Friday, May 16 , 1 p.m. ET

Hillary Clinton: Belittled Woman

Libby Copeland
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 16, 2008; 1:00 PM

Post staff writer Libby Copeland will be online Friday, May 16 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss her latest story, which chronicles the use of the phrase "poor Hillary" to describe Hillary Clinton.

A transcript follows


Libby Copeland: Hello all. I've gotten a lot of reaction to this article. I'm hearing from people who love Hillary Clinton, people who hate her, and a whole spectrum in between. What interests me about the phrase "poor Hillary" is how used I've become to hearing it. It's a familiar cultural meme by now. I first began noticing it back in February, after the Super Tuesday primary. It can express both empathy and condescension, depending on who's saying it.


Florida: She's not losing because of people belittling her gender, she's losing because of her obvious, transparent cynicism and willingness to pretend to be anything she thinks will attract voters--loving wife, tearful victim, blue-collar shot-and-a-beer-gal, hillbilly, whatever.

It didn't work, because she couldn't be the one thing she needed to be: tolerable.

Libby Copeland: Example A. What fascinates me is how polarizing Sen. Clinton has been and continues to be. The people who go up to her and meet her at the rope lines, who contribute money to her campaigns and attend her rallies, describe her as tough and empathic at the same time. The people who hate her see unending and calculating ambition. I'm curious what other major political figures have elicited such dramatic and opposite reactions--and I throw it out to you-all. Thoughts?


Madison, Wisc.: I can appreciate that many (perhaps most) people who support candidates other than Clinton do so for substantive and non-sexist reasons. But the "Shrillary" jabs and complaints about Clinton's ambition and "calculation" are over the top. Most disconcerting is that this Hillary-hatred is shared both by mouth-breathing Republicans and Angry-Left Democrats. Perhaps she's not so divisive after all? Or, are the haters more Republican than not?

Libby Copeland: Right. There is something visceral about it, and you are correct, you hear it in some corners of the left, as well. One of our columnists wrote a piece Thursday called "Misogyny I Won't Miss," pointing out instances in which Clinton has been likened to, say, the Glenn Close character in fatal attraction. (Dear Producer: Would you link to this? Thanks!)

The nickname Shrillary: another interesting twist. At the expense of sounding shrill myself, I'm not going to go to far with this, but the attacks on Clinton do have a striking *personal* quality that, I'd argue, you don't see in attacks on other political figures. FWIW.


Arlington, Va.: Good afternoon - I have to say in all candor my response to your piece today was "Poor Hillary my you-know-what!" If there's anyone who deserves to be pitied, it's Obama: as a black man in America I think he's had to work even harder than Hillary has as a white woman to get this far, and she STILL doesn't get that it's over! Plus as a strong Democrat myself I'm angry beyond words that Sen. Clinton would at times embrace Sen. McCain just to try and get an edge over Sen. Obama, not to mention playing the race card. There's no doubt in my mind that if the Hillary/Obama situation were reversed, EVERY Dem in America would be screaming for Obama to get out, including Hillary. The same standards ought to apply to her right now, but apparently, she feels otherwise. Pity? I don't think so. Try anger.

Libby Copeland: Actually, what strikes me about the phrase "Poor Hillary," as it is most commonly used, is that it doesn't reflect pity. It reflects condescension, which is a very powerful tool. And I can't say I've tracked it with, like, a bar graph or anything, but the "Poor Hillary" chorus seemed to grow louder the more on top of things the candidate was. It's a way of belittling someone's success. I haven't noticed if there are other phrases that have been used a lotin concert with Sen. Obama or Sen. McCain, but if you-all have heard some, I'd be curious to hear them. These are aspects of our culture that seem worth marking. The way we talk about candidates is both a reflection and a reinforcement of how we think about them.


Washington, D.C.:"--loving wife, tearful victim, blue-collar shot-and-a-beer-gal, hillbilly, whatever."

How is this different then how men politicians act (substituting wife for husband)? I find it interesting that she gets called out for wearing different hats during a campaign, whereas male politicians do not.

Libby Copeland: Take B.

So, the question is--and I talked about this a little bit in a piece months ago on the so-called "rules" for female candidates--how do you separate attacks on Clinton from attacks on her gender? Would a certain condescending phrase (Poor Hillary) be as popular if she were a different woman candidate? It's very difficult to unwind the strands, and I'm interested in chatters' takes. I personally think it's simplistic to argue either side too forcefully; I think the truth is someplace in the middle. You can't really separate this powerful female politician from this powerful female politician who happens to be Hillary Clinton.

That's what makes this race so interesting, and you see some of the same themes with Sen. Obama's candidacy as well. We are nearing the end of a Democratic primary race that has featured two groundbreaking candidacies, as we all have been told a thousand times by now. Aspects of our culture are bubbling up to the surface--instances of utter, naked racism, as my colleague Kevin Merida chronicled earlier this week--and stuff that's more subtle, stuff that has to do with issues of race and sex and the specific candidates themselves and is just very, very complicated.


Washington, D.C.: It seems to me that Hillary is largely the female version of Al Gore in 2000. In exactly the same way Gore was trashed by press and pundits across the board, every thing Clinton says is assumed to be a lie or something sinister. With Hillary, it's also okay to throw in sexist remarks as well. But I think the much larger issue is that the press builds up whomever it likes and trashes whomever it doesn't. And facts never get in the way of the preferred storyline.

Libby Copeland: This is interesting. Clinton as the female Gore. I'm trying to think this through, but I just keep seeing Clinton with Gore's beard.


Los Angeles:

What department within The WaPo do you work for? I was confused by the article because it was purely a comment on how you see HRC. Do you work for Fred Hiatt or are you in the newsroom? Why wasn't the article given the proper heading, i.e. analysis?

Libby Copeland: Thanks for asking. I write for the Style section, which is the Post's daily features section. When you read the dead-tree edition of the Post, Style is the third section and when you see the page, it immediately makes sense. It's a mix of arts and politics and culture and criticism, and much is written with what we folks back here still call "voice" (we should get a better term for it; it's kind of cheesy)...but the point is, it's writing with a certain *take*, if you will. Not a point of view in quite the same sense as you'd see on the op-ed page, but a strong perspective that is different from the hard news writing you see in the A section. It's feature journalism with a strong narrative voice, as some imaginary journo professor might put it. Online, you don't see the Style section as one big package; you might find something I write on the politics page, and you're like, "Huh? How come the tone is so different from the rest of the politics pieces?" That's why.


Washington, D.C.: Great commentary, Libby. While I'm sure she wouldn't appreciate the comparison, I think Hillary is this generation's Nixon: a touchstone for decades of history and baggage. And I say that as a staunch Democrat who has always supported both Clintons and voted for Hillary in the D.C. primary, though I also think Obama is great.

I say that because Nixon was a better president than he gets credit for, despite his self-destructive paranoia (for which I make no excuses). Similarly, Hillary is an incredibly smart, thoughtful, energetic leader who has succeeded in establishing herself apart from her husband. But sadly, that wasn't enough this year.

Libby Copeland: Interesting. Now I'm imagining Nixon in a pantsuit. It's all very confusing.


Whatever the point of your snark fest: Do you think we could get all the pontificators, pundits and opinionators recently calling on Clinton to throw in the towel to GIVE UP their jobs since they have:

1. been so wrong about so many things in this election;

2. are so clearly afraid of, impatient with, against voters voting and the actual democratic process (as opposed to the special backroom decision making used by Florida in 2000 and the Democrats now in 2008);

3. are so divisive to our nation?

Isn't it true that we'd all be so much better off if they would give up their overpaid jobs since they clearly have so little talent and so few correct results to show for it?

And seriously, aren't these the same people who railed against Kerry, Gore, Dukakis for not fighting harder, giving up too soon, not fighting back?

(P.S. those people LOST their elections).

Libby Copeland: In a word, no. I don't think we could get them to give up their jobs. They get paid too well!


New York: My respect for Hillary Clinton has grown enormously over the campaign. Yes, she's more conservative than I am and sometimes she says things badly, but her grasp of the issues is astounding and her decision to promote middle class concerns heartening. I'm a Vassar grad and a writer. I work an office job because the real "creative class" needs health insurance and creativity doesn't offer it. Like many women I've felt insulted by the misogyny directed toward HRC -- it's pervasive and it's allowed. I never thought much about whether a woman could be elected president. I just assumed it would happen but I don't think that way anymore. I don't expect there will be much public discussion of this after HRC concedes. It's only been a topic at the WP since conventional wisdom has declared her the loser. She's not a loser. We are.

Libby Copeland: So, on the topic of misogyny, a conversation I had with my editor last night. The Hillary Nutcracker--do you all know it? It's this, well, it's a nutcracker shaped like the senator from NY and it cracks nuts with its legs. A big fat prize (not really) to any chatter who can send me in a photo of it.

So the question is, is the Hillary Nutcracker insulting? Sexist? It was popular at a recent gathering of conservatives in DC, which suggests it is meant to be insulting. But, you could also argue forcefully that it sends a go-on-girl message, as in "Go ahead! Crack those, um, that thing!"


Boston: Hillary Clinton has unquestionably been held to a separate standard in which her bid for the presidency is viewed as a nefarious power grab whereas somehow Barack Obama's presidential bid is rooted in a self-serving "higher" purposes.

There has been a misogynistic double standard in the political analysis of these two candidates that has made me think we've really regressed as far as gender issues go.

Libby Copeland: All right, another take.


Richmond, Va.: Are you suggesting that it's impossible to simply dislike Hillary? Must there always be a subtext? I reject her as a candidate, for what I believe to be well-considered and appropriate reasons that are neither hysterical nor sexist. Reasonable people may disagree. But disliking her does not inevitably make me misogynistic, or backward, or a traitor to my gender, or part of a vast right-wing conspiracy, or bamboozled by "the media," yadda yadda yadda. I'm just not that into her.

Libby Copeland:10-4. No, I'm not suggesting that.


McLean, Va.:

"The 'Poor Hillary' chorus seemed to grow louder the more on top of things the candidate was. It's a way of belittling someone's success."

That's simply ridiculous. If she's been belittled for anything, it's that she started to fall behind in her bid for the nomination, did a number of absurd or questionable things to try to catch up, fell even further behind and now won't concede. That's not my definition of "success."

Libby Copeland: I say that based on when I heard the phrase the most on TV and on blogs. But you're right, there's plenty of belittling going on now. As well as a lot of people who want Clinton to stay in the race for three more weeks.


Kensington, Md.: Am I the only person who feels the Clintons are using the very real discrimination and condescension that women all over have long experienced, in order to get the power they feel they are entitled to (their old home back)? In other words, it doesn't matter that she voted for the Iraq War, or that she is polarizing like no other woman candidate likely would be, you should vote for her because of that fresh remark you once got around the water cooler. It breaks my heart to see women being manipulated like this, though I don't blame them individually for the message resonating.

Libby Copeland: This is another strand that I didn't address in this article (though I did in the previous one I mentioned earlier), the idea that the Clinton camp itself has played the "gender card."


Anaheim, Calif.: Do you think that the issue of sexism has been more apparent than racism? I would argue that racism has been front and center. Those Hillary supporters who argue otherwise are being selective with their arguments.

Libby Copeland: I don't think there's any way to win when you try to measure or compare such things against one another. I think it's a mistake to think you can quantify this stuff, and I think it's a trap for anyone to say their Ism is worse than someone else's Ism.


New York: Can you understand why many of us admire Hillary for her ability to give as good as she gets? She seems fated to play the role of sufferer on an almost Biblical scale. There is something extraordinarily fascinating about this most brilliant and powerful woman who, throughout her career, can only seem to command the love of the people by proving just how much abuse she can endure. It would seem as if it is her fate to never breathe an easy breath, to never be able to just bask in her own accomplishments. If she becomes the first woman to succeed in her quest for the most powerful position on Earth, she will do so only by proving that she is absolutely indestructible emotionally. I can understand why some find her very presence exhausting, because she somehow reflects back on society proof of why women have surpassed men in endurance and their ability to withstand pain. She is certainly unlikely to lead America into an era of joyful prosperity, but she very well might grind our way out of self-annihilation through sheer determination and hard work.

Libby Copeland: This is what I meant when I said that Clinton's fate seems to be that she is evaluated by what she has endured. It's been suggested to me that this is an old reading of her, but I think it's still very much part of people's perceptions of her--including the perceptions of her supporters, many of whom talk about admiring her grit.


"...but the attacks on Clinton do have a striking *personal* quality that, I'd argue, you don't see in attacks on other political figures.": You're right! All of the condescension and vitriol directed towards President Bush have been purely based on substantive intellectual and policy disagreements. What was I thinking?

Libby Copeland: Ha-ha. Point taken.


Boston: I'm amazed at the people who, when they find out that I'm a Hillary supporter are instantly transformed. Their faces flush, they start huffing and glare at me accusingly "Is it because you're a WOMAN?"

No, it's because I truly believe that she's the better qualified candidate. Those types of responses speak VOLUMES, just not about me.

Libby Copeland: Another strand, another aspect of this groundbreaking race, is this theme, which you also hear in the context of Obama supporters--the accusation that people are just supporting so-and-so because so-and-so is One of Them. Seems to me life is much more complicated than that. But that's just my guess.


"I can appreciate that...:...many (perhaps most) people who support candidates other than Clinton do so for substantive and non-sexist reasons."

Well thank you, I feel validated now! Hillary supporters deign to grant that I have my own brain and my decisions are thought out. THIS condescending attitude of Hillary's and her people's IS why so many long-term liberals are so angry at Hillary and scared she'll ruin the election.

Libby Copeland: Just posting this one.


Fayetteville, N.C.: I am appalled at the level of antifeminist Hillary mania that has been allowed to exist, if there were protesters holding "carry my bags, Obama" signs at his rallies, there would have been tremendous outrage. "Iron my shirts, Hillary" signs evoked... nothing. I could write 8-10 paragraphs on the multiple ways that Chris Matthews alone has belittled Hillary, but that would just infuriate me.

For the record, I was a Joe Biden voter at the start, with no particular liking/disliking for any of the others.

Libby Copeland: This one, too.


Rockland County, New York:

Why the day after West Virginia did the pundits not include Hillary in the conversation of the day? She blew him out by 41 points, is that a blip on the radar or a blooper (one of a million) by the media?

Hillary is the only Democrat who can beat McCain in the fall, Barack Obama will not win any of the states Democrats need to win--yes, it's about the economy stupid -- but it's also about the numbers -- and I won't say stupid, because I try and teach my kids not to call names -- and I won't begin now.

The last piece is, for all of the athletes out there, male and female, what lessons are we teaching our kids, that with 2 minutes left in the game, a competitive close game, we should quit, and just walk off the floor when it gets too tough -- or should we work as a team, and hit a couple of shots to go ahead, because we BELIEVE we can do it.

If Barack Obama is allowed a free pass to the presidency, then Hillary Clinton is allowed to to pass on the values of hard work, never giving up, and yes, coming from behind, just what we in America are supposed to love -- she is and always will be the strongest candidate in the fall.

Thank you.

Libby Copeland: Because of the math. The math is really difficult for her candidacy at this point.


Washington, D.C.: Seriously, what was the point of this article?

Libby Copeland: I like this one.


Denver: To use a sports analogy, this election is like when a basketball team is down 12 points in the last 90 seconds. Some coaches empty their benches, and let everyone take a bow. Others coaches intentionlly foul to the final end the game because "we fight to the last second regardless of the score; that's the way we play." Neither one is wrong. Either way, however, no is is cheering in the arena, but the fans are walking in the parking lot saying, "Poor team. We lost."

Libby Copeland: I'll end on this one.

Thanks all for typing! Back on your heads.


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