Sunday, April 20, 2008

Yes and no

As I think I've made clear, I'll be voting for Barack Obama on Tuesday. So I'll admit to a certain amount of initial glee when I read this essay by Camille Paglia telling women that Hillary Clinton does not deserve their support. The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized it contained more than a couple cheap shots. To wit:

Whatever her official feminist credo, Hillary's public career has glaringly been a subset to her husband's success. Despite her reputation for brilliance, she failed the Washington, DC bar exam. Thus her migration to Little Rock was not simply a selfless drama for love; she was fleeing the capital where she had hoped to make her mark.

In Little Rock, every role that Hillary played was obtained via her husband's influence - from her position at the Rose Law Firm to her seat on the board of Wal-Mart to her advocacy for public education reform. In a pattern that would continue after Bill became president, Hillary would draw attention by expressing public "concern" for a problem, without ever being able to organise a programme for reform.

Clinton, I'm sure, would appreciate the irony. In 1992, she has to defend herself for being too independent, and now, when she's running for president, she's criticized for being little more than a glorified housewife.

Here's the problem with what Paglia writes: Hillary Clinton is 60 years old. No doubt she's had far more opportunities in her life than her mother -- but she's probably had far fewer than her daughter. The glass ceiling in politics is no doubt lower and sturdier than in many other fields. Even if you have the wherewithall to get your name on a ballot, voters are not bound by anti-discrimination laws.

Look around. No other female politician is poised to make a serious run at the presidency. Paglia's feminist sensibilities may be offended by Clinton's use of her husband's career as a springboard, but nepotism is a venerable tradition in politics, and it's propelled numerous male careers.

I'll confess to not being as familiar with Clinton's history as Paglia purports to be, so it's possible that the future First Lady did run from Washington with her tail between her legs, as Paglia writes. I'm also not a lawyer, but I bet Clinton isn't the first intelligent person to fail the D.C. bar exam. I'm sure she could have tried again. Perhaps she chose to make her career secondary to that of her husband. The Clintons would not be the first couple whose ambitions came into conflict, or could not be simultaneously realized. Certainly, there is far more social and cultural pressure on a woman to choose family over career, but Paglia doesn't even give Hillary Clinton credit for making a choice in the first place. Having failed in her own right, Paglia writes, Clinton accepted the consolation prize of her husband's coattails. It's an unfair and patronizing assessment.

There is, however, some poetic justice in Clinton facing this line of attack. Her famous line in 1992 about not having stayed home and baked cookies may have been a broadside at people who see no place for women outside the home. But it was also demeaning to women who choose, for whatever reason, to be homemakers. It was also, dare I say, elitist.

Like Paglia, I find Clinton to be an odd choice for a feminist icon, given that much of her career is owed to her husband. But she's also a reminder that in 2008, women still face the kind of damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't dilemmas that trouble men not a whit.

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