Column: The ‘stand by your man’ feminism of Hillary Clinton
Hillary Clinton fared well on Super Tuesday, winning seven of 11 primaries thanks in large part to minority voters in delegate-heavy Southern states such as Texas and Virginia. But the perception that she is less of a genuine liberal, or even a credible feminist, than her rival Bernie Sanders continues to prevail among some younger, and often female, voters. In an interesting example of why this might be so, a reader wrote to me recently and asked whether I thought Clinton “set back the feminist movement” by not leaving Bill Clinton after all the evidence of his infidelities.
“I always thought she could have done a lot for women if she would have signaled that she was strong, she was her own woman, and she wasn’t going to tolerate that kind of disrespect and humiliation,” said my correspondent, a 43-year-old woman from Los Angeles.
I wrote back what I’ve always thought: The Clinton marriage is — pardon me while I duck for cover — kind of great, even romantic in its own way. Maybe not in a romantic love kind of way (though who knows?), but in the sense of a true partnership that transcends the common conventions of most marriages.
The idea that the Clinton marriage is little more than a political partnership — and therefore a cynical relationship — has been lobbed at Hillary and Bill for decades. I don’t buy it. I see them as intellectually, philosophically and practically well matched, a pairing that’s taken on tasks ranging from raising a child and thinking about how best to effect change in the world.
Obviously no one would have blamed Hillary for leaving Bill over the Monica Lewinsky scandal or any number of previous improprieties. But her choice to stay never struck me as a sign of weakness or compromise. It struck me as the choice of a woman deciding that the value of her relationship with her husband was greater than or equal to the humiliations and setbacks caused by a philandering nature she was probably aware of from the get-go.
Not that we can ever know what really goes on in other people’s marriages. Maybe Hillary was clueless about Bill’s proclivities when she married him. Maybe she tolerated his dalliances over the years solely for political expediency. Maybe when the Clintons left the White House, Hillary did focus groups on whether she’d have a better shot at a political career with Bill or without him, and we’re seeing the result.
Hillary’s choice to stay in her marriage sends the signal that she is strong, that she is her own woman.
For my money, though, I think Bill and Hillary both know they’re better off together than apart, especially if “together” means enjoying the benefits of marriage without the hassle of being constantly in each other’s company. Given that they own two homes and haven’t been seen much in public together over the last eight years, it seems possible that they maintain separate households. Besides, being married remains an unspoken requirement for the presidency regardless of gender.
The Clintons’ “meet-cute” story has been a staple of their narrative for years. It was 1971; he stared at her for so long in the Yale Law School library that she finally walked up to him and introduced herself.
In recent weeks, Bill Clinton has been telling the story. “In one way or another we’ve been together ever since,” he said while campaigning for Hillary in Iowa. He went on to say that when he asked her to marry him, he told her she shouldn’t do it.
“I’ve met the most talented people in our generation in politics,” he recalled saying to her. “And then I came to law school here and I met you. You’re better than all of them.... You should go home to Chicago and run for office.”
If you’re so inclined, look up this speech (it was Jan. 15, in Marshalltown, Iowa) and watch it for yourself. Turning the dial up on his inimitable earnestness, Clinton puts a dramatic pause between “I met you” and “You’re better than all of them,” a pause, I dare say, that would melt the heart — or weaken the knees — of even the most Clinton-wary feminist. It’s a manipulation, for sure (and it seems to have been a successful one back then, given that she married him and supported his political career instead). But it’s also a clear, and I think authentic, display of admiration and affection, a kind of love song about the particular passion of this particular couple.
No two marriages have quite the same yardstick for happiness or success. Hillary’s choice to stay in her marriage sends the signal that she is strong, that she is her own woman, one capable of deciding that being together “in one way or another” can be just as sacred as waking up next to the same person day in and day out.
Though I guess it would help to have your own house.
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