The Hillary Dilemma
The women's movement stands by Hillary Clinton as a symbol of the right to choose a career, a home, a marriage. But what has she really chosen?
The Washington Post Magazine
Sunday, March 21, 1999; Page 7
"I'm going to drive. That's understood," says a dashing Ingrid Bergman in an early scene of Alfred Hitchcock's 1946 spy thriller "Notorious," as she vamps an intelligence agent played by Cary Grant. Fascinated and repulsed by Bergman's sass, Grant gets in the car but then, in a bit of unmistakable symbolism, overpowers her and seizes the wheel. It's the beginning of a long and spirit-crushing journey: By movie's end, having endured emotional neglect at the hands of Grant and poisoning at the hands of the Nazi she was forced to marry, Bergman lies in bed, too weak to walk.
Only then does Grant, seeing her helpless and suffering, realize he loves her.
As happy endings go, this one is pretty ambiguous. But hardly more ambiguous than the recent stream of tributes to Hillary Clinton appearing in venues from Vogue to Vanity Fair to Newsweek. Hardly more ambiguous, for that matter, than the nationally televised moment, late in the president's January State of the Union address, when Bill Clinton paused to "honor" the first lady, taking advantage of the resulting applause to mouth the words "I love you." Surely there is something wrong with this picture: Here is Hillary Rodham Clinton, facing the two entities responsible for her greatest public humiliations Congress, which rejected her health care plan, and her husband, who had betrayed their marriage not once but serially and here they are, Bill Clinton and Congress, madly clapping.
They aren't the only ones. In the aftermath of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the first lady's national poll ratings are higher than they've been at any time since the 1993 inauguration. She's now ranked as the woman Americans most admire. Her popularity has, in turn, started a frenzied political conversation in which she's being hyped as the runaway favorite in a New York Senate race, should she decide to run.
What has she done to bring about this national change of heart? Nothing, apparently, except stoically endure. A nation that long regarded her as Glenn Close, the homicidal working woman in "Fatal Attraction," now apparently sees her as Anne Archer, the long-suffering wife who welcomes her husband back to the hearth. She's become a performance artist of pain, a vaudevillian, like someone who swallows swords or walks, unscorched, over hot coals. How much pain is she feeling? How much more can she take?
More to the point: How do we reconcile Hillary the strong-willed feminist leader with Hillary the mistreated wife? Here's how: "She's a woman who has made choices," declares her longtime friend Sara Ehrman, a few days after watching the State of the Union speech. "And her choices are her own."
Choice. The word recurs, mantra-like, in conversations with Hillary Clinton's friends and colleagues. "She has always talked about women having the freedom to make choices and to choose the path that seems right for them," says Mandy Grunwald, a political consultant and confidante of the first lady. "And that that should be the goal: that women should be free to work all day, stay home all day, free to have children, not have children ... To her, that is the ultimate kind of liberation, it's the freedom to be whoever you want to be."
Choice is also the word invoked by leaders of the women's movement as they try to make sense of Hillary Clinton her silence, her suffering, her decision to stay with her husband, her newfound popularity and how all these things affect her status as a feminist leader. Because it seems fair to say that they do, or should, affect that status. Just as it's gotten a lot harder to characterize Bill Clinton as a friend of the working girl, so too has it become more problematic to lionize Hillary as a feminist standard-bearer. This, remember, is a woman who campaigned with her husband on a platform that emphasized women's equality. During her tenure, she has championed women's rights in venues from Beijing to Kampala. Yet she of all people! has stayed in a marriage that, whatever blessings it has brought her, has also brought unimaginable pain. In doing so, she has stuck with a man who, in the course of his womanizing, is alleged to have harassed and even sexually assaulted other women. Hillary has endured not only her pain but theirs.
How to accommodate such contradictions?
Choice, apparently, is the one concept strong enough to dissolve the inconsistencies and explain the devolution of Hillary Clinton's public persona. It's the ideal that permits her supporters to accept her dual role as one of the world's most articulate advocates of women's rights, and, at the same time, a wife who has endured months years, decades of emotional mistreatment.
"When Lee Hart did not leave Gary Hart," allows Patricia Ireland of the National Organization for Women, "a fair number of women just wanted her to leave him flat." But Hillary Clinton, Ireland suggests, is different. She is a woman who has made most of the money in her family, a woman who presumably knows what she's doing, a woman who in some ways symbolizes the mature understanding of all '60s activists. "People make complicated lives," Ireland reflects, and Hillary has chosen to be where she is. "The feminist movement," she points out, "has always been about women's ability to make their own choices."
In other words, we can continue to see Hillary Clinton not only as a feminist but as emblematic of the contemporary women's movement itself. Long criticized as pro-abortion, pro-working woman, pro-divorce and anti-traditional family, feminism is at pains to display its nonjudgmentalism. What's important, women's leaders now argue, is not so much which choice a woman makes as the simple fact that she has the power to make one.
Yes, choice is precious and feminism has won for women a dazzling array of new choices. Still, it seems important to examine this idea of choice and ask whether it is being used to deflect valid questions, not just about the first lady but about a women's movement that works so hard to defend her. It may be that feminist leaders are merely looking for a way to stick with both Clintons because of their concrete support on women's issues. But it's also possible that what's happening is a broader distortion of the women's movement. Born from the idea that the personal is political, feminism once held it as a bedrock article of faith that decent treatment in one's own household was a crucial element of equality.
Or, as Hillary Clinton herself told women in Kazakhstan in 1997, "democracy is nurtured and sustained by what we in America call 'the habits of the heart,' in the way people live their lives and in the lessons they teach their children."
Is this not true?
Or to put it another way: If Hillary's choices are okay, are there any choices that aren't?
"I really didn't want her to go. She was so gifted and promising. I thought her life should be on a bigger stage," Sara Ehrman remembers with real feeling, even now, 25 years after the fact. But when lank-haired Hillary Rodham declared with characteristic hardheadedness that she intended to leave Washington and move to Arkansas to try life with a Yale law school classmate named Bill Clinton, Ehrman knew it was pointless to argue.
So when Hillary stood puzzling over how to ship her stuff books, mostly, and what passed in Hillary's mind for a wardrobe Ehrman said it was all too complicated, the boxes, the hassle, the airplane tickets, and offered to drive her down.
They packed up the car and left Ehrman's house in Southwest D.C., where Hillary Rodham had been living while she worked for the House Judiciary Committee during the Watergate hearings. Together with a friend who rode part of the way, the two women crossed the Potomac and headed south on Route 29. Munching snacks and talking, they cruised down to Monticello, then southwest through Roanoke and over the state line, stopping in Laurel Bloomery, Tenn., to buy dishes for Hillary's new household. Then it was on to Nashville and Memphis, a route that included an encounter with a convention of Shriners on scooters. It took a while to find a place to stay, Ehrman recalls, but Hillary was unflappable.
Unflappable and determined. "I was saying, 'He's just a country lawyer. Why are you doing this?'" recalls Ehrman, who was deeply opposed to Hillary's decision to abandon her flourishing East Coast career to facilitate Clinton's. Rather than Thelma and Louise, the two women were more like Thelma and June Cleaver, though it's hard to say which woman was playing whom. A generation older than Hillary, Ehrman who'd met her when the two were working in a get-out-the-vote effort in the McGovern campaign in Texas was a professional woman before the modern movement existed, a woman who went to work in the Senate at a time when female aides didn't venture on the floor. Her salary was half that of her male colleagues and there were no bones about it. A married woman didn't need the money, was the thinking, so why take funds away from the men?
"I thought: I worked hard as a woman to help her get the opportunities she was entitled to," Ehrman says. "I thought she was throwing that opportunity away." So she nagged and drove, nagged and drove, until Hillary silenced her with the "ultimate rejoinder," which was, of course, that she loved Bill Clinton deeply and wanted to try making a life with him in Fayetteville, where he was teaching at the University of Arkansas law school. Ehrman stopped nagging but didn't stop worrying. When they reached Fayetteville, their arrival coincided with a football weekend when the Razorbacks were playing at home.
Entering town, Ehrman saw undergraduate men, hanging from lampposts, wearing something odd on their heads and hollering "soooey!" She looked closer and realized that her beloved Hillary Rodham, her high-powered hope for the future, was about to settle in a town full of frat boys wearing pig hats. "And that," she says, "is when I started to cry."
Over the years, of course, Ehrman came to respect Hillary's decision, and she now thinks of this story as comic rather than tragic, a funny tale where the joke, ha ha ha, was on her. "The president once kidded me: 'Well, Sara, do you still think Hillary made the right decision?'" she says with a laugh. But at the time it was genuinely wrenching to see this smart, super-educated young woman forsake a career in civil rights or at a big city law firm and move to her boyfriend's home turf, where he was launching his first political campaign for the U.S. House of Representatives. "His life," Hillary explained to Ehrman, "is there."
It was one in a series of complicated choices Hillary Rodham would make that could be seen as take your pick deeply traditional or deeply liberated.
"Liberation," not "choice," was the buzzword when Hillary Rodham moved to Arkansas in 1974, a year after the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision legalized abortion. The stakes were too high for such an inclusive, value-neutral term as "choice." Instead, women desperately agitating for contraception and legal abortions spoke with deep and angry conviction of "saving women's lives," of "coat hangers" and "back alleys."
Feminists were called "libbers" as well as less flattering terms, often containing the adjective "hairy-legged." Protesters ran the streets with their faces painted like witches, put hexes on Wall Street and staged nude-ins to protest recruitment of Playboy models on college campuses. War was declared at home as well as in the office: Inspired by Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, women testified at consciousness-raising sessions where they agreed that there was more to life than diapers and housework; that they should take a stand against families, if need be against husbands. The climate was such that an editor named Robin Morgan could write, in her passionate introduction to an anthology called Sisterhood Is Powerful, that "the nuclear family unit is oppressive to women."
Presumably, some couples were trying to find their way to more egalitarian arrangements in Fayetteville, which, despite the pig hats, was a university town and therefore one of the more "liberated" places in Arkansas. After Clinton lost his try at the House, he and Hillary, both law professors at the university, were a paradigm of the two-career household. But when he won the attorney general's seat in 1976, and then the governorship in 1978, the couple moved to Little Rock and the balance of power shifted. As University of Arkansas historian Randall Woods notes, the couple's thinking was that "they would be two sides of the same coin" but he was governor and so it would be "his coin" they were two sides of. Hillary got a job with the Rose Law Firm, and worked as political helpmate while maintaining her Washington connections by serving on the board of the Children's Defense Fund and as board chair of the Legal Services Corp.
It was a busy life but invigorating. Ehrman recalls a lunch they had at the old rail depot in Little Rock where Hillary, she thought, looked deeply satisfied.
"She was beginning to grow into herself," Ehrman remembers, recalling that Hillary, very pregnant, was wearing a great-looking maternity dress and contact lenses rather than glasses the beginning of an image makeover that later included going blond. "I said to her: 'How are you doing it all? You're a hotshot lawyer, you're pregnant, you're the governor's wife, you're working for the Children's Defense Fund ... '"
"Life," Hillary sighed happily, "is so interesting."
Then, in his try for reelection in 1980, Bill Clinton lost.
"He was defeated over his efforts to change the auto license tax," Woods recalls, not because of his hotshot feminist libber, maiden-name-keeping spouse. Even so, as Bill Clinton biographer David Maraniss has reported, Hillary reckoned that, in his subsequent bid for reelection in 1982, they could pick up some crucial points if she changed her name to Clinton. Having made one drastic choice for love, she was now making a second choice that Mandy Grunwald describes as "pragmatic."
"It was a necessary and correct political decision," agrees Ehrman, pointing out that the name thing was a "big deal" to Arkansans but a trivial thing to anyone with experience in the compromises of public life.
Continued on Page Two
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company