You’d think we’d be past this by now—the endless discussion of whether Hillary Clinton has the stuff it will take to win the presidential election, whether she has the stuff to govern, whether she has the stuff to make you like her. But we’re not. And it has little to do with her ties to Wall Street, or her email server or marriage to a certain former president. It’s because she’s a woman.
How else to explain the yearning in some quarters for Vice President Joe Biden to enter the race? In his last two attempts to win the Democratic presidential nomination, he proved himself to be a pretty terrible candidate. In fact, he withdrew from the 2008 nomination race after tanking in the Iowa caucuses, some six months before Clinton folded her tent.
This morning, Nate Cohn, The New York Times data cruncher, reports that in a three-way match-up between Clinton, Sanders, and Biden, the vice president’s greatest achievement is likely to be the maiming of the Clinton campaign, since he’s unlikely to siphon off those who are poised to vote for Bernie Sanders, the U.S. senator from Vermont. Yet on issues important to Democratic primary voters, Biden’s record is no less spotty than Clinton’s.
A vote for the invasion of Iraq? Check. A vote for a bankruptcy bill that was a gift to the credit card industry? Check. A certain coziness with bankers and other one-percent types? Check.
Which is not to say that Biden doesn’t carry liabilities that are his and his alone. Take Justice Clarence Thomas, for example. Were it not for the protection afforded him by Biden, who then chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee, during Thomas’s 1991 confirmation hearings, the committee would have heard from additional witnesses alleging sexual harassment by the man who now enjoys a lifetime appointment to the nation’s highest court.
And that’s not to mention the fact that if Biden got into the primary race and won the nomination, he’d enter the general election with little money raised and his legendary propensity for gaffes.
This is not to say that Hillary Rodham Clinton is a perfect presidential candidate. She is not. Baggage? Sure. But to those who complain that Clinton is too flawed due to scandal, I say look at why those scandals—including the real, the inflated, and the fabricated—saturate the media once they break. It’s because of gender politics.
Even in the case of the dissection of her husband’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, the reason Kenneth Starr was given license to turn an investigation into a piece of pornography was right-wing retribution for a marriage such as the Clintons’—one in which the wife’s intellect and professional achievement was a source of pride. Retribution like that satisfied a societal hunger for proof that an accomplished, professional woman was somehow deficient behind the bedroom door.
In her masterful essay for Elle magazine, Rebecca Traister writes: “The fact that [Bill Clinton] had a wife like Hillary, his political and intellectual equal, whom he treated as such, made her controversial.” But I’ve long contended that this is what made him controversial as well, and why the right went so medieval on Bill Clinton’s ass. That a president of the United States, the ultimate national father figure, would choose to marry such a woman and think it was a good thing spelled doom for the traditional model of marriage—the one in which the wife stayed home, raised children, baked cookies and hosted tea parties.
Change of this depth is deeply unsettling to all, not simply to those for whom opposition to such a power shift is an ideological and/or theological position. That includes Democrats, even Democratic-leaning women.
A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll would seem to confirm that, showing a precipitous drop-off in support for Clinton among Democratic-leaning women, all to the gain of Joe Biden, who is still ruminating over whether to get into the race.
When I wrote about Hillary Clinton’s 2000 run for the U.S. Senate for Working Woman magazine, I talked to several feminists about the unease Clinton can evoke among certain women. “The perception of her is of somebody who doesn’t seem like one of the girls,” Suzanne Braun Levine, former editor of Ms. magazine told me.
And there are women who aren’t sure that they’re ready for the change in societal roles that Clinton portends.
“She is different—because she is awesome,” said Roxane Gay, author of Bad Feminist, at an October 4 panel discussion at The New Yorker Festival. Called “The Hillary Question,” the conversation, led by New Yorker writer Jill Lepore, explored all manner of Hillary questions, ranging from policy to politics. (As a member of the audience, I raised the “not like us” question during the Q&A portion of the program.) "She was the first first lady to have a graduate degree, the first to have a career. We need to look at these women not as 'not like us,' but as people we can aspire to be," Gay said.
“[W]e’re living in a time of transition,” Hillary Clinton told me in 2000. “So therefore you have all kinds of wants, desires, concerns, and fears placed upon you that you may or may not have any knowledge of, and certainly don’t have any intention of creating.”
In 2016, the fear of female power abides.