Because they are both firsts, I’m afraid we might be holding Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to impossible ideals. Both possibilities come shamefully late. But, unless the impossible happens they decide to run together, we only get to choose one.
When Barack Obama gave his victory speech after winning the Iowa caucuses, he was, almost by necessity, compared to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Obama’s speech, which painted the picture of an America falsely divided among red states and blue states, was about the hope of change on the horizon.
Does Obama benefit here from the unconscious association with black leaders from the past? Does he feel inspiring because the leaders who he evokes were inspiring? Are we simply reacting to the symbolic association?
I wonder the same thing with Clinton. Though the civil rights movement was divisive, often violent, dangerous for its participants, and racism is still a major schism int he country, most Americans agree (at least in word, if not in deed) that divisions along ethnic and racial lines were unjust. Civil rights leaders have emerged as heroes of history.
That’s not necessarily true with the feminism movement, of which Clinton is a necessary part. Gender divisions, however falsely they may be realized in society, are constructed along real, biological differences. They seem more deeply rooted in nature and social history.
We also value some division between our homes and our public lives. Women are historically associated with the domestic sphere, and men with the public. The work in both spheres has always been differently valued.
Women’s rights activists, who entered the public sphere to argue for their rights to vote and work and go to school, were already committing a social transgression. While everyone knows Susan B. Anthony, most people don’t know the names of Alice Paul or Lucy Burns, who were arguably more successful in getting attention for women’s rights through silent protests outside the White House, going to jail, and engaging in hunger strikes than Anthony and her contemporaries.
Later feminists were also often defined more about what they didn’t do, like get married or have children. And they tended to be painted in the media as fringe actors who wore crazy hats or give problematic arguments about the current race for the Democratic nomination.
So, there are few sympathetic images of the feminist movements with which Clinton can align herself symbolically. People often say they have no problems with electing a woman, but have a problem with Clinton. But how many of these reactions can be separated from the reactions to her as a woman in the political sphere? The qualities people positively associate with women are rarely those that can be employed well by a politician.
Feminists are also angry with Clinton for riding the coattails of a successful man, and then trying to parlay that into her own political career. But should it matter? The current governor of California married into politics, and the last Democratic nominee married into great wealth. And the success of all political candidates, to some degree, depends on the spouses they select. I thought we weren’t supposed to be basing things on the choices women make vis-à-vis men. Should it matter that two politically ambitious met and married, and that he exploited opportunities realistically available to him first?