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)