When Hillary Clinton announced her presidential candidacy, it wasn’t surprising. But I was surprised by my own reaction. For the last week and a half now, I’ve been fighting back an overwhelming sense of dread.
It isn’t dread of Hillary. I may have Bernie Sanders politics, but I have Hillary Clinton sympathies. No, what I dread is what my social life is about to become. The mere mention of Clinton’s name can turn even the gentlest, most artfully bearded anarcho-hipster into Stanley Kowalski, raging and sweating through his undershirt, all the while insisting that he’s doing it for the sake of true progressivism.
I’m certainly not going to tell you to come to Clinton. (Who doesn’t want a piece of the vain, foolish glory that is a “SANDERS 2016” T-shirt? It instantly transforms your torso into a monument to broken dreams.) What I am going to do, in the hope of preventing broken friendships, lost loves, and gatherings full of people who can no longer look each other in the face, is offer up a few tips we can look to when discussing her candidacy. It’s early, and the road ahead is going to be long and tiresome. Adopting these terms of combat now will make it less agonizing—if only a little less—for everyone.
Let’s start with a simple one. When you want to describe Hillary, stop and ask yourself: Could this same word describe Emperor Palpatine?
This round-up of Maureen Dowd columns gives you a good list of things to avoid. “Calculating,” “cold,” “power-hungry,” “intimidating,” and “dominatrix” should all go off the list. (As should “Terminator,” “Mommie Dearest,” and “Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction,” because seriously, those are in there.)
In practice, all of these translate to the same complaint: Hillary Clinton uses the emotionally reserved, assertive, commanding leadership style for which men have historically received praise, respect, and social status. To fault Clinton for not being a “warm,” gentle, feelings-first example of “female compassion” (which even my respected colleague Susan J. Douglas at In These Times has done) is to repeat the most tired of tired double standards.
When in doubt, remember: Clinton is a presidential candidate, not Godzilla. (And strike “Godzilla” from your list of terms; turns out Dowd used that one, too.)
It’s also useful to remember that Hillary Clinton is not a character on Game of Thrones. The “dynasty” talk is chancy. As Rebecca Traister has pointed out, Hillary Clinton married a man who became president. She was not born to a president. She’s had substantial privileges, but that’s not the same thing as being grown in the Bush or Kennedy vats.
Clinton has served as a senator and as secretary of state, and it’s hard to find someone who’s worked harder for longer to be president—in fact, that’s the one thing on which her detractors and her supporters tend to agree. But people continue to complain that she’s trying too hard to succeed while simultaneously accusing her of succeeding too easily. Calling Clinton “inevitable,” “unstoppable,” and “dynastic” is just another way of saying she hasn’t truly earned her position.
You’ll note that most of this advice is aimed at dog-whistle sexism, rather than the blatant stuff. I’m trusting you to avoid “bitch,” “witch,” “hag” and “ex-wife.” Far worse are sentences that begin with the phrase “I’d like a female president, but.”
In its history, the Democratic Party has come up with precisely one (1) viable female candidate for the presidency. Given that the United States is currently home to approximately 162,617,098 women (thank you, U.S. Census!), I find that to be a disappointing number. This does not mean I am bound to vote for any lady who throws her hat into the ring, regardless of her qualifications. (If I voted on the basis of gender, I’d be wandering around wearing a “McCain/Palin 2008” button and the look of a person who deeply regrets her choices.) If a better candidate arises over the course of this race, I will back him.
But it will be a “him.” The “a woman, but not this woman” phrasing deployed by Clinton’s liberal detractors is supremely grating. It suggests that they’ve been hiding a whole roster of electable female candidates in their linen closet, and they’re just about to bring them out. Invariably, no real alternatives are presented. This is because there are none. We have one woman. We have Hillary. She is it.
For example: Elizabeth Warren is not a real alternative, because she is not running. To say that you want to vote for a woman, but only if you can vote for Elizabeth Warren, is the equivalent of saying, “I must respectfully decline this pony show, for I am waiting to see a unicorn.” Speaking of Warren, consider: She and Clinton hang out. They’re buddies. They write nice things about each other in TIME Magazine. Talking about their “catfight,” and your support of the right woman in the catfight, is in fact neither a heroic display of your leftist incorruptibility nor a realistic assessment of their relationship; it is a media strategy put in play by Republicans to weaken both women.
And if Elizabeth Warren is not a real alternative, do you know who is even less real? An imaginary woman you just made up. Witness this essay from Anthea Mitchell on the august CheatSheet.com, in which Mitchell praises Clinton’s leadership skills, politics, and resume, and then decides that Hillary Clinton would be a “problematic” first female president because she was married to Bill: “Any woman can become president,” Mitchell insists, ignoring the fact that none ever have.
For the moment, Hillary Clinton is the only viable Democratic candidate we’ve got—and the only viable female candidate we’ve ever had. She is not perfect; she’s not an evil wizard or the reincarnation of Margaret Thatcher, either. (Another tip: Before you compare Hillary Clinton to Margaret Thatcher, ask yourself: Am I about to compare Hillary Clinton to Margaret Thatcher? One was a hyper-conservative Tory who supported apartheid and whose talking points included the phrase “I hate feminism”; the other is a moderate Democrat whose economic policy hews too close to the center for some liberals’ tastes. It makes about as much sense as comparing Reagan to Obama because both of them served two terms.)
There is no spot on the ballot that allows you to vote for “some other woman.” If you prefer a different, male candidate to Hillary, say so. Wear your “SANDERS 2016” T-shirt with pride. There’s no harm, and no sexism, in advocating for the person you believe is best for the job—unless it’s some imaginary far-future lady president who will deliver the State of the Union address via hologram from her private spaceship.