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America, engendered

Hillary’s failed campaign is proof that women will always be scrutinised in a way that men never ever have to suffer, writes Barkha Dutt.

india Updated: Jun 06, 2008 21:42 IST

In a sunny little café on the stridently liberal campus town of Stanford University, I’m poring over the morning papers, wolfing down a heap of waffles and wondering at the paradox that is America.

California’s Supreme Court, the papers tell me, has upheld the legality of same-sex marriages. In a week from now, marriage licences here will replace the words ‘bride and groom’ with ‘Partner A and Partner B’. The Los Angeles Times writes that county clerks have been warned to be on standby for an “onslaught of weddings”. The story is jostling for front-page space with the giant political lead of the day — Hillary Clinton’s defeat in the primaries and furious analysis on whether race has trumped gender in a country clamouring for change.

It’s probably only in America that legalising gay unions causes less of a social stir (albeit only in ultra-progressive California) than the possibility of a woman running for President. But then, this is a country where women got the right to vote only in 1919, and where, in 2008, a new Republican President may yet reverse a woman’s right to abortion.

It all seems bizarrely contradictory and retrograde to me. Then again, perhaps, I’m watching it all through the prism of my own peculiar Indian paradox. After all, I come from a country where a mere grimace on Sonia Gandhi’s face can make grown Congressmen tremble; where Mayawati’s unsparing toughness can make mincemeat of Amar Singh’s bluster and where Indira Gandhi was (strangely) happy to embrace the cliché of being the ‘only man’ in her cabinet. Our President is a woman; we have had a woman in the Prime Minister’s chair for more than 15 years and our Chief Ministers have routinely been women. We condescendingly tell our American friends, that all this happened in our country without fuss our fury. Yet, we know, that the lives of millions of Indian women remain untouched by which gender gets entry to the political powerhouse of New Delhi. And if America still debates abortion in the 21st century, India holds the ignominious record of killing nearly two million baby girls before they are even born, just because they are female.

It’s the classic feminist conundrum. Do more women in politics really end up changing the lives of other women? Or are they compelled to neuter themselves in order to play with the Big Boys? When they win, they are happy to be to be dressed up in adjectives borrowed from an essentially male wardrobe — after all, words like ‘tough’, ‘ambitious’, ‘ruthless’ have the ring of power to them. But if they lose, do they use gender as an excuse to play the female victim? To that end, the questions Americans are asking about Hillary have a resonance for any woman who has had operate in a space dominated by men.

Did Hillary lose because she came across as clinical, cold and status-quoist, especially in comparison with the glib charm, magical oratory and man-of-the-earth persona of Obama? Was she forced out of the race because Bill Clinton became baggage to leave behind instead of luggage to take forward? Or did she lose because Obama was, in fact, more Clintonian than she was ever able to be? (Notice how he works the crowds, making every stranger feels like the object of individual attention; it may remind you of the old Bill.) And then the clincher: was she pushed out of the race because she was a woman?

Geraldine Ferraro, among the first American women to run for a major political post, unleashed a barrage of abuse when she proclaimed that “if Obama were a White man, he would not be in this position”. Now she has demanded that Harvard University scientifically research whether ‘sexism’ destroyed Hillary’s bid for being President. Another writer, Judith Warner, argues that it is no coincidence that the “idiocy” of Sex and the City exploded over the world stage just as Hillary’s candidacy was self-destructing. Her subtext: there’s no space in the post-feminist world for intelligent women who don’t whimper about men and Manolo Blahniks. And if they wear pantsuits, instead of little black dresses, well then, they don’t stand a chance at surviving.

You may hate her or love her, but there’s no doubt that the Clinton campaign has been at the receiving end of some pretty gross misogyny. There’s the man who screamed, “Iron my shirt,” at one of her election rallies. The crass impersonations of her cackle on television talk shows makes you almost want to give her your sympathy vote. The mass sales of a Hillary Clinton ‘nutcracker’ toy with shark-teeth between her legs is a pretty scary example of how sexism will first target female sexuality. There’s no doubt, as several commentators have noted, that similar jokes about Black people or Jews would have sent America into a paroxysm of self-loathing.

But here’s the problem: the Clinton camp succumbed to the gender game. Party strategists first pushed Hillary into playing cool and detached, so that male voters would be willing to look upon her as a potentially tough ‘Commander in Chief’ of America’s military forces. They didn’t want her to seem too ‘womanly’. Halfway through, when the best press Hillary had got in days came from her almost “choking up with tears” at an informal roundtable coffee with other women, her aides changed tack. She needed to seem more ‘female’; she needed to go on to women’s talk shows; she needed her Oprah moment, her bad-hair days, and yes — even, especially— her tears.

Therein lies the rub. Women — whether in politics, media or business — can’t have it both ways. We can’t demand to be judged irrespective of our gender if we also plan to manipulate our sexual identity to our advantage. We can’t both play the game and pretend to be sitting it out. We can’t deliberately act ‘female’ and complain about male bias.

Hillary’s failed campaign is proof that women will always be scrutinised in a way that men never ever have to suffer. They will watch what we wear, how we laugh, who we sleep with, get married to or not married to; whether we are fat, thin, blonde or ugly — and the better we get at our work — the more microscopic will be the attention.

But equally, we have to be able to stare back at the gawking crowds with honesty and without apology. If we don’t have the confidence in ourselves, why should anyone else believe in us? Hillary Clinton didn’t lose because she was a woman. She lost because she allowed her gender to script roles that had her vacillate between playing aggressor and victim. She lost because she didn’t have the gumption to be herself.

Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV