In Salon.com, Rebecca Traister writes a compelling article about the recent, much-balllyhooed photograph of Hillary Clinton looking old: http://www.salon.com/mwt/feature/2007/12/19/wrinkled_hillary/. Clinton is guilty, Traister says tartly, of campaigning while female.
It makes me uncomfortable to read Traister’s account. When I first saw Clinton’s photo yesterday, I flinched and moved on a little too quickly. I’m a woman of roughly Clinton’s age and I know what it’s like to see that face. It pops up and stares back at me from an unexpected mirror in a well-lit department store from time to time, making me wonder, Who the hell is that?
The familiarity with that aging face and the discomfort it calls up — are they part of many women’s problems with Clinton’s candidacy, our inability to like her? We call ourselves feminists. We’re professional women with advanced degrees and ambitions. We believe in equal opportunity and believe it hasn’t moved quickly enough. But sometimes I wonder about us. Or should I say, more precisely, I wonder about myself. Am I simply more comfortable with a male voice coming from the cockpit or the TV anchor’s booth or the campaign trail?
Not to let myself off the hook — since I’m clearly a self-deluded hypocrite — but wouldn’t it be strange if I/we didn’t have those vestiges of prejudice? We grew up in the 1950s, learning to be giggly and self-effacing and agreeable. Being a smart female, in my family at least, wasn’t a plus; it was a problem. It was so easy and appealing to think we could cast off those years of indoctrination and passivity with a single shrug when the women’s movement finally came to town (and believe me, it took awhile for it to show up if you lived in a small West Texas town. Some women are still waiting for it).
But I have too many uncomfortable memories reminding me that you don’t change, miraculously and completely, overnight, from compliance to questioning. When I was a first-year law students in 1973, I saw American Graffiti at the movie house. I loved it, thought it was great — and never even questioned its ending that focused only on the future of the three male leads. Not a word, not an image telling us the future of the high-school girls in the show. And I never noticed the omission till I read Pauline Kael’s review complaining about it. What a nitwit.
I want to think I’ve changed, grown up, gotten smarter in those 34 years. But, hell. I’ve also become more realistic. Changing society and changing your own interior landscapes aren’t as easy as I once thought they were. I move forward, I move back, I get stuck, I dither, I rail at the injustices, I don’t do enough myself, so what am I complaining about? More than half the students in medical and law schools are now women — but they’re still pardoning rape victims in Saudi Arabia like it’s a big deal.
As Traister points out, even in 2007, we really don’t know what to do with Clinton as a candidate. Aging face or not, she makes us uneasy, because she’s the first serious female candidate for the presidency. She talks, laughs, dresses differently from the rest of the pack. Too much is made of her every move, gesture and wrinkle. As Nora Ephron once wrote about the first female umpire, she would hate to be the first female anything. It’s too tough.
Maybe, if we identify with Clinton too strongly, she also makes us question this whole insane political process with its compromises, inhuman schedules, violations of privacy, sheer lack of forgiveness for any kind of mistake, special interests, money-raising even more than we already do. Why do they want it so badly? I wonder about all these campaigners. How can they put themselves and their families through the scrutiny, the relentless attacks — then get up before dawn the next morning and do it again? Maybe I question it even more when the campaigner is somebody who looks like me: Why does she want it so badly?
I don’t know. I could never do it. But, whether Clinton wins or loses, she’s made me look harder at myself and my own shortfalls and hidden biases. When I see that face again, in the mirror or the harsh light of the internet, I want to understand what it is that makes me so uneasy. Now isn’t the time to look away.
(Copyright 2007 by Ruth Pennebaker)