Up Against The Man
How did a woman become the establishment candidate? And does voting for her make me feminist? Or fusty?
I am, it turns out, in a mixed marriage. My parents, my in-laws, and quite a few of my married friends have all realized the same thing. Back on Turbo Tuesday, one half of each couple voted for Clinton, the other for Obama. (And, I might add, the division did not always occur along gender lines.) As David wrote in his synagogue’s newsletter at the time, and as many others did elsewhere, divided as we were in our own homes, and tormented as many of us were by the decision, it was a rare, deeply felt treat to have had such a choice, to have such a relative embarrassment of political riches in the first place, to have been able to feel positive, even passionate about our votes. I mean, really. It’s been a while.
Even though David fully supported the vote I cast—for Clinton, okay? For Clinton!—there were times as I contemplated my choice that I felt very, very alone. My neighborhood (home to a group of Obama boosters called The Audacity of Park Slope) was all Obama, all the time; in fact, it turned out to be one of only two Brooklyn districts that went his way that day. I kept getting email from friends, cool friends with enviably hip lifestyles, urging me to support his campaign. All Facebook kept telling me when I logged in were things like “So-and-so has joined the group Rock with Barack” and “So-and-so also has a crush on Obama.” Nothing there about Hillary. Nothing at all. I contemplated changing my “status” to something like “Lynn Harris wonders if she’s the only person on Facebook voting for Hillary Clinton,” but something stopped me. What was it?
Then, on the day of the primary, I got an email from a friend who made a point-by-point pro-Clinton case so solid that it erased any wisps of lingering doubt about how I had, earlier that morning, cast my vote. (That doubt mainly came in the form of wishing there were some way to both vote for Clinton and register some sort of official “rock on!” for Obama, as well as a “Luv ya!” for Edwards.) The only downside of the email was that it made me wish I had brought Bess to the polls, so that she would have been there with me to at least, you know, osmose the exhilaration of pulling the lever for a woman—woman running against a black man, no less, both with admirable and vote-forable-politics. May my daughter grow up in a country where this experience is utterly unremarkable. Without moving to Liberia.
I wrote my friend back to say thanks. “Yeah!” he replied. “It’s so nice to hear of other ‘young’ people for Hillary Clinton. Sometimes I feel like I’m in that old Saturday Night Live parody of Invasion of the Body Snatchers where all the hippies became Reagan pod people.”
Aha! That’s why I felt alone. It wasn’t so much that I was outnumbered, because if you look at the numbers that day, I wasn’t. It was this: All the cool kids are voting Obama. I, the Hillary supporter, am the pod person, the old guard, the fogey. And what irony! Under most other historical circumstances, the woman in Hillary’s position would be the boat-rocker, the bringer of a new day. But in this race, Clinton—with her husband, her entrenchment, her pantsuits—represents the “establishment.” Obama has a movement; Clinton has a machine. Obama is a Mac, Clinton is a PC. In this race, ladies and gentlemen, Hillary Clinton is The Man.
Should we consider this progress? We should, at the very least, consider it dumb luck. Obama’s presence in this race—the audacity of timing—is Clinton’s “Snakes. It had to be snakes.” But how did we skip the part where we have to actually elect a woman to high office before she can represent a certain status quo? What do we make of reports that some girls and young women find Obama to be the candidate—the candidate—who represents “change”? Is this refreshing, or depressing?
It’s refreshing if you take it to mean that we are collectively enlightened enough to be judging a female candidate solely on her merits, not her gender. To this I respond, “AHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!” That’s not to say that certain individuals—my email friend, say, or Paul Krugman—are unable to form that kind of unfettered opinion. But come on. We have not come that long a way, baby. Never mind the peculiarly virulent anti-Clinton misogyny (which, it bears noting, has been compared—with all the proper caveats—to anti-Semitism). I think even feminists-on-paper have knee-jerk sexist reactions to Clinton, reactions analogous to that reflexive, racist urge to cross the street when a black person approaches. That niggling sense that she is cold or distant, inauthentic? It’s inconsistent with people’s personal reports—as described in George Packer’s recent New Yorker article about the leading Democratic candidates—and I believe it comes from an ingrained expectation that women should be warm. (Which, if Clinton were, would be taken to mean she’s not tough enough.) Would you ever accuse a man—in terms of being ruthless or calculating—of doing whatever it takes to win? No one calls McCain shrill—though really, they ought to start.
And the mainstream media, of course, is not helping. Not helping at all. Katie Couric asked Clinton to confirm the details of her proposed initiatives for constraining prescription drug and managed care expenditures nickname in high school: “Miss Frigidaire.” Couric also asked Clinton what she would do if she did not win the race. Uh, Hillary Clinton is a SENATOR.
Much is also made in the media about “how women are voting.” (As if we are all on one giant Listserv. “I’ll vote for her if you vote for her!” “Okay, what should we wear to the poll?”) I have seen great frowning upon the possibility that women—especially us stodgy old-guard feminists—would vote for Hillary because she’s a woman. But I have also seen articles reporting snidely, even gleefully, with a “Gotcha!” tone, that—this just in!—some women do not support Clinton. (One New York Observer article noted that women’s magazines did not endorse Hillary. It also noted, as an aside, that the women’s magazines do not endorse candidates. Where’s the story?) Globe and Mail columnist Karen Von Hahn—griping that her own daughter doesn’t know who Gloria Steinem is—ascribed the failure of women to support Hillary en masse to “feminism’s failure to create true sisterhood.” Good lord. Seems the woman—or at least the first woman in this position—can’t win for running.
There were also reports, though, of women who—having entered their polling places still undecided—closed the curtain, faced the levers, and found themselves unable to NOT vote for the woman. This I do not find reductive. This I find deeply stirring.
Also stirring: Hillary Clinton’s thank-yous on Super Tuesday. “I want to thank all my friends and family, particularly my mother,” she said, “who was born before women could vote, and is watching her daughter on this stage tonight.” (Cut to me, wiping away tears). No matter what happens in the next round of primaries, I want Bess, one day, to watch that clip. (Even if YouTube, by then, is streamed directly into her brain.) Von Hahn says—and here the two of us agree—”The hard truth is that we have failed to impress upon our own daughters that women’s issues still matter.” I do not want to fail there. I want Bess to grow up knowing who Gloria Steinem is. (For me, it’s easy: Steinem spoke at my high school graduation. Good story.) Seventeen or so years from now (which is really not that long), if a woman is a true establishment candidate by then, in a good way, I want Bess to to have osmosed the same wonder the Forward’s East Village Mameleh sees in her six-year-old. “Isn’t it amazing,” her daughter asked, in the voting booth with her mother, “that 150 years ago, neither of these guys could even vote?” I hope, in other words, that in seventeen years, it really isn’t a big deal if a woman is a real contender for president. And I want Bess to know that that is a big deal.