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Our Hillary Lesson

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Our Hillary Lesson

As the first viable female candidate for president, Hillary Clinton dramatically raised the bar for women, but not for media commentary. And that , sadly, is precisely a function of her gender. 

It’s not news that it’s a confusing time to be a woman calling herself a feminist, looking for signs of progress and avoiding the familiar pitfalls and disappointments of sexist culture. Take for example, tiger print lingerie for pre-teens, nose and boob jobs as graduation gifts. Consider women pathologized as “tanorexics,” domesticated in knitting clubs and pimped out in “queen for a day” weddings. Notice that the biggest female celebrities compete not for humanitarian or acting awards, but to see who can produce the largest litter fastest. And the biggest movie of last weekend?—the  one featuring women tottering on sky-high heels, poured into body crushing  fashions, and sexing up an entire city.

Still, there are signs of hope. A female Speaker of the House, more women serving in Congress than ever before, and women outnumbering men on college campuses. Oh, and a woman running for President.  No matter how one feels about Hillary as a candidate, she has been a candidate, fully involved in the political mix, a viable, loved and loathed, politicking player on our culture’s largest stage. And she came to play. She swaggers, she entreats, she apologizes, refuses to apologize, equivocates and tells it like it is. She actually was Running. For.  President.

Yet commentary in the MSM remains moored in the hopeless mess of sexist parsing and sniping. Pundits from the sophomoric Chris Matthews to the dignified Barbra Ehrenreich, all find Hillary fair-er game, I would argue, than her masculine counterparts. Thick ankles? Check. Cleavage? Yup. Female voice? ‘fraid so.  

Even Ehrenreich abandons her characteristic equanimity to find Ms. Clinton’s politicking not just disappointing but evidence of “female moral inferiority.” Paradoxically, one recent study blames female moral superiority for expansion of government programs; women are more likely to endorse publically assisting others, according to this FoxNews analysis, so blame Big Government on women’s suffrage. One of the best selling books on women’s issues currently rehashes the familiar, overdone and simplistic, “He’s a Stud, She’s a Slut” double standard.  Distracting, easy to read, and entirely beside the point, such analysis fails to engage the genuine potential of this woman’s historic run for president.

Such commentary, in fact, discourages our seeing history making at all by treating women and women’s issues as special cases, sui generis, and therefore likely to run their course without leaving much impression on the status quo. Of course, this trend stings even more when forwarded by women.

True equality must render women thoroughly subject and accountable to the rules of the political games we engage, for insisting on anything like inherent moral exceptionality threatens to render us too delicate, special, or weak to participate fully in an often ugly world—a strategy which accounts for the burning of witches, genital mutilation and Purity Balls.  As I’ve written elsewhere of female involvement in the horrors of Abu Ghraib, women are “merely and entirely human, fallible, and entitled to participate in the world in all its violence, horror, wonder and beauty as fully as men do.”

Hillary’s flawed character, untidy run and final resistance to defeat testifies to her political identity, to her exceptional ambition, and, finally, to the possibility of women’s full participation in all things political, messy, moral, and otherwise.





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Kellie Bean has been a Professor of English at Marshall University, an Associate Dean of Liberal Arts, and most recently, Provost of a small New England College. Author of "Post-Backlash Feminism: Women and the Media Since Reagan/Bush" (McFarland (more...)

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