By Marie Cocco
WASHINGTON—Now that Hillary Clinton has hushed, for the moment, the chatter about how she can be both a woman and a presidential front-runner whose opponents pile on, can we pay attention to the way the most powerful “gender card” is really going to be played in the 2008 campaign?
Click on YouTube. Go to the video titled “How Do We Beat the B——?” Watch a middle-aged woman lean forward earnestly toward Republican John McCain and ask, with a tone of determination usually reserved for questions about rolling back the terrorist threat, “How do we beat the b——?”
And watch McCain. He’s a bit flummoxed. But he finds nothing so objectionable in the epithet that Barbara Bush once famously said “rhymes with rich” that he can’t retort with a quip of his own: “May I get the translation?”
Then comes the double dose of misogyny, as a man out of camera range pipes up: “John, I thought she was talking about my ex-wife.” That’s when McCain laughs heartily with the crowd, cupping his hand over his mouth to recover. On to the comeback: The Arizona senator and Republican presidential contender replies, “But that’s an excellent question.”
It is indeed an excellent question, because it used a vulgar and sexist slur against a former first lady, a two-term senator and a colleague with whom McCain sits on the Armed Services Committee and with whom he has traveled to Iraq. McCain does not chastise his questioner for using profanity, or for hurling such a hyper-charged insult. It takes him a full minute—an eternity in real-time video—to say that he “respects” Clinton.
This is how it is going to be for Hillary Clinton. She is in the same double bind that women business executives know so well, the subject of a recent study by Catalyst, a group that studies women’s economic advancement. Women executives are “Damned if You Do, Doomed if You Don’t.” In this report, the oldest stereotypes are revealed again in the newest research: “When women act in gender-consistent ways—that is, in a cooperative, relationship-focused manner—they are perceived as ‘too soft’ a leader. ... When women act in gender-inconsistent ways—that is, when they act authoritatively, show ambition, and focus on the task—they are viewed as ‘too tough.’ ... They might be acting leader-like, but not ‘lady-like.’ ”
Ergo, the B-word.
Clinton stands accused of trying to “have it both ways” because she wants to appear strong, experienced and capable of being commander in chief—traits voters in many polls already attribute to her—and because her campaign promoted the idea that during a spotty debate performance, her male opponents were “piling on.” Clinton answered the conundrum during last week’s Nevada debate, saying that she understood “people are not attacking me because I’m a woman. They’re attacking me because I’m ahead.”
Actually, Clinton is attacked because she’s a woman and she is ahead. She really is the two-for-one, blue-plate special. An awful lot of America has a hard time digesting this.
Karl Rove proves the point. In his current Newsweek column, the former Bush White House strategist describes Clinton as “hard and brittle.” He raises the McCain town hall in which the “rhymes with” question was asked, and calls the query “tasteless, but key.” Tasteless?
Think, for a moment, if Barack Obama were the Democratic front-runner and a South Carolina voter rose to demand of McCain, “How do we beat the———?” Would McCain have let that one go? Or had a good chuckle at Obama’s expense? Would the media leap to declare the episode to be just another awkward, uncontrolled moment on the campaign trail?
There’s been little pushback against the B-word. Yet the vitriol so often directed at Clinton always has been rooted in virulent sexism. That’s why she’s been called a lesbian, a cold if not frigid wife and, my personal favorite, a “Hildebeast.”
But Clinton also routinely tops Gallup’s list of “most admired women.” She was found in a recent Lifetime Networks poll to be the Democratic candidate people said they would most like to invite to Thanksgiving dinner—as well as the candidate who would put the “most thought” into a holiday gift.
The split-screen Hillary is the product of an American imagination that still cannot see strong women in the same glow as it does strong men. Talk about having it two ways.
Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at)washpost.com.
© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group