Why Hillary Clinton Is All About Women
By Chude Jideonwo
Published in The Guardian, Sunday 13th April, 2008
It started as a relatively innocuous question on a TV show recently. The guests were discussing the new Nigerian music industry, and someone casually asked about the dearth of bright young women dominating the scene. Someone else immediately identified it as a gender issue, and I immediately thought that sounded ridiculous.
But then another guest followed the thought through: women are generally expected to conform to certain images, and women in music are not exempt. It would seem that our expectation from the female artiste is a certain sense of mystery, of being here but not completely in our face. Agree with her or not, the evidences abound - look at the successful women in music, Asa and TY Bello for instance; they have to maintain that sense of mystery. When females like Sasha or Kenny St. Brown decide to burst through that limitation, they get on our nerves. The one female artiste who has escaped this limitation is Weird MC ...ah, but that one dresses like a man!
In another TV show discussing the American elections, someone had mentioned that Hillary Clinton's losses were perhaps tied to sexism, and here I agreed, but only to a larger, more inclusive extent. The fact is, no one is going to the polls thinking, "I won't vote for Hillary because she's a woman". The world has learnt to act and think politically correct enough not to do a silly thing like that.
The problem, however, is the sexism that has constantly been Hillary's foe for many years. The sexism that she faces, just like the female artistes, is a more enduring, subtle, yet potent sexism. People are not reacting to her now because she is a woman; it is a culmination of all the reaction to her as a different kind of woman in the public space.
People forget that the reason why Hillary is a "polarising figure", as Obama doesn't tire of gleefully pointing out, is because of her novelty at the time that she arrived in the public consciousness - a strong wife who refused to "sit at home and bake cookies"; who fought as hard as the men, gave as good as she got, and shocked many American men into a new appreciation for women. What kind of a First Lady was this? They couldn't believe it; they had never seen anything like this before! And so they fought back at her with everything, caricatured her; titled her "bitch", demonised her, but she bounced back each time.
That's the reason Hillary is to America what Thatcher is to the world. And that's why people have hatreds for her that have caked over the years. Why do people accuse her of dishonesty, for instance, and hold her to it when she is no more or no less dishonest than the average politician? It is simply because they cannot come to terms with a woman who can play the game as good as the rest of the men. She proved that there's no inferiority lurking anywhere; that the pantsuits can fit the goose and the gander.
More importantly, as the most activist First Lady since Eleanor Roosevelt, the first to move from the White House into elected office, she cleared the way for many women and is doing so now. Even if she does not win the Democratic primaries, because of the imperfections of her candidacy (that is, the fear of the Clinton-Bush dynasty; the oft-analysed missteps of her campaign, her prominence as a so-called "Washington insider") or the phenomenal Obama momentum, the next women coming up won't have to deal with the issues that she has. Just as Jesse Jackson, flawed as his own candidacy was in the 80s, cleared up some of those issues for Barack Obama.
LET us look at the way women have been defined over time using one strong example - Margaret Thatcher. She certainly did more than enough to present an alternative, strong, effective image of the female. And how did the world react to her, starting with the British press? She was quickly stereotyped and continues to be stereotyped as an extreme; as the Dragon Lady.
That is the kind of thing that limits and restricts women; there's no win-win; you are going to be seen as extreme: you are either too emotional, or too "tough". When the governor of New Orleans messed up big time after the floods, she was mercilessly caricatured as the clueless grandmother, a gender specific put-down. But when a George Bush screws up, he is only seen as a dullard, no gender colourations.
That is why I laugh when my female friends say they see no pressing reason to identify with Hillary. It is because they do not understand. Because they think the battle has been won. Indeed, any minority - black, women, Hispanics, Niger Deltans - that thinks the battle for "emancipation" is won, is basically fooling himself or herself. Any battle that starts with you at a disadvantage can hardly end. You are in a race with competition that had a head start many years before you and you think you should stop being vigilant at any point?
That is why it is gratifying that, state after state, a majority of women are flocking to vote for Hillary, especially women above 50 who know what it was like, and know why this is important. Blacks have a more overwhelming understanding of what is at stake, and that is why they have swallowed their reservations about Obama, and are flocking to his side. They understand.
The fact is that women have significant perception handicaps. The world still has certain images, deny as much as it does, about how the woman should be. A question will suffice: have you ever seen a woman display the charisma that Obama has on the national stage anywhere? Bhutto? Ghandi? Sirleaf? Even Thatcher? The female is a different specie. That charisma, that attractive cockiness, the boyish charm; that same quality of Bill Clinton's that we now adore in Barrack Obama is something that has been associated with men for ages. Whilst it is not something women are incapable of, it is not something that has come naturally - for decades.
When people say Hillary doesn't give as inspiring a speech as Obama, they miss the point that Hillary has been a better speaker than any other presidential candidate in recent history apart from, perhaps, John Edwards, Bill Clinton and Obama. She was definitely a better speaker than Bill Richardson, or John Kerry, or Mitt Romney, or Rudy Gulliani, or for that matter, Al Gore. More than that, she is a much better speaker, much better with crowds than any woman politician on the national stage that America has seen. Because she is almost "manni-sh" in disposition, she has been able to project that charisma and attractive charm that we only associate with men, making her able to compete with the ultimate alpha male that Obama is.
Still she is a woman, so she still has that perception limitation. Females are better in intimate communication, just like Hillary works better in town hall meetings; notably, Obama does poorly in those settings. But people look at that basic difference between masculine and feminine appeal, and based on that stereotype deepened by years of masculine prominence, conclude she is not inspiring. Yet someone says sexism is not affecting her negatively?
When Obama was given the national stage to give the 2004 speech for the Democratic Party, he more than rose up to the occasion, delivering an unremarkable speech with more-than-remarkable aplomb, but just last year, his supporter, Governor Kathless Selibbus, was given the same opportunity to respond to George Bush's State of the Union address, an astute and popular politician that she is, the consensus was that she looked uncomfortable on stage and on TV. That is the gap.
And it is not the only one. Why is it okay for a man to call a woman "bitch" as a joke on mainstream television in America, but a white man cannot do the same and call a black man a "nigger"? Why was there no outrage, only mirth, when men came to a Hillary rally crying "Iron my shirt!" but Rush Limbaugh had to apologise when a caller compared Obama to a monkey? Because... women are still fair game.
When Hillary shows different sides to her - angry, sarcastic, etc. - columnists refer to her as unstable, but when Obama does same, he is seen as cool.
It is simply a difference in behavioural patterns, and the reactions are just a deepening of existing stereotypes. We are so used to men dominating public space that we do not know how to deal with the female in the same space yet. It is not our fault but it is still sexism.
In fact, women (American women) have Hillary to thank for clearing the way for them. What they do not realise is that her continued history being strong, being tough, fighting and winning battles, being constantly elegant and admirable, she has made it clear that women can stay the course, women can stand the distance, women can do it all - and she is doing it on the biggest stage possible.
Men have this sorted for them, at least in America. Before Obama, there was Martin Luther; and then there was Jesse Jackson, to a much lesser extent of course. Before Hillary there was ... who? All the powerful American women - Jackie Kennedy, Barbara Bush, Oprah Winfrey - have more or less risen only because they still maintained the traditional female roles. Oprah is powerful because ... she spoon-feeds America! Condoleezza Rice is that other woman, who, if she stays on the national stage for some more quality years like Hillary, will make the point clearly.
How much of a surprise is it that powerful, successful women are the last to get married in any situation? Look around. How is it that strong, successful powerful men have no qualms settling down, and women who are successful, strong and powerful still find that a stretch? And you say women are free?
Is it surprising that the one ethnic group that flocks to Hillary - Hispanics - are those from a culture that has seen strong women and political wives over time?
Why were the men in an Ohio plant surprised and impressed to their bones when Hillary woke up at 4pm just before the day's primaries to campaign? Because they certainly did not expect such strength from a woman. And for each battle that she wins, for every hurdle that she crosses there, in the full glare of the world media through the CNN, the BBC, Fox News, Al Jazeera, Yahoo! News and the rest, she remains a poster child for the issues and challenges that women face in many parts of the world. And which they should not. At least, not in 2008.
So, please let us all feel free as proud black people to identify with Obama, and to support him with our hearts, because we too have fought battles of our own. But let no one even seek either to undermine the relentless challenges that the first woman to win a primary in America is facing solely because of her gender, and let us not even seek to understate the significance of each victory that she has won despite these stereotypes. Because the famed feminist, Gloria Stern, was absolutely right when she spoke up: gender is still the most restricting force, not just in America, but in many parts of the world. And my sympathies lie with any woman, or girl, who does not know this yet.