Hillary and the Feminine Gaze, Up Close and Personal

After I’d finished Thirty Ways, I picked up a New Yorker article by one of the contributors, Lauren Collins, about a Missouri teenager driven to suicide by the taunts of mean girls on MySpace. I felt as though I were still reading Thirty Ways: The essayists’ reasons for their rancor at Hillary are as immaturely nonspecific as those of that poor girl’s adolescent tormentors. “I have yet to meet a woman who likes Hillary Clinton,” Ms. Roiphe sniffs. “We just don’t like her,” she says, channeling the women she has met. “We like her husband, but we don’t like her.”

Nyah, nyah!

It’s been noted that many men seem to have a problem with Hillary Clinton that revolves around their perception of her being “mom”—the smothering, devouring American Mom whose power male writers have been shuddering under since at least the 1950’s. But reading this book, I began to wonder if these women’s problem with Clinton also has to do with mom—and a mom’s lack of power.

For all the hosannas over young women advancing in competitive sports or Katie Couric snagging the CBS News anchor slot, we continue to have no tradition and no real image of public female authority. As Ms. Bennetts observes in her essay, “A woman can become Speaker of the House, but Nancy Pelosi has to cloak her authority in gender mufti by describing her ability to order congressmen around as using her ‘mother-of-five voice.’ A female can’t just be strong and forceful and direct in her decision making; she has to revert to being a mom, which we all know is her primary role anyway.”

This masquerade induces suspicion and mistrust, particularly in female observers. Does Hillary really just want power and is only pretend
ing to be driven by maternal instinct? If she really is “just a mom,” why would she be chasing the presidency? For all the tributes, mothers are just not powerful in this country, and women know it. Ms. Kramer notes in Thirty Ways: “It has been said ad nauseam that motherhood could be considered the most demanding form of leadership, calling for skills in salesmanship and negotiation and persuasion that are arguably beyond most of the backroom boys in Washington. The problem is that this is invariably said with condescension.” And said, by the daughters, with eye-rolling contempt. Recalling Hillary’s speech about protecting citizen privacy, in which the candidate jokingly referred to the lack of her own, Dahlia Lithwick concludes: “I have had no privacy but I will fight to protect yours. Oy. Who else but a mother could say such a thing?”

If any female demographic exerts force in American culture, it’s not moms, it’s girls—and it’s been that way since the possessed teens and ’tweens of the Salem witch trials were trotted out to attack the society’s independent matrons. The American girl’s power, of course, is limited, derived from powerful daddy sponsors, aimed typically at other women, especially those whose 30-years-old freshness date has expired. Grown women, so often without patriarchal backing, are out of luck—there’s no matriarchy to step in to offer wisdom and hand over the reins. We have no female establishment invested with the power to bestow authority, to pass clout from “mothers” to “daughters.” The only clout comes from attacking mothers to establishment applause in the public square.

Reading this book, I’m reminded that we’re essentially a distaff nation of motherless daughters, who operate on a marriage metaphor of power. Only one woman gets the prize, and the others must be knocked out of the ring so that she alone can grab the ring. With no real foundation for female strength, the much-vaunted “sisterhood” is destined to degenerate into a Lady of the Flies scrum—with, in this case, Hillary as Piggy.

In that regard, what’s objectionable about Thirty Ways is not what’s contained between its covers, which is at times canny and thoughtful, even if at other times it’s juvenile and mean. The very nature of the project is prejudicial. Underlying the summons to female writers to share their “feelings” about Hillary is a sly invitation—to demonstrate that when it comes to America’s consideration of a female candidate, the political is only personal.

 

Susan Faludi most recent book is The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America (Metropolitan Books). She can be reached at books@observer.com.