Wednesday, June 04, 2008

So I cheered for her....

From Today's Globe and Mail by Judith Timson

So we haven't come a long way, baby

I cheered her on because she is a woman. There. Is that so wrong? Why shouldn't I, a middle-aged woman who has spent her adult life watching women fight for equality between the sexes, pin my hopes on the first woman to have a credible shot at the U.S. presidency?

Should I - and countless others - have backed off because she was imperfect? (Or because imperfection in a woman may be more ruinous than in a man running for public office?)

In any event, this is how, for all intents and purposes, and despite whatever political theatre took place last night in New York, the primary campaign ends. This is where Senator Hillary Clinton, her voice tinged with exhaustion but also laced with pride, faces the final chapter of her historic but unsuccessful bid to be president, ending a thrilling and at times infuriating primary campaign that told us as much about ourselves as it did about her.

It told us that American society still has trouble with the reality of a woman ascending to the most powerful political job in the land.

I know this is a discomfiting thought - even laughable to some - given the sheer political power Ms. Clinton amassed and the fact that she was once the Democratic front-runner.

According to the sexism-free scenario, Ms. Clinton lost the primary campaign fair and square, undone by her own complicated nature and questionable political instincts, and of course by all that baggage: "If only Bill had dropped dead of a heart attack," mused one woman I ran into on the street.

More importantly, Ms. Clinton was ambushed by the shining promise and utterly improbable, but enthralling, presence of Senator Barack Obama. But there are no simple narratives for a woman who wants to be the most powerful leader in the world. And no simple reactions to her, either.

Observing her stunning wins, her humiliating defeats, her amazing postvictory glow, her missteps and her astonishing mental toughness (she "kicked ass as a woman,"'s Dahlia Lithwick said), we've run the full gamut of emotions, including elation, pride, disbelief, disappointment, irritation and even pity.

There were several times I actually became enraged over her fate. There were those gratuitous sexist slurs - like the one from novelist Kurt Andersen, who wrote in New York magazine that Ms. Clinton had "a Wal-Mart shopper's bad hair and big bum" in analyzing her connection with working-class folk.

Show me just one instance in which Mr. Obama was slagged over his physical appearance like that and I'll shut up.

Even Ms. Clinton's supporters were mocked. James Wolcott wrote in Vanity Fair that at first he thought the race was shaping up to be "a clash of entitlements, the messianics versus the menopausals." Tell that to the men who voted in droves for Ms. Clinton.

And even late in the campaign, a panel of political pundits tiresomely argued on CNN whether the term "white bitch" was indeed a fair way to describe Ms. Clinton because, as one Republican strategist said, she really was "abrasive, aggressive [and] irritating."

There will be time to gather all the artifacts that characterized the complicated run of Ms. Clinton - the Hillary "nutcracker," for instance, available on the Internet, or the video of television pundit Tucker Carlson saying that every time she comes on TV, "I involuntarily cross my legs."

This media climate permitted an atmosphere of hatred directed at Ms. Clinton that I think was unprecedented. And then they sought to make her invisible, by simply ignoring her, focusing more on Mr. Obama's victory laps than on the wide swath of voters she was still winning over in key states.

Sure, she smiled and gave her "I'm not going to quit on you" speech, but it must have burned. Middle-aged women are used to being ignored, but Ms. Clinton?

It certainly got to fans such as Libby Burnham, a Toronto lawyer and spokeswoman for Equal Voice, a Canadian organization that promotes women in politics. Ms. Burnham said she was "disgusted" by the treatment Ms. Clinton was receiving: "It is pick up your marbles and go home - we let you play and now let the boys work this out," she said.

I won't argue that this campaign was about sexism and nothing else. There was race, there was character, there were her own mistakes, some of them heart-sinking. There was war and an economic meltdown that has people genuinely afraid.

In fact, in light of what's at stake for Americans and hence the world, whether someone calls someone else a bitch may seem luxuriously irrelevant in the months to come.

In the meantime, praise will soon start flowing for Ms. Clinton, with her onetime political foes rushing to thank her for trying to shatter that glass ceiling, handing her the Ms. Role Model trophy, kind of like the Miss Congeniality award in a beauty pageant.

Even Mr. Obama expressed gratitude to his often merciless foe for giving his daughters something to look up to: "No matter how this primary ends, Senator Clinton has shattered myths and broken barriers and changed the America in which my daughters and your daughters will come of age," Mr. Obama said.

He offered that praise last month in Iowa, where, in a picture-perfect photo op, he bounded on stage with his gorgeous wife and daughters and roared in manly self-satisfaction about what a "nice-looking wife and kids" he had. Sounding a tad more entitled than the former first lady ever had.

You got the sense that even many of those who went over to Mr. Obama were conflicted at the demise of this particular dream - a woman as president. Whether that dream will now be delicately reconstituted as "a woman as vice-president" will of course depend on political machinations and on the capacity of both senators to stomach each other. It's been a long battle.

Last March, Newsweek magazine put Ms. Clinton on the cover with the words, "Hear her roar."

One reader e-mailed me to say that when she bought that issue, she stood arguing with a young female cashier who didn't agree it was important to vote for a woman. The older woman said she would be "inconsolable" when Ms. Clinton finally packed it in.

Not like a close friend in the States, who was never a Clinton supporter, but who called me recently to say she had finally, in her 50s, got up the nerve to apply for a top job. "I'm taking my lead from Hillary," she said wryly. "If she could do it, then so can I."

So the roar begets another kind of roar.

In the meantime, the debate goes on: What stopped Hillary Clinton from becoming president? Gender or character? Biology or baggage? Maybe all of the above.

Or maybe just Barack Obama.


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