June 7, 2008
The Canberra Times

Gloom in personal loss as Hillary’s hopes go up in smoke

Erica Jong says she “feels like shit”. She’s taking Hillary’s loss hard and reckons it feels much worse than she’d expected.

It’s the media “gloating” over Hillary’s demise that’s got to her most. In an outpouring that sounds like a loser’s lament in The Huffington Post on Wednesday, Jong conjures up images of Joan of Arc burning at the stake, and says she can even “smell the burning flesh”.

It’s the kind of graphic literary allusion I guess one can expect from a novelist who helped liberate a generation of women with her invention of the ‘Zipless F—”. But her fear and frustration over what Hillary Clinton’s loss means for women in general is deeply heartfelt: “I didn’t know it would feel this personal”.

And that’s the point. For many women this loss is personal.

Women both in and beyond the United States have felt some kind of investment in this nomination race and the symbolism it presented.

Now, we all have reason to feel disappointed.

That’s not to say Barack Obama isn’t the more deserving candidate to lead the Democratic challenge for Presidency. He probably is. And should he win, he may well change not only the face of American politics, but the nature of political engagement.

He appears to have a depth of spirit, which might just be the very balm that wounded nation needs at this time.

I suspect he is right: this is his “moment”. So why despair over Hillary’s loss to such an impressive and capable guy?

Well, quite simply, because it should have been “our moment” too. The time is ripe for a key leadership position, such as the US Presidency, to be held by a woman.

In fact the time has been right for a very long time, but never before has there been a woman with the profile and experience of Hillary Clinton. Born with a passion for politics and an innate sense of social justice, just about everything she has done since her early political advocacy in high school, has led to this “would-be” moment. There is no-other women with such strong political pedigree and her level of celebrity. No-one other American woman has been able to raise party funds and attract sponsorship as solidly.

Sure, none of this necessarily makes her the best Presidential candidate, but it certainly makes her the best woman the US has yet seen, and will for some time, who could make a serious play for the White House.

So, the fact that she has missed out on that long-awaited opportunity is disappointing for all women who dream of seeing the leader of a global superpower strut in a skirt. The sheer power of such an image would be deeply felt and long lasting. It would change women’s lives and the course of history.

But there is even greater reason to be disappointed in Hillary’s failure to win her party’s nomination. And that has little to do with the candidate and much to do with the treatment of her sex.

The extraordinary outpouring or unrestrained sexism in media commentary about Clinton will forever mark this moment as a very low point in America’s quest for equality. And that has reverberations across the Pacific.

And no, I’m not just talking about the wild and nutty reactions to her showing a bit of cleavage, or her wrinkles. I’m talking about the relentless, daily media campaign to denounce her as a “mad bitch”, who “looks like everyone’s first wife standing outside the (family) court”.

Every time Hillary showed toughness and strength, she was a raving she-wolf with wild eyes and long claws. When she showed a softer side and cried, she was an emotional basket case.

The extent of attacks on her femininity and her sexuality were massive. And just when I thought I seen the worst of it, I was sent a short YouTube video doing the rounds, titled Hillary Clinton: Mad as Hell/Bitch. It’s well worth viewing, as a reminder of how overt sexism has snuck back, unchecked, into daily discourse. And what’s worse – no-one is complaining. But a lot are laughing.

In fact, in a weird gender turnabout, the very female commentators one would have thought would protest about this throwback to the sexist 70s, have instead turned their anger on Clinton for complaining about it. Maureen Dowd accused her of “playing the sexism card” and even “damaging feminism” by pointing out the extent of misogyny in the media.

We all know about the one-step-forward, two-steps-back theory when it comes to women’s progress in public life. Sadly, the sexist stooping and employment of long outdated and old fashioned arguments as to why a woman shouldn’t be President has set things way back, well beyond those two steps. The fact that much of the gender rubbishing has been passed off as legitimate commentary has set us back decades. And that’s why I’m disappointed Hillary wasn’t able to push through.

Ultimately Clinton just wasn’t a good enough candidate against Obama. That became clear well before she finally acknowledged it herself. And that too was disappointing. But yes, it’s easy to talk about being gracious – in victory. Defeat of a life-long ambition must be a very difficult place from which to navigate the best moral course.

However, it’s not Clinton for whom I commiserate. It’s all women who dearly wished for change, saw a real chance, and then watched it fade.

Unlike Jong, I don’t smell “burning flesh”. I sniff the stench of a good opportunity going up in smoke.

Virginia Haussegger is a Canberra journalist and director of the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation at the University of Canberra.

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