The dilemma around Hillary Clinton’s strong personality, her political ambition, her perseverance, her nonchalance towards traditional roles is not new. The visibility it receives and the extremes to which that visibility can go are.
We love our women in power to be grieving widows, wronged wives, or loving partners who step in only when their men can no longer function. Be it a family business requiring devotion and loyalty or politics, another public arena, where women are permitted to enter. The catchword is “permission.” When a woman enters any profession on her own terms it is a different story. And in politics, any independent woman with unapologetic ambition will not just be criticized but will be crucified.
Much of the vilification that Hillary Clinton endured is not just from men, but also from conservative women who are afraid of feminism for the same reason that their fathers, brothers, husbands, and sons are. They are afraid of losing the luxury of being “looked after,” and more than anything else—of change. It is usually the upper class wives of rich and powerful men who show the most resistance to change the most ignorance.
When women stepped out of their domestic roles, they were not prepared for the hard work they confronted. Stepping out did not eliminate all the emotional conflicts and the social struggles. The conflict between work and family, the guilt of leaving children behind, the struggle of economic exploitation at work, the torment of sexual harassment from male peers and bosses, the physical tiredness of juggling many roles, the psychological investment of having to learn something new—something that our mothers and grandmothers never did, and the alienation that many women felt in breaking traditions, have all been difficult and arduous. The men’s world that women have just entered can be tough and sometimes even brutal.
When women stepped out of their domestic world of insularity, dependency, and many times abuse, the public world, though provided opportunities for some economic independence, was still a difficult place to survive, let alone succeed. In moments of such frustration it becomes easier to dream about “a rich prince charming” that will come and look after us, as movies such as Pretty Womenreinforce. We may also wrongly label our mothers’ lives as being better, because they did not have to make the sacrifices that many of us working women, single women, successful women, divorced women, widowed women or for that matter all women appear to be making today.
No, the answer is not in letting our nostalgia romanticize the past. Old was never gold for women around the world. The past has been one of domestic violence, emotional isolation, sexual violence or sexual denial, repression of our individual talents and complete obliteration of our fundamental spontaneous self. Hillary Clinton’s struggle to have her personality and her ambition understood in a patriarchal culture is not her struggle but all “women’s struggle.” That is why we follow her with bated breath.
If royal Diana’s life killed our fairy tale fantasy of being princesses in a splendid castle and living-happily-ever-after, Hillary Clinton’s life is jolting us to the reality of the sacrifices and hard work we must make as women to get where we want to go. Her success is our success and her failure is our failure, whether we agree with her political ideology and public policies or not.
For every woman who insists that Hillary should leave her cheating husband, there is one who admires her for staying in a difficult marriage and fighting through for her sake and/or for the sake of her daughter. For every woman who feels it is wrong to use her husband’s political power to build her political ambition there are many who feel that her shrewdness to use every opportunity to maneuver through a very hostile system is admirable. For every woman who is irritated that she is not coy, demure and feminine in a traditional way, there are many who applaud her outspokenness, her courage and her willingness to face criticism and unfair attacks. For every woman who focuses on her clothes and hairdo, there are those who don’t care how Hillary looks or dresses. For every woman who calls her a “feminazi,” there are thousands who have matured as women by looking at their lives through hers to see the complexities, contradictions and the conflicts both internal and external that make us women in a new world in transition.
American culture, for all its progressive laws and the Sixties’ sexual revolution, is very ambivalent when it comes to women in the public world in general and women in leadership in particular. The old Victorian views about women’s modesty, sexual purity, and traditionalism still plagues this country as does its archaic obsession with Christian conservatism that the European colonizers brought with them. While Europe is getting less religious, we in America are still debating about religion in schools.
We have all sorts of silly movements about teenage virginity but we have the highest “teen pregnancies” for any industrialized country. We have some of the most punitive laws for “drug abuse” but our rapists get away with a slap on the wrist including in minority and immigrant communities where there is so much hypocritical taboos about women and sexuality in the first place. We have the highest number of working women, yet we also have lowest number of women engineers, technocrats and scientists even compared to developing countries like India. We have many women on television but most of them play thin, whining, bimbos with no substance or courage.
Almost 40 years after the women’s revolution, America has only 10 women in the senate and less than half have been elected. Most of them have gotten there after their husbands became disabled or died in office.
Hillary Clinton represents a change that many women hope is a real change. She is not, as many pray, just an exception to the rule as many women leaders in the past have been.
She can make the extraordinary ordinary and the unusual the norm.
It was considered extraordinary for women just to go out of their homes and do charity work in my mother’s generation. It was considered extraordinary for women in respectable middle class families to travel as single women and come to the U.S. to do their doctoral studies in my generation.
Today, as I look around and glance at my students, none of that is extraordinary. One day women who aspire for a political office, or even the presidency, will not be extraordinary. They will not have to make extraordinary sacrifices, put up with extraordinary scrutiny and vilification as Hillary Clinton has for doing something innocuous as having a “political ambition.”
We Indians pride ourselves for having had a woman prime minister, forgetting that Indira Gandhi is no ordinary woman from an ordinary Indian family. She went to a private school, had private tutors, got educated in Switzerland and was the only child of an international political stalwart like Jawharlal Nehru. I doubt if she would have received the Congress nomination if she had had a brother. I doubt if she would have entertained the possibility of going into politics as a mere middle class woman residing in Delhi. She would have been married off to some IAS officer and would have become a social elite or married some Silicon Valley engineer and focused on raising model minority kids.
Though my trips to India makes me heartened at what Indian women are capable of, I am also disheartened at how much of their potential is wasted. Sometimes, Indian American women appear to be further behind than their sisters back home. In an effort to preserve their culture and their identity in a new culture, they ignore, and sometimes reinforce, the dirty bath water of sexism with the beautiful baby of positive culture.
Look at women in Bollywood movies that thousands of Indians and non-Indians watch all over the world. They have given up their sarees and passive behaviors for skimpy Western clothes and sexual exploitation. From one extreme of images of sexual purity and modesty that was oppressive and hypocritical, we have moved to the other extreme of sexual exploitation and abuse. I am not sure how much of this is really a mark of “female liberation.”
The powerful Indian film media now influences many young Indian women in India, the U.S. and the world over. But what did we win in this superficial media change? Beauty pageants and a voucher to plastic surgeons for a nose job for rich women! And a complete physical, economic, and emotional neglect of middle class and poor women! Hurrah, indeed! Why don’t we globalize women’s rights while we globalize corporate America and India? Why don’t we globalize values of human rights and basic respect for women while we globalize VCRs and Star TV? It is no doubt happening, but not fast enough.
Watching Hillary Clinton’s plight in the world’s most powerful democracy convinces me that for every two steps that women take forward, there are three steps that unfortunately go backward. Some of this is patriarchal hostility and some of it is women’s fault itself. We women are so used to deferring to men that when women become leaders we don’t know how to respect them and see them beyond nurturing and care-giving roles.
Many female students have addressed a non-Ph.D. male professor as “Dr.” without a thought, while they will casually call me by my first name until I correct them. Many female students will come to me with their personal troubles expecting me to act like their mothers or girlfriends, while they will not approach a male professor with the same problem, lest they interrupt his precious time. If men have dilemmas about women in power, so do women.
The double standards against women in power are also apparent. While strong firm men are applauded and admired, strong firm women will be accused of being unfeminine and aggressive. While men want women to be independent and smart, they don’t want them to be too independent or too smart.
Men will use women’s sensitivity to confide in and receive support from, but they will not provide the same for women in leadership positions. While they will permit their male colleagues to make mistakes and learn, they will accuse women of irreparable failure and weakness when they do the same. While they want women to retain their emotionality and their feelings because it makes them attractively feminine, it is the same qualities that they will label as irrational, neurotic, and unbecoming of a leader. A woman, in a man’s world will never win, even when her talents are acknowledged and admired.
Remember this, even the best of men with genuine interest in supporting women leadership sometimes are too ignorant to know how. So imagine the millions of sexist ones who infest this planet? God/goddess help us!
For those who wish to know what goes on in Hillary’s head about Bill Clinton, I wonder why we have so much curiosity about a woman’s marital status or her mothering abilities as if these alone determine her ability to rule? Women’s obsession with other women’s appearances and their traditional roles is itself a mark of oppression that leads to pettiness and a narrow focus. This is a complaint many women in leadership share. They feel unsupported not only by the men in their world but the women as well. Their mothers mostly ask them questions about wifehood, motherhood and cooking. Their girlfriends ask questions about interior decoration, losing weight, and shopping. The men inquire politely about their families, or make inappropriate sexual moves or ignore them all together.
Where do women in leadership who are so few get their support from, especially when they are trailblazers? Many of us women in the front line are truly alone. We have crossed the Lakshman Rekha but there are no Ramas or Revatis to support us let alone rescue us. Even if we are rescued it will be in male terms, which will only frustrate and anger us more.
If women in leadership struggle with the acknowledgement and delivery of their power, many women struggle with other women in leadership because of historical conditioning of subservience only to men.
Many women also don’t know what they want, as men have made decisions for them and they have never had to think beyond wifehood and motherhood. Sometimes we women want everything, appearing unreasonable and highly stressed. Sometimes we are not sure.
This confusion, conflict, and struggle is a natural social response as millions of women step out of the Lakshman Rekha for the first time. As male patriarchy is understood, challenged, and replaced both the victims and the perpetrators will face many pulls and pushes.
The feminist movement can only serve as a historical reminder of how things were, a social commentary on how things are and a political tool for what it could be. It cannot give us an easy one-size-fits-all formula that can miraculously take us from domestic suppression to total political liberation. Ultimately all of us are trailblazers, making life a bit easier and choices a bit more accessible for our daughters and women who come behind us. In that regard Hillary Clinton is not a panacea for all of women’s struggles nor is she Ms Perfect for all who seek leadership, but she is a wonderful reminder of what is possible and what fights we must put up to fulfill our dreams.
Meera Srinivasan is a faculty and an evaluation specialist at SFSU. She writes mostly on political and gender issues.