With news reports everywhere confirming that Hillary Clinton will accept Barack Obama’s offer to serve as his Secretary of State, it seems like the perfect time to reflect on one of the most condescending smears deployed by the Democratic presidential candidates and their supporters during the primary race: that Hillary Clinton’s service as First Lady didn’t give her any meaningful experience with foreign affairs or diplomacy, and that it could be reduced to simply drinking tea with diplomats and the wives of foreign leaders. Late last year in the thick of the leadup to the Iowa Caucus, Chris Dodd said, “To somehow suggest having been the First Lady is the kind of experience that qualifies you to be president, I’ve never heard that argument before.” Obama, in touting his foreign policy experience, said “It’s that experience, that understanding, not just of what world leaders I went and talked to in the ambassadors house I had tea with, but understanding the lives of the people like my grandmother who lives in a tiny hut in Africa.”
Obama’s comment about tea-drinking with ambassadors was widely understood–and appropriately so–as an attack on Clinton’s experience as First Lady. Former Secretary of State Madeline Albright fired back, “Senator Clinton has been in refugee camps, clinics, orphanages, and villages all around the world, including places where tea is not the usual drink. . . . In addition to these experiences she has met with world leaders and has known many of them for years.” In case you have any doubts that this allusion to tea-drinking was too subtle for the hoi polloi, check out all of the comments in stories like this, this, and this, in which people who opposed Clinton continue this dismissal of her foreign policy experience as “tea-drinking,” and go even further than Obama or Dodd to feminize Clinton’s experience by reducing it to “tea-drinking” with the wives of foreign leaders. This of course served to marginalize Clinton’s experience and render it irrelevant to the public sphere and to international politics. And, the tea canard lives on: in yesterday’s Telegraph, Tim Shipman wrote in an article called “Six reasons why Barack Obama is mad to hire Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State,” he writes, “Yes, I know Mrs Clinton is qualified, she knows foreign leaders, she has taken tea with many of their wives too.”
Bristol tea bowl, 1775
Why did this insult of “tea-drinking” leap so easily to mind when it came to denigrating Hillary Clinton’s (and only Hillary Clinton’s) foreign policy experience? Well, my friends, as your favorite early American feminist historian, I can tell you that dismissing inappropriately ambitious or aggressive women as mere “tea-drinking ladies” is a trick older than the Republic. As it happens, this week in my graduate seminar and in my undergraduate class, we’ve read two books that treat the connection between eighteenth-century Anglo-American women and tea drinking: T. H. Breen’s The Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence (2004), and Clare Lyons’ Sex Among the Rabble: An Intimate History of Gender & Power in the Age of Revolution, Philadelphia, 1730-1830 (2006). Both books–Breen’s book more directly, Lyons more indirectly–address the feminization of tea drinking because of its association with women and domestic spaces. Drinks like beer and rum were served and consumed in male-dominated public spaces like taverns and ordinaries. (For more information on taverns as masculine spaces and political crucibles of the Revolution, see Peter Thompson’s Rum Punch and Revolution: Taverngoing & Public Life in Eighteenth-Century Philadelphia, 1999).
Tea drinking was not only associated with women and domestic spaces, but by the mid-1760s it was associated with luxury, dependence on England, and therefore, political corruption. While most finished consumer goods were also imported from Great Britain, tea came to serve as the ultimate symbol of effeminate dependency in an era when a manly independence was the new political fashion. Tea was in fact a product of Empire, and only available to colonists via the East Indian company, but then so was the masculine tipple rum–and no one ever suggested that rum be on the list of goods subject to the non-importation movements. The broadside satire at right, “The Drunken Husband and Tea-Drinking Wife, &c.,” published in the 1760s, suggests that this gendering of refreshments was widely understood (and frequently a frustration in heterosexual relationships.)
Satire of the Edenton Tea Party, 1775
The famous image at left is of the “Edenton Tea Party,” a very real instance of Anglo-American women’s political action in 1774, when 51 women signed a petition and vowed their support of the non-importation movement. However, this satirical engraving clearly mocks these women who took political action. In this portrait of women’s politics, a child is neglected by women portrayed either as unattractively mannish or as beautiful but sexually immoral. (What other women would presume to be involved in politics other than these disreputable examples? Shades of Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin, anyone?) Another woman hypocritically takes a draught of tea from a tea bowl so enormous that it obscures her face drinks from a punch bowl, a ritual that plays on the notion that the women are engaging in a masculine political ritual (see the comments by historymaven below for an explanation of this corrected interpretation). An African American woman is in the image too, suggesting that women’s political activism is dangerous for its race-mixing and implied racial levelling. Furthermore, a dog pees indoors on some tea chests, suggesting domestic squalor and delivering a final insult to British tea. (See Baudrillard’s Bastard for a thread earlier this year on the symbolism of dogs peeing in eighteenth-century editorial cartoons.)
Clearly, the suggestion that Clinton had no relevant foreign policy experience was just primary politics, as was all of the rhetoric about her horrible, unforgivable, selfish, ambitious, disgusting 2002 AUMF vote. (A vote identical to every other Senator who was in the senate in 2002 and who ran for president from the Senate in 2004 and 2008 except Bob Graham.) Nevertheless, it was as if Clinton had armored up and drove the tanks into Baghdad herself! How special that Democrats chose to forget that it is Bush, Cheney, and Rummy who are to blame for that debacle! Yes, so much easier to cherchez la femme, isn’t it? I guess all is forgiven now. Obama knows that Clinton has name-brand recognition that will go a long way towards repairing the damage done to the international reputation of the United States. And, as I said back in April, “the Clinton style and legacy will be with us for a long time, whether or not that’s the surname of the next President.” Obama modeled his primary campaign on Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign, and he (unsurprisingly) is taking advantage of the talent and experience many Democrats earned as Clinton administration appointees.
It’s interesting to note too that the office of Secretary of State since Albright was appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1997 has not been held by a white man, whereas before 1997 it was held exclusively by white men. (Albright was of course succeeded by Gen. Colin Powell, who was himself succeeded by Rice.) Does this suggest the feminization or demotion of diplomacy in some ways? I’m sure Obama recognizes that Clinton has the potential to be a powerful Secretary of State along the lines of George Marshall or John Foster Dulles, not like the subordinate Powell and Rice.
Because current politics and foreign affairs go far outside of my fields of professional expertise, I checked in with my friend and colleague Nathan Citino, our expert in U.S. diplomatic history at Baa Ram U., to hear what he thought about Clinton’s likely appointment as Secretary of State. He made two very interesting points, one historiographical and one political. I’m copying his reply exactly here below:
1. This appointment comes at a time when publications in US foreign relations are increasingly recognizing the contributions and challenges faced by women diplomats. This year, for instance, Notre Dame Press published Jean Wilkowski’s Abroad for Her Country, a memoir by one of the most important early US women diplomats who joined the foreign service during World War II and who served in Latin America, East Asia, Europe, and as an ambassador in Africa. A new volume of Eleanor Roosevelt’s edited papers came out last year, too, covering the crucial years following World War II when ER was one of the UN’s leading advocates.
[As for comments by Clinton’s primary opponents dismissing her experience as mere “tea drinking,”] scholars are undermining the distinction between official diplomacy and the unofficial, and unpaid, “tea diplomacy” carried on by diplomats’ and military officers’ wives. Check out Lydia Chapin Kirk, Distinguished Service: Lydia Chapin Kirk, Partner in Diplomacy, 1896-1984(2007); Donna Alvah, Unofficial Ambassadors: American Military Families Overseas and the Cold War, 1946-1965 (2007); and “’Commanding Beauty’ and ‘Gentle Charm’: American Women and Gender in the Early Twentieth Century Foreign Service.” Diplomatic History 31 (June 2007): 505-530, by Molly Wood.
2. For me, the significance of Clinton’s appointment, if she accepts and is confirmed, is that many diplomats and world leaders will deal with her on the basis of their assumption that she will be the next US president. This will be a dramatic change from Condoleeza Rice’s experience, because many people abroad assumed that US foreign policy was made outside of the State Department and that other figures, such as Cheney and Rumsfeld, had more influence. In fact, Obama might use this expectation to his advantage as a way of signaling that US foreign policy will be less militarized than it was under Bush, and that the State Department will take the leading role in conducting diplomacy. Of course, Clinton can use her role as secretary of state to immunize herself against the very charges of foreign policy inexperience that she faced during the primary campaign, in preparation for a possible run in 2016.
I look forward to hearing what you and others think, too.
Thanks, Nate, for your informed opinions and bibliographical suggestions. I don’t know about Clinton running in 2016–I’m skeptical myself, but then, I was surprised that she did so well this year. (I think our first woman President will be a moderate-seeming member of whatever we call the conservative party at that point in history, and that I won’t live to see the day of her inauguration myself.) Secretary of State was historically the stepping-stone to the Presidency: Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren, and James Buchanan all served as Secretaries of State before their elections to the Presidency. All of these men are ranked as better than average Presidents with the exception of Buchanan. But, note well that this hasn’t happened since Buchanan was elected in 1856, and we all know how well that turned out, don’t we? (Curse you, third-worst President Buchanan!)