When Erica Jong’s hymn to Hillary Rodham Clinton appeared in the Nation last November, it was only the latest in a series of feminist tributes to the First Lady. In a March 1993 double salute to Mrs. Clinton and the first Take Our Daughters to Work Day, Anna Quindlen wrote in the New York Times: “Maybe some of our daughters took notice of how Hillary Clinton was seen as abrasive, power-hungry and unfeminine when to some of us she seemed merely smart, outspoken and hardworking.” In October 1993, after Mrs. Clinton’s testimony on health care had momentarily dazzled Congress, and again, in September 1994, after the demise of the Clintons’ health care reform campaign, Ellen Goodman admiringly compared her to Eleanor Roosevelt. Blanche Wiesen Cook repeated the compliment in a January 1996 op-ed piece for the New York Times. A few weeks later, in the Los Angeles Times, Ruth Rosen placed Mrs. Clinton in “a distinguished reform tradition in our American past” that included Roosevelt and Jane Addams. Jong echoed these accolades and added her own: “H.R.C. is the latest incarnation of Miss Liberty. I’m glad she’s a survivor. Her survival means I can survive.”
The foregoing examples convey the sympathy, indeed the enthusiasm, with which most feminist pundits greeted Hillary Clinton. The sympathy I can understand; the enthusiasm seems odd. One might have thought, for example, that feminists—especially those who heralded the advent of a “First Partner” in the White House—would have taken the First Lady to task for her leading role in the disastrous campaign to overhaul health insurance, a fiasco so complete that it removed major health care reform from the national agenda. Feminists might have lobbied the president’s mate in support of a single-payer model of health insurance and then reprimanded her, first, for having rejected that option out of hand and next, for having botched the subsequent political process. Instead, feminist objections were sparse and mostly muted.
Beyond a forgiving attitude toward the First Lady, this mix of adulation and conspicuous silence reveals a rhetorical style that often comes to the fore when feminists encounter sympathetic political figures, institutions, or ideas that are under fire. Begging the hard questions, this style squelches dialogue and narrows vision. It thereby further enfeebles the already debilitated women’s movement. To put the muscle back into American feminism will require a bracing exchange about why we’re in trouble.
What made it so hard for feminists to criticize the First Lady? How did their reticence bear more broadly on feminist politics? And how might we do things differently next time? To answer those questions, we need a better idea of what feminists said about Hillary Clinton.
FOR ALL their declared interest in the First Lady, most feminist commentators didn’t pay much attention, critical or otherwise, to her pr...
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