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Sexism Isn’t Holding Hillary Back

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Sexism Isn’t Holding Hillary Back

If anything, being a woman is helping her. April 28, 2008

Remember sexism? Remember when Hillary Clinton was at a disadvantage because she was a woman, when Gloria Steinem took stock of the primary campaign and concluded, “Gender is probably the most restricting force in American life”? Come to think of it, remember just two weeks ago, when New York and Salon published big think pieces by young women who saw, in Clinton’s declining fortunes, so much evidence of sexism that they predicted the emergence of Fourth Wave feminism? Well, that’s not going to happen. Not only does Clinton’s Pennsylvania win last week muddy most of the sexism charges; it makes the feminist critique of politics look as exhausted as the candidates themselves.

At this point, gender has become just another force in the turbulent demographic cross-currents of American politics. In the Keystone State, the clincher was class, not gender. Clinton proved far more adept than Barack Obama at romancing the reticent blue-collar voter. She (once again) reinvented herself, this time as Roseanne, a small-town, bar-hangin’, gun-shootin’ waitress type. Bittergate, a bowling malfunction, and a general image of cool aloofness left Obama, on the other hand, walking around with an ELITE sign on his back, insisting that he does indeed eat Jell-O, in an effort to minimize what Newsweek now calls the “Bubba Gap.”

As Bill Clinton and Geraldine Ferraro recognized months ago, race is another force far more powerful than gender. A recent Pew poll found that somewhere around 9 percent of voters are reluctant to vote for a black candidate; given the squeamishness surrounding that question, the real number is probably considerably higher. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, 19 percent of all voters in the state said that race was an important factor in their decision; among this group, Hillary Clinton beat Obama 59 points to 41. With the Jeremiah Wright Show now offering encores, that gap figures to widen.

Other demographic trends also weaken the sexism narrative. Voters under 30—who take for granted the existence of female muckety-mucks—are going for Obama; it’s the stodgy gray hairs who lean toward Clinton. What about Catholics—you know, the bloc that wants to overturn Roe v. Wade and won’t let women dispense communion? They’re in Clinton’s camp, too.

In fact, insofar as gender has played a role in the voting, it now seems to be working to Clinton’s advantage. She has happily encouraged people to vote for her because she’s a woman—“It’s time to break the biggest glass ceiling in the land”—and many voters, especially women, have obliged. About 47 percent of Pennsylvania voters were white women, of whom 66 percent went for Clinton. A similar gender dynamic unfolded in Ohio, another key win for her and, by her lights, proof that she’s the candidate best positioned to win these swing states in the general election.

Sexism experts often point to comments about Clinton’s appearance—her hair, clothes, legs, and voice—as proof that women aren’t taken seriously in politics. But now, as Obama finds himself branded a GQ cover boy, his clothes are making news. And why not? As the pantsuited Clinton understands well, clothes communicate. Cable talk-show host and former congressman Joe Scarborough notes that when he was running for office in Florida, the most important decision he made every morning involved the color of his tie: some audiences approved of earth tones, while others liked red. Women, of course, have far more decisions to make than tie color. Pants or skirt? Jewel neck or collared blouse? One button or two? And many of those decisions can deliver a sexual charge that a male candidate doesn’t have to worry about.

To be fair, there is a level of nastiness toward Clinton-the-woman that should humble the most dogged sexism skeptic. The most noxious example is probably the “Hillary Meal Deal” YouTube video, which advertises a chicken bucket with “2 fat thighs, 2 small breasts, and a bunch of left wings.” But keep in mind that the cable TV/Internet age has degraded public speech across the board, not just speech regarding gender. When NBC’s David Shuster took a hammering for saying that Clinton was “pimping out Chelsea” for her campaign, he was less guilty of sexism than of media’s endless quest for snarky hipness. And when Bill Maher ridiculed Clinton’s tears in the New Hampshire primary by saying, “The first thing a woman does, of course, is cry. . . . ‘I just want to be happy. Why can’t you just love me?,’” he was using the same crude entertainment idiom he employed to describe President Bush as “a dolt, a rube . . . a sub-mental . . . a Gilligan unable to find his own ass with two hands.”

True, Maher left out the oft-used—sexist?—“towel-snapping frat boy.” But even if he’d included it, Bush could have handled the heat. It’s abundantly clear by now that Clinton can, too.

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