Primary Instincts

Last week, I watched the Texas debate with my husband and one of my friends.  She’s supporting Hillary and my husband and I are leaning toward Obama.

But loyalties, prejudices and outlooks get confused when you’re watching a debate between the first serious black and female candidates for the presidency.  The political becomes immediately personal.

At one point, Clinton struggled to be heard, sounding shrill.  My friend and I both reacted sharply; we know what it’s like to compete with men, how hard it is.  How do you speak up and command any kind of respect when your voice isn’t deep enough?  My husband, who’s fairly sensitive to such issues (hey, I’ve been working on him for 35 years), hadn’t even noticed.  Oh, was there a problem?

Hell, yes, there’s a problem.  I think most women — particularly feminists of a certain age — feel it acutely.  It doesn’t matter whom we’re voting for; we still empathize with the woman onstage at certain points.  We know how she’s struggled to get where she is, how her makeup, her hairstyle, her cleavage, her pantsuits have all been scrutinized and derided.  We know she’s read the same depressing research we have: That women who are more traditionally feminine and compassionate are perceived as too “soft” in the workplace, while women with a tougher, more masculine edge are dismissed as shrill, harsh and strident.  Findings like this make me feel either homicidal or suicidal, depending on my current mood.

Look at Hillary.  We all do — and see reflections of ourselves, our lives, our compromises.  But she’s also a separate being who’s made her own choices, many of which I can’t agree with.  Like her vote to authorize the war in Iraq.  She’s never admitted it, but most of us suspect she voted as she did so she wouldn’t be seen as being too soft, too traditionally feminine, when it came to national security.  Disappointing, too, is her insistence on never recanting that vote — even though she came close to it in last night’s debate.

Facing the feminine/too soft or masculine/too harsh choices, Clinton has repeatedly chosen the latter.  Which is understandable, but it’s left her with a public persona that lacks warmth, emotion, spontaneity and humor.  It’s alienated many of us, in spite of ourselves.

I’m not a true believer.  I’ve been disillusioned too many times for that (two words: Bill Clinton).  I’ll probably vote for Barack Obama with a bated-breath optimism that he’ll fulfill some of his promises to unite this country.  But I won’t be terribly surprised if he can’t.  The fact is, whoever wins this race will inherit an impossible job.

I wish him (the winner) well.  Hell, I wish her well, too.  Somewhere, inside Hillary Clinton, there’s a terrific candidate who’s only appeared a few times in public.  That’s too bad for her, too bad for us all.

(Copyright 2008 by Ruth Pennebaker)

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