Not long ago, Hillary appeared at a La Raza conference, and once onstage in front of a huge crowd, she told her interviewer that they should talk like “two girlfriends.” This tack seems to be the latest in Hillary’s ongoing effort to humanize herself. In the campaign, she clearly believes that her automatic advantage with the female half of the electorate is best pressed by forging this type of personal connection, commiserating with us in our lots as wives and mothers. This type of intimacy requires a brand of vulnerability, and as a woman who has seen her share of glass ceilings, who has struggled to balance career and family, and who has known the complex humiliations of marital infidelity, Hillary is not without relevant material. But it’s in these matters, the intimate matters most likely to be both fascinating and helpful to other women, that she finds she can’t outrun her past.
Hillary’s girlfriend-to-girlfriend moment was awkward because if she wanted to talk that way she would have to be willing to let us women in on the big, underlying struggle of her life that is front and center in our understanding of who she is as a woman. Her husband’s sexual behavior, quite apart from the private pain that it has caused her, has also sullied her deepest—and most womanly—ideals and convictions, for the Clintons’ political partnership has demanded that she defend actions she knows to be indefensible. To call her husband a philanderer is almost to whitewash him, for he’s used women far less sophisticated, educated, and powerful than he—women particularly susceptible to the rake’s characteristic blend of cajolery and deceit—for his sexual gratification. In glossing over her husband’s actions and abetting his efforts to squirm away from the scrutiny and judgment they provoke, Hillary has too often lapsed into her customary hauteur and self-righteousness, and added to the pain delivered upon these women.
I’m 45 years old—not young, but hardly old, either. Yet I can vividly recall being informed by more than one schoolteacher that the reason America was a great country was that any boy, even one of the unprepossessing ones in our own classroom, could grow up to be president. It never occurred to me to think of that as an unfair supposition. Obviously, there were certain things a woman simply couldn’t be: She couldn’t be a king, or an astronaut, or the American president. That we could move, in the space of a few decades, from a civic life in which women’s exclusion from national political office was an absolute article of faith, unthinkingly promulgated by female schoolteachers, to one in which we may very well have a female president in two years, is an astonishing and marvelous thing.
Recently, on David Letterman, Hillary said that she has been touched by the number of parents across the country who bring their young daughters out to see her, and it was an image that caught me off guard with its loveliness. Clearly, in some authentic corner of her soul, Hillary does care a great deal about girls, and clearly to her and to many women of her generation, this is almost the point of the entire campaign: to break through, to win the final battle of a war that has been so hard-fought, so grim, so difficult.