Five days before the all-important Iowa caucus, CNN ran a story about why “women” are wary of Hillary Rodham Clinton. The reporter based this generalized conclusion on one visit with a group of middle-aged women gathered for conversation and Chardonnay.
Their reservations were not the understandable concerns of conservative voters who differ with Clinton on issues from abortion rights to amnesty for immigrants.
These were liberal women — educated, middle-class, Midwestern voters like me who came of age at a time of unprecedented gains in women’s rights.
Unlike me, these Iowa voters were women whose fear or reluctance to proclaim themselves feminists could tilt the race against a woman whom the New York Times is calling “one of the most broadly and deeply qualified presidential candidates in modern history.”
Let’s examine these women’s concerns point by point:
- Point 1: Hillary is less “authentic” than Bernie Sanders, they said. She displays what one columnist calls a “plasticity” that leads some to conclude she is merely ambitious. She wants to be president and has cast herself accordingly — especially in the U.S. Senate and as Secretary of State.
Think again: Where some see plasticity, I see professionalism and poise. What some denigrate as ambition, I call a singular focus.
Unlike so many women her age — who have moved in and out of the work force, setting aside their careers for families and channeling their talents into unpaid labor — Hillary Clinton has built a career as a consistent champion of women, children and society’s marginalized. Her post–First Lady life has given her a global perspective that Bernie Sanders lacks. And one that none of the Republican candidates seems to value.
- Point 2: Hillary stayed with Bill Clinton for political reasons, the Iowa women said. Like Eleanor Roosevelt, whom Mrs. Clinton admires, Hillary took a shrewd look at her marriage and concluded that the partners could do more good together than alone.
Consider: The Clinton Foundation has raised $2 billion, with more than 88 percent of those funds going directly to programs. The foundation’s five interest areas include climate change and global health, and its Clinton Global Initiative focuses on education for girls and reducing gender-based violence. Surely the wine-drinking women from Iowa aren’t opposed to that.
I find the criticism of Bill and Hillary’s marriage particularly odd — and disingenuous— when it is leveled by women, historically the keepers of family ties. What Hillary has chosen to live with in private is not the public’s business, but it is a matter of our concern. No divorced woman would be elected president. Hillary knew that. And whatever sacrifice she made on behalf of her ambition (a word considered pejorative only when applied to a woman) is not merely self-serving.
It’s time for feminist women to recognize the literal and symbolic importance of electing a liberal female president — just as African Americans saw the meaning in electing a first-term U.S. senator to the highest position in the land.
- Point 3: Hillary and Bill represent the past. The Iowa women noted a malaise that they called “Clinton fatigue” and seemed to lean toward Sanders for the same reason that young people do — his impassioned if impractical call to throw out the old political system in favor of a “Democratic socialism” that no contemporary U.S. Congress would abide.
Let’s get real: Sanders is 74 years old. He officially became a Democrat only after launching his presidential bid. His celebrated “America” ad — an emotional, narration-free pitch — is set to a 48-year-old Simon and Garfunkel song.
But no one declares him “dated” or “inauthentic.” None of the Iowa women claimed that his quarter century in Congress makes him a candidate of the past. Failing, perhaps, to remember that Ronald Reagan took office a month shy of 70 and began his battle with Alzheimer’s disease barely into his second term, supporters don’t see Sanders’ age as a potential handicap.
I respect Sanders’ doggedness and his focus on income inequality. His presence in the race has drawn Hillary to the left and rightfully earns him a spot in her cabinet. But I also believe he is getting a pass — on age, authenticity, ambition and temperament — that is not being granted to his more able and experienced challenger.
The women of Iowa better wake up, and quickly. I’m a fan of Paul Simon’s songs, too, but unless more women of all ages who benefit from feminism are willing to stand up and support one of the movement’s true champions, then come November, I fear, we’ll be humming not “America” but “Slip Slidin’ Away.”