DECEMBER 14, 2012
Other female politicians might be able to run for president and be the victim of a limited amount of sexist vitriol, but not her.
Hillary Clinton is basking in the warm glow of public affection. Her approval ratings have risen steadily since the 2008 campaign ended, and now stand at around 65 percent. She has gotten high marks from members of both parties for her work as Secretary of State. So naturally, since she'll be stepping down soon, speculation has begun about whether she'll run for president. I could add one more uninformed guess about whether she'll run, but what's the point? Nobody knows right now, maybe not even Clinton herself. One thing's for sure: 2016 is her last chance. She'll be 69 on election day, as old as Reagan was when he was first elected. But she's smart enough to know that the current esteem she enjoys will be cut back severely the instant she becomes a candidate. As Nate Silver has detailed, over the years her approval ratings have gone up and down in direct relation to how close she has been to the battle of partisan politics.
It's also tempting to forget, when looking at her today, just how much ugly sexist vitriol was aimed at her during her time as First Lady and, to a slightly lesser but still significant degree, in her 2008 campaign. If she runs again, and especially if she becomes the Democratic nominee, it will come back in greater force than ever. Ann Friedman laments Clinton's Catch-22:Herein lies one of the most useful, but also saddest, lessons of Hillary Clinton's career: The best defense against being labeled a raging bitch is to convince people you're an underdog. The ability to eat shit, to suck it up and earn the affection of skeptical voters or older male colleagues or your cheating husband, again and again, is an essential skill for successful women of Hillary's generation. A skill that is becoming less essential, sure, but one that few women would declare irrelevant.
To say that Clinton was the victim of sexism is too simple, true though it is. There was what can only be described as a tornado of male sexual panic directed at her. It sometimes seemed that decades of resentment and insecurity over the attacks on patriarchal privilege was poured into a cauldron, simmered down to a thick sauce, and then poured on Clinton's head. It came in the form of angry screeds, and it came in the form of jokes, all far more revealing about the sender than the target. Much of the humor, like the Spy magazine cover with which I illustrated this post, was premised on the hilarious idea that Clinton was not a woman at all but a man, because after all, how could she be FIrst Lady, work on policy, and still be a woman? (This continued into 2008;here's Amy Poehler as Clinton in a Saturday Night Live skit, saying "I invite the media to grow a pair. And if you can't, I will lend you mine.")
When she wasn't portrayed as male, Clinton was described as a castrating harpy; to take just one example, Tucker Carlson said multiple times during the 2008 campaign that whenever he saw Clinton on television, "I involuntarily cross my legs." I suppose Carlson was being refreshingly frank about his own sexual insecurity; his manhood apparently hangs by such a thin thread that just seeing a powerful woman on television was enough for him to fear that she would come through the screen and steal his testicles. But he was hardly the only one who saw in Clinton such a threat to their masculinity. The examples are too numerous to go through, but I'd just mention one of my favorites, when U.S. News complimented Clinton for a speech she gave, saying, "Her presentation was devoid of hard edges, contrary to her longtime image among critics as a harridan and a polarizer." That's right, a "harridan." That was written not in 1907, but in 2007.
As I said, I have no idea whether Clinton is going to run for president again. But if she does, all that stuff is going to come roaring back. There are many more women in politics today than there were 20 years ago when Hillary Clinton first became a national figure, and I'm sure that before long one of them will run for president and be faced with only a fraction of the kind of sexist venom that Clinton has been the target of (particularly if she's a Republican). But Clinton herself will never be able to escape it.