Hillary Clinton’s real lesson for women

By Chrystia Freeland

Published: June 3 2008


This will probably be the week when Barack Obama finally clinches the Democratic nomination for this year’s US presidential election. The topsy-turvy contest has been humbling for the punditocracy, but I remain willing to predict one reaction to Mr Obama’s slow-motion victory with certainty – many of Senator Hillary Clinton’s supporters will denounce the result as evidence that the US remains deeply sexist.

The ”iron my shirt” heckler who confronted Mrs Clinton in New Hampshire will be recalled, as will the infamous ”Hillary Nutcracker” whose black pant-suit-clad thighs are ”promised to crack even the toughest nut” and which you can buy on Amazon for $19.67. The assertion by Gloria Steinem, the feminist, that ”gender is probably the most restricting force in American life” will be cited as prescient, and former vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro’s warning that Mrs Clinton’s treatment ”sends a direct signal that sexism is OK in all of society” will become a rallying cry for her aggrieved backers.

It is true, disappointing and unsurprising that Mrs Clinton has faced some sexist opposition in her quest to become the first female president of the US. But bias against women is not the reason Mrs Clinton will not get the nomination this year – blame instead the catastrophic mismanagement of her campaign if you are looking for a single reason why the once inevitable candidate has become the runner-up.

More important, feminists need not be too heartbroken at their heroine’s loss. The truth – and it is one worth remembering this week as paeans to Mrs Clinton’s stalwart campaigning come pouring in – is that the New York senator was always an imperfect standard-bearer for the cause of female advancement in the US. Even her harshest critics admit she is smart, tough, disciplined and incredibly hard-working – but none of those sterling qualities negates the biographical fact that the US’s first credible female contender for the White House owes her national political career to marrying the right guy.

In using her marriage – notably her eight years as first lady, which was often invoked as evidence that she would be ”ready on day one” – as her launch pad, Mrs Clinton has more in common with the wives and daughters who inherited high office in dynasty-friendly regimes in south-east Asia and Latin America. It contrasts with leaders such as Angela Merkel and Margaret Thatcher, who were elected to run Group of Seven high-income countries under their own steam.

It is a critical difference. For one thing, where marriage or paternity have put women in power it is hard to be sure they have broken glass ceilings for the rest of us. The persistent, punishing societal sexism of some countries that have been ruled by women who got to the top through family connections suggests their breakthroughs reflect the importance of political clans more than that of girl power.

Moreover, the dynastic path to the White House is a route Americans of both genders should treat with suspicion, and not only because of the sorry performance of the latest child of a president to take over his father’s job. Rejection of the aristocratic principle was one of the great revolutionary ideals upon which the republic was founded: that does not quite chime with the fact that, were Mrs Clinton to be elected president in November, just two families would have shared that post for at least 24 continuous years, and maybe for 28. Oddly, for all the hardball character of this nominating battle, this aspect of Mrs Clinton’s bid has received little domestic scrutiny. But Americans should be aware that in countries such as Russia and China, where democracy is still a dissident’s dream, dynastic succession in the US would help bolster the ruling regimes’ arguments that American democracy is merely a Potemkin village.

Yet while Mrs Clinton’s victory would have been a flawed triumph for feminism, the way she lost has bequeathed an important legacy. One of the central concerns of the Clinton campaign team at the start of the race was that voters would have a hard time believing that a woman could be tough enough to serve as commander-in-chief. That fear was real – and, in slightly different guises, it is one every woman in a position of authority must face sooner or later.

But, thanks to Mrs Clinton, there cannot be many Americans left who still doubt that at least one woman in the country is steely enough to do just about anything. In the final stretch of the race, Mrs Clinton let the country see her grit, stamina and indomitable will. It was the most effective pose of her chameleon campaign, partly because it was the most authentic. By showing that she has what the irrepressible strategist James Carville did not have any scruples in dubbing the ”cojones” to rule, Mrs Clinton has made the path to the White House a little smoother for the next woman who attempts to ascend it. Her demonstration effect is sure to extend more widely, too: Mrs Clinton’s highly visible example makes it more plausible and more socially acceptable for Americans in every field of endeavour to imagine women at the top.

It will be tempting for some of Mrs Clinton’s forlorn supporters to paint her as the female victim of another patriarchal onslaught. They should resist that reflex. Not only would it diminish her achievement, it would obscure one of the important results of the race. Mrs Clinton has been defeated in this year’s quest for the White House, but by proving that a woman can be tough and applauded for her muscle, she has scored an important victory for American women.


The writer is the FT’s US managing editor


Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2008


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