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Clinton not an easy sell to all women

THE NATION

Many with backgrounds similar to the Democratic front-runner can't stand her -- at least for now.

December 07, 2007|Robin Abcarian | Times Staff Writer

On paper, they look an awful lot like Hillary Rodham Clinton. They are professional women of a certain age -- politically active Democrats, liberals, unabashed feminists who remember what it was like to be told they could not become firefighters or university department heads, let alone president of the United States of America.

They are women of accomplishment who have bumped up against glass ceilings, sometimes breaking them, while managing marriages, raising children and trying to make the world their version of a better place.

They have waited a long, long time for a plausible female presidential candidate. You'd think they'd be rushing to support Clinton. But they can't stand her.

"She leaves me cold," said Sidonie Smith, who chairs the University of Michigan English department. "I hate to say that. It's a very strange feeling to have."

Like her husband, former President Clinton, Hillary Clinton has inspired highly mixed emotions over the years. For the political right, she has served as a protean symbol of everything wrong with Democrats and feminists.

For upscale women on the left -- historically her toughest crowd -- negative reaction has been more nuanced. Polls show that blue-collar women see her as a defender of their economic interests. But their well-educated upper-middle-class sisters, who aren't as worried about job security, feel free to judge her as they would a peer. She has recently gained substantial ground with this constituency, but polls continue to show that fully half of college-educated Democratic women do not support her.

The reasons vary. For many, it's visceral. While they struggled to break through institutional barriers in the workplace, Clinton hitched her star to her man and followed him to the top. When his philandering imperiled his political career, she not only pulled him out of the fire but helped orchestrate attacks against his accusers.

For others, the anger they feel is purely political. Some are disappointed by her support of the Iraq war, her reluctance to take stands on some hot-button issues or the fact that she has re-created herself as a centrist.

'Sanctimoniousness'

In an essay in the November issue of the Atlantic Monthly, Caitlin Flanagan wrote that she was put off by Clinton's "sanctimoniousness." She wondered why "so many of the most liberal and educated women are ambivalent about Hillary?" Flanagan's answer: By sticking with a husband who has mistreated vulnerable women -- for the sake of her marriage, her child and her ambition -- she has made herself complicit in his unsavory behavior, and diminished the very best parts of herself.

On the Huffington Post blog, Nora Ephron described "Hillary resisters" (and she is one) as women who disapprove of her tendency to triangulate, deplore her position on the Iraq war and "don't trust her as far as you can spit."

In the spring, University of Michigan communications studies professor Susan J. Douglas wrote an essay for the liberal journal In These Times called "Why Women Hate Hillary." And in an interview with LA Weekly last May, Jane Fonda called Clinton "a ventriloquist for the patriarchy with a skirt and a vagina."

Some politics experts are baffled by the antipathy. Perhaps women hold each other to an unrealistic standard, said Ruth B. Mandel, an expert on women and politics who is director of the Eagleton Institute at Rutgers University and counts herself among the baffled.

"I do feel that people are just grumpy about her," Mandel said. "It is complex ideologically and psychologically -- 'I am mad at her because she didn't divorce her husband, I am mad at her because she didn't vote against the war.' "

Seeking the perfect female candidate, concluded Mandel, could be called "Waiting for the Goddess." And because politics at the highest level requires compromise, a certain centrism and inevitably sullying hands-on experience, she added, "You could spend a lifetime waiting for the perfect person to come along, and in politics, that's not gonna happen."

Ann Lewis, Clinton's director of women's outreach, is upbeat about Clinton's progress with this sector of voters and thinks it's only a matter of time till they come around.

"I do believe that what you are describing are women on a different arc," Lewis said. "They take longer to make up their minds. They want to make sure you are not going to let them down."

'A tragic figure'

But the Hillary resisters -- who say they will vote for her if she becomes the nominee -- already feel that Clinton has let them down.

"Hillary, in a sense, is a tragic figure," said Clara Oleson, a 65-year-old retired lawyer and union educator in West Branch, Iowa, who supports Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.). "She seems to feel she needs to be a social male -- aggressor, commander in chief."

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