Observing US:
A column about America,
by Marylaine Block
originally published by
Fox News Online, 1998-2000

#11, August 21, 1998


by Marylaine Block

It must be hard to be Hillary Rodham Clinton. When she watches herself on television, she can’t possibly recognize herself in the distorted images based on our ideas of how women, and especially First Ladies, should behave.

Like Rosalynn Carter and Betty Ford before her, she is burdened with expectations generated by previous first ladies who were gracious hostesses and patrons of noble causes, and other political wives who sat on the dais with a look of adoring fascination while their husbands spoke. Barbara Bush gave us the image of First Lady as a kind of a mother-in-chief to the country.

All of these models of First Lady-hood reinforce the old idea that the husband makes the living, and the wife makes it worth living. They fit nicely into the existing definition of women as nurturers whose primary job is to make people feel good about themselves and play nicely together.

It’s not that Hillary didn’t fit into those definitions. She obviously did a bang-up job of raising a daughter, and she has spent as much time as any First Lady on good works on behalf of children, whose well-being is her passion.

But she is also one of the new breed of professional women who might make more money than their husbands, and who don’t easily accept the idea that the husband is head of the family. They tend to see themselves as equal partners.

Where previous political wives had said “HE intends to ___,” Hillary had this way of saying “WE intend to ___.” And sometimes it was, “I intend to___.”

This is probably not a message that would have been readily accepted anyway. But it was also delivered without the traditional feminine overlay of charm, the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down. Hillary’s manner is not hesitant or deferential; it is calm, forthright, and self-assured.

Perhaps she never learned the lesson most bright American girls learn young: if you show your brains in public, boys won’t like you. Even when we’re sure we’re right, we have learned to argue with polite, hedging, questioning language — “I’m wondering if maybe ___” "Perhaps you might want to consider ___," “Do you think that possibly ___?”

It’s a style we continue to use even when we have the power to hire and fire, because it allows men who are our colleagues or subordinates to not lose face, to keep their sense of themselves as autonomous (or even superior).

Because Hillary doesn’t bother to mask her certainty with deferential noises, she automatically falls into the female archetype of the ballbuster who wants to wear the pants in the family (the fact that she so frequently wears pantsuits doesn’t help).

The ballbuster undermines male authority, but she is also seen as a threat to the role of homemaker and mother. With her famous soundbite “I could have stayed at home and baked cookies,” Hillary instantly became the prototypical feminist who holds housewives in contempt.

That line was taken out of context of course. Had the mostly male newscasters allowed us to hear the beginning of her sentence during its endless replays - "I suppose I could have given teas," we would have known that she was talking about the life of a political wife, not a homemaker, and that her hope was that all women would have a choice whether to be a homemaker or a salaried working woman.

But that is a nuanced position, and our political dialogue about the role(s) of women does not admit nuance. The available archetypes for women are black and white, and you’re either for us or agin us.

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