So a number of people have linked to this article about Ms. Clinton’s campaign. I agree with some of the points that Rebecca Traister makes. For example, she does a good job articulating a point with which I’ve struggled. Friends keep saying that they wish that our choice weren’t between another Clinton and another Bush and I even agree, but something has nagged at me every time this has come up. Ms. Traister nails this:
For generations, the primary path to power for women with any political ambitions (and even some without them) was through those who came to political power easily: men, usually husbands. This has been especially true of “first” women in American politics: The first woman governor, Wyoming’s Nellie Tayloe Ross, was elected in 1925 to replace her husband after his death. The first woman elected to the Senate was Hattie Wyatt Carraway, who filled the Arkansas seat of her dead husband in 1931. Maine Republican Margaret Chase Smith, who took her late husband’s House seat in 1940, went on to become senator and the first woman ever to have her name placed into nomination for the presidency at a major party’s convention.
It was practically preordained that the first woman to come close to a major party nomination, if not to become the first female president, was going to have family ties to a man with executive branch experience.
That doesn’t make Hillary’s current political position dynastic in the way that, say, Jeb Bush’s is. There are big differences between being born into a position of political privilege and marrying someone who becomes politically powerful. Wives have historically provided the support to make presidents’ careers possible; no dynastic configuration has ever landed one in the Oval Office herself.
Last month, The New York Times ran a fascinating and distressing look at the statistical probability of paternal succession in presidential politics, as well as in sports, business, and entertainment. The economist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz found that, based on recent history, “an American male is 4,582 times more likely to become an Army general if his father was one; 1,895 times more likely to become a famous C.E.O.; 1,497 times more likely to win a Grammy” and that it is “8,500 times more likely a senator’s son” will become a senator himself.
But based on historical precedent, here is how likely it is for a president’s wife to become president herself: zero times more likely. It’s never happened before.
So while it is fair to feel critical of the advisors, strategies, and policies deployed by both Hillary and Bill Clinton during the years they have each wielded political power, it is not fair or accurate to suggest their familial circumstances are equivalent to those of the Bushes, the Roosevelts, the Adamses, the Kennedys, or the Cuomos. If you want to compare them to the Tayloe Rosses, the Wyatt Carraways, or the Chase Smiths, that’s cool. But it doesn’t pack quite the same punch. And that’s part of the point.
That’s it. That’s the difference between being born a Bush and becoming a Clinton, between how men use their families to obtain power and how it works for women.
But here’s where Ms. Traister goes right off the rails:
I hope we can get over the conviction that every time someone notices what Hillary’s wearing, it’s diminishing.
Like it or not, clothes and appearance are part of how political candidates communicate. Self-presentation is tightly tied to electability, and men are not let off the hook. Ask Barack Obama about his mom jeans, John Edwards about being dubbed “The Breck Girl,” John Kerry about his Botox injections. It’s far more instructive to break down the nuances of how appearance is critiqued and not just the reality that it’s going to be.
For example: All those instances of men being teased for their looks involve them being feminized! That’s the part that’s interesting … and sexist. When debate questions about child health care policies and the storage of radioactive waste get rejected in favor of one about whether Hillary prefers diamonds or pearls? That’s sexist. And when an opponent, asked to name one positive and one negative about Hillary, compliments her husband as the positive and rags on her jacket as the negative? Well, that’s John Edwards, keeping it repellent since 2008.
But simply noting that Hillary is wearing some fetching shade of teal? Acknowledging that her wardrobe choices must account for the fact that she has cleavage, something vanishingly few of her predecessors have had to tackle? That’s not inherently sexist, no matter what her campaign tells you in an effort to draw your outraged support.
An honest reckoning with the unique aspects of dressing like a woman on a trail built for men has its own value and its own genuine pleasures. One of my favorite memories of covering 2008 is a Clinton rally in Pennsylvania with my two-year-old nephew in tow. We were standing miles from the podium, and when Hillary came on stage, clad head to toe in some raspberry number, my nephew clapped joyously, exclaiming: “Elmo!” That was great. We’d never before had a candidate who wore anything other than greys and browns, a candidate who might reasonably be mistaken for Elmo. It was funny; it was giddy; it was its own kind of history.
Look, it shouldn’t be necessary to say this, but talking about a man’s appearance is NOT the same as talking about a woman’s appearance. It’s not the same thing to call a white man “boy” as it is to call a black man “boy.” It’s not the same thing and if you don’t get that, then you are part of the problem.
For women, the constant pressure to conform to a very narrow, largely unrealistic, and schizo-damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t set of physical appearance and clothing stereotypes is a huge part of what’s wrong with our society. You’re too sexy, you’re too matronly, you’re too [just fill in the blank.] Sure, saying that President Obama wore “mom jeans” wasn’t a compliment, but it’s completely different from talking about what a woman wears and doesn’t even begin to police his behavior in the way that talking about what women wear, rather than what they say or do, polices women.
Reading, hearing, and being subject to what others say about a woman’s appearance creates daily microaggressions against that woman. Over time, the stress does do damage. And the message sent to other women is that they’d better not be ambitious, else they, too, will be subject to daily criticism over what they wear, how they look, what size they are, how they appear to the male gaze.
And, you know, fuck that shit. When G/Son was a baby and we’d tease him by saying a nursery rhyme wrong, he’d say, “That’s how not it goes!” When you report on black men, don’t call them boys. When you report on women candidates, report on their positions. Reporting on what they wear or how they look is how not it goes.
Picture found here