gender, language, politics

Feminist, Shmeminist

 

In a front-page article in the New York Times on January 21, Amy Chozick offers the thesis that “feminists” are becoming disaffected with Clinton because of her hostility to Bill’s women while she was first lady. Who exactly are these “feminists” Chozick quotes, and what exactly are they complaining about? And are the criticisms legitimate, or just another way to allow women, especially certain self-styled feminists, to justify not supporting HRC?

 

This is just one of three Clinton stories in the January 21 paper of record. The second, also a hit piece, is about the “disaffection” of Democratic voters in Iowa. And the third, in the “Thursday Styles” section, is a longish disquisition on how Clinton should dress more interestingly. (I can find no such pieces on the Donald or Sanders.) I am not sure how to think about all this attention.

 

On second thought, yes I am, especially in light of the first article. 

 

There are problems both with Chozick’s thesis and her research methodology. One question: who’s a feminist, according to Chozick (and therefore a valid “feminist” disparager of Clinton)? Well, here’s Camille Paglia, who in the past has called Clinton “cold, haughty, and daunting.” (Worst of all, she has “no discernible regional accent,” says Paglia, who has no discernible regional accent.) But Paglia is at best a curious feminist: she came out publicly and volubly against Anita Hill (and ain’t she a woman?); she has attacked the concept of acquaintance rape; and she can hardly conceal her loathing for Clinton. She feels feminism should be “pro-male.” With friends like this, feminism hardly needs enemies. As Chozick quotes Paglia:

 

“It’s not about Bill Clinton’s peccadilloes,” said Camille Paglia, a feminist author and professor at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, and a supporter of one of Mrs. Clinton’s rivals, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. “It’s about Hillary Clinton’s behavior towards her husband’s accusers for all those years.”

 

So Paglia’s function in the public discourse might be best understood as that of a “feminist” who makes non-feminist men feel good: if a woman, indeed a self-identified “feminist,” can utter this sort of misogynistic nonsense, they can see themselves as decent human beings.

 

But Chozick’s choice of feminist icons is not the worst problem of her hit piece. One obvious one is that, in the guise of front-page worthy objectivity, Chozick resuscitates some rumors about Hillary’s misdeeds that may never have existed and others that were trivial when they arose a generation ago, and should be totally without interest now. The Donald’s first wife, Ivana, accused him of domestic abuse during their marriage. In 1969 Bernie Sanders had a child with a woman to whom he was not married (and never married). Of course these factoids are trivial and irrelevant (or are they?), and fortunately the media are ignoring them. But why can’t Clinton be granted the same absolution for past sins? Well, I guess because women’s sins are worse than those of the other sex, no matter what.

 

If in fact sins they are. And that’s the second problem with Chozick’s thesis. Even supposing Clinton herself (rather than, as in several cited examples, Bill Clinton’s political operatives like Betsey Wright and James Carville, who might or might not have been speaking for HRC) had said the disparaging things about her husband’s partners Chozick recirculates, in 2016 we should try to step back a quarter century and into Clinton’s shoes, and ask how to meaningfully evaluate her statements. Was she “unfeminist”? Were her comments unjustifiable?

 

Yes, Clinton disparaged Gennifer Flowers and Paula Jones and Monica Lewinsky and…. Perhaps a canonized saint would have turned the other cheek and felt the women’s pain. Perhaps Camille Paglia and that other major feminist cited at length, Donald Trump, would behave differently in similar circumstances. But we don’t know. And they don’t know, not having been in similar circumstances.

 

For HRC was not merely a the run-of-the-mill wronged spouse. Her anger at her husband’s sexual partners came from something more than his violation of the marital vows. A lot of it was about, not the damage to the relationship per se, but the harm, actual and potential, done to the Clinton partnership’s political future. Every marriage has deals, and one deal in the Clintons’ marriage was that they would cooperate to make a team that would be a political powerhouse, dedicated to winning elections and thereby bringing about social and political change in America. Gennifer, Paula, Monica et al stood in the way of this plan. So each of Bill’s affairs constituted a malignant twofer: the erosion of the marriage proper, and the damage to the Clintons’ political agenda. And yes, of course, Bill was as much to blame as the women, but only as much – no more. These relationships were consensual. To blame Bill alone (and therefore to put much of the blame on his wife as the “enabler”) is to infantilize the women as unable to act as responsible agents. Adulthood entails the ability to recognize and accept responsibility for one’s actions. And it’s even worse when Bill’s peccadilloes are glossed over and Hillary gets all the blame for Bill’s affairs – you know, “boys will be boys.” Blaming women for their men’s misdeeds is not feminist. Blaming women for losing their patience with the women involved in extramarital hoo-ha is expecting other women (not the quoted “feminists”) to be above human emotions. Women have a right to be pissed off when men – and women — behave abominably. It’s in the Constitution. Or ought to be.

 

A still more serious question arising from a reading of the Chozick article is: what, and who, is a “feminist”? This is far from an easy question. Bring any two self-identified feminists together, and it’s practically guaranteed that they will not agree on everything. Feminism is being supportive of other women, but not necessarily every other woman at all times. If you find your significant other in a compromising position with Ms. X, what kind of response is feminist? (If that question even makes sense.) Must a feminist above all be supportive of the other woman? Or is it more important (and more feminist) to be supportive of herself, as a woman who has the right to be furious?

 

“Show me the wife who, when she finds out her husband is having an affair with a much younger woman, says, ‘Oh, I feel such sisterhood with her,’” said Katha Pollitt, a feminist poet and columnist for The Nation,

 

as reported in the Chozick article. And this is especially true when the affair threatens more than the marriage.

 

So feminists need to be able to put themselves in the place of the wronged wife rather than making accusations against her. It is admirable to feel some compassion for the women Bill made use of (especially if you don’t happen to be married to him); but it is not reasonable or feminist to absolve them of all blame, and therefore responsibility. Likewise it is not feminist to blame HRC for lashing out under the circumstances; it was normal for her to do so, rather than saintly; and unless you know for sure that you are a saint, you should be careful how you respond.

 

And third: is the behavior Chozick and her interviewees allege any of our business anyway? Is it a concern for voters how a candidate has behaved in her private life? Always? Sometimes private behavior is relevant: the history of a candidate’s sexual abuse of others might reasonably suggest that the candidate was too sleazy to be president, at least nowadays. We might be leery of electing a Bill Clinton to the presidency today, knowing all we know about him now, and with our current changed understanding of the rules. But thee new rules for sexual misconduct by those in power were only slowly coming into being in the 1990s, starting with the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings. Before that, outrageous but true, it was normal for men to feel that holding powerful positions entitled them to engage in all kinds of sexual shenanigans (JFK…FDR…LBJ). Clinton came in under these rules, and they started to change during his presidency. Should he be held to the old or the new standards?

 

And that brings me to my final point: suppose you’re a good feminist and distressed by HRC’s disparagement of Bill’s paramours. (Even if you don’t feel she should have openly supported them – which seems absurd – maybe she should have kept her mouth shut, you argue.) Should that be your take on the Clinton candidacy?

 

Who would you rather have in the White House? A man perhaps a little (or even a lot) too fond of women, or one who fears and detests women so much that he doesn’t misbehave – but appoints a Clarence Thomas, or a Nino Scalia, to the Supreme Court?

 

We need to ask: what are feminists for? (Not only what do they believe, but why should they exist?) Feminists are for giving women more power, options, and respect. What is the best path, right now, for achieving these goals? Electing a woman president in 2016.

 

Some, especially younger, feminists feel that there’s no rush and therefore no need to cast one’s lot with a woman they view ambiguously. If Clinton isn’t elected this year, they reason, in 2020 or 2024 a new, younger woman with less baggage will show up and be elected. They have time. They can wait.

 

But beware — that may not be true. My fear is that, if Clinton is defeated a second time, Democratic operatives would reason that a woman is unelectable as president – not just now, but forever, or at least a really long time. Although you and I can think of lots of terrific women who in a just world would be highly electable (Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, Tammy Baldwin, Patty Murray, and Kirsten Gillibrand come immediately to mind, but there are lots of others), the party bigwigs (mostly male) won’t see it that way: that second X chromosome, to them, spells political death and they will not let it happen.

 

Issues will arise in the near future which, to me, make it imperative that we have not only a Democrat, but a woman, in the Oval Office: Supreme Court appointments, the fate of Planned Parenthood, the availability of contraception, and public education are just a few “special interests,” as opponents like to sneer when an issue is one espoused especially by women. Yes, a reasonably liberal male Democrat would be “sympathetic” to all of these, but when the crunch comes, and he has to decide between reproductive rights and something less “special” – what will he do? You think he will support policies that poll as more important to women than to men? Don’t bet the farm on it.

 

And finally there is the symbolic importance of having a woman in that chair in the most powerful country in the world – or, on the other hand, the symbolic importance of that nation’s denying a woman the right to sit in that chair. That is what feminists should be contemplating – not a woman’s non-saintly behavior 25 years ago. Life is compromise – you will never get a perfect female candidate, any more than you are likely to get a perfect male. In our male candidates we have always been willing to accept imperfection. We ought to be able to do the same for women. That’s feminist.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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