The Hillary Dilemma
By Liza Mundy
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.
For feminism, too, a certain pragmatism was taking hold. Witches were out. Coat hangers were history. But the Roe victory already felt chillingly tenuous. Violence against clinics started right away, and it quickly became clear that abortion rights were going to be not so much a one-time victory as an ongoing struggle.
And so, also around 1980, Faye Wattleton, then president of Planned Parenthood, recalls commissioning a poll to take America's temperature on abortion. What the group discovered, Wattleton says, was that Americans felt abortion, on a certain level, was killing.
"Americans aren't stupid," she says. "They believed that in some cases it was necessary but morally wrong, but they did not want the government to make the decision." Ergo: "If we focused on the issue of whether abortion was moral or not, we forced people to come down on the side that it was immoral, and that was dangerous. The position that would appeal to most people was: We were really talking about a choice."
Thus did choice become the central theme of the reproductive rights or, as it's now often known, the pro-choice movement. The term sprang from a sincere impulse, but it also made for an effective platform not just for the reproductive rights movement but for feminism as a whole. By now, women had gained enough ground to call into question the need for "liberation"; and it was becoming clear, as Wattleton points out, that choice "is a word that appeals to people."
The thing is, choices sometimes clash. If a woman chooses to have an abortion, the child loses any say in the matter. Once Bill Clinton lost his election, Hillary Clinton felt her choice, regarding a last name, was no choice at all. Nor was that the only choice closed off to her. After the difficult conception and birth of their daughter, Chelsea, friends say, she would have liked to have more children, but her hopes were never realized.
As an advocate for children, Hillary already knew some-thing about the zero-sum nature of choice. In her often-misrepresented paper for the Harvard Educational Review (the so-called childhood-equals-slavery argument), she wrote that parents should not always have sole decision-making power over how to raise a child. Or even over whether to raise the child at all. That is, she argued that in difficult custody battles, children not parents should decide whom they wanted to live with, even if that meant adoption by a loving foster parent.
The primacy of a child's well-being is a position she has stuck with. In contrast to her liberal image, she is on record deploring "casual attitudes about divorce," arguing in It Takes a Village as well as her newspaper columns that for the sake of familial stability, divorce should be harder to obtain that once two adults have made a choice to marry, their subsequent choices should be constrained, if necessary, by the state. Addressing her own marriage in a 1996 column, she wrote that she and Bill had learned to "bite our tongues when we need to. And like many other couples, we've learned to confront problems before they've reached irreparable proportions."
It was a cheerful spin on an unpleasant situation. In the 1992 presidential campaign, the emergence of Gennifer Flowers and her tearful allegations of a 12-year affair with the governor (which, by this account, would have been ongoing when Hillary was taking his name, campaigning on his behalf and bearing his child) had forced her to make another decision. She would go on "60 Minutes," confront the womanizing allegations, defend her own decision to stay with Bill, and keep him in the race. "I'm not sitting here some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette," she said passionately but puzzlingly, raising the still-open question: If she wasn't Tammy Wynette, who was she?
"I think she was talking about blind faith versus making a conscious choice," explains Mandy Grunwald. "I think what she was saying was, this is a conscious choice. I choose to be with this man. I am not stuck here, I am not blindly staying here. I do this with wide-open eyes."
Whether it's always better to make a conscious choice rather than a blind one is not entirely clear. What is clear is that as in her notorious comment that she could have stayed home and baked cookies Hillary Clinton chose to define herself against some presumably lesser woman. At that point, she was not exactly making an egalitarian argument for women's choices. Six years later, in January 1998, she would again go open-eyed on national television, this time with Matt Lauer of the "Today" show, to defend her husband amid allegations about his affair with Monica Lewinsky.
After she had assured Lauer that the allegations were untrue, Lauer asked her a hypothetical. If it did emerge that an American president had had an affair in the White House and covered it up, would that be a serious matter?
"If all that were proven true, I think that would be a very serious offense," she replied. "That is not going to be proven true." She did not say true; she said proven true. It was not going to be proven true. What was the purpose of this lawyerly, Clintonesque parsing? Were Hillary's eyes open or closed?
Her staff and friends insist she honestly did not know the truth; that only much later, in August, did she learn that her husband had indeed had an affair with Lewinsky, had lied to her about it, and sent her out to lie to the nation. "He betrayed her," says her former press secretary Neel Lattimore. "He betrayed her personally and professionally."
But regardless of what she may or may not have known or suspected, what choice did she have? Her interview had been scheduled before the Lewinsky scandal broke. Her only choice was whether to cancel or not.
"To cancel," Grunwald says, "would have been politically deadly."
In other words: Given who she was, and where she was, and what had happened, at that moment she had no choice at all.
Not if the Clintons wanted to remain, to use a familiar phrase, politically viable.
"She sings a woman's song our song choice is a complex matter," says Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, introducing the first lady a few days after the State of the Union speech. "A right both profound and personal, but a right nonetheless."
On stage this day, the paths of Hillary Clinton and the paths of the women's movement or one important wing of it are once again crossing, more than a generation after they both got their public start. The first lady is the keynote speaker at a glitzy Omni Shoreham luncheon to celebrate the 30th anniversary of NARAL.
"The greatest of American freedoms is choice," says a new NARAL television ad campaign. The ad is being shown on huge television screens to women who are sitting at tables, wearing long skirts or short skirts or medium-length skirts or slacks; wearing bras or not wearing bras; long flowing hair or straight short hair or dreadlocked hair or plain gray hair or radically dyed white hair; boots or sensible pumps or clunky platforms. The only fashion item about which there is not limitless choice is, apparently, shoe color. Whatever style, it seems, the shoes must be black.
In the hotel lobby is a man who volunteers for Voters for Choice, because men, too, can favor choice. So can Republicans. The first speaker is Selwa "Lucky" Roosevelt, who describes herself pointedly as a "pro-choice Republican who speaks for millions of other pro-choice Republicans."
Who here would speak against choice? Nobody, not even the family of Barnett Slepian, the Upstate New York doctor murdered because he made the difficult choice to do what he saw as his job, which consisted not only of delivering babies but also performing abortions. Slepian's wife is here, but too grief-stricken to take the stage to receive a posthumous award for her husband. After a moment of silence, there are speeches by, among others, Dana Delany, star of "Choices of the Heart: The Margaret Sanger Story." Then Hillary Clinton, who takes the stage to characteristically thunderous applause.
Today, she's announcing that the administration has asked for $4.5 million for defending vulnerable abortion clinics against attacks. In addition, she outlines what Michelman describes as the first "comprehensive integrated reproductive health framework" any administration has ever presented.
Which is to say, she talks not about abortion but about choice. "Being pro-choice is not being pro-abortion," asserts the first lady, who helped coin the administration's stated goal of making abortion "safe, legal and rare."
Choice can indeed mean choosing to have an abortion, her message runs, but it can also mean choosing to use contraception, choosing not to have sex, choosing to have a whole gaggle of kids. All of these are choices the administration supports. In addition to the money to defend clinics, she cites proposals as specific as forcing insurance plans to pay for contraception and increasing money for international family planning, and efforts as vague as filling teenager's lives with "meaningful activities" instead of sex.
Hillary Clinton has always shared a "broader understanding of what it means to be pro-choice," says Michelman. When she said the first lady embodies the complexity of choice, she explains, she was talking not about her marriage but about her support for abortion, family planning and families. "There may have been those who thought that in the early stage of the contemporary women's movement, the choice to be at home with your family and to be a wife and mother ... was somehow not as worthy a choice," says Michelman. "[But] the very purpose of the women's movement was to expand choices. To respect choices. I have always been concerned that women across the country, and men as well, understand that the choices women make are equal in value."
The choices are equal in value. The important thing is to have one. What the women's movement wanted, Michelman and other leaders emphasize, was to make sure women don't feel stuck. That they don't feel choiceless because of poverty or dependence. Or even by their own physiology: "I tended to be very fertile," Michelman recalls, and as a result she suffered through a pre-Roe abortion and almost died from taking the Pill early on, when the levels of hormones were far higher. Raising three young daughters, alone, after her husband left her for another woman, she learned what stuck feels like. "I'm just old enough," she says, "not to have had the choices."
Hillary, she thinks, does have choices. "She's chosen to stay with her husband ... when clearly there have been times, in addition to the current one, that have been so painful. I don't think we should be judging that choice ... You have to be able to allow for the personal choices people make that are really embedded in their own moral and ethical value structures."
So that's where we are. Personal choices are embedded in the individual's own moral and ethical value structure. Given this, are there any choices she would not salute?
Michelman hesitates. There is domestic violence. She wouldn't salute a woman staying with a physically abusive husband. And there is something else. "I, for instance, wouldn't salute a woman leaving her family. And yet I had a friend I struggled with this I had a friend who left her family because she couldn't be a mother. She just couldn't. She had two children and made the decision to leave her family, leave her marriage ... That was one of the hardest things for me to cope with: trying to understand how a woman could leave her children."
"Yet," she says, "I have enormous respect for the fact that there might be circumstances where you would have to."
"We don't push any choice on anyone," stresses Cherien Dabis, a 22-year-old staff member of the Feminist Majority Foundation, an Arlington-based organization that skews younger than other mainstream feminist groups. Together with three twentysomething colleagues, Dabis is sitting in a cybercafe on Wilson Boulevard, talking about feminism and about Hillary Clinton, who, they all think, totally rocks.
"She keeps moving forward," says Niyati Shah, who, like the rest, watched the first lady admiringly at the NARAL event.
"She's made a choice in which she feels empowered," says Dabis.
"That's what feminism is about," says Sarah Boonin. "It's about access to choices."
"I think she knows she has certain choices to make," says Summer Damon, "especially if she wants to go into politics in the future. She's able to separate the personal from the political."
She's able to separate the personal from the political. Truly, we've come a long way, baby. For these younger, third-wave feminists, Hillary Clinton represents what could be called the supermarket theory of feminism, or, alternatively, the lipstick-is-okay-and-no-lipstick-is-okay-too theory of feminism. The I'm-okay-you're-okay theory of feminism. A theory in which any choice or way of life is okay as long as it doesn't involve judging other choices or ways of life. As Boonin puts it, "Feminism is about the interconnection between sexism, racism, classism and homophobia.
"The isms," she acknowledges with a grin, "and the phobias."
Boonin was on the team that devised the foundation's new "Choices" campaign, an effort that, as much as anything, shows how "choice" has broadened as a feminist concept to embrace not only reproductive rights but all of a woman's life. Part of the Choices campaign is devoted to defending abortion clinics against vigilantes. But the other part aims to awaken young women to the possibilities open to them in life. One Choices project, for example, sends college women to high schools to coach girls in career options. Actually, the real idea is to open them to progressive career options they teach them how to write a "progressive resume" but even so, any choice would be okay.
Like, say, if a high school girl told her Choices counselor that she wanted to pursue a career in cosmetology? That would be okay, from a feminist point of view?
"That's a choice she's making," says Damon. She could do their hair, the women joke.
If a young girl wanted to make a fortune on Wall Street?
"We need to be all over the place," says Dabis.
What if a young girl wanted to drop out of school and have kids?
"It happens," says Damon.
What if a young girl decided she wanted to join the antiabortion group Operation Rescue?
"That would make me wonder," says Shah, "how informed is this decision."
Because that's the goal: giving girls information about what they can do. Information is access. Information is power. Hillary Clinton, they feel, is informed about her options and so any choice she makes is okay. If she's staying in her marriage now in order to keep open the possibility of a Senate campaign as Damon, for one, suspects that makes sense. She wants to maximize her choices. After all, she's able to separate the political from the personal. The political matters. Ideologically, the personal doesn't. "I don't know if adultery is a feminist issue," says Damon.
And so naturally, when these women are asked what they sit around and worry about when they sit around and worry about their lives, it isn't personal lives. It isn't homes. It isn't boyfriends. It isn't kids. It isn't who does the dishes. It isn't balancing work and family.
It's glass ceilings and lack of access to power. "We all want," they say sincerely, with the hope and terror of the young, "to do so much."
But when asked why they are feminists, they all cite personal reasons. Familial reasons. For Sarah Boonin, her feminism started in what she acknowledges is a laughable way: Once, when she was a kid, she wasn't allowed to go to the circus, and her brother was allowed to go, and she thought this was sexist so she put a placard on a popsicle stick and "picketed dinner." Summer Damon, who was raised with her siblings by a single mom, remembers being a really good baseball player not softball but baseball and trying to play with boys who ridiculed her. Niyati Shah's family is from India, though she grew up in the United States, and she remembers having her own consciousness raised when she went to India and met many women who had suffered sexual abuse.
And Cherien Dabis is Christian Arab, she explains. Her mom is Jordanian, her dad Palestinian. She has four sisters. She always felt, growing up, that her father was disappointed by having all these girls. It was something her mother and father fought over. "He always called her ultra-feminist," she remembers. It wasn't a compliment.
"It ended bitterly," she says matter-of-factly, "in a divorce."
"Where do human rights begin?" the speaker asks. "In small places, close to home, so close and small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person the neighborhood he lives in, the factory, farm or office where he worked. Such are the places where every man, woman and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination.
"Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere."
Where do human rights begin? In small places. Close to home. So said Hillary Clinton, quoting Eleanor Roosevelt, in a 1997 speech to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Because, in fact, Hillary Clinton does not generally exhibit the cool, postmodern, multicultural, anything-goes supermarket philosophy of the sort that American feminists adopt toward her. She doesn't share the "whatever" attitude of, say, social historian Ann Douglas, who in a recent Vogue profile celebrated Hillary Clinton for abandoning feminism's old tendency to worry about curbing "masculine immorality." Feminism is no longer about making men behave, to their wives or girlfriends or even, presumably, their employees, says Douglas. Feminism is on to other things.
Is it? In many ways, Hillary Clinton is much more like the moralizing feminists of the late 19th century than almost any other American woman one can think of. And where these views emerge most clearly is on the international stage. Since the latter part of her first term as first lady having been advised that she needed to keep a lower profile if her husband wanted to get reelected her most visible domestic activities have been feel-good crusades such as her millennium project and a book about the White House pets called Dear Socks, Dear Buddy. But she has also continued to travel around the world, where she can speak more freely, condemning discriminatory practices like genital mutilation and inheritance laws that favor men.
The most famous of these speeches was at the 1995 U.N. Conference on Women in Beijing, where she expressed the view that "women's rights are human rights." But in virtually every speech abroad, she finds a way to speak out against practices that degrade and humiliate women. She's making the case for moral intolerance, for curbing masculine immorality. She's Carrie Nation. She's Harriet Beecher Stowe. She's an abolitionist. She's a missionary. She's a temperance worker wielding a hatchet.
None of this choices-are-embedded-in-individual-values business.
"In too many places," she argued in the 1997 speech, "the suffering of women is defined as trivial, explained away as a cultural phenomenon." Explicitly rejecting a multicultural approach to women's issues, she spoke out against governments that encourage or ignore domestic violence, or force young women into the commercial sex trade, or banish them to sweatshops. She spoke out against the Taliban's treatment of women in Afghanistan. Against denying women schooling or inheritances. Against "inequitable divorce laws" that force women to stay in "cruel marriages."
Mostly, she's asking governments to change their ways. But she is also asking women and girls themselves women and girls in countries where the stakes are very, very high to demand schooling; to demand new divorce laws; to refuse to be genitally mutilated; to start small businesses with "microcredit," the tiny loans that enable them to buy a sewing machine or a loom or a cow. To stand up and change the world they live in. The world close to home.
Because for women as for no other group empowering them does mean empowering them in their personal lives. Their bodies. Their bedrooms. Their daily routines. Their checkbooks. There is no way around it. The personal is political.
And sometimes the hardest place to be a feminist is at home.
Oddly enough, Hillary Clinton seems to be one of the few remaining people willing to say this.
"I don't think she could have said, 'You go to the Willard and I'm staying here,'" Mandy Grunwald acknowledges. "I don't think that would have been an option."
That is to say, when the Lewinsky scandal broke, it would have been impossible for Hillary Clinton to kick Bill Clinton out of the White House, as an ordinary wife could have done. She may be empowered; she may have more money than he does; she may even have a more interesting political future. But she is, just now, living in one of the few residences in the country from which a wife may not eject her adulterous spouse. Even so, Grunwald asserts, she could have left if she'd wanted to. She could have taken her popularity, and her power base, and gone to the Willard herself. "She has now built an international reputation on these women and family issues."
But she has also built a reputation on sticking with her husband. In the past year, Hillary Clinton's favorability rating has risen steadily, a surge in popularity that's demonstrably linked to her decision to stand by her man. Before the affair, she "was a lightning rod for people who have a problem with powerful women," says
Andrew Kohut of the nonpartisan Pew Research Center. "Since the [president's] mea culpa, she is a much more sympathetic figure." According to Kohut, 57 percent of the American public had a favorable view of Hillary Clinton in January 1997. A little over a year and a half later just after the president's public confession that number had risen to 66 percent. Her big gains were with more culturally conservative groups such as older people; less well-educated Americans; and men, especially what Kohut calls the "testosterone set."
And for the first time, women who didn't go to college the Tammy Wynettes, shall we say? felt exactly the same way about Hillary Rodham Clinton as those who did go to college.
Which is to say, they felt pretty good.
"She is better regarded as a wounded woman," Kohut says, "than she was as a powerful woman who doesn't bake cookies."
Why didn't she leave? While she declined to be interviewed for this article, some observers say that the Clintons are affectionate in private and conclude they remain deeply in love a pretty notion but one that's hard to confirm about any married couple, much less this one. Grunwald points, too, to Hillary's position on divorce and her commitment to family. "I don't think this is paradise for her," Grunwald says. "And I think that people who are cynical and think she's made this choice because she has chosen power, misunderstand their relationship and misunderstand her belief in marriage and family ... They miss how much pain is there, people who think this is a political choice. If that were true, there would be no pain. That would be easy."
Or perhaps, like Ingrid Bergman in "Notorious" (who accepts marriage to the Nazi, Claude Rains, to collect intelligence and prove her own patriotism), Hillary Clinton made her choice for what she saw as the good of the country. But whatever the reason, one thing is clear: To the extent that feminists cheer Hillary, to the extent that they harness themselves to her popularity, they are harnessing themselves to a woman who is popular specifically because she has made a very traditional choice, to stand by her man despite his infidelity, despite his workplace misbehavior, despite allegations of sexual harassment of other women. Because of the Lewinsky scandal, then, there's been a split between what Hillary Clinton does as a political figure and what she symbolizes as a wife.
What she does, as a political figure, is work on behalf of all women working women who need after-school child care, stay-at-home moms who need to keep their Social Security benefits to shore up their choices. But what she symbolizes, as a wife, is not choice. She symbolizes a narrow idea of how women should behave. And this symbolism goes a long way in explaining why she's suddenly so popular.
"There is a tremendous amount of reinforcement to the traditional role of women," reflects Faye Wattleton, who is now the head of the research-oriented Center for Gender Equality. "We are products of a long tradition of subservience. The official structures that open the choices to us do not necessarily change our conditioning and mentality as women."
In this split the liberalism of her words and the traditionalism of her actions Hillary Clinton is in sync with a poll the center conducted, which found a reactionary streak among many American women. Or rather, an increasing belief that women can retain equality in the world and the workplace even if they relinquish it, to some degree, in the private sphere. For example, the poll found, almost all women think they should be treated equally with regard to employment, bank loans and schooling. But 44 percent believe divorce should be more difficult to obtain; 70 percent favor some restrictions on abortion; and 36 percent agree with the Southern Baptist dictum that wives should "submit graciously" to the leadership of their husbands.
Which brings us back to the supermarket metaphor. Women, says Wattleton, believe they can pick and choose what they want from their value systems. That they can stand down in the hard household arguments, and still hold their own in the workplace and the world.
It's not just women, either, who like the idea of picking and choosing. Thanks in part to the success of this feminist rhetoric, suddenly everybody wants to be about choice. The more embattled a special interest, the more important choice becomes; you could say, in fact, that choice has become the last defense of scoundrels. "The individual right to choose to own firearms is essential to a free people," exhorts an ad for the National Rifle Association. The tobacco lobby, too, has hit upon choice as a concept to defend smoking against big government.
The notion of choice has spread so deeply in our culture that it's now being used to excuse anything and, basically, change the subject. Right now, feminists are using it to excuse away a genuinely troubling contradiction between the first lady's public sphere and her private one.
In fact, it could be argued that just now, Hillary Clinton symbolizes not choice but the limitations of choice. What she illustrates is that we are inevitably the product of other choices we've made; that once we make a choice, we lose other choices; that some choices are, frankly, lousy; and most of all, that choices sometimes clash. The first lady is on record as opposing divorce, and unlike many other "family values" proponents she has so far lived by her creed. On the other hand, she is also on record as being against the degradation and humiliation of women, something of which her husband seems indisputably guilty.
Sometimes, you really can't have it both ways. Sometimes you do have to choose. Run for the Senate? Head for the hills? Start a new life? Start a foundation? These may all be tempting options. But other choices have been irretrievably taken away from her by her own actions and more often the actions of Bill Clinton. Contrary to the fond assertions of her defenders, Hillary did not choose to end up where she is just now. Presumably what she would choose, if she could choose, is a family unblemished by betrayal. A future unmarred by scandal. A public persona unclouded by suffering. Given this, what she has is not "choice." What she has are merely choices.
Liza Mundy is a staff writer for the Magazine.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company