Hillary & Women

Hillary Clinton
Hillary Clinton; drawing by James Ferguson

When Hillary Clinton started losing young women voters to Barack Obama in the Democratic primaries of 2008, the common wisdom among her supporters was that she had messed things up by not “running as a woman.”1 She had refused to grant any particular significance to her gender; she had sought out the endorsements of generals; she had projected “masculine” commander-in-chief qualities at the expense of showing her warm, emotional, “feminine” side. And the result of all this, it was said, was that she had fatally squandered the inspirational appeal of her bid to be the first woman president.

In Broad Influence, a book about women’s impact on the American workplace, Jay Newton-Small recalls Clinton’s public tearfulness on the eve of the 2008 New Hampshire primary as the one salutary occasion during the campaign when Clinton dropped her tough-guy affectations and became a truly effective, woman-friendly candidate. According to Newton-Small her strategist, Mark Penn,

feared this lapse in discipline would end not just her candidacy but potentially her career. But voters didn’t see it that way. After months of wooden, military Hillary, they saw her as a woman with whom especially female voters could empathize. Her tears were a turning point: primarily thanks to female voters, Clinton won New Hampshire 46 percent to Obama’s 34 percent.

The notion that Clinton’s campaign style in 2008 was an imitation of maleness—a shrouding of her authentic womanly self—is testament not only to a strong streak of essentialism that persists in modern feminism, but also to some rather wishful thinking about who Clinton “really” is. A more accurate summation of her strategy that year (and of why young female Democrats didn’t vote for her) is that she ran as a conservative woman.2 And given her history of hawkish foreign policy positions both before and since—her votes for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, her enthusiasm for sending “the hard men with guns” into Syria, and so on—there is no reason to believe that this tough, “military” Clinton was any less authentic than the one who became briefly misty-eyed in a New Hampshire coffee shop.

At any rate, Clinton has now seen the error of her ways. The first clear indication that she would be playing up her femaleness and its putative attendant virtues in this election came two years ago with the publication of her memoir Hard Choices. The book opens with an account of Clinton taking Obama to task for the sexism she endured during the 2008 primaries3 and ends with a chapter on her efforts at the State Department to “knit gender into every corner of US foreign policy.” In between, it fairly brims with “aren’t women amazing?” sentiments of the sort one finds cross-stitched on decorative cushions.4

Doubtless, whatever platform Clinton had run on this year, her campaign would have had some sort of inspirational “woman power” theme. Since circumstances have…


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