On Tuesday night, President Bill Clinton took the stage at the Democratic National Convention to break new ground. He endorsed his wife to be President of the United States.
Before he spoke, people in the convention hall and around the globe expressed awe as they witnessed history in the making. Hillary Rodham Clinton is now the first woman to be nominated for President by any major political party in the United States. In November, she may indeed be elected to serve as the President and Commander in Chief. Hillary Clinton is trailblazing a new chapter in American history.
As the spouse of the nominee, Bill Clinton took the stage to humanize her as a candidate. He told moving stories about Hillary Clinton’s work of advocacy over the span of decades. He gave numerous examples of her passions, and he described her as a relentless “change maker.”
These stories uplifted the themes of her work and the legacy it has created. But when it came to discussing the details of their courtship and marriage, Bill Clinton uplifted something else entirely: He prioritized the male gaze.
The "male gaze" is a term which describes the lens through which women are frequently viewed in daily life and leadership. When the male gaze takes narrative form, it presents women as objects to be enjoyed for male pleasure.
Some journalists and political commentators found Bill Clinton’s opening story to be charming and endearing. Frankly, if I may be so bold, I found it to be creepy and disrespectful. He described his first meeting with Hillary Clinton in this way:
The first time I saw her we were, appropriately enough, in a class on political and civil rights. She had thick blond hair, big glasses, wore no makeup, and she had a sense of strength and self- possession that I found magnetic. After the class, I followed her out, intending to introduce myself. I got close enough to touch her back, but I couldn’t do it. Somehow I knew this would not be just another tap on the shoulder, that I might be starting something I couldn’t stop.
Within this story, one may hear Bill Clinton expressing recognition that a large, important life chapter was about to open. But his language — especially when viewed through the history of his personal discretions; that is not easily avoided — talks about her appearance and his motives to gain access to her. Later, he shared that she finally addressed him in their university library after he had been staring at her continually. He quoted her as saying, “Look, if you’re going to keep staring at me, and now I’m staring back, we at least ought to know each other’s name. I’m Hillary Rodham. Who are you?”
Along with narrating Hillary Clinton’s accomplishments, the male gaze wove its way throughout the speech. Many times, Bill Clinton praised Hillary Clinton as a good mother and wife. I am grateful she has raised her daughter well, and I applaud the ways she has championed the needs of many children in our nation. I do not want the opposite to be true. But I long for a nation where women do not have to make the case for their leadership by first justifying their success as good wives and mothers.
When I view Hillary Clinton’s personal description on her official Twitter account, I notice that the first word listed is "wife."
I want a nation where women can use words like "wife," "mother," and "grandmother" to describe themselves if they so choose. But I also want a nation where people do not require such words to justify the executive leadership of women.
So come on, Bill.
Enough of the male gaze already.
This piece was first published at Smuggling Grace.
Renee Roederer is an ordained PC(USA) minister and the founding organizer of Michigan Nones and Dones, a community for people who are “spiritually curious but institutionally suspicious.” This community in Southeast Michigan includes people who are religiously unaffiliated (the Nones), people who have left established forms of institutional churches (the Dones), and people who remain connected to particular faith traditions but seek new, emerging visions for their expression.