Dissent Of The Day

A reader writes:

Since you're turning this into a commentary about Clinton's status as a feminist, why hold a woman to a different standard from men who have advanced in politics?  Why hold women to special scrutiny, particularly when women have historically been subject to social and cultural constraints regarding power that men have not?  (The same question would probably apply to minorities as well.)  The jury's still out on whether it's "feminist" to benefit from one's family connections in politics -- but I do know that those are precisely the rules men get to play by when given the opportunity.

On that score, I disagree that Thatcher's "rich husband" was not a stepping stone to politics for her – of course it was, as his wealth enabled to her to not be chained to the home with the domestic chores that prevent less well-off women from pursuing public life.

But that doesn't necessarily mean she was not exceptional, of course.  She was similar to other exceptional women of her generation, which would include Sandra Day O'Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and I am sure that Thatcher faced similar discrimination to theirs (and while conservative, Thatcher was a feminist in her own way).  Women of that generation indeed had to be exceptional to get ahead, even with the benefit of family connections or wealth, because legal and cultural barriers were extensive and entrenched and there was no movement in sight to change that. 

But your assumption that Hillary could have done it on her own -- the suggestion that she faced no constraints to her ambitions -- shows a genuine ignorance of the lives of American girls growing up in the 50s and 60s and coming of age personally and professionally in the 70s and 80s.  Hillary is indeed an exceptional woman of her generation – as you call her, "one of the leading lights in her generation."  But how does it follow that because she is not quite as exceptional as Thatcher (in your book) that she is not also a feminist?

Your comments reflect little appreciation for (or perhaps little understanding of) second-wave American feminism, of which Hillary is decidedly a product (O'Connor and Ginsburg were not of that generation, but Ginsburg nonetheless embraced second-wave feminism in her work). Second wave feminism was based largely on the awareness of common oppression (think consciousness-raising groups) and the efforts that those feminists made (and still make) were oriented towards making advances for women as a class – thus the energy spent on changing laws to redress egregious, class-based violations of women's autonomy and dignity and on breaking down the barriers in education and the workplace that held them back.  (In contrast, third-wave feminism is conscious of discrimination women face but tends to take a more individualistic approach to problem-solving because many class-based barriers against women are no longer there and a lot of discrimination is more subtle and of the sort that isolates women in their own particular experience).  My point here is that because women embody different projections of feminism doesn't mean that they aren't both feminists.  Thatcher's feminism was very much of her generation and culture, while Hillary's is very much of hers, and feminism will look yet different when the twentysomething feminists of today reach their 50s and 60s.  But they are all feminists.

Hillary's appealing to certain gender touchstones is hardly the mark of an "un-feminist" – it's often quite the opposite for women who identify more with second-wave feminism than the third wave (even if they wouldn't call it by those terms).  And let's not pretend that men don't play to gender touchstones in every election – why else all the football-throwing on the tarmac during campaign stops, the ridiculous hunting trips, the pictures of them playing football or basketball in college, the one-upping each other on who will put more people on death row or who will torture more people, but to prove who's more manly?? (This is, by the way, very limiting to gay men, too.)

And by suggesting that we should vote against Hillary to "defend the cause of female equality" aren't you advocating that women do precisely what you have criticized Hillary's supporters for doing (without much evidence)?  That is, what's the difference between voting for her because of her gender versus voting against her because of she's supposedly not feminist enough?  You advocate that people vote for Obama because he's the better candidate.  What are you so afraid of that you have to advocate that people – and let's face it, you're talking about women here – vote against Hillary *not* because of her positions or qualifications, but simply on her supposed status as an "anti-feminist" in your book?  So, the best disqualifier a conservative like you can come up with is that Hillary isn't a feminist?  And that's a problem???  Of course it isn't a problem for you.  But your insistence that it be a problem for women is incredibly patronizing.