By Donella Meadows
–April 28, 1994–
In the College Supplies store in Hanover, NH, you can buy a card that says on the front, “What’s even worse than having another birthday?” Inside it says, “Hillary with PMS.”
You can buy notepaper that reads, “If President Clinton calls, tell her I’ll get right back to her.”
I thought only women of my generation — Hillary’s generation — cringed at cracks like that. Then I read a column in the Dartmouth student paper by senior Nina McAdoo. She says, “It is disheartening for a woman of the twentysomething generation to witness what a firestorm Hillary has provoked. The transformation she has been forced to undergo to make her more palatable is sickening…. Move over hard-edged lawyer; make room for the kinder, gentler mommy. Call her ‘Mrs. Clinton’ instead of the Hillary Rodham that she obviously prefers…. Get rid of the headbands and add some nice, face-framing layers. Don’t let her talk so much…. Smart, articulate women make this country very nervous.”
I guess you don’t have to be any special age, or an admirer of Bill’s policies or Hillary’s health care plan, to be unsettled by the public treatment of the First Lady. You just have to be a woman.
Hillary testifies competently to Congress and everyone gushes with admiration. Women can hear the disproportionality of the praise, the surprise that a mere female can be so well informed.
When Hillary faces the press corps, the White House handlers dress her in soft pink. She doesn’t stand at a podium as her husband would, she sits in an unthreatening, appeasing position.
Hillary and Bill are long accustomed to thinking together as a team. Every woman who has been part of such a team knows that when the thinking is going on, only ideas matter, not gender. But the world snipes and japes and wonders who is really the boss.
Hillary has too much power for an unelected official, say the snipers, though the same could be said of every Cabinet member. But she can’t be fired, they say, revealing their own insecurity that somehow in the bedroom a woman has a mysterious ability to paralyze a man’s will and judgement.
Millions of married women who have preferred to keep the names they were born with have to endure an endless stream of jokes about Hillary Rodham Clinton and Bill Clinton Rodham.
We haven’t come such a long way, baby, after all.
First Ladies have always been thrust into a merciless spotlight. The public feels free to comment with invasive rudeness on their hair, clothes, cooks, charities, and children. But Hillary is the first “liberated” First Lady. So after we go over her clothes and hair, we can move on to her ideas, investments, law partners, and power. She is a lightning rod. Two hundred sixty million of us cast our expectations, fears, hopes, and resentments about liberated women onto her.
Some Hillary jokes are nothing but mean-spirited partisan politics, of course. Some of her knocks come from the insidious media game of setting people up on pedestals and then knocking them down. They did it to Janet Reno. They did it to George Stephanopoulis. They do it to every president, and they’ve done it three or four times to Hillary.
And some of the criticism is deserved. Hillary’s naivete is not credible when it comes to the way the world does favors to governors and their wives in any statehouse, not just the one in Little Rock. The contrast between the Clintons’ high-minded rhetoric and their ordinary materialism is worth pointing out. (Though it would be more seemly, and more quiet, if only those who are themselves without guilt would cast the stones.)
But at the bottom of the barrel there is a sludge of Hillary jokes that are just plain disgusting. They deal with sex, with female physical characteristics, and with the belief that capability in women unmans men. They reveal nothing about Hillary, but plenty about the biases, weaknesses, and phobias of the joke-tellers.
As we watch Hillary, we women who think of ourselves as lawyers, teachers, doctors, businesspeople first and women only second, we can’t help but root for her. In small ways we’ve been where she is, struggling to meet her society’s and her family’s demands without losing herself. We’ve tried to be both yielding and tough, responsible and subservient, physically attractive and economically self-sufficient. We’ve worked to hold marriages together against the strains of double careers, long absences, bruised male egos, and unfaithfulness. We’ve faced criticism inside and outside ourselves every time we’ve exhibited intelligence or power. In the vitriol directed at Hillary, we can see the sour resistance we ourselves encounter every day, just in doing what men can do without a second thought.
It’s inevitable that we will criticize our First Couple. Blame him, if you want to, for having no moral backbone, for compromising every environmental reform, for letting Serbian thugs commit genocide in Bosnia, for taking only timid steps toward balancing the budget. Blame her, if you like, for knuckling under to special interests and ruling out of hand the single-payer health care system she herself favors.
But it’s not fair to blame Hillary, or anyone, for being a woman, and for being born into a generation of women, who are having to learn gradually, courageously, and against great odds, how to be full persons.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1994