by Elayne Rapping
In a review of the autobiography of Norma McCorvey—the Jane Roe of Roe v. Wade—in a recent issue of Tiie New York Times Book Review, novelist Susan Cheever bemoaned the feminist community’s misfortune at having so faulty a heroine for so important a historic role. What were McCorvey s failings in Cheever s view? One could only assume that her status as a working-class lesbian with a rather rough and tumble— but all too common—background of odd jobs, hard knocks, and unfortunate encounters with questionable men rendered her unacceptable as a “feminist role model.” She wasn’t even a self-proclaimed feminist at the time. She was simply someone who needed an abortion and was willing to go to court, to the Supreme Court if necessary, to demand the right to have one.
It seemed pretty heroic to me, especially in light of McCorvey’s less privileged status. But I’m clearly no judge of what a feminist role model is supposed to be these days. I don’t even get “the Hillary thing.” To most people—and after reading Cheever’s review I suspect she is one of them—it is Hillary Clinton who seems most clearly to embody the qualities required to bear the mantle of feminist virtue and honor in the public eye these days. And there is no doubt about it; Clinton is as different from McCorvey as one could be, and still end up on a common stage at a common moment in history. Where McCorvey is poor and uneducated—she now works as a domestic—Clinton is a product of white suburbia and the finest colleges and universities in the land. Where McCorvey made all the wrong moves in her personal life, finding herself, often as not, caught in chaotic, even dangerous messes, Clinton’s life path has been almost magically on target; if one’s goal has been (and Clinton’s surely was) to reach the limits of worldly success and status possible for a woman in a “post-feminist” age. She married well and stayed that way through thick and thin, even taking her husband’s name to ensure his political success. She used her Yale law degree to make oodles of money and powerful friends and contacts in the most prestigious corporate law firm in Arkansas, the better to supplement her husband’s meager (by middle-class standards, if not those of a domestic worker) government salary. She learned to dress, coif, and comport herself to fit the changing fashions of the day, and her rising income and station in life (again, increasingly beyond the dreams or means of domestic workers). She even gave up, early on, her feisty “I’m not some little woman standing by her man” persona in favor of cookie recipes, public tears at Fourth of July fireworks displays, and public baby cuddlings, all of which contributed to her rise to power and influence in national politics, and prominent spot on the current roster of “feminist heroines.” And it all paid off, it seems. For here she is, one of the most powerful, influential, famous, and even glamorous (to be featured in a Vogue photo spread, adorned in the highest of high couture, is surely as glamorous as it gets for corporate attorneys) women in the world.
And more power to her, as the very fitting phrase would have it. Why shouldn’t a smart, tough, ambitious woman be sitting in the White House, making policy, lecturing Congress, heading up a national task force on one of the most crucial issues of our day, and—best of all—making an awful lot of men, from the Hill on down to the gutter, very nervous and cranky about it all? And why shouldn’t she also—as People magazine and Linda Bloodworth-Thomason assure us she does—maintain the kind of egalitarian marriage so many women aspire to, in which both partners— even the one who’s male and the president of the United States for heaven’s sake—respect, support, and nurture each other in perfect balance while also sharing in the (apparently) equally successful rearing of an amazingly (given the circumstances of her life) normal, well-balanced, even athletic teenage daughter. Who wouldn’t be impressed? Who, as a feminist, wouldn’t feel pride and hope in so exemplary an image of the “Yes You Can Have It All” New Woman?
So why am I increasingly uncomfortable, even irritated, at the very mention of Hillary Clinton these days? Why does the sight of that tight jaw (which I used to admire as forceful and serious); everchanging blond hairdo (which I used to enjoy keeping track of); and poised, articulate presence (which I used to take pride in); tend more and more to set my teeth on edge and make my mouth curl down in disappointment and distaste? Why, when once I so welcomed the coming of Hillary to the Hill, do I now find myself, more and more, wishing she would just go away and give us a chance to regroup and rethink the whole “female role model” problem? For it is a problem, and the coming of Hillary, far from solving it, has only, in my view, complicated, confused, and muddied it for a generation of second wave feminists who once thought we knew what we wanted.
In fact, if the rise of Hillary Clinton teaches us anything as feminists, it may well be that we were foolish to ever buy into the media image, so popular in the 1970s and 1980s (think Danielle Steele, Clair Huxtable, Working Girl, and Virginia Slims) of the Woman Who Has It All—high-powered career; successful, supportive hubby; cute, well-adjusted kids; great house, car, and expense account. Way too many women have been knocking themselves out trying to live up to that image, and beating themselves up, in one way or another, for failing to achieve it, in the last two decades. But Hillary it seemed had gotten it right at last and could, we perhaps hoped, provide some guidelines for the rest of us on just how it could be accomplished.
But what we’ve seen, as we’ve studied her style and technique, is more and more troubling in what it reveals about the compromises and indignities of a life lived in the confines of that media-constructed image. Personally, professionally, politically, and even morally, the life chosen by Hillary Clinton (and she surely had many choices) has proven to be less noble, less fulfilling, and less useful as a way of getting things done in the world—for women or anyone else; most depressingly, perhaps less fun, than the Visa and Virginia Slims ads, the Lear’s and Working Woman covers, would have had us believe. For in tying herself so tightly to the model of the “partnership marriage” as a functional unit for achieving all things great and small— love, sex, success, good works, and children—in a society still wracked with gender bias and oppression and far from ready to change much, she has ironically set herself up to be a case study in the unraveling of this particular American Dream. And the lesson for feminists has been a hard one: It’s still a man’s world and if you are going to play by its rules in its big leagues, you are—still—going to have to conform to The Man’s often demeaning standards and values. Worse yet, even if you’re willing to accept those rules, constraints, and humiliations, you are not likely to achieve what you set out to achieve anyway.
Early on, came the womanizing business which, I thought, she handled admirably. After all, this is the real world and it was time for America to grow up and face the sexual facts of life about love and long marriages. Ward and June are dead after all (were dead even when alive, actually) and a good relationship is worth tinkering with and building upon, since no one is perfect. Well and good. But the stories and humiliations just kept coming and—having put all her personal and professional eggs in the White House basket rather than at least keeping her professional independence— she was forced to keep that stiff upper lip to the point of major paralysis, as the whole world watched and sniggered. Jackie Kennedy and Eleanor Roosevelt were at least spared that kind of public shame.
But I still would have given her the benefit of the doubt and accepted (for her, not me) the personal hypocrisies and compromises, the embarrassingly phony media makeovers of style, personality, even biographical anecdotes (I like cookies, babies, haute couture, and Fourth of July fireworks as well as the next person, after all), even her often sordid financial and moral wheelings and dealings in Arkansas and in the White House (misplacing capital gains records? forgetting about $20,000 loans and orders to move files from offices?) if indeed she had managed to transform the hokey, anachronistic role of First Lady into a real force for progressive social change.
But just the opposite has happened. The more she has tied herself to the policies and agendas of her waffling husband and his corporate male cadres of advice and support, the less she has been able to even speak forcefully for, much less act to achieve, the progressive (not to say feminist) vision of a better world she has apparently twisted herself into personal and moral knots to get a shot at. Health, welfare, crime—the Clinton administration has gradually descended to a level of compromise and backsliding in all three areas to the point where no good, and much possible harm may well come to women because of them. Reproductive freedom is now “negotiable” in the health bill. Donna Shalala is sounding like Dan Quayle on the issue of single mothers, family values, and welfare “tough love”; and the prisons are already expanding to accommodate the growing numbers of desperate women who, in these dire times, are finding themselves on the wrong side of the law as prison sentences expand and legal rights and public defense rosters shrink. But the pale male powers that be, it seems, were not satisfied even with these rather major bows and scrapes in their ideological direction. They wanted still more in the way of image revisionism. And Hillary, yet again, seems to be complying. With health care reform all but dead, welfare reform a nightmare to be awaited with trepidation, and programs to keep women out of jail a vague 1960s memory, Hillary has recently retreated even further from her early political promise. Suddenly, she is far from the front lines of battle and planted safely and sedately in the reception lines and tea parties which she, only two years ago, held in such disdain. Even Barbara Bush, with her recently published, surprisingly feisty, memoir is more politically relevant these days. But at least she gets to keep the title, the address, the Donna Karan originals, the summers—a few more anyway—at the Cape. It’s not a bad life, but it’s a far cry from what she—we thought—was ultimately after.
And all for the sake of a dumb media image of “having it all.” If she had only read Anita Shreve s wonderfully heartbreaking Women Together, Women Alone, about the last twenty years in the lives of the thousands of women who “graduated” from the consciousness-raising movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s and went on to learn the hard way that the world was far from ready to accommodate itself to the many demands and dreams of second wave feminists. Naomi Wolf, Katie Roiphe, and Christina Hoff Sommers to the contrary, most of us have not found it so easy to get even one or two of the goodies feminism taught us to shoot for and believe we deserved—money, power, love, happy marriage, even an occasional hot or otherwise satisfying relationship with a nice, decent attractive man (should we be so oriented). Instead, most of us have had to settle for and juggle around a lot less in the way of just desserts. In fact, most of us—especially the vast majority who are neither white, nor middle class, nor straight—have found ourselves with a lot more in common with Norma McCorvey than Hillary Clinton.
But having watched, studied, and assessed the First Lady’s career as the first publicly anointed recipient of the Having It All and Then Some Award, I must confess that I don’t feel at all badly about that fact. Norma McCorvey, after all, that most unlikely of feminist heroines, did something truly heroic that made the world a better place for all American women. And she could write her own life story in her own words and say so, whether Susan Cheever and The New York Times like it or not. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, has, it seems, mortgaged her soul to the spin doctors and gridlock meisters for the questionable prize of living in the White House with a man whose morals and policies she is forced not only to put up with, but support and defend.
She could, interestingly enough, have kept her day job and still been one of the most powerful and successful attorneys in America. She even could have chosen to take another independent position in Washington (say, working for Marian Wright Edelman’s Children’s Defense Fund) and been in a position to really fight for something worthwhile; something that would help women and children, even when her husband’s agenda opposed such progressive goals and policies. That, to me, would have been, if not heroic, certainly admirable and dignified—two words I have a harder and harder time mustering for her these days. But then of course she would have had to give up the Faustian female dream of Having It All in twentieth-century America, a dream Norma McCorvey never had the luxury of contemplating.
Elayne Rapping’s latest book is Mediations: Forays into the Culture and Gender Wars.