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PERSPECTIVE ON SEXISM : Whitewater Isn't a Matter of Gender : Hillary Clinton's being held accountable is warranted. But the scorn being heaped on her as a woman is something else.

March 13, 1994|HARRIETT WOODS | Harriett Woods is president of the National Women's Political Caucus. and

Ever since Adam and Eve, whenever a couple is in a garden and there's trouble, a finger of suspicion points toward the woman.

Apparently that applies to First Couples as well.

Let's be clear. Whitewater itself is not about gender. There are allegations of possible wrongdoing in Arkansas that should be investigated objectively and resolved once and for all.

But a sly anti-feminism has crept into the attacks on the White House that should trouble women all over this country. For example, under the headline "Is She a Liability?" one commentator cited the First Lady's "insistence on gender and race quotas in presidential appointments."

This reveals a continuing resentment of Mrs. Clinton's powerful presence and the priority that she and many others place on diversity in government, particularly on bringing in people outside the personal circles of long-time Washington pundits and power-brokers. It is telling that the criticism of female and minority appointments was followed by this sentence: "Any Washington insider can list a half-dozen top-notch white males who failed to get jobs in which they could have done fine work for the Administration."

Furthermore, the idea that there are quotas is nonsense. As chair of the Coalition for Women's Appointments, I know better than most the constant pressure and diligent searches for qualified candidates that went into achieving increases for women and minorities.

To repeat the obvious: Hillary Clinton should be accountable for her actions as an attorney and as decision-maker on financial and legal matters. She should be responsible, and responsive, about any policy-making, such as her assignment on health policy. In other words, if you take bows before a joint session of Congress, then be prepared for a few blows when things aren't going so well.

Women don't want or need a double standard. There has been too much gender condescension already. Remember the congressmen who seemed astonished that Mrs. Clinton could testify knowledgeably without using notes?

Hillary Clinton isn't the first modern First Lady to serve as a political lightning rod. Those opposed to President Franklin D. Roosevelt wore buttons that said: "We Don't Want Eleanor, Either." Rosalynn Carter was snidely referred to as the Iron Magnolia; Nancy Reagan was accused of manipulating her husband with astrology. But the current attacks on Mrs. Clinton are more troubling because they are aimed at the economic and social advances for women that she has come to symbolize. They reveal a continuing unease with powerful women. This bubbled up during the campaign in complaints that she was "too pushy" and, after the inauguration, "too powerful." Compared to what expectations?

Hillary Clinton is the admired heroine of many women who are balancing the responsibilities of breadwinner, home manager and caretaker, often under great stress. They are proud to see a woman who respects herself enough to use her training to make a substantial contribution to public service. But the dangers of hero status are clear. Mrs. Clinton is bound to make mistakes, whether in style or substance. At a time when some claim to have discovered a political snake in the Rose Garden, there are those who want to identify Mrs. Clinton as Eve.

Women need to remember the price they have paid through history for the lessons drawn from the biblical story: Women aren't to be trusted; they are weak and lack judgment; men must hold authority.

There's plenty for everyone to learn from the handling of Whitewater--inside and outside the White House. Mrs. Clinton's role in that matter, and as a leader within the White House, ultimately will be judged by history and the American people. That controversy has nothing to do with gender. We must not let it be used as an excuse for returning women to a cartoonish role of weakness and incompetence.

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