Whiplash, Part 2: Why Doesn’t Hillary Clinton Give a Speech Like Obama’s?

My friend Sophia Dembling is a wonderful writer whose blog appears at http://sophiadembling.com/home.htm.  She and I are both feminists and are very similar politically.

What we don’t agree about is Hillary Clinton.  Sophie is supporting her for the Democratic nomination and I’m supporting Obama.

In her latest post, Sophie complains that Americans are beside themselves with admiration when a black man speaks candidly of racism, as Obama did — but derisive when women speak of sexism.  Women in general — especially older women and fat women — are still fair game for cheap jokes, she says.

Which is true.

But what Hillary Clinton hasn’t done is to speak candidly, openly and eloquently about sexism.  She hasn’t come close to it.  Instead, she’s only made occasional references to how she always gets the first questions in a debate; I was embarrassed for her when she did this — just as I would have been embarrassed for Obama had he made a similarly veiled accusation of racism.

What’s stopping Hillary Clinton from speaking directly about sexism?  Why can’t she deliver a nuanced, thoughtful speech about her experiences as a woman — as Obama did about his experiences as a black man?

Why can’t she talk about growing up in a society in which girls were encouraged to be passive and pretty?  About a generation of mothers reared in the Great Depression who worked during World War II, then were shunted back to their homes so they could support the returning soldiers?  Betty Friedan wrote movingly about this generation of women — my mother’s and Hillary’s mother’s generation — in The Feminine Mystique.  It was in those pages that I finally felt I could understand my own mother, her depressions, her dissatisfactions, her fears.

Theirs was a generation that cautioned their daughters to have a career to “fall back on,” in case we were unlucky enough to never marry or to get abandoned by divorce or death.  Those “fallback” careers were limited to teaching, nursing and secretarial positions.  They weren’t to be taken terribly seriously — and neither were we.

Surely Hillary Clinton is angry about a world in which girl babies are left to die in Third World countries and aborted, selectively, because of their sex.  She must be furious about wage discrepancies and the corporate glass ceiling for women.  What is it like for her to have a daughter in her twenties when the U.S. Supreme Court (dominated, 8-1, by older men) is eroding women’s right to choose whether to continue a pregnancy, where individual privacy is recognized as a fundamental national value — except when it comes to women’s rights to control their own bodies?

What effect did the feminist movement have on her own early years?  How did she feel when she heard the president of Harvard University question whether women were as good at science and math as men?

Has she ever talked, frankly, about how hard it is to be the first serious female candidate for the U.S. presidency?  About how pernicious louts like Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly can belittle her because she’s an aging woman?  About compromises women — but, less frequently, men — still make in their lives and relationships?

Sure, Hillary Clinton has suffered in her campaign because of sexism — but she’s also suffered because of her lack of honesty and emotion in confronting these issues of sexism.  Let her give a speech like Obama’s that draws on the nation’s history and her own experiences.  Let her talk about anger, let her try to explain herself and her own complex relationship to feminism and the demands of this imperfect, male-dominated world we live in.  Let her speak from the heart and from that fine, curious, intellectually rigorous mind we all know she has.

I would love to hear that speech.  But she hasn’t come close to giving it, ever.

(Copyright 2008 by Ruth Pennebaker)

14 comments… add one
  • And, unfortunately, she never will. She is too much entrenched in the correct Washington image to be so bold.

    The Speech was empowering, and moving, and REAL.

    We did this in response:



  • Hey,
    I agree with what you said about the Obama speech. I’m with you that Hillary doesn’t seems to be capable of making this kind of speech. I think if we consider Hillary as a brand, she just doesn’t have the position. It is a bit ironic that it was Hillary’s actions in bring up this preacher that gave Obama the opportunity to discuss these issues. I imagine that Obama was just waiting for a chance to express his views on the subject.
    All in all I think Obama embodies the unity we need in America. As I watched Obama’s speech on race in America I realized that the video I made just a few days ago had to be changed to highlight Obama’s message. He is truly our One Hope, fighting for One Dream to make One World…
    Check out this video, if you like it, pass it on.

  • Well , Ruth, I fervently hope she will.

    As I said, it is my perception women who speak about that stuff tend to get ridiculed (Maureen Dowd’s “shoulder pad feminists”) and certainly it seems that women (like me) who support Hillary in part because of gender solidarity face tremendous scorn–that African-Americans don’t get for choosing a black candidate partly on basis of race solidarity.

    I suspect that if Hillary does give a speech like that, she’ll get a lot of people saying, “Oh boohoohoo–poor rich white woman.” This would not happen to Obama–racial tension is too…taut.

    Obama did a great thing with his speech. I won’t argue with that. But nobody will mock him the way feminists are still mocked. And of course, if Hillary does make such a speech now, people will accuse her of copycat, or of escalating the discussion into a “who is more repressed’ competition. (As I did.

    But maybe she will. I hope like hell she does because she will do it better than I. (Although did you read the Steinem column I linked to in my next post? That’s some good talkin’.)

  • It’s kinda damned if she does, damned if she doesn’t, ya know?

  • ruthpennebaker Link

    I think Hillary has very deliberately chosen to be the candidate who isn’t running as a woman, much as Obama doesn’t want to be “only” the candidate about race. Yes, she’s in an enormously difficult situation — trying to be heard, trying not to be considered strident. You and I have both been there — in smaller ways, but still — and we know how hard it is to speak up when you’re the only woman in a room of men.

    But I do think the campaign and political persona she’s adopted — steely, rational, unemotional — has often worked against her and has alienated many who find her robotic and programmed. She said she found her voice in New Hampshire, but what happened to it?

    I’ve found Bill Clinton’s campaigning, especially in South Carolina, to be offputting, as well. He seems so eager to reclaim “their” place in the White House. He’s a part of her baggage as long as she continues to carry him.

  • No surprise that we disagree about Bill. 🙂

    She is who she is. She’s done what she had to do–backwards and in high heels, as they say. Maybe her steely persona is why Bill was elected first–he’s more electable. Men can afford to be genial and still be taken seriously. Women walk a behavioral tightrope.

    Maybe she didn’t find her voice in New Hampshire. Maybe she, just for a minute, found the voice (vulnerable) that people want her to have because she’s a woman. It was like, HA! FINALLY we made you CRY! Like a GIRL!

    Why does she have to behave as society tells us women should? Is she better or worse, persona-wise, than Al Gore when he ran for office?

    On the other hand, the radiant joy in her face when she won Texas was raw vulnerability. It choked me up. She had been counted out. People were saying she should be a good sport and step down.

  • ruthpennebaker Link

    I think she’s similar to Gore in her woodenness; I thought he was a terrible campaigner — although better than Kerry.

    She does carry an incredible burden and walk a terrible tightrope as the first woman. As does Obama as the first black. I don’t think it’s at all enviable to be those pioneers who make history. What was it Nora Ephron once wrote about the first female umpire in professional baseball? Something to the effect she (Ephron) never wanted to be the first female anything. It was simply too difficult.

    I do believe Obama will be the stronger candidate against McCain, though — and that’s the most important point to me. But I’m certainly willing to admit I may be wrong. We’ll see.

  • ((As does Obama as the first black. ))

    Yes, true. But no one anywhere would dare publicly mock him for anything connected to his race. That’s political/carer suicide. Hillary’s woman-ness, however, is fair game.

    My husband thinks as you do about Obama vs McCain. I have heard persuasive arguments both ways. We have so far to go before we’re even there…

    It’s both exciting and exhausting.

  • I meandered over here from Sophia’s blog. Honestly, I like the idea of a female president. For a myriad of reasons I don’t believe Hillary is the right woman to be our first female president.

    There’s been scuttlebutt on the Republican side of McCain approaching Condi Rice to be his running mate. And while I have tremendous respect for Dr. Rice and what she’s done with her life. I have the same reservations about her being a heartbeat away from the presidency as I do about Hillary being president…

    The carry the same problem. Too much baggage! Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on your perspective– the first female president of this country will need to come to the table with little or no baggage. Hillary has her husband’s baggage (people are sick of both the Bushes and Clintons and want someone who isn’t associated with either) and Condi, just by power of association would be carrying with her some of Bush’s baggage.

    I like Obama as a person, I really do (heck he’s one of my senators). I respect him far more than I do Hillary. But, being a bit of a laissez-faire Libertarian capitalist at heart I can’t vote for a guy who is promising the government to give its people health care, homes, and college educations.

    When the right one comes along, I’ll vote for a woman for president. I just don’t think Hillary is the right woman for the job. And I refuse to vote for someone just because she’s a woman or he’s an African-American.

  • ruthpennebaker Link

    I think it would be smart of McCain to tap somebody like Rice to make his ticket more diverse, less old white male. She would also cement his candidacy as wholeheartedly supporting the endless failures of the Bush administration — hooray! McCain-Rice is a ticket I could enthusiastically vote against.

  • I look at McCain’s candidacy as redemption. Bush was the handpicked choice in 2000. Nothing McCain could have done would have won him the nomination. And I think a lot of Republicans realize that they/we backed the wrong guy in 2000 and giving McCain the nomination is the party’s attempt at righting a wrong.

    Bush isn’t a bad president because he’s a Republican. He’s just a bad president. Regardless of whether McCain, Clinton, or Obama ends up winning the general election, the country will be better off than it is under Bush. McCain is much more willing to work with the opposition party than Bush ever was… Just look at all the bills he passed with Democratic co-sponsors.

    I’m not crazy about McCain, but I do respect that he’s much more open to ideas other than his own than Bush was/is.

  • Janice Link

    Dear Ruth
    This isn’t a comment but Can you tell me how you ALLOW comments I keep wiping mine out.

  • Love this piece.

    And it’s worth mentioning that there are still young women being raised to choose a “fall-back” career in case their MRS degree doesn’t work out as well as they had hoped. I went to college with many of those women and it made me sad. I want Hillary in the White House partly because this is still happening.

    I had a conversation with my twelve-year-old neice recently in which she expressed concern that a woman could be taken seriously as a president. This bothered me so much that I barely knew how to respond. I want Hillary in the White House for her, too.

  • I found this blog through Sophia.

    I think that Hillary knows far better than anyone the vitriol that is thrown at a woman who is in or close to power.

    The truth is women have been bearing two burdens for decades- 1) the primary caregiver for her family and the 2) career. In both instances, women are rarely given equal respect to male counterparts.

    In the Texas debate Obama’s response to one of Clinton’s observations, namely that he baldly misrepresented her in campaign documents, was “I certainly wouldn’t whine about it.”

    Now imagine if Clinton said that to Obama’s repeated insinuations that Clinton is trying to bring race into the primary. Can you imagine the firestorm?

    Clinton can’t and won’t make her campaign about gender because she knows that being President will have nothing to do with her gender. As President, she is in no way interested in doing anything to foster divisiveness between men and women. I think she is being deliberately sensitive to the idea that a vote for her (who happens to be a woman) is a vote for men AND women as a nation. Even though she’s being mal-treated and overlooked because she is a woman and has every right to rail at the press and some of her opponents, she won’t because she’s looking at the big picture.

    Obama cannot say the same thing with any credibility because either by the ignorance or the naivety that comes with inexperience he blames race-baiting when he’s criticized, and he turns a blind eye towards people in his campaign like Rev. Wright and their proclivity towards racism, sexism and hate.

    Obama may preach One Voice but the difference in his language when he addresses Hillary versus his language when he addresses McCain, his continual preoccupation that any criticism is based on his race, and his acceptance of Rev Wright not just as a friend but as a campaign advisor paints a very different picture.

    I’m voting for Hillary because I believe in her ability to get things done within the incredibly complex framework of national politics not in spite of past failures like Healthcare but BECAUSE OF THEM.

    I’m not voting for Obama because for all of his abilities to paint a rosy picture in speeches and visions (and he is truly gifted in this arena) he has yet to say anything substantive about what he hopes to achieve. After so many months in the campaign, I am left to conclude that he hasn’t specified these things because he doesn’t know.

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