Defending Hillary at Feminism's Expense

When is a feminist not a feminist? Apparently, when the goal is defending Hillary Clinton. In the Senator's defense, she has never said that it's unfair or bullying for men to take aggressive stances against her. I suspect she has too much self-respect for that.* But if her defenders continue to play the gender card like Taylor Marsh does in this piece, they could set the feminist cause back by decades.

Sen. Clinton has already picked her campaign's theme song, and it's not "I Enjoy Being a Girl."

I've been an active supporter of the feminist movement for many years. I'm the proud son of one powerful and effective woman, the husband of another, and the proud father of a third. I was raised to support women's rights. Coincidentally, I read Marsh's piece while visiting my mother -- the person who taught me the meaning of feminism, and someone who has promoted the cause for many years. (She does other political work, too -- in fact, she and her colleagues just persuaded their village of Nyack to pass an impeachment resolution.)

I reviewed the Marsh piece with my mother, to get a reality check from someone with decades on the front lines. "That kind of thinking reduces our movement to something shoddy," she said. "I'm embarrassed to see women's struggle for political leadership reduced to something so petty."

Marsh's post is entitled "Russert Leads The Boys in All Out Clinton Assault" on her website, and "Russert Leads Boys In Hillary Hit Job" on the Huffington Post (which led my mother to observe that "we've fought being called 'girls' for forty years. I don't like her condescending tone.")

The title's implication is obvious: Not only Russert but each of the other candidates (except perhaps the ingratiating VP-manque Richardson) attacked Clinton partially or entirely because of her gender. That's a pretty stiff accusation (no pun intended) to lodge against committed progressives like Dodd, Edwards, and Kucinich -- so let's see how thoroughly it's substantiated.

Marsh wrote that "(Clinton) is willing to go to bat for our guy in New York, Elliot Spitzer, who has been trying to deal with the immigration challenge he's facing as governor. The same cannot be said for the rest of the group on stage standing next to Clinton."

An examination of the debate transcript, and of Sen. Clinton's previous statements on this topic, suggests that this statement is factually incorrect. As the Daily News correctly observed when Sen. Clinton first addressed the topic, she "cheered but did not back" Spitzer's plan. She struck an equally ambiguous pose in the debate, so it's seems misleading to suggest that she courageously backed Spitzer. In fact, only Obama backed Spitzer unequivocally, saying flatly that he has "the right idea."

Honest people can disagree about Clinton's motivation and intent on this issue. They can believe, as I do, that she was trying to parse the issue. They can argue, as Josh Marshall does, that this is simply the reflection of a "policy wonk" personality. But it's a big stretch to argue that "she stood up and fought back for Spitzer."

At best, Clinton was uncharacteristically ineffective in communicating about this issue -- so much so that Mark Penn had to spin heavily about it right after the debate. But things are simpler for Taylor Marsh, and probably for others in the "boys vs. girls" crowd. It's about sexism and nothing more.

Is this driver's license debate really so complicated? Here, let me try to craft an answer that reflects Clinton's position as I now understand it (not from her confusing debate performance, but from research this morning):

"I think Gov. Spitzer has correctly identified the problem, which was caused by our failure to create a workable national immigration policy, but I'm not comfortable with his solution."

That wasn't hard -- and I don't claim I'm qualified to lead the Free World. I think Sen. Clinton is capable of an answer that's just as good, or better. I think her performance on this topic was either evasive or a bad stumble.

Does that make me a sexist bully?

Marsh goes on to say that Richardson's defense of Clinton was "gallant," a word that harkens back to Sir Walter Raleigh and the chivalric notion of the hapless female.'d think Clinton dropped a lace handkerchief on her way to becoming Commander in Chief.

Sen. Clinton's handling of the presidential archives question also appeared evasive to me. There were several perfectly simple answers available. Here's one: "Those letters include personal conversations, and I prefer they be kept private." Or, "I would like to see them released and will work on getting that done." The fact that President Clinton asked that they be kept private in 1994, not yesterday, is not a defense of Hillary's response. Readers are invited to examine the debate transcript and draw their own conclusions about whether she was being forthright.

At least one of Marsh's points is perfectly valid. Far too many questions were directed toward Clinton, especially from Tim Russert. But Marsh's logic seems to work this way: 1) Russert hammered Clinton; 2) Russert's panels are almost always all-male; 3) That proves Russert hates women; 4) That's why he attacked Clinton; 5) The other candidates also attacked Clinton, so they hate women too (or will exploit that hatred to get elected).

I don't know how Tim Russert feels about women. He may be a terrible sexist. But given his political bias over the last 10 years, it's more likely that he went after Clinton because she's a Democrat -- and the front-runner -- than he did because she's a woman. Did her gender add another tone to Russert's attacks? Could be. Does Clinton have special challenges (like the offensive "shrillness" trope and the vulgar "cleavage" stories) because she's a woman? Yes.

Is it therefore off-base to play rough with Clinton in a political debate? Absolutely not. Russert aside, I would argue that her opponents were doing the right thing as far as feminism is concerned. They were treating her no differently than they would have treated a man in Clinton's position as the overwhelming favorite. Did they take cheap shots at her? We can argue that back and forth all day. But to Marsh's point, I saw nothing in her opponents' behavior that they wouldn't have done against a man.

The great feminists want us all to be fully-empowered adults -- men and women standing together as free and equal individuals. "Girl" and "boy" language has no place in their vocabulary.

Will Sen. Clinton continue to face sexism and prejudice in her campaign? Of course. But every male opponent is not a sexist. I respect a lot of Taylor Marsh's work, but her "boy brawl" language on this topic was trivializing and offensive. And she's not the only one. Bob Somerby, who I also often admire, plays the gender card today too. Somerby says that the "optics" of the debate suggested a "Salem witch-dunk," although his point was muddied by comparisons of Hillary Clinton's treatment with Al Gore's.

Sen. Clinton is tough, smart, and brave. I have many disagreements with her, but I respect her enormously. I hope her supporters don't keep trying to use this "don't hit a girl," boys-are-meanies defense. It doesn't just demean the men running against her. It demeans Sen. Clinton, too -- and the many strong women who have advanced the cause of feminism over the last 150 years.

* UPDATE: I may have overestimated the Senator in this regard, if this report is accurate.