How History Shapes Our Views of Hillary and Obama.

Because they are both firsts, I’m afraid we might be holding Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to impossible ideals. Both possibilities come shamefully late. But, unless the impossible happens they decide to run together, we only get to choose one.

When Barack Obama gave his victory speech after winning the Iowa caucuses, he was, almost by necessity, compared to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Obama’s speech, which painted the picture of an America falsely divided among red states and blue states, was about the hope of change on the horizon.

Does Obama benefit here from the unconscious association with black leaders from the past? Does he feel inspiring because the leaders who he evokes were inspiring? Are we simply reacting to the symbolic association?

I wonder the same thing with Clinton. Though the civil rights movement was divisive, often violent, dangerous for its participants, and racism is still a major schism int he country, most Americans agree (at least in word, if not in deed) that divisions along ethnic and racial lines were unjust. Civil rights leaders have emerged as heroes of history.

That’s not necessarily true with the feminism movement, of which Clinton is a necessary part. Gender divisions, however falsely they may be realized in society, are constructed along real, biological differences. They seem more deeply rooted in nature and social history.

We also value some division between our homes and our public lives. Women are historically associated with the domestic sphere, and men with the public. The work in both spheres has always been differently valued.

Women’s rights activists, who entered the public sphere to argue for their rights to vote and work and go to school, were already committing a social transgression. While everyone knows Susan B. Anthony, most people don’t know the names of Alice Paul or Lucy Burns, who were arguably more successful in getting attention for women’s rights through silent protests outside the White House, going to jail, and engaging in hunger strikes than Anthony and her contemporaries.

Later feminists were also often defined more about what they didn’t do, like get married or have children. And they tended to be painted in the media as fringe actors who wore crazy hats or give problematic arguments about the current race for the Democratic nomination.

So, there are few sympathetic images of the feminist movements with which Clinton can align herself symbolically. People often say they have no problems with electing a woman, but have a problem with Clinton. But how many of these reactions can be separated from the reactions to her as a woman in the political sphere? The qualities people positively associate with women are rarely those that can be employed well by a politician.

Feminists are also angry with Clinton for riding the coattails of a successful man, and then trying to parlay that into her own political career. But should it matter? The current governor of California married into politics, and the last Democratic nominee married into great wealth. And the success of all political candidates, to some degree, depends on the spouses they select. I thought we weren’t supposed to be basing things on the choices women make vis-à-vis men. Should it matter that two politically ambitious met and married, and that he exploited opportunities realistically available to him first?

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6 thoughts on “How History Shapes Our Views of Hillary and Obama.

  1. -ihsanamin- February 1, 2008 at 1:39 am Reply


    I’d like to see either a Black president and a woman president in my lifetime… but I’m gonna have to ride with Obama on this one.

    Obama and his people speak of “change”, and the campaign seems to be riding the wave of the desire to change to the top… which isn’t a bad thing, but these changes need to be illustrated a little better. Let the common man (like me) know what he means.

    Now Clinton… She just recently started spouting out the term “Change”, and that looks really shady. Not saying that that’s not what she’s about… but damn. Where was that a few months ago?

    And this recent collection of dirty tactics that have been pulled form the Clinton side leaves a horrible taste in my mouth.
    it’s like politics as usual and, well… it’s time for a change. LOL

  2. G.D. February 1, 2008 at 1:57 pm Reply

    I keep thinking about this post as I tear through this Condi Rice bio; Both her story and Hillary’s have been so singular that there really isn’t a template for it and no popular narrative/idea about powerful American women for them to harken back to. *They* would be the templates just by default, but they’ve both opted for inscrutability and toughness. (I see you, Margaret Thatcher.)

    Can’t say I blame them. Opting for toughness over niceness is the nature of being a pioneer and a woman. I’m trying to think of the last time I’ve heard a public official who was a woman described as ‘charismatic’. I’m drawing a blank.

  3. quadmoniker February 1, 2008 at 2:37 pm Reply

    I feel like, with Clinton, it’s been a no-win situation. She has been accused of, somehow, not being genuine. Then after her “soft” moment in New Hampshire, she was suddenly being “real,” but was also accused of not being able to handle the pressure. I’m not sure these women are opting for toughness all the time, it could just be the way they are as people. I think we have a tendency to decide it’s a conscious reaction to the challenges they face, because it doesn’t fit our narrative of women.

  4. G.D. February 1, 2008 at 3:34 pm Reply


    “I think we have a tendency to decide it’s a conscious reaction to the challenges they face, because it doesn’t fit our narrative of women.”

    Great point.

  5. historiann February 3, 2008 at 1:54 pm Reply

    This is a really interesting post, and very well done. (By the way, I came over from Edge of the American West.) I think a lot of older white leftists feel really good about supporting Obama (and pat themselves on the back for doing so), because they remember the Civil Rights movement first-hand. And, in all fairness, that movement (and not second-wave feminism) was subject to horrible violence and murder as retaliation. But, in some way I believe Obama’s candidacy (through no fault of his own) lets these older liberals and leftists off the hook for their unexamined sexism and misogyny. I think a lot of middle-aged men harbor a lot of resentment for Hillary Clinton that they wouldn’t have for a man with her identical biography and experience.

  6. quadmoniker February 4, 2008 at 8:16 pm Reply

    I totally agree. I don’t mean the post to try to compare the two movements, as if they’re comparable, which of course they are not. And I certainly don’t want to undermine the very real danger that those in the civil rights movement constantly faced, which really had no parallel in the women’s rights movements. But I do think that comparing the way Americans feel now about those who were involved in them can tell us a lot about how people are reacting to the candidates.

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