Pin-up inspiration —Mira Sethi

Hillary is often called a “polarising figure”. Is it because the qualities of independence, intelligence and ambition are intrinsically off-putting? Or is it when these qualities are enshrined in a woman that she suddenly becomes “polarising”?

During my second year at college, something happened: Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama decided to run for the highest post in the land. I, like thousands of other students — both American and non — became suddenly and infectiously interested in American politics.

Barack Obama’s bid for the presidency as an African American is unprecedented. His fund-raising operation has been the most prolific in American presidential history. His eloquence, his ability to make cliché sound hip — Yes, we can! — has flummoxed his detractors and energised the rest. Compared to John McCain, whose speeches vie with counting speech for title of best soporific, Obama’s words, from Boston to Berlin, have attracted tens of thousands.

But amid this din, Hillary Clinton’s historic campaign — which came to a dignified end in June — has not received its share of praise. Clinton’s campaign, like all political movements, had its slumped moments. But for the woman who became the first serious contender for the Democratic Party’s nomination for President, Clinton deserved a fairer farewell, if not for the entire eighteen million who voted for her then for her “Sisters of the Travelling Pantsuits” to whom she made a charming nod in her speech in which she endorsed Obama.

Hillary supporters are often split into two camps: those who support her largely because she’s a woman, and those who support her because she’s been a formidable Senator, and as a footnote, happens to be a woman. The latter admire Hillary’s staunch advocacy for universal health care, for children, and like the fact that she’s dizzyingly keen on policy-detail.

But anyone who’s been around and really witnessed the enthusiasm and, at times, dogmatic support for Hillary, will know the subtext: there is really only one camp of Hillary’s supporters. These are people who saw her bid to secure the Democratic Party’s nomination as inextricably linked to Hillary’s ascent as a woman becoming the first serious female frontrunner for President of the United States. It was seen by women, her largest constituency, as a triumph for their lot in an “all boys club of presidential politics”.

Most Hillary supporters do not dislike Obama. They admire his ability to have galvanised millions of disenfranchised voters; his fund-raising operation, they know, is a juggernaut; finally, as Hillary noted in her concession speech, Obama has run his campaign with grit and grace. But some of these women, according to reports in the American press, are still smarting.

They are sulking because they think Hillary lost the nomination due to both veiled and blatant sexism. They don’t buy the fact that the criticism aimed at Hillary wasn’t, at some level, woman-hating. If the criticism were about Jews, they say, it’d instantly be recognised as anti-Semitic propaganda; if it were about race, as KKK poison.

When a woman in McCain’s audience asked him how to “beat that bitch”, referring to Hillary, he replied, “Excellent question!” But if anyone had had the gall to say, “How do we beat that black bastard?” would he have dared reply similarly?

Racism, rightly, is a sensitive issue in the US. But oblique insults aimed at women, some not so subtle, are often ignored. The United States has historical guilt about slavery, but why, ask Hillaryites, do people not talk about the fact that labour and sexual slavery exist today in the US and elsewhere in the world, that the majority of those enslaved are women.

Hillary is often called a “polarising figure”. Is it because the qualities of independence, intelligence and ambition are intrinsically off-putting? Or is it when these qualities are enshrined in a woman that she suddenly becomes “polarising”?

Countless surveys have shown that unlike assertive males who are approvingly looked upon as “tough” and “serious” in the workplace, women who display signs of aggressive determination are dubbed “combative”, “intense” and “ambitious”, the latter not being an attribute. When Obama displays cut-throat savviness, people admire this quality in him — “He’s a politician after all”. But when Hillary — who, God forbid, is also a politician — musters resilience in the face of staggering criticism, she is thought to be worryingly “thick-skinned”.

When Obama clinched the Democratic Party’s nomination in Denver a couple of weeks ago, majority of the American electorate, including Republican commentators, agreed that Obama’s nomination was historic. The football stadium where he spoke to the eighty thousand who had come from all over the country to hear him had the electricity of a concert rather than a political convention. The politics of Hope had finally trumped the politics of Cynicism.

Watching the reaction of Obama’s supporters on television, I, too, was moved by their tears, their shrieks, the urgency of their enthusiasm. A day earlier, Hillary spoke at the convention where she endorsed Obama loudly and clearly. Her supporters, committed to the grave, waved “Hillary” banners, swaying and smiling in the crowd.

When Hillary sensibly bowed out of the race in June, she said, “Although we weren’t able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you, it’s got about 18 million cracks in it.” So when I hear people calling her “polarising”, I’m happy to agree to disagree; for the woman who embodies the transitions women have made in the last century, Hillary Clinton is not polarising. Her story, from First Lady to Senator turned Presidential frontrunner, is the stuff of pin-up inspiration.

Mira Sethi is at Wellesley College, USA

Source: Daily Times, 5/9/2008

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