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Pillorying Hillary Is Part of Gender Wars : She's a lightning rod because she's a strong woman who challenges male privilege.

February 01, 1996|RUTH ROSEN | Ruth Rosen, a professor of history at UC Davis, writes regularly on politics and culture

Anyone who is publicly savaged by both William Safire and Alex Cockburn must be doing something right. And Hillary Rodham Clinton is.

Clinton, a champion of women and children, knows that her causes are wedge issues that challenge the inequities in our society and the privilege of the powerful. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the attacks against her are not simply politics as usual. The first lady is the kind of strong woman that weak men love to hate, a brilliant woman who makes mediocre men feel incompetent.

The photographs said it all. Outside the building where she testified before a grand jury, a group of boys and men gathered to denounce the first lady: "Liar, liar, pants on fire," they chanted manfully. Meanwhile, a group of girls and women held posters pledging their loyalty: "We believe you, Hillary."

Attacks from the right are understandable. To conservatives, her sins are many. She helped bring down Richard Nixon. She is pro-choice and a successful professional. She has tried to promote the health care of all Americans. She believes that we need government to defend the interests of the weak and the vulnerable.

The left's attacks stem from a more visceral misogyny. Even today, there are still some liberal men who cannot grasp the radical nature of what they call "women's issues." These are often the same men who in the late '60s dismissed feminist grievances as "bourgeois" matters. These are men who just don't understand that how a society treats its children is a vital political question.

The fact is, Hillary Clinton belongs to a distinguished reform tradition in our American past. Like thousands of women reformers before her, she understands that the so-called traditional concerns of family and children can affect the nation's agenda.

During the early decades of this century, women reformers played a decisive role in weaving together our present safety net. They fought for widows' pensions, public health, settlement houses, improved labor conditions, pure food and drugs, prenatal care and dozens of other reforms that have made this nation a more civilized society. Though they couldn't vote, they set the terms of political debate. Their goals, moreover, were not modest: They hoped to create a just society that protects the weak, rewards the inventive and restrains greed.

Like Jane Addams and Eleanor Roosevelt, Hillary Clinton believes that a truly humane society places children, not corporations, at the center of its economic agenda. In her book "It Takes A Village," Clinton asks us all to bear responsibility for the next generation. When we take care of children, we take care of their families as well. But children cannot vote and so they have no political clout. At the conclusion of her book, she asks us to remember that "Children, after all, are citizens too."

Clinton seems to mystify men of the media. When she traveled to Asia to publicize the conditions of women's lives, male pundits gleefully concluded that she had retreated to the "traditional first lady" role. Not true. She promoted successful programs that provide small loans to poor women and advocated educational opportunities for girls and women. When she spoke at the U.N. Fourth World Congress of Women in Beijing, the first lady championed women's rights as human rights. Oddly, none of the pundits seemed to grasp the radical implications of her speech: To call a custom a crime is to challenge male privilege all over the world.

The first lady is the perfect scapegoat because she has a moral compass and is not afraid to follow it. A strong and passionate woman, she provokes wild outbursts of splenetic sexism from all directions. But this too shall pass. The attempted character assassination of Hillary Clinton is simply one more battle in the gender wars, which may very well last far into the next century.

The political backlash against feminism is brutal. In the darkness of our disgust, let us remember that these gender skirmishes, while they leave terrible scars, also publicize great injustices and help redraw the national agenda.

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