Sunday, October 28, 2007

The problem of Hillary

Hillary Clinton is one of the front-runners for the Democratic Presidential nomination, and seems to have a decent shot at actually becoming President.

Take a minute and think about it. Look at that sentence and read it again. Hillary Clinton, a woman and a strident defender of women's rights, actually has a shot at becoming President. It gives me shivers to think about it. The junior Senator from NY is on the brink of accomplishing something that little girls across the nation have dreamed of ever since the fifties, when society decided we could wear pants. Why, then, isn't there more excitement about Hillary's campaign from women nationwide?

In fact, Hillary's campaign and the public perception of it raise several disturbing questions about our national state of mind. One of them got highlighted today in USA Today's religious op-ed, which asks why Hillary doesn't appeal to so-called 'values voters'. The article identifies two reasons: Hillary's perceived 'church politicking', and her abortion position. While I'll grant that the abortion issue is a legitimate reason for conservative voters to shy away, it's the 'church politicking' that bothers me. The article defines this as 'using her faith for political benefit', and cites as evidence the fact that Hillary did a church tour as part of her campaign for Senator. She visited 27 churches, including six on election day, according to the article.

Such 'church politicking' is distasteful to voters, the article suggests. I wonder about that, though. Obama's campaign in the South Carolina primary has consisted primarily of a tour of the state's black churches (far more than 27), and no one has said a word about how distasteful they find the tactic. Every Republican presidential candidate that comes through the South makes at least five stops at churches. Most of them also do church tours. George Bush, Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, and other Presidential candidates use religion as a plank in their campaign, which Hillary has never done. Why is it Hillary, then, who gets singled out as pandering to churches when not only some, but most other candidates seem to do more 'church politicking' than she does?

So we have two questions here: why not more excitement about Hillary as a woman running for President, and why focus on Hillary as a candidate who panders to churches, when every other candidate in the election seems to do it more often? I posit that the two answers are related, but I'll start with the second, as a way of opening the discussion on the first.

I think Hillary gets more notice than anyone else when she steps into a church because she's doing something that's taboo in 'values voter' churches: she's a woman in a position of power, talking from the pulpit. Whenever Hillary talks to a congregation, she's subverting what can amount to centuries of teaching that women should be submissive in churches. The SBC (from which most 'values voters' come) has forbidden women pastors. Catholics likewise won't let women preach. In fact, half of all denominations in America won't ordain women, and in most of the ones that will, female pastors are still rare. So a woman speaking to a church is a big deal to many 'values voters': Hillary is a woman who holds no truck with the paternal SBC's refusal to let women have a voice in their own faith. Hillary, it must be noted, is a Methodist and grew up in a religious tradition that ordained women regularly.

So perhaps the reason that it's a big deal when Hillary speaks in churches is that the very act is a subversion of so-called 'Christian' gender roles. From that point of view, it makes sense to link the 'distaste' this causes in voters to abortion: the pro-choice stance is also subverts gender roles by allowing a woman to make her own choices about her reproductive processes.

If Hillary is all about equality in gender roles, we arrive back at the first question: why haven't we heard excitement from women about the possibility of a female President? I recently asked a female friend this question, and she gave a telling answer: "Because it isn't the seventies." What? Well, she explained, in the sixties and seventies there was excitement about changing old systems, about finding new roles for previously oppressed classes. Women were happy to burn bras and talk about cracking glass ceilings. Now, however, there is a curious lassitude among many women when it comes to finding a better place in society. Especially among social conservatives (the so-called 'values voter' set), there's a sense of nostalgia for the time when child-rearing was a woman's noble profession. Pointing out that women are still perfectly free to raise children if they wish is beside the point. It's a nostalgia for that whole era: an imagined time wherein not only gender roles, but world politics, health-care, education, and environmental issues were simpler and, as a result, less scary. Hillary, as a candidate for President, is a symbol of all the best things that have changed about the female social situation in the past century (she is an educated, politically involved woman with self-agency that extends far beyond any control Bill might exert over her), but by the same token, she is a symbol of all the things that have changed. My friend suggested that women have been hesitant to embrace Hillary as a symbol of women's lib because the 'values voter' set are nostalgic for a time when Hillary couldn't have existed. At the same time, liberal female voters are determined to prove how far women have come by evaluating all candidates on the merits of their platform, without regard at all to Hillary's gender.

I would suggest that while voters nostalgic for a time before the complications of the modern world are misguided, so are liberals who would evaluate candidates without regard to Hillary's gender. Women should be excited about the possibility of a woman in the White House. Just as Bush's religiosity is a key part of his character (and one would not evaluate his campaign platform without taking into account his tendency to appeal to supernatural powers for validation of insane schemes), Hillary's gender is a key part of her character. If Hillary gets elected, we won't just have elected a platform of ideas. We'll have elected a woman to enact them, and I think that means something. Women worldwide should be excited about the possibilities.