Had someone suggested a decade ago that Hillary Clinton, then a controversial First Lady, was going to be America's first serious female presidential contender, it would likely have been seen as a joke. Today, it looks entirely possible that Clinton may end up laughing all the way to the White House: poll after poll show her leading the Democratic field. But is her candidacy a giant leap for womankind, a setback for true female equality in politics, or a non-issue as far as gender is concerned?
Ever the astute politician, Clinton has largely avoided playing up her status as a feminist or female pioneer (except in direct appeals to women. such as a testimonial from Maya Angelou on Clinton's campaign website, proclaiming a deep affection for Hillary "ever since you stood up as a woman and said: Yes, I'm a woman. Phenomenal woman"). Even health care, traditionally viewed as in the feminine sphere, is not being framed as a "women's issue" despite its prominence in the campaign. No one is proclaiming 2008 to be a new "Year of the Woman" in politics. Yet Hillary Clinton has always been something of a lightning rod for gender issues in American culture, and today's gentler, centrist Hillary is unlikely to change that.
One irony of the Hillary Clinton candidacy is that if she wins, she will follow the most traditional of female paths to political power: succeeding her husband in a position of leadership. This has prompted Andrew Sullivan to note that "when it comes to feminist pioneering, she's less Margaret Thatcher than Cory Aquino," the president of the Philippines who was elected as a stand-in for her murdered husband. But Hillary Clinton is a political wife with a twist. She is not filling in for a dead husband; Bill Clinton is very much alive, and playing political spouse to her presidential candidate. Nor did she launch her political career by stepping directly into his shoes—instead, she ran successfully for the Senate seat in New York.
Hillary Clinton's career as a public figure was always the stuff of feminist paradox. In 1992, when Bill Clinton ran for President, she was touted as a new type of First Lady—one who had a high-powered career of her own as an attorney, one who would be her husband's equal in a virtual co-presidency ("two for one"). To some, this was a feminist model; to others, it was pernicious traditionalism in feminist clothing—a woman achieving political power the old-fashioned way, by marrying it. Critics pointed out that her position was one of power without accountability: unlike the president, she did not have to face re-election, and unlike high-level administration officials she did not have to undergo the confirmation process and could not resign or be fired.
Hillary Clinton also became a uniquely polarizing figure: "Saint Hillary" to some, the Wicked Witch of the West Wing to others; an altruistic crusader for social justice and for children, or a scheming, power-hungry, arrogant Mussolini in skirts. Her supporters wrongly saw all hostility to their heroine as a manifestation of misogyny. (Those who think no male in public life was ever demonized as she was, or was ever excoriated for excessive ambition and arrogance, obviously never paid much attention to the fortunes of Newt Gingrich.) But there is no doubt that gender was a large factor both in Hillary-hatred and in Hillary-worship.
The Clinton sex scandals gave the question of Hillary and feminism a new twist. Once again, Hillary Clinton found herself in a quintessential pre-feminist role: that of the philandering husband's forgiving wife, standing by her man. Some harshly criticized her for this stance, suggesting that she sacrificed feminist principle either for love or for ambition.
In the years that followed, Hillary Clinton did exactly what her detractors accused her of failing to do: face the voters as a politician in her own right. Yet she continues to come under fire for exploiting her position as a political wife, and for allowing herself to be exploited in that position. After Hillary Clinton's campaign video spoofing the infamous "fade to black" finale of "The Sopranos," New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd likened Hillary to Carmela Soprano, the mob wife who acquiesces in her husband's life of crime as well as his adulteries: "Like Carmela, who was rewarded with jewels, watches and building permits for her husband's infidelities with his goomahs, Hillary, too, found a way to profit from her husband's failings and flaws." (The Times ran Dowd's column under the catchy title: "Carmela Got Gold Jewelry. Hillary Wants a White House.")
This particular line of attack strikes me as off-base. No one knows the inner workings of a marriage, even the Clinton marriage. To say that it's anti-feminist for a wife to forgive a husband's adultery is to take the dubious feminist maxim that "the personal is political" to an even more dubious extreme. Nor is it clear that the compromises Hillary Clinton has made for political power are greater than the ones made by the typical male politician. And it would be truly an unfair burden to expect a female presidential candidate to be a standard-bearer for feminist idealism.
Perhaps the best political news for women is that Hillary Clinton's gender, so far, has not played much of a role in her campaign. Like the male candidates, she should be judged on her politics. "Vote for Hillary—she's a woman" appeals should be dismissed as patronizing and insulting to the intelligence of female voters. "Don't vote for Hillary—she's a bad feminist" is no better an argument.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor of reason.