The Feminist Mistake

It wasn't sexism that sunk Hillary Clinton


The end of this interminable Democratic primary was to be inevitably followed by a week of incoherent postmortems detailing the real reasons for the demise of Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.). How could it be that Mrs. Clinton—a woman of significant experience, possessing that Clintonian political acumen—flamed out so dramatically?

Recall that back in 2005, Dick Morris, the prostitute-loving former adviser to President Clinton, prophesied that "as of this moment, there is no doubt that Hillary Clinton is on a virtually uncontested trajectory to win the Democratic nomination and, very likely, the 2008 election." But Republicans need not despair, Morris wrote, because "her victory is not inevitable. There is one, and only one, figure in America who can stop Hillary Clinton: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice."

The following year, conservative columnist John Podhoretz played the dangerous game of premature political prognostication as well, with the release of his book Can She Be Stopped? Hillary Clinton Will Be the Next President of the United States…Unless. In fairness, it would have demanded Nostradamus-like powers of prediction to imagine Clinton upended by a junior senator from Illinois, peddling a particularly audacious brand of hope.

But for many obituarists it wasn't the finely-tuned campaign of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) that dashed Clinton's plans of resettling into the White House. Nor was it her deeply unpopular vote to authorize the Iraq War. Instead, the answer was more obvious: An electorate—and pundit class—imbued with sexism, both conscious and unconscious, conspired to keep a women out of the Oval Office.

In the wake of her defeat, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof lamented that, like Obama's effusively praised speech on race, Clinton failed to start a similar conversation about gender. Indeed, "In polls, more Americans say they would be willing to vote for a black candidate for president than for a female candidate." This is true, but Kristof fails to note that the differences are slight. According to a recent poll conducted for The Washington Post and ABC News, 88 percent of respondents said that they were either "entirely" or "somewhat" comfortable with an African-American president. When asked about is they were comfortable with the prospect of a female president, the number dipped slightly to 84 percent.

As political commentator George Will recently observed, Americans would quite assuredly vote for a woman, it's just they weren't particularly interested in voting for that woman. But the modern woman-hater, Kristof explains, is a rather different breed: "The catch is that abundant psychology research shows that we are often shaped by stereotypes that we are unaware of." In other words, many might think they were rejecting Clinton based on a set of political criteria, but Democratic primary voters might, in fact, be struggling with a seething sexist subconscious. (Kristof's subconscious, of course, is more Betty Friedan than Harvey Mansfield.)

Over at The Nation, it was the back-slapping cable news fraternity that was activating our subconscious sexism. "Hillary Clinton's loss has renewed critiques that American political media is slanted, sexist and dominated by men," wrote Ari Melber, the magazine's "Net movement correspondent." "While Clinton and Obama broke barriers in the Democratic primary, swiftly dispatching white male senators with more government experience," Melber huffed, "the race was still refereed, scored and narrated by white male commentators," because "the elite opinion media continues to employ, groom and promote a commentators corps that is disproportionately white and male." (As one commenter on The Nation's website dryly noted, Melber's own magazine, a 180,000-plus circulation purveyor of elite opinion, is also disproportionately staffed by sinister white men.)

The Nation's Katha Pollitt went one further, arguing that "Clinton drew out the nation's misogyny in all its jeering glory and put it where we could all get a good look at it." Yes, the entire nation's misogyny. Pollitt called out MSNBC's left-wing host Keith Olbermann as the Archie Bunker of the punditocracy, citing his hyperventilating attacks on Clinton as an example of "men's terror of women." And those members of the sisterhood, such as Washington Post style writer Robin Givhan, who made snide comments about Clinton's sartorial deficiencies, were engaged in rank "female sexism."

And it was only a matter of time until former Clinton's campaign manager Mark Penn raised the specter of sexism. As Clinton forged ahead, all but eliminated from the race, Obamaphilic pundits and members of the Democratic party beseeched her, for the sake of unity, to accept the inevitable. "No male candidate," Penn told GQ, "has ever been told to drop out. Ever."

If we concede to Penn the broadest possible definition of sexism, and acknowledge that Clinton faced real challenges as the first formidable female presidential candidate in American history, it is nevertheless remarkable how difficult he finds it to cite specific examples of gender discrimination. When asked by GQ "where he saw sexism," Penn upbraided Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) for comments made about Clinton publicly crying in New Hampshire, saying that a "double-standard" was being applied to her because of her gender. While no other candidate wept in front of television cameras on the campaign trail (making it, I suppose, a single-standard), Penn surely remembers that the last candidate who cried during the New Hampshire primary—Democratic candidate Ed Muskie in 1972—never recovered from his supposed display of weakness. Whether or not this is a fair judgment of one's fitness for the presidency, it is difficult to claim that Edwards' comments were sexist. Recognizing that Penn was serving up pretty thin gruel, the GQ interviewer interjected helpfully that the subtle anti-women campaign was perhaps "hard to put into words."

But none of this "sexism" could be counteracted by organized, activist feminist groups, says writer Linda Hirshman. In Sunday's Washington Post, Hirshman mapped the fractious women's movement that failed to coalesce around Clinton's campaign. The absurdities and esoterica of the "millennial feminists" produced internecine warfare and factional fighting not seen since the Spanish Civil War. In the trenches of the gender war, the slights cited by Penn are deemed inconsequential, as is the candidate on the receiving end of them. Hirshman quotes one activist: "I…don't believe that simply putting a womyn's face where a man's face once was is going to solve our problems…by Real Womyn I am talking about womyn of color, incarcerated womyn, migrant womyn, womyn at the border, womyn gripped in violence, rape, and war.'" (For those whose university experience predated the ubiquity of Woman's Studies departments, the misspelling of 'women' is deliberate, a semantic kick in the patriarchy's groin.)

The Democratic primary was a lose-lose proposition for the image of American tolerance: If Senator Obama lost, ours was an irredeemably racist country. Senator Clinton lost, and we are infected by sexism. But whether viewed through the prism of radical gender feminism or a boy's club media conspiracy, the truth is considerably less complicated. The vaunted Clinton machine—devoid of fresh ideas and facing a dynamic, inspirational opponent—simply couldn't compete. Blame the media, blame the patriarchy if you so desire, but the truth is that Americans wouldn't mind a woman as president. Just not that woman.

Michael C. Moynihan is an associate editor at reason.