Thanks in large part to President Bush, the job description for president might read, “Wanted: hyper-masculine warrior who can aggressively protect the homeland from evildoers and illegal intruders — boardroom experience a plus.”
Yet the Bush administration is less popular than ever, and it is clear that we need more than a brush-cutting patriarch to lead the country. So why, as the first woman with a real chance at becoming president, has Senator Hillary Clinton lined her path to the White House with so many reminders that she is a member of the “old boys club”?
Much of President Bush’s rhetoric and policy over the past eight years have been steeped in paternalism. Bush has positioned himself as the kind of belligerent father-figure who would sit on the porch with a smirk and a shotgun, daring the neighbors to cross him despite his constant provocations. Bush has been an avid disciplinarian who has used punishments to force unwarranted ultimatums; the anti-terrorism department he created has had the task of securing the “homeland”; and like a concerned father with the task of explaining the deviltry of fornication, he has consistently justified his abstention-only policies by casting dissent, both domestic and foreign, as a sign of evil.
Rather than challenge this conception of the presidency, however, Hillary Clinton has campaigned as the best candidate — male or female — who has the experience on Day One to continue the symbolic swagger of Bush’s legacy. Indeed, many of Clinton’s disagreements with the Bush administration’s foreign policy, for example, seem merely tactical, as she asserts the same conventionally masculine attitude as the current president. Hillary has hawkishly repeated that she would be a “strong” commander-in-chief, noting that even if she eventually withdrew troops from Iraq, she, like Bush, would never unconditionally conduct direct diplomacy with the leaders of “rogue states.”
Hillary’s dominant message of “experience” is also based in a conventional and often gendered understanding of leadership. Rather than emphasize her ability to innovate, inspire or build coalitions, she overvalues a list of professional roles and a gilded resume: a credentializing process from which many women have historically been excluded. Meanwhile, her secretive, “I’m the decider,” failed health-care effort in 1993 seemed to anticipate the “big dog” kind of leadership that Bush tries so hard to project.
Much of this might be a strategic move by Hillary to convince voters, swept up in the president-as-patriarch mentality, that a woman can do a man’s job. As Gloria Steinem wrote in an op-ed last month, the United States polarizes gender roles more than the average democracy, which may explain why Hillary Clinton told supporters after a New Hampshire debate, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen; I’m very much at home in the kitchen.”
Yet as someone who obviously does not want to compartmentalize the identity of women to their maternal and marital relationships, Hillary has been remarkably brazen in her willingness to play up the traditionally feminine roles of wife and mother. Why else would her experience — gained primarily as the wife of the former president — be such an important qualification?
Indeed, so much of Hillary’s campaign is tied to her identity as Bill’s wife and Chelsea’s mother that Bill’s comments have often overshadowed her own. Before the South Carolina primary, Bill let spill some calculated-to-provoke remarks: Women and blacks, he said, voting as monolithic blocs for the candidates who looked like them would be “understandable”; almost as understandable as his irrepressible eagerness to serve a third term in the East Wing (or the West).
And while Bill has campaigned harder than some of the candidates who had a legitimate shot at getting elected (Rudy Giuliani, anyone?), Chelsea remains the embodiment of the maxim that silence is a woman’s best garment. At campaign events, Chelsea quietly stands next to her mother as a token reminder of Hillary’s maternity. As Chelsea told a 9-year-old reporter from the Scholastic News at an Iowa rally, “I’m sorry, I don’t talk to the press and that applies to you, unfortunately. Even though I think you’re cute.”
At a rally last Monday, Hillary told her supporters, “I will bring to the White House my perspective as a daughter, as a wife [and] as a mother because that’s never been in the White House before.” This is an important and too often missing perspective, but it loses some of its freshness when the candidate simultaneously embraces the White House’s image of masculine hegemony.
As a candidate, Hillary has the potential to completely change how we understand politics. Instead, she has confusingly campaigned as a woman who needs a presidential spouse to lean on so she too can serve as patriarch-in-chief.
Hillary may be the only woman running for the Democratic nomination this year, but her election, unfortunately, would likely be more of a symbolic victory for women than a substantive win for women’s issues. The glass ceiling, in other words, would be broken, but only by a woman who governs like a man.
Niko Bowie is a junior in Timothy Dwight College. His column runs on alternate Fridays.