Gender & political inspiration

Allyson Hobbs remembers the night in Chicago’s Grant Park in November, 2008 when Barack Obama was elected president, and asks “Why Aren’t We Inspired by Hillary Clinton?”

If Hillary Clinton wins the Democratic nomination and the national election, can we expect the same gathering of crowds and the same emotional outpouring? Would the historic election of the first woman President evoke a similar thrill and sense of wonderment at the leaps that this country is capable of making?
Probably not. But why not? Is the election of a black man more revolutionary than the election of a white woman? Of course, one cannot compare the moment of an election victory of one candidate to a moment during another candidate’s campaign, a year before the election. And much of the excitement about Obama derived from the dissatisfaction with the President he was replacing. But the question remains: what’s behind the shortfall of enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton?

There are myriad reasons, and Clinton, of course, is not remotely as inspiring a speaker or campaigner as Obama. But another obvious explanation is the persistent problem of gender bias in American culture. Perhaps the sexism—in both overtly hostile and less visible but still insidious ways—has helped stoke the fires of animosity towards Clinton while, at the same time, creating an almost impossible standard for her. Unlike her male opponents, Clinton has to be far more careful and measured in what she says and does. To be free from a strict choreography of words and actions is a form of male privilege that Hillary Clinton cannot access.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately.  Clinton can’t seem to get out of her own way in her campaign, which surely doesn’t help.  (Here even I’m trapped by sexist language–the first thing that occured to me was “stepping on his own d!ck.”  Is there a woman’s equivalent to this salty expression?  If there is, I probably don’t want to hear it.)  Then again, in 2008 she didn’t really seem to catch fire until it was a real competition.  She’s good in debates–just not so good in the performance of retail campaigning that the political press wants to see at this early stage.

Get ready for more claims that “I’d vote for a woman for president–just not that one!” like we heard endlessly in 2008 about Clinton and Sarah Palin.  With all of the disgusting speculation about her pregnancy, children, family life, and her daughter Bristol’s sexual activity, Palin proved that premenopausal women can’t win; Clinton may prove that postmenopausal women can’t win either.

25 thoughts on “Gender & political inspiration

  1. What the media pundits are missing, because they’ve got to fill space and make drama, is that Hillary isn’t about inspiration, exactly. She’s about getting it done, as she has proven over and over again. If the media can’t write a dramatic arc about “she’s fallen–she’s out–wait, she’s getting up–she’s back in!” they don’t want to play.


  2. People I know who know her say she’s really a bureaucrat, not a politician. A highly competent administrator who cares a lot while still being pragmatic, an excellent boss, coworker, and organizer. Tireless. But not a politician.


  3. I’ve thought about this a lot lately, too – and had conversations with my mother about “why aren’t *we* excited by her. I suspect part of it is what nicoleandmaggie said above — she comes across a bit as a very competent and thoughtful bureaucrat. In addition, part of the romance of Obama is that it’s his journey. It’s hard to kindle a romance with someone you’ve been watching for over twenty years. (And I was super-excited when she came to my town in 1992, and really impressed, because she spoke in paragraphs.) Just as Jeb comes with family baggage, so does Hillary. It’s unavoidable.

    The other piece with Hillary is that she is someone who seems to challenge the status quo in limited amounts. We know she’s not a transformational politician, which may be fine. But it’s hard to get excited about it. She thinks about the art of the possible, and it all seems so cautious. I’m afraid she’d be like Jimmy Carter, who was another really smart person and good administrator, but not a successful president. I don’t know what I’m going to do in the primaries, but I’d certainly vote for her in the general election.


    • I do think that Larry Wilmore was right when he said that part of Obama’s appeal is that people saw him as a “magic negro” who was magically going to fix everything by the end of a 2 hour movie. He has fixed a lot, but it’s been more of an 8 years to infinity process. For women we have different stereotypes.

      Jimmy Carter was a successful president. Just not a very successful propagandist. (Of course Nixon was also an extremely successful president except for the whole, you know, Watergate/impeachment thing.) I don’t think popular history does a very good job of defining success when it comes to politicians. (And the most successful president? Johnson. That War on Poverty is great stuff.)


    • She has been around a long time, which means that 1) we know a lot about her, and 2) there’s not much room for fantasizing about how transformationally super-awesome she might be.

      I don’t think that women have too many other paths to the White House aside from accomplished, experienced grandmother. We know that premenopausal women are dangerously sexy and potentially reproductive, so they’re out. And there’s no way in heck that someone with a resume as thin as Obama’s was when he ran in a woman would be rewarded the way he was (and other men might be, too.) So, the Nation’s Nana might work.


  4. If electing a woman POTUS is so un-revolutionary, why haven’t we had one yet?

    I think Hillary’s age is a big factor. She does not conform to our sicko society’s ideal of an attractive woman (read sexually available, hot, whatever). Let’s face it – women her age are supposed to be invisible. She’s a little heavy set. She’s a grandmother. She wears pant suits (the horror!). She’s smart (more horror!). Even her husband was chasing women half her age twenty years ago! All of that kills our boners, man. And I am using “our” very loosely.

    Sarah Palin had plenty against her…but I don’t her age was ever an issue.


    • HAhaha!!! I agree with you–it will be revolutionary, but feminist accomplishments are seen: “big deal, what took you so long???” Feminism is the social justice movement that’s always unnecessary and irrelevant.

      Palin’s age–her youth and inexperience–was certainly an issue. And all of the rumormongering about her last child’s birth and how and when it happened, and was that baby really Bristol’s too, etc. was just disgusting. (Especially because it was all so-called LIBERALS who were doing it!)


  5. I think Hillary is been seen like an inside hire in academia. No one can question what she’s done or how good she is. She has a proven track record. But when compared to the unknown-the candidate fresh out of grad school who is a blank slate that anyone can project their hopes and dreams on-she loses.

    I’ve never really understood the appeal of the unknown, but when I look at who departments tend to hire, seems like that’s just me.


  6. Ditto on ej’s point, and that’s a great analogy on a whole lot of levels. The “elect one and get two” trope from 1992 plays straight into it, too, retrospectively and ironically. Like the long-time adjunct who becomes the inside opportunity hire, we were getting all of that stuff for “free” once upon a time, so the excitement of the new is just not there, howevermuch the smart or even the brilliant may (still) be. I’ve always said that academic searching is more like adoption work than like personnel work. From the applicant-side standpoint, it’s better to be eighteen months than eighteen years.


  7. I can’t remember one good speech Hillary has made since her address at her own commencement at Wellesley. Her angry “what difference does it make” remarks to the House Oversight Committee may be the first really memorable line since then.

    Soaring rhetoric put Obama on the radar screen in 2008 (and a very good ground team in Iowa). People were willing to take a chance on a young, inexperienced Obama because he was able to turn a phrase and make them believe. The same could be said for a young, inexperienced Palin…until she spoke too often off the cuff and the flaw were revealed.

    Hillary’s choice of Secretary of State was greeted very enthusiastically. Oh, wait, that’s a role where efficient administration and inside contacts are valued. John Kerry fits this model too, no? Voters seemed to have a hard time getting excited about him, too.


    • Women’s rights are human rights, Bejing, 1995? The “one million cracks in the ceiling” speech in June 2008? Speechifying is important, but it’s not the only thing in campaigning. I think she has to work harder on convincing ordinary people that she cares about them (hence the National Nana strategy.)

      She can do it, but you’re right: inexperience makes it so much easier to fantasize than real experience.


  8. What impressed me most about Sec. Clinton in the last year was the leaked video (in which it seemed she genuinely didn’t know she was being recorded) of her encounter with Black Lives Matter representatives. Her argument, to paraphrase it loosely, was that BLM wouldn’t get very far by demanding that people in authority feel the right feelings, and that BLM should instead focus on effecting policy changes that would lead to the kind of society they are demanding. She was respectful but stuck firmly to her position, and it revealed reams about the kind of thinking she brings to the governance process.

    Lately, too, Clinton has been making decisions I approve of: opposing Keystone XL, endorsing the Iran agreement (which of course she helped engineer), calling for the figurative head of Martin Shkreli, etc. The cynical interpretation of this is that she is simply telling the left-leaning base what they want to hear until she locks up the nomination, at which point she will tack sharply to the right in pursuit of the “Moderate” general electorate. Slightly more charitably, she might have recognized that changing demographics, the Obama coalition, and the electoral college math have led to a more liberal electorate than existed even eight years ago, and she’s tailoring her messaging accordingly. Most generously, we might say that the changing electorate is allowing Clinton to pursue the liberal agenda she wanted to pursue but felt inhibited from pursuing so vigorously in 2008.

    But that’s just the challenge she faces: she has such a long history of being “cautious,” to use Susan’s diplomatic phrase—or viewed more critically, of being triangulating and cynical and driven by expedience and opportunism. She’s apologized for the Iraq war vote, but that hawkishness still reveals such a profound lack of judgment that I really hesitate to endorse her for Commander-in-Chief. Her closeness to the New York financial establishment makes me nervous. Her habit (at least in 2008) of surrounding herself with bottom-feeding political grifters like Mark Penn, Harold Ickes, and Terry McAuliffe makes me question the depths of her economic liberalism. And on and on. If Clinton becomes the nominee, I’ll support her, but I certainly don’t feel much enthusiasm for her candidacy. On the other hand, anyone whom Ron Fournier, Maureen Down, and Chris Cilizza so obviously loath can’t be all bad in my book, and if the media continues their transparent vendetta against her, I may find myself growing more enthusiastic in her defense. It should be an interesting 13 months…


    • Great to hear from you, Shane. Love your point about “anyone whom Ron Fournier, Maureen Down, and Chris Cilizza so obviously loath can’t be all bad in my book.” The Clintons have always benefited disproportionately by their enemies. I never liked Bill Clinton until I took the measure of those irrationally and viciously opposed to him. The enemy of my enemy isn’t so bad after all.

      But seriously: you’re still hung upon the AUMF vote of 2002? Did you sit out the 2004 election too, because John Kerry and John Edwards both voted for it? The only reason BO didn’t vote for it was that he was still in the Illinois Senate.

      The Wall Street connections and the hinky colleagues are what separate the serious contenders from the also-rans. Everybody who’s going to get elected president has them. No one is pure–and BO sure isn’t, with Tim Geithner working to keep his pals on Wall Street safe after the ’08 crash, and the mysteriously still-employed Arne Duncan trash-talking teachers and teacher unions any chance he gets.

      (Now that all makes me sound so cynical, doesn’t it?)


      • No, I held my nose and voted for Kerry, and as I said, I’ll do the same for HRC if she’s the nominee. But the question was, “why aren’t we inspired by Clinton?” For me, her amply demonstrated hawkishness is a big part of why I find it hard to get excited by her candidacy.


  9. If she’s nominated, she’ll have my vote and support. But I won’t be excited about her. Even after all these years in the limelight—including some fine work in the State Department—I’m never sure I know who she really is and what she really stands for. She’s spent too many years withholding her opinions as she tests the political winds and triangulates her positions in an attempt to please too many people. And like Bill, I think Hillary’s version of Democratic Party goals and priorities usually drifts way too far to the right and tends to benefit the Wall Street crowd and the military-industrial complex.

    Of course, it doesn’t help that those of us who were excited about candidate Obama have seen him, as president, veer away from some of the loftier goals of his inspiring campaign. Don’t get me wrong, I think history will eventually be very kind to Obama—he’s managed to do some significant things in the face of fiercely unrelenting political opposition—but I think many of us have a very sour taste in our mouths when we consider, for example, that no one went to jail for criminal acts that helped ruin the economy (and many people’s lives) in 2008 and, even worse, no one associated with the Bush-Cheney torture program has been punished for it, in spite of our obligations to do so under U.S law and international treaty. This sort of thing has, I think, taken some of the idealistic excitement away from some voters, and may explain, in part, why Hillary has trouble generating Obama-like “inspiration” among potential as well as likely supporters.


    • Great point, Reed, about enthusiasm fatigue.

      By my lights, Obama has been a very successful president. He did the two things he said he’d do back in 2008: health care reform and get us out of Iraq. What else can we really expect of a president? As far as I’m concerned, the Iran deal and the climate change agreement w/China are icing on the cake.

      I was never an early fan or a huge fan, and I found the over-the-top fantasizing about him utterly ridiculous, but he did what he said he’d do and he didn’t do anything personally embarrassing. So, that’s a win in my book.


      • Hear, hear. My favorite bumper sticker of 2008 read: “Be disappointed by someone new: Obama/Biden 2008”. I fully expected BHO to be another moderate squish, and in some ways he has been. But I voted for him 3 times (Utah primary and two generals), and those remain the three best votes I’ve ever cast in a presidential contest.


  10. A comparison that occurred to me this morning was Elizabeth Warren. Like Obama, a short political resume, though significant experience outside politics. People get excited by her because she seems “real” – and her signature issue is one she’s worked on for a long time from different angles. She speaks with passion. For better or worse she’s not running, but I don’t think she’d get the same response as Hillary. It’s not just sexism.

    And she is married to a historian! What could be better than someone who knows some history!


    • People always love people until they run for president. When HRC left the State Department, wasn’t her approval rating at like 70% or so? Joe Biden may find out that the bottomless well of love and support has a bottom after all if he goes live with a real campaign.

      The fantasizing about Elizabeth Warren is just over-the-top. She’s a Harvard professor. The attack ads write themselves!


      • Yes, to some extent I agree. But the enthusiasm for Warren parallels to the enthusiasm for Obama in 2008. And I wonder whether it’s easier for women/ poc to run for president with that kind of enthusiasm — they are outsiders and thus magicians (witches?) who will fix things. And given the way both republicans and dems are in bed with Wall Street, that makes Warren particularly attractive.

        To say that is not to say that she’d be an good or bad candidate, or good or bad president. But it’s interesting how the enthusiasm works!


  11. The fact that some supposedly liberal women can’t get excited about the only viable woman candidate for President they’ll ever see in their lifetimes is incomprehensible to me.


    • Well, we women have been underfoot for practically all of human history, haven’t we?

      When the world’s largest minority government is still greeted as a savior in these our democratic United States, because its only us women (women can’t be priests and only priests make and administer Catholic law) who have no representation in the disposition of our lives and our bodies in that Catholic government, where does that leave us?

      Women are people. People don’t like victims, they don’t like losers. Clinton lost to the most transparent betrayal of rights in the U.S. in 2008, when her party broke its rules and the law in giving her opponent delegates he not only hadn’t earned but that were actually hers. That party went on in the convention to intimidate her delegates into silence.

      I suggest for this generation and the next a reading at least of Tillie Olsen’s Silences.


  12. Is it bad to point out that one has already voted for a woman for president, and will do so again (Jill Stein?)

    I think Clinton is still the person most likely to become president in 2016. But her campaign has not been very inspiring, to say the least. I wonder if her time has simply passed. When I look at the world in 2015, the problems we face as a society, I’m not sure what reason I would have to support her other than a general feeling that she’s earned it, which she certainly has in terms of the work she’s put into her political career, as well as her competency. I do agree it would be very difficult to imagine a fervor for a woman’s candidacy to match the Obama 2008 phenomenon, but I will always wonder what might have happened if Elizabeth Warren had decided to run…


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