Canadian Club, anyone?) and yet millions of ordinary women–white, Latino and black–saw their struggles mirrored in hers. I won’t deny that there’s racism and xenophobia in the mix for some–hatred of Obama as affirmative action trickster and secret Muslim. It’s incredibly important for Clinton to do the right thing and rally these women to Obama, and I wish I felt surer that she would rise to the occasion.
She could begin by pointing out that Obama is pro-woman and prochoice and as President will pursue policies to benefit all women–on labor, healthcare, sexual violence and many other issues. She could tell her supporters a vote for McCain is crazy. She could even tell them that a biracial man in the White House will make it easier for voters to imagine other nontraditional kinds of Presidents–like the next woman who decides to run.
Whoever that woman is, though, she’d better have the hide of a rhinoceros.