Gloria Steinem has a theory about liberal women who feel, or have felt, antipathy towards Hillary Clinton. They are insecure about their own bad marriages. That, at least, is the implication of an astonishingly condescending passage in her new book, My Life on the Road, excerpted in the Guardian.
Steinem describes herself as “blindsided by the hostility” toward Clinton from some white liberal women during her first run for Senate. Eventually, Steinem developed an idea about where that animus came from. “If Hillary had a husband who regarded her as an equal—who had always said this country got ‘two presidents for the price of one’—it only dramatised their own lack of power and respect,” she writes. “After one long night and a lot of wine, one woman told me that Hillary’s marriage made her aware of just how unequal hers was.”
There are a lot of theories out there about the very real resistance to Clinton among women who, on the demographic surface, should be her base. This, however, is the first time I’ve seen it suggested that they wish their husbands would be more like Bill Clinton.
And what about those women who condemned Clinton for remaining with a husband who humiliated her? “It turned out that many of them had suffered a faithless husband, too, but lacked the ability or the will to leave,” writes Steinem. “They wanted Hillary to punish a powerful man in public on their behalf.”
To make this weird and twisty argument, Steinem turns Clinton’s ability to forgive her spouse into a sign that their marriage transcended mere sex, unlike the lesser unions of her critics:
The fact that Bill valued Hillary as an equal partner—and vice versa—seemed to make them more aware that their own marriages were different. It dawned on me that if a sexual connection is the only bond between a husband and wife, an affair can make her feel replaceable—and perhaps cause her to be replaced. This was not only emotionally painful but devastating when it also meant losing social identity and economic security as well. I began to understand that Hillary represented the very public, in-your-face opposite of the precarious and unequal lives that some women were living.
I revere Steinem, but this is both insulting and, coming from such a towering feminist figure, kind of misogynist. It reduces the possibility of political differences to petty psychodrama. It’s hard for me not to take it a bit personally. There have been times in the past when I’ve been furious at Hillary, and not, I’m quite sure, because I worry about lacking my husband’s respect.
Steinem is not the first feminist to see neurosis and insecurity in women who reject Hillary. In 2008, Robin Morgan reprised her famous feminist essay “Goodbye to All That,” writing, “Goodbye to some young women eager to win male approval by showing they’re not feminists (at least not the kind who actually threaten the status quo), who can’t identify with a woman candidate because she is unafraid of eeueweeeu yucky power, who fear their boyfriends might look at them funny if they say something good about her.”
Morgan’s piece was especially irritating because the Hillary Clinton of 2008 was far from the feminist candidate of today. She was more hawkish, threatening to “totally obliterate” Iran in the event of an attack on Israel. Her campaign was run by the odious Mark Penn, who described Obama as “not at his center fundamentally American in his thinking and values.” For much of the race, Clinton followed his advice to play down gender, because voters, Penn believed, “do not want someone who would be the first mama.” She promised a continuation of her husband’s often disappointing presidency, which was largely marked by triangulating against the left in order to appeal to a shrinking center.
At the time, I saw Clinton not as the opposite of the unequal lives some women were living but as the symbol of them. Her candidacy suggested that the only way women could achieve power in America was to marry it. I hated that—and it was a hatred that sometimes spilled over into hating her.
Today, this issue is largely moot, since in the intervening years Clinton established a lengthy record as Secretary of State and is now running on a platform far removed from her husband’s policies—one that has more in common with the progressive ideas she espoused before she married him. This reassures me. I’m not someone who expects unchanging authenticity from politicians, and besides, there is a wealth of political science research showing that, contrary to conventional wisdom, politicians usually try to follow through on their campaign promises, whatever they feel in their most secret hearts. I know plenty of women who disagree and who find Hillary’s record of ideological plasticity unforgivable. That is a political dispute. It is not a question of sexual jealousy.
It’s true, of course, that none of us can help projecting our feelings about gender and power onto Hillary. She has often been turned into a caricature of everything our culture despises in women: shrill, frumpy, awkward, devious, frigid. Seeing her pilloried by misogynists can make women feel protective of her, but it can also make us want to distance ourselves—to show that we are not similarly worthy of contempt. Unlike Obama, she is often not a figure of glamour, since glamour and power are not mutually reinforcing in women as they are in men.
Clinton is at once a person, a politician, and a national Rorschach test. But that hardly implies that women who don’t embrace her should be diagnosed with marital insecurity. There are too many reasons to have mixed feelings about Clinton and too many iterations of Clinton to have mixed feelings about. You can’t reduce her female critics’ opinions to man trouble. Steinem should be the first to realize that.