Tuesday, January 08, 2008

The Wife Issue: Hillary Clinton & the elephant in the room

By Diane Silver

Gloria Steinem had a terrific op-ed in the New York Times this morning. Steinem argued that Hillary Clinton is struggling because women still face a glass ceiling, particularly in seeking the presidency. As I have many times in the past, I agreed wholeheartedly with Steinem's ideas. And yet, I still find myself leaning farther and farther away from supporting Hillary.

It's not, as Steinem implied, because I'm too young to understand sexism. I'm 55 and well aware of the obstacles we face for no other reason than the fact that we're female. As Steinem noted, women tend to get more radical as they get older. I've certainly seen myself do that. And to be clear: My anti-Hillary lean is not born of an unconscious feeling that a woman can't be a good president.

No, what's bothered me from the beginning of Hillary's campaign is actually a very feminist idea. It's what feels like an elephant -- a non-Republican elephant -- in the room that all of us feminists are too frightened to name.

The core problem for me is not that Hillary is running as a woman, but that she's running as a wife.

Is Hillary's campaign nothing more than a return to the past where a woman couldn't achieve on her own? In those bad old days, in fact, one of the only ways a female could get elected was to take over for a dead husband when he died in office.

While Bill is still very much alive and kicking, no one can deny that Hillary won her name recognition and launched her own political career by being First Lady. One of her main campaign themes is her experience. As part of that experience, she points to her eight years as somebody's wife.

As a feminist, I'm frankly insulted by the idea that Hillary is a viable candidate for president simply because she was the right man's wife. I am even more angered by the fact that at one time her marital status seemed to put her at the front of the pack.

I know that Hillary has achieved much on her own. I honor her for that. But I don't see it as a feminist breakthrough for Hillary to win, and I'm tired of people telling me that it is.


May said...

I think it makes sense. Women tend to define themselves through relationships and she has created a relationship with the entire country as a wife. It makes sense that this would still be a part of her identity.

I haven't seen any other women running for President in my lifetime and I think it's a damn amazing feminist thing to do.

Diane Silver said...

I wrote the original post, and I find myself being of two minds about what I said.

I agree with you that it is darn amazing for a woman to be a leading candidate for president. I want this to happen, and I'm pleased that it is. I may well also end up voting for Hillary, although I do find myself going back and forth between her and Obama.

Perhaps my point is not an indictment of Hillary as much as it is an indictment of this still very sexist country. If we had made as much progress as we should there would be many women who would be contenders for the presidency.

But I think it says a lot, and it shows how little of a feminist step forward Hillary's candidacy actually is, that she only got there because she was first Bill's wife.

You also mentioned that women tend to define themselves through relationships. I think this is true at times, but I also think it's a mistake. I'm not saying that one shouldn't have relationships, but to define oneself based on someone else is a trap. If you exist only as you relate to someone else, then what happens if that other person rejects you, leaves, or dies?

If I've learned anything in my five decades of life it's that you alone can define yourself.

Thanks so much for reading the post and commenting.